We Southerners have complicated, paradoxical relationships with our geography. On the one hand we celebrate our landscapes, oceans, forests, mountains, streams, and rivers. We even celebrate our kudzu
On the other hand, we also dump our trash into our landscapes, or sell our landscapes out to the highest bidder who needs the space for toxic waste or refineries or chemical plants.
Then we reject the kinds of government policy that might regulate use of our land, to make our use of it more benign.
Annie Laurie Erickson (see image above) and Courtney Johnson (see image below), in September's One: One Thousand: A Publication of Southern Photography, offer photographs of natural settings that suggest some of this complexity.
For both photographers, the emphasis is on technique, on how alternative ways of image making can open up the documentary impulse of much Southern photography to new ways of making meaning out of their subjects.
Both these photographers produce images that are of something concrete -- chemical refineries and fishing piers -- yet their work is very painterly, very impressionistic, very much about juxtaposition of subject and treatment.
In thinking about their work -- and especially the work of Erickson -- one might hold in mind the strongly confrontational style of Richard Misrach's portfolio of refineries made for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
New Orleans-based Erickson says here work is about "generating alternate modes of representation by isolating and exposing various aspects of sensory perception, using photography to create images outside the spectrum of human vision."
Erickson creates images that are "afterimages," latent images, using "handmade artificial retinas that register the remains of light," she is "able to simulate an essentially unphotographable visual experience."
This interest in the lingering after image seems appropriate, almost analytical, considering that what troubles us about refineries, is, in large part, what lingers after them, the toxic waste such operations leave behind as their operators try to escape the consequences of their labors.
Erickson notes that she was "struck by the appearance of oil refineries at night, which looked like strange forbidden cities."
Soon, she learned, these sites were technically “unphotographable” according to post-9/11 regulations," a discovery that only "heightened [Erickson's] interest in them as photographic subjects."
She seeks to photograph these installations as "ghostly, mysterious constellations of light marked by unearthly color shifts," that "evoke both a presence and an absence. They are points along a continuum between strict representation and subjective abstraction, or between our immediate visual reality and the decaying, remembered imagery that subconsciously shapes our perception."
Wilmington, NC-based photographer Courtney Johnson makes similarly impressionistic, painterly images.
Her work, however, attends to the phenomenon of the fishing pier, a construct that extends out into the ocean, providing fishermen with access to off-shore fish stocks and the rest of us with the perfect opportunity to take a break from sand and sun and have the special experience of walking out over the water we come to the beach to celebrate.
Johnson is also interested in alternative techniques and practices, making these images from her Light Lure portfolio using "low-tech pinhole cameras constructed out of cookie tins, fishing line and waterproof tape."
Johnson's cameras join both the underwater world and the world of fishermen. Her pinhole cameras are pulled underwater "by fishing weights, lowered into the Atlantic Ocean off all 19 fishing piers along the North Carolina coast."
Johnson's goal in her images is to "capture the light, mystery, and exploration imbedded in the historic North Carolina coastal tradition."
In all this work there is the conversation between subject and technique, between experience and interpretation, between aesthetic pleasure and rueful concern about the Southern environment and what we are doing to it.
One: One Thousand continues to remind us of the exceptional range of photographic work being done in the South, and to challenge as well as to delight us with their monthly offerings.
Keep up the good work, you guys.
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