Friday, February 27, 2015

Baldwin Lee Photographs in the American South

In the arts, people can be doing brilliant work right around the corner, but you might not know it unless you move in the same circles or have the right set of friends. 

Here is an example. I've learned about Knoxville, TN-based photographer Baldwin Lee, who has been photographing in the American South since the early 1980's, only  because he has been featured in a story by Mark Steinmetz in Time's Lightbox blog, here, for work from his Black Americans in the South portfolio. 

Lee's work is a revelation. 

Lee's career is grounded in early study with masters of American photography, including Minor White at MIT in the 1970's and then with Walker Evans at Yale, where Lee received his MFA in photography in 1975.

 He first began to photograph in the American South in the early 1980's while on a cross-country photo trip with former classmate at Yale Philip Lorca-DiCorcia. 

I'd love to know what photographs Lorca-DiCorcia took whole traveling in the South with Lee.

Lee then moved to Knoxville, TN to start a program in photography in the Art Department at the University of Tennessee, where he worked for 30 years, produced several major bodies of work, and wrote a manuscript  In Consideration of Photographing in the South, from which Steinmetz quotes in his piece for Time.  

 Along the way, Lee picked up two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1984 and 1990) and a Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation (1984).  

Lee's work has not gone entirely unnoticed. 

He has photographs in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the University of Kentucky Art Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery,  the  National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Museum of the City of New York.

Back in 2012, from February to August, Lee had a career retrospective show at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA, entitled The South in Black and White: Photographs by Baldwin Lee for which the Chrysler Museum did extensive background interviews with Lee, which you can find here, here, here, here, and here.

Steinmetz says that Lee's manuscript discusses his history as a student and practitioner of photography,  including his relationship with Walker Evans. Lee also recounts his experiences as an Asian-American photographer working chiefly with folks in the African-American community in the American South.

Steinmetz gets it right when he says that Lee's work "is the result of a keen talent and intellect working with discipline, passion, concern, and risk."

Lee is definitely a Southern Photographer We Honor. So glad  to have made his acquaintance. 

Steinmetz goes on: "Baldwin Lee’s inspired work from the mid-1980s deserves to be known by a larger audience. 

"The neglected world he describes has perhaps vanished by now, but it is my hope that his unique images along with his words will find a publisher and enrich our understanding of what photographers do."

I completely concur, and will try to do my part. This is fine work!

And while we are on the subject of the South's complex and tangled history, there is a story in the NY Times this week on the first Museum of Slavery in the USA,  to be found in a plantation in Louisiana -- a story not to be missed, and its here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Justin Cook, Made in Durham, in The Bitter Southerner

Durham is the City of Documentary Photography, what with the Center for Documentary Studies, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and Duke's MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program.

So it's no surprise that Justin Cook, a free-lance photographer based in Durham, has made folks in Durham the subject of a long-running project to document the uneven impact of the revival of Southern cities on their citizens.

Cook's project, called Made in Durham, is currently featured in The Bitter Southerner ezine, a publication fast becoming the go-to place for compelling stories about the complexities and paradoxes of Southern culture. 

Cook documents how Durham is successfully transforming itself from a working class city with an economy based on tobacco into a city with an economy based on high-tech medicine, education, and the arts. 

In Durham, the world-famous Durham Bulls baseball team rubs shoulders with the American Dance Festival, Duke University and its Medical Center, and NC Central University and its Museum of African-American Art.

The city has also been named by Southern Living as one of the hottest cities in the South, for its Farmers Market, its local breweries, and its fine-dining restaurants. 

Cook wants us to remember, however, that Durham is also a city living with its history as a Southern city.

There is a significant part of Durham that is still "scarred by segregation," and by the unequal impact of urban renewal, where "condos sprout from the rubble of blighted neighborhoods, and affordable housing grows scarce." 

 This part of Durham "fights for the right to exist and struggles to keep its young people alive."

This is the part of Durham, where neighborhoods, churches, and commercial areas were destroyed to make way for a freeway that at once connected Durham to the rest of North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and the interstate highway system, and also cut Durham in half, sharply dividing the city along racial and economic lines.  

The Durham that Cook documents, in stunning photographs, is a part of the city where, as he puts it, unemployment is high, and young men, "saddled with criminal records and locked out of jobs, adrift between boredom and fear and survival . . . sell drugs and release their self-hatred by annihilating each other.

