The Southern photography ezine One: One Thousand features work this month by Nashville-born but Connecticut-based photographer Greg Miller and by Sioux City, Iowa-born but Bristol, Tennessee-based photographer Tammy Mercure.
Both these photographers show work made in Tennessee, but putting their images side-by-side in this issue brings to our attention questions of the relationship between the photographer, the subject, and the viewer.
Both photographers show remarkable technical merit in their realization of their images, but they provide very different experiences of the same cultural area.
Miller's images are well-seen, rich in color, and thoughtfully composed (see sample above), but they show people in various settings looking remote, lost, disengaged, passive, bored, vacant.
Mercure's subjects (see sample below) fill more of the frame, engage the viewer directly and with energy, and seem at home in, and living large within, the settings in which we find them.
Part of this has to do with conventions of posing the subject. There is a long tradition of showing people looking in certain directions in paintings or photographs. Religious paintings often show people looking up. Portraits show people looking straight at us, or looking 45 degrees away from us, or 90 degrees away from us.
This variation has something to do with creating, or interrupting, the illusion in realistic art that the subject is actually there, looking back as we who look at the subject. And artists want to change styles or compositional practices occasionally to get a different look, explore new options, communicate different kinds of experiences.
Other contemporary photographers also adopt the pose of showing people with vague, blank looks on their faces. But the comments Miller offers us in his artist's statement suggest that for him this look has something to do with the relationship between the photographer and the subject, with Miller's search for home, communicating his own sense of loss -- of home, of connections, of history.
One could say that these images document the emptiness of Southern middle class culture, the culture that you get when Southerners leave the farm and move to the suburbs and try to live like the folks they see in the pages of Southern Living and Garden and Gun.
But I don't think so. I know a lot of these folks and they all, to a person, have far more life, more energy, more engagement with making meaning out of their lives than any of the folks in these photograph.
Miller says that he made this body of work after having been away from Nashville for a long, long time.
"When I returned to face Nashville in 2008 with my 8x10 view camera, another 20 years later," he writes, "only a paved over modern American city remained, an emotional ghost town."
Nashville? A ghost town? Please -- Nashville is the center of the country music industry, the home of a vibrant music scene, one of the great centers of indigenous American musical culture. Not to mention, the only city in the world with a full-sized replica of the Parthenon.
But Miller's sense that the people in his images live in a ghost town is at least part of what comes through the expressions on the faces of the people in Miller's photographs.
But when Miller cane to Nashville with his camera, he was looking for home. But he couldn't find it.
With "no childhood room of mine to return to," he says, he tried to find home. He "started with a map . . . [and] stuck pins in all 17 places where [h]e had lived while . . . growing up and drove around old neighborhoods, newly minted suburbs, intersections, crossroads, looking for us. Looking for my unsettled family."
He finds his grandparents' house, which "felt like the set of the movie about my childhood" and thought, "Who is going to care about this? How is a simple picture of this house going to have meaning to anyone other than me?"
He says, he "let that question hang in the air, and . . . clicked the shutter. [He] grasped at least one answer: maybe no one."
I think Miller made beautiful images in Nashville of his own sense of absence, of his inability to reconnect with the world of his childhood. These images may be witness to one person's wrestling with Thomas Wolfe's assertion that you can't go home again.
Mercure, on the other hand, has found her home in Bristol, Tennessee.
In her artist's statement, she quotes one Bill Maxwell to the effect that "The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people."
She says her images "seem to show this area's collective love of history and the land." I think they show her love for, acceptance of, and engagement with these folks who are making meaning of, and coming to terms with, and living out their lives in "this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country."
And so it is. At least on the good days . . . . .