Thursday, February 6, 2014

The South in Black and White at Rebekah Jacob Gallery

The Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston has up, through February 28th, 2014, a show featuring classic documentary photography in the American South.

The show is called Masters in the South: Black & White Documentary Photography from 1930-Present.

Work on view includes depression-era photographs from WPA photographers, including Peter Sekaer, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein.  

The show also includes post-World War work by Robert Frank, and Jack Leigh, as well as work from the civil rights era by Ernest Withers and Bob Adelman.

This show is exceptionally important because the work on display forms a major thread in American, as well as Southern, photography. The look of black and white imagery used in this work helped develop the concept of photography as an art form.

This work also helped define the kinds of subject matter appropriate or desirable in the practice of photography.The Despression-era work especially reminds us of the appeal to many photographers of signs of time's passing, the fragility of human endeavor, and the feelings associated with suffering and loss.

The powerfully elegiac character of much black and white photography is very much on offer in the work of distinguished Charleston photographer Julia Cart (see image above), also now on display at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery.

Cart specializes in documenting the vanishing Low Country of South Carolina in black and white, especially offering us strongly seen images of grand spaces now abandoned to peeling paint and other signs of the ravages of time.

I first saw Cart's work on display in a tour of expensive new houses on Daniel Island, a former hunting preserve of the Guggenheim family now turned into a planned community where the grass is manicured and the mosquitoes are taught to fly in formation, and only after everyone has gone to bed.

The houses being used for Cart's show were multimillion-dollar houses, with built-in swimming pools and indoor theaters complete with theater seating and popcorn machines.

I couldn't decide whether the message was to celebrate today's success in the face of the past's failures, or to remind us that we, like those who have gone before us, are dust, and to dust we shall return.

In any case,  Cart's work is very much worthy of our attention, and forms a perfect complement to the rest of the work on offer in this season of black and white at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery.

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