"Homicide is the fruit of economic isolation and a code of street justice entrenched when the law fails to protect their community. In 2013, it was the leading cause of death for African-American males ages 15-49 in this Durham. Their murders go unsolved and their mothers grieve to death; their children grow up without dads and wander toward their same fate."

Cook makes this documentary personal by introducing us to Joslin Simms, shown weeping in the image at the top of this blog entry. 

She stands at the corner of Broad and Leon Streets in Durham where her son Rayburn, 30, was shot to death on May 21, 2005.

Cook gives Simms a voice in this piece, enabling her to in effect co-author it with him. He ends with Simms' voice, a voice that entreats us to 

Take away the guns and madness
    Save another family from this sadness;
I can’t fake a smile, or stifle my scream
Wake me up from my walking death
    Wake me up, wake me up

“Since Ray been murdered," she says, "I have nightmares. I dream of him in the morgue, and when they are cutting his body I wake up because I can feel the knife cutting me.” 

This is a part of Durham with too many funerals, too much pain and suffering. 

Cook gets that part of the story about right. 

But he also gets right a broader story, one in which people form community to support each other through hard times and the challenges of life in the South where not everyone shares fully in the new New South of the 21st century.

Cook also gets right some signs of hope, in which people endure, basic Southern concerns with family get affirmed, and new possibilities open before us. 

Congratulations to Cook for his fine work, and also to the Bitter Southerner for bringing it to us.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

LOOK 3 Photography Festival Tickets Now on Sale

LOOK 3 is a photography festival that transforms downtown Charlottesville, Va every other year into "a vibrant art space with world-class exhibitions, talks, projections, events, and workshops," as they well and rightly put it.

LOOK 3 will run this summer from June 10-13, 2015, and will include Larry Fink, Zanele Muholi, Walter Iooss, Alec Soth, Vincent J. Musi, and Piotr Naskrecki  as guest artists.

Tickets for LOOK 3 are now on sale, go here,  for an event that is not to be missed. 
The folks who run LOOK 3 see their mission as "to celebrate the vision of extraordinary photographers, ignite conversations about critical issues, and foster the next generation of artists."

Theirs is an ambitious goal, but my experience at LOOK 3 confirms for me that they achieve it to a remarkable degree.

Long may they thrive!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Southern Photographers in the News -- Late Winter 2015

1. Sumner, MS-based photographer Maude Schuyler Clay (see image above) just received the Governor of Mississippi's Arts Award For Excellence in the Visual Arts for 2015. For more, go here.

2. Columbia, SC-based photographer Kathleen Robbins (see image above) has published her book Into the Flatland, with the University of South Carolina Press. 

You can get an autographed copy from Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, go here.

3. Chapel Hill-based photographer Lori Vrba (see image above) has published her book The Moth Wing Diaries, with Daylight Books, go here.

4. North Carolina-born but San Francisco-based photographer McNair Evans (see image above) will exhibit images from his Confessions for a Son portfolio at the Sasha Wolf Gallery, at 70 Orchard Street, in Manhattan, opening February 25th, and up through April 5th, 2015. 
5. Atlanta-based photography crusader par excellence Jennifer Schwartz curated a show for the January 2015 issue of fraction magazine, here  and a show for fototazo, here. 

6. Atlanta-based photographer Michael McCraw (see image above) has had his work featured in Ain't Bad Magazine, here.

McCraw and Richmond-based photographer Susan Worsham both had work in January in the Ones We Love show at London's Camden Image Gallery.

7. Stacy Kranitz, who often photographs in the South, has been hanging out lately at a skate-board facility in Ohio, and her work made there is featured on the BlouinArtInfo blog, here.

8. Jeff Rich has featured work by the following photographers since we last checked in on his Eyes on the South series over at the Oxford American website.

8a. Richmond-born but NYC-based photographer Eliza Lamb, photographing in Hopewell, VA. 

8b. Low Country Georgia-based photographer Ansley West Rivers, photographing the rivers of America. Including some in the South. You can learn more about her project from the NY Times, here.

8c. Tampa-based photographer Corey George, photographing nature's revenge on failed land developments in Florida.

George has also been profiled in lenscratch, here.

8d. Houston-born, but San Francisco-based photographer Elizabeth Moran, who has explored  her sense that the spirits of her ancestors still haunt her family's land in Memphis, TN.

