Friday, December 5, 2014

Elizabeth Moran Photographs the Ghosts of Memphis

San Francisco-based (but deeply rooted in the American South) photographer Elizabeth Moran is giving a literal spin to the old metaphor that the American South is haunted.

Her portfolio Record of Cherry Road, now on exhibit at the Gulf and Western Gallery at New York University through January 17th, 2015, in Moran's words, "investigates the myths that surround my family's home, the farmhouse of an old plantation in Memphis, Tennessee," on Cherry Road. 

More on this exhibition here. 

Moran explains the background of her project thus: "Storied to be haunted, the house contains a multitude of histories that are ever-present yet hidden. With the help of my aunt and uncle, both paranormal investigators, the project seeks a presence that exists within familial lore."

Moran says that her work explores "my family’s own haunting as the dead continue to live through the recurrence of names, like George and Cary, through multiple generations. 

Moran expands on the concept of haunting: "With my given name, Elizabeth Cary, I continue the Record of Cherry Road that another Cary began during her time in Memphis in the 1960s. The city itself, with its conflicting landmarks of Egyptian pyramids and Christian crosses, remains haunted by its own troubled past."

Moran links her work to "Documentation of paranormal activity from my mother’s childhood, like a map of footsteps or a flash in a window, {that] further conflate myth and history."

She notes links between "spirit photography from the nineteenth century, when ectoplasm was made of cotton" and the traces of cotton crops that haunt Southern fields, as well as "contemporary images of the paranormal, where chromatic aberrations are not just an artifact of a digital sensor, the project questions our continued reliance on photography to prove a belief."

Moran's work is getting a significant amount of attention, featured in Lenscratch last summer and more recently in the New Yorker in connection with the show at New York University. 

The New York TImes has also featured it, as has Wired and the Don/Dean Photogaphy blog, here.
I must say that I am not generally a fan of conceptual photography in which the idea that unites a collection of otherwise disparate images seems contrived or artificial, especially when the images that are informed by the idea are not compelling or engaging on their own. 

Moran's work, however, does stand on its own. In addition, the interaction here between the various meanings of "haunting" and the personal histories of Moran's engagement through photography with her own history and sense of place and culture earn for this work all the good recognition it is now receiving. 

Good photography complicates and deepens our relationship to the world we ordinarily inhabit. I have a feeling that after seeing Moran's work, I will sense just a bit of a chill when I see some of those features of the Southern landscape we usually take for granted.

Good to be reminded of the generations that have gone before us, and of the ways their continued presence abides among us. Maybe that is a characteristic of Southern photography, more generally considered.

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