The online photo magazine One: One Thousand (1:1000) offers us for February work by Atlanta-based photographer Jerry Siegel and Georgia-born photographer Joe Leavenworth.
Both these photographers use their work to engage in that traditional Southern activity of coming to terms with their own history as Southerners. Siegel's work here explores Selma, Alabama, his birthplace, while Leavenworth makes his work in his birthplace, Decatur, Georgia.
Jerry Siegel, whom we know chiefly for his portraits of Southern artists, here brings his skills as a portrait photographer to the landscapes around Selma, Alabama (see image above), a place where Siegel and his siblings maintain the family home and nurture a continuing "attachment to and sentiment for Selma," a "bond with our past."
In this portfolio Black Belt Color Siegel documents also how one can grow up in the midst of conflict and change and be sheltered from it. Like so many of us white Southerners, he says he was "sheltered and oblivious to the tensions and unrest of the times," even though he was seven when Dr. Martin Luther King, jr led the march from Selma to Montgomery.
The death of Siegel's father led him to photography intentionally in Selma, as he says, "to look more closely at Selma and its surroundings - the haunts of my youth, driving the streets, old stomping grounds and back roads. I continue to shoot these places that hold a special meaning for me"
This work gives us traces of an older South in the midst of its fading into the past, in this series of richly colored and elegantly composed panoramic images. There is a haunting tranquility here, an evoking of Southern icons of the landscape like Co'Cola signs and cotton fields and churches, and the green, green lushness of the land.
It turns out that he is an adopted son, the ground, Leavenworth says, of "a profound curiosity and desire to de-mystify a region, culture, and people that biologically I have some strange, abstract connection to."
So, Native Son is about discovery, or perhaps about creation of deeper ties to, or documentation of deeply ambivalent feelings toward, this place of origin, and to those who live there, all the time.
Or, as Leavenworth puts it, "Inherently, approaching the South as an outsider, I am continually aware of the complexities in creating an accurate, "real" impression, because essentially these photographs represent impressions. They are my impressions, true to my experience, and collectively, they begin to create a portrait of a search. I am seeking something humble and pure."
My guess is, Southerners talk of home so much because, they, too, like Leavenworth, sense that they are both of it and outside of it.Even the insiders are outsiders; note the look of suspicion on the face of the man in the truck, above, framed and both revealed and concealed by the half-rolled-down truck window. A man at home with himself and with his memories and longings would reveal himself differently to the world around him.
Native Son is of course the famous novel by Richard Wright about another Southerner -- Bigger Thomas -- who is also a long way from home, and about what it means to be black and poor in America. Leavenworth may think that he is looking in these images at the South with the eyes, and camera, of an outsider, but his vision is very much at home.