8e. Decatur, GA-based photographer Beate Sass, documenting people whose families lived as tenants on Tall Timbers Plantation in Florida, and the houses they lived in when they lived there.

More to come!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Titus Heagins -- Photography Workshop in Cuba

Distinguished North Carolina photographer Titus Heagins is organizing a Photography Workshop in Cuba, departing April 21, returning April 29, 2015.

The workshop is being called Cuba: An Insiders Experience, and will feature instruction by Cuban photographers. 

Participants will have the opportunity to experience and photograph Cuba during a time of rapid economic and cultural change, from the perspective of those who know the country, its people, and its culture. 

The Workshop, according to Heagins, provides “a unique opportunity to work alongside notable Cuban photographers and for immersion in the daily life of Cubans as they work, play, and worship.” 

The Workshop includes excursions to various communities in Havana, as well as into the Cuban countryside and along the beach. Sessions will include evening as well as daytime shoots. 

 I can say from personal experience that Heagins is not only a splendid photographer, but a thoughtful and patient teacher, just the person I would want to enable me to make the most of this truly exciting cross-cultural opportunity.  

Heagins has been photographing in Cuba since the 1990's, so he has the experience, contacts, and language skills to  make this a truly once-in-a-lifetime photographic experience.  

One of the other photographers on the trip will be Aldeki Arias-Ramirez, who was born in Santiago de Cuba and who currently makes his home in Raleigh, NC where he works as a freelance photographer.  

These folks will use their contacts in Cuba to make this a real cultural exchange as well as a chance to photograph in a country so close to the USA yet so remote. 

Photographers on the trip will work alongside Cuban photographers, learning how their Cuban colleagues interact with their “fellow Cubanos, what they find important to include in the frame of the photograph for context, and how they avoid voyeurism, stereotypes, and exoticism of their countrymen.” 
Early registrants will also have the opportunity for home stays with families who agree to host visitors, providing an unparalleled access to the Cuban experience. Definitely worth checking out. For further information, go here:  

and have a wonderful trip.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Solé, Thibodeaux, Eich -- Three Photographers on the Delta

Three Southern photographers are getting noticed at the moment for their work in the Mississippi Delta.

The Griffin Museum of Photography, at  67 Shore Road, in Winchester, Massachusetts, has up now, through March 1st, 2015, a two-person show featuring the work of Honorary Southern Photographer Magdalena Solé (see image directly above)  and Dallas-based photographer Brandon Thibodeaux (see image directly below).


Solé has been working in the Delta for a good while now, and the work on display at the Griffin Museum is from her New Delta Rising portfolio, published by the University Press of Mississippi.

For more on her book, go here.

Thibodeaux is a newer hand at working in the Delta, but he, too, has gotten very positive responses to his work, including being named recipient of a grant from the Michael P. Smith Fund for Documentary Photography in 2014. We reported this here, here, here, and here

The work on display at the Griffin Museum is from his portfolio When Morning Comes

Also being recognized for his work in the Delta is Norfolk-based photographer Matt Eich (see image at the top of this post, as well as below) whose portfolio Sin and Salvation in Baptist Town has recently been featured in the on-line magazine burn.

Eich says that his goal in this body of work is to explore, in Greenwood, MS,  "a complex intersection of issues that span race, class, joblessness, opportunity, housing, education and segregation."

Eich recognizes that his work brings up perennial questions about photographer and audience for his work, questions especially pertinent for photographers working in the Delta, where a large percentage of the population is poor and black, and a large percentage of the audience for Eich's work is white and economically at least comfortably well-off. 

 As a result of his recognition that his work risks exploitation of his subjects, Eich says he began making "collaborative portraits."

"In this work,"  Eich says, "I begin to blend these different representations of place with an emphasis on creating work that is less about my perspective as an outsider, and more about how the people I am photographing wish to be portrayed."

Eich also seeks to make his work visible in the  community of Greenwood itself, not just on-line and in galleries remote from the world of his subjects. 

"These collaborative portraits will become the basis of a public exhibition," Eich promises, "intended to create a safe space for dialogue about present race relations in Greenwood. I will partner with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to facilitate an open dialogue. The work will also live on a website where the community can upload their own text and images, thereby shaping the outcome of their story."

