Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Southern Photographers in Vogue

Southern photography seems to be having a moment in the sun. 

Or at least, a moment in vogue, or more specifically, a moment in Vogue, where Contributing Editor Rebecca Bengal offers us a list of books that, at least in her view, are "the Best Photography Books about the American South" for 2015.

Bengal notes that the American South has a "sort of peculiarly twisted past-is-never-past relationship to place," and that "photography has its own inherently, peculiarly twisted relationship to history, anxiously aware of the possibility of loss and the fleeting nature of every moment, the fact that as soon as a picture is made it moves into another tense."

Hence, for Bengal, "To look at any photograph is to reckon with the past and trigger a dialogue with the present. 

"This year some of the most compelling photo books were those that delved seemingly further backward, as well as some that seemed to, yielding a portrait that is varied, anachronistic, and speaks very much to the world of now."

Bengal's list of the Best Photography Books of 2015 that attend to the American Sough include, of course, Sally Mann's Hold Still (see image above), in which "Sally Mann writes as vividly of the South as she has photographed it, of a life spent in the thrall of its beautiful wilderness but forever haunted by its history."

Also on her list is William Eggleston's The Democratic Forest (see image above), his multi-volume compilation of hundreds of images in which, according to Bengal, "in a dynamically highly arranged narrative, the ordinary explodes with implication; by bringing the minor details of the world to our attention, Eggleston brings everything to our attention.

For Bengal, "the whole thing swerves, with dizzying power, heading back home South, along dirt roads, flashbacking past its town squares and porch columns and tables set for dinner, eerily past tobacco barns and farms, to battlefields and graveyards and shooting upward to its cottony clouds and startlingly blue, blue skies." 

Also on Bengal's list is Gordon Parks' Segregation Story (see image above), a compilation of Parks' work from 1956 in which he set out "to discover whether the Brown v. Board of Education ruling had done much to change daily life" in the South, and found "a Deep South still vastly divided among racial lines. 

Bengal is attracted to the power of Parks' images to document how "At the water fountains and along school fences, he captured the contrast in full color photographs, images that, 60 years after the fact, retain a powerful immediacy."

Following up on Parks' explorations of race in the American South, Bengal singles out Honorary Southern Photographer Gillian Laub, who in her Southern Rites (see image above), offers us "an original and provocative twelve-year visual study of one community’s struggle to confront longstanding issues of race and equality," especially as it seeks to hold its first integrated Senior Prom.

Laub's work has been the subject of an HBO documentary as well. You can read more about Laub's work, here. 

Bengal's list also includes Maude Schuyler Clay's Mississippi History (see image above), of which Bengal says that Clay's portraits of friends and family "are radiant, and they astonish with their subtle intimacy, as if Clay spent the past three decades lurking around backyards and porches in Delta magic hours."

Bengal has also selected An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South (see image above), made by Memphis- based photographer and rock ’n’ roll musician Tav Falco.

According to the publisher, in this book "Falco guides us through the home towns, gravel roads, and the backwoods spiritual sanctuary that he knows so well.

"This is a psycho-iconography of the gothic South in pictures with captioned intertext of the urban spectors, rural fables and visual clichés that have made the American South a netherworld of dreams and a necropolis of terrors.  

"In his hands the camera excavates the Orphic vision of the American South. Falco succeeds like no other in his stated mission to stir up the dark waters of the unconscious."

Well, OK, maybe -- but just because this description sounds like rock and roll hype doesn't mean that the work is not worth our attention. 

In another of Bengal's selections, authors Sarah Bryan and Peter Honig have brought together in LEAD KINDLY LIGHT (see image above) a compilation of recordings and found images from the rural American South in the period between the dawn of the 20th century and the Second World War. 

North Carolina collectors Honig and Bryan, a husband-and-wife team, have spent years combing the backroads, from deep in the Appalachian Mountains to the cotton and tobacco lowlands, in search of the evocative music and images of the pre-War South. 

The music here includes 46 recordings of lesser-known country, blues and gospel artists made between 1924 and 1939.

The photographs, from Bryan's collection of vernacular photography found in the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee, are "richly textured depictions of family life, work and leisure, fine exemplars of the often accidental beauty of the vernacular snapshot."

Finally on Bengal's list is Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings: 1947-1959, a compliation of recordings and photographs made by the great American folklorist Alan Lomax at Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi in the late 1940's and 1950's.

Brought together by Bruce Jackson, this collection of 44 songs and 77 archival photographs "documented as best an outsider could the stark and savage conditions of the prison farm, where the black inmates labored "from can't to can't," chopping timber, clearing ground and picking cotton for the state."

The publisher tells us that the people Lomax recorded "sang as they worked, keeping time with axes or hoes, adapting to their condition the slavery-time hollers that sustained their forebears and creating a new body of American song. 

"Theirs was music, as Lomax wrote, that "testified to the love of truth and beauty which is a universal human trait." 

All fine work, all worthy of representing the work of Southern photographers in 2015. 

Our thanks go to Bengal, another Southerner, for bringing this work to our attention, and to the attention of Vogue readers everywhere.

You can see a slide show of images from all these books here

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