Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Noel and Lou in One: One Thousand for August

The New Orleans-based photo ezine One: One Thousand features work by Laura Noel and Richard Lou in its August issue, two photographers who are attuned to the nuances of Southern life in the early 21st century.

Atlanta-based photographer Laura Noel offers us her portfolio Smoke Break, in which she documents the particular life of people who, as Noel puts it, "continue to smoke cigarettes in the face of public condemnation."

I'm going to flat out say that I think Laura Noel's image Amy in her Back Yard (see above) is one of the great photographs of our time.

My response to this image is strong in part of course because, in North Carolina, tobacco shares with cotton the role of most distinctive agricultural product, with its own peculiar landscape and its own special culture, language, calendar, and expertise.

The earliest English colonists took North Carolina tobacco back to England in the 1580's and people have been hooked ever since. We live with God's little joke that the only things that grow well here are (of course) kudzu and tobacco.

Two of our major educational institutions, Duke University and Wake Forest University, were funded with tobacco money, and the most prestigious professorships at my home university are the R. J. Reynolds professorships. 

There is a reason for this -- the appeal of smoking, both social and biological, is undeniable. There is something very sensual as well as meditative about the act of smoking. There is also the social dimension, the performative character of smoking, that allows one to show off, to draw attention to oneself in the act of lighting up.

So the culture and practice of tobacco permeates the culture of North Carolina. Or at least it used to.

Now, of course, cultural standards have changed. Smokers, even here, have to go to special places set apart to practice what used to be acts that placed them at the center of attention.

Noel in these images captures well the appeal of smoking, but also the experience of being isolated, of having to leave the party, of being deprived of the social stage while one smokes.

More than that, in images like Amy in her Back Yard Noel nails the look of the smoker who is isolated by her practice but who also has complex reactions to being observed doing this smoking thing.

But what really gets me in Amy in her Back Yard is the dog, a dog right out of a George Booth cartoon, a dog whose position and posture in the frame carries much of the work of this image.

The dog's leash reminds us of the confinement now required of the smoker; the dog's pose, straining at that leash, suggests the yearning of the smoker for a cigarette. Everything in this image works together in really engaging ways. 

Memphis-based photographer Richard Lou's portfolio Ownership Society: A Conundrum explores the relationships among property, gun ownership, and race in our culture.

The gun is everywhere as the symbol of white power in Southern culture, from the dueling pistols of 18th century Tidewater aristocrats to the sporting guns of Southern bird hunters to the shotguns of the chain gang to Garden and Gun, the latest magazine to cater to Southern patrician wannabes.

Lou's images show us scenes that echo in their composition images familiar from the tradition of Western art depicting white people in power, starting,  as Lou notes, with Thomas Gainsborough's painting Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750), but also including Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930) and others.

In these images, however, the people who are armed are people of color. 

Lou says, this work embodies a personal journey into the questioning of received cultural understanding. "A white man holding a rifle in front of a large parcel of land,"  he writes, "conjures a feeling of 'rightness'" that he had to get beyond. 

"To understand this image and its unspoken power," he says, he "needed to subvert the figures by placing friends . . . within the frame in a somewhat similar fashion in regards to a simple reading of the subject matter.

Lou says he "was interested to see what happens when people of color are holding weapons on their property and how it would read. Would these new images invoke a similar bucolic image within the convention of portraiture or would another reading be elicited and what are these other readings referencing?"

And Lou leaves the question hanging. As well he might, leaving the question hanging there for us as well. 

These images remind us that the Southerners who are living lives of ownership and property today are as likely to be people of color as they are to be white.

One of the great challenges that continues to face those of us who live in the South is the challenge of making the transition to a culture in which the symbols and artifacts of power are not the sole possession of people whose ancestors came here from northern Europe.

The difficulties we are having in making this transition play out in the headlines every day, especially in this election season.

Lou offers us difficult, perceptive, challenging work. There is much to commend in this issue of One: One Thousand.

1 comment:

  1. Sure agree with your take on 'Amy in her Back Yard.' All great stuff...