Eich also has larger goals:

"Additionally, I will collaborate with high school students from three different schools to teach children photography as a form of self-expression. These images made by students and other community-contributed content will become a part of the larger project, empowering the residents of Greenwood to portray themselves and their community from an insider view, to show a more balanced and nuanced perspective about life in this often stereotyped corner of America."
Eich's goal is to "engage a historically divided community in a dialogue about present race-relations in the American South by minimizing my voice and presence while allowing the community to take the helm. 

"We must acknowledge that the legacies of racism and segregation continue to impact people throughout our country economically and culturally, in persistent and often pernicious ways."

Eich's efforts to engage the community, not just document it, points toward a new paradigm for working with communities of folks often different in class, race, or background from either the photographer or the photographer's most likely audience. 

His images honor their subjects; his efforts to give back, to empower, to enable his subjects to engage in photography not just as passive subjects but as active image-makers, gives people opportunities to make their own meaning of their lives, not simply make themselves available for someone else to make meaning for them, or to make work for himself, simply to further his own career.

I think Eich is definitely on to something here, and wish him well. This might well turn out to be a way forward for Southern photographers whose work is primarily documentary. 

I plan to keep up with the progress of Eich's career, and to report back. Watch this space!

In fact, we can help. In addition to all this, Eich is having a print sale of prints he has featured on Instagram, $100 for a 10x10 print of any of his Instagram images, to fund a new car so he can keep making his work, and enabling others to make theirs.

For more information on that, go here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Being a Southern Artist -- Rhiannon Giddens

I'm going to step outside the discipline of photography for one blog entry to explore a question that I get a lot. The question is, what, in my opinion, makes someone a Southern photographer? 

I tend to take a broad view of this question, chiefly because pretty much any answer one comes up with is based on a set of presuppositions, and whatever set of presuppositions one starts with, it turns out that as a result of those presuppositions some folks get included in the definition, and some folks get left out.

And this is not necessarily because of anything about the quality or the character of the work being done, or the achievements of the artists being included or excluded, but because of the presuppositions with which one starts.

I therefore start off with the premise that a Southern photographer is a photographer born in, or educated as a photographer in, or making a practice of photography in, the American South.  I think people deserve wide latitude in coming to terms with the legacy of this place, so pretty much any way they find to do that is OK by me. 

I start with the premise that anyone who uses a camera to make art and who has spent a significant amount of time Around Here will be dealing in his or her work with the kinds of issues that are distinctively Southern issues, issues of history, or memory, or race, or gender, or class, or family, or community, or person hood.

One may deal with those issues in a multitude of ways, engaging them directly or obliquely, or evading them. But these issues are there in the work, one way or the other.

One hopes that, through the technical skill, artistic vision, or depth of understanding the artist brings to the work,  meaning is made out of the artist's engagement with those issues, and perhaps, sometimes, the work not only makes meaning out of the Southern experience but perhaps achieves something redemptive for our history, our experience, our  time in the South.

Those who are, as we say, Not From Around Here, but have engaged seriously in their work with these kinds of issues, regardless of the place in which the work was made, are worthy of  being considered  Honorary Southern Photographers, because their work makes meaning of these issues, and can, at times, engage with them redemptively. 

I use the word "redemptively" deliberately, because it is a word with religious overtones, appropriate, I think, in what the writer Susan Ketchin calls the South's "Christ-Haunted Landscape."

Promoting redemption, for a Southern artist, I think, is about making meaning through art of, and out of, the tangled web of Southern history in a way that does not deny the past, or the ways in which the legacy of our past lives on in the issues of our day, nor does it stop with mere acceptance, but helps us find a way to honor that past by using it to help us find a way forward, with integrity, and honesty, and respect for the dignity of every human being.

All that said, I come to the subject of this blog entry, Rhiannon Giddens, born in Greensboro, NC, educated at Oberlin College, and a Grammy-Award winning musician. 

Rhiannon Giddens is an artist who, on her own, and with her colleagues, is engaging, through her art, with the question of Southernness, and the legacy of Southern history and culture, in ways that I think are exciting, as well as redemptive, and also exemplary for the question of what makes someone a Southern artist. 

Giddens began her musical career as an opera singer. You can hear her drawing on her opera background in the work on the CD Because I Knew You as part, with Cheryse McLeod Lewis, of the duo Extravaganza.

Later she got involved in Celtic music, drawing on her native North Carolina's history as the home of the largest settlement of Highland Scots in North America, and the site of a flourishing Gaelic language culture in the years leading up to the Civil War. 

You can hear Giddens performing in a Celtic music context on this recording she made with the Scottish band the Chieftans.

And here, singing in Scots Gaelic --

After embarking on a professional career as a Celtic musician, performing as a singer and fiddle player, Giddens began to explore another side of her personal and artistic legacy as a Southerner, taking up the banjo and exploring the tradition of African-American string band music. 

Together with musicians Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, Giddens began in 2005 to meet regularly with long-time North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, from whom they learned the history of African-American string-band music, as well as its tunes, styles, and performance techniques.

Performing as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the band recorded its debut album in 2010 -- entitled Genuine Negro Jig -- which earned the band a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy award. 

As their website puts it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops "have proved that the old-time, fiddle and banjo-based music they’d so scrupulously researched and passionately performed could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound" and demonstrated "the central role African-Americans played in shaping our nation’s popular music from its beginnings more than a century ago."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have gone through a personnel change recently, as Flemons and Robinson have moved on and Giddens has been joined by Hubby Jenkins, Rowan Corbett (who shares Giddens' love of Celtic music), and and Malcolm Parson. 

The band's concerts, wrote a reviewer for the The New York Times, are “an end-to-end display of excellence... They dip into styles of southern black music from the 1920s and ’30s—string- band music, jug-band music, fife and drum, early jazz—and beam their curiosity outward. They make short work of their instructive mission and spend their energy on things that require it: flatfoot dancing, jug playing, shouting.”

One mission taken on by Giddens and other members of the band is to teach us that the banjo is an African instrument, as are the bones and the kazoo, all instruments that are now part of traditional, bluegrass, and Celtic music. 

The Bitter Southerner has a wonderful story about Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, here. 

Jenna Strucko, who wrote the piece, says of her conversations with Giddens and other band members,  that  "this project may have affected me more deeply than any other I've had the chance to work on." 

"The quartet's insights into the greater narrative of the banjo and what it means for all of us demonstrated real wisdom, punctuated with intentionality and passion. 

"The Drops synthesized vast information about the banjo's lineage into a comprehensible body of knowledge, and then conveyed it to me with tact, emotion, poise and honesty. I actually left that stage with a new outlook on the world and my place in it. 

"I felt more aware and challenged than ever, but also exhilarated and inspired. My hope is now to "get to the roots of things," as Hubby put it — to seek a similar level honesty and truth in all that I do."

Or, as Strucko puts it, "we owe the banjo's modern presence in America to Africans who were brought here against their will. Thus has the banjo become like okra, an undeserved gift to all parts of Southern culture, but one that came only from the people our ancestors enslaved."

Strucko's response suggests that with Giddens and her colleagues, the complexities of Southern history and the tortured legacy of of our past, with all its painful ironies, can in the right hands be transformative in the present and point the way toward a future based on respect, honor, and humility. 

The Carolina Chocolate Drops continue to tour and to record; their latest album is Leaving Eden, here. 

Giddens' career continues to develop. She just released her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, and set out on a solo tour. 

On this album, Giddens continues to expand her knowledge of Southern musical heritage, linking up here with the western North Carolina living treasure Sheila Kay Adams and her version of "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," growing out of the oral tradition of Scottish and Irish popular ballads Adams learned from her grandmother in the mountains of North Carolina.

The New York Times did a story on this turn in Giddens' career. You might want to hear her if she comes your way (tour dates here)

The Times quotes Giddens, thus:

“What’s really interesting to me,” Ms. Giddens added, “is to have a connection to what was going on in the past, but to make it a living thing. For me, the trick is to present the music and to present the history, to present all that. I can’t forget that I’m in there, because I’m an important part of it, and people are coming to see my interpretation of these things, and I get that. But, still, I just want to present the music and use my voice to do that.”

Giddens, in her own personal history as well as in her artistic practice is engaging Southern musical -- and social and personal -- history at its deepest and darkest and most tangled, yet finding within it signs of courage, creativity, and the making of meaning, bringing to us undeserved gifts, enabling us to honor the gifts of those who came here against their will, enabling their gifts to continue to live, to continue their influence on our lives and our culture. 

That's redemptive music- and meaning-making. That's honoring those who have gone before. That's respecting their creativity and their capacity to make meaning out of our conflicted and painful legacies as Southerners. That's helping us make meaning today of  our own legacies, and to envision and work toward a future where dreams of justice are fulfilled.

That's what it means to be a Southern artist. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking with it.