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contemporary southern art

Contemporary Art in the South:

“Picturing the South” at the High Museum of Art

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Ever heard of it? I spent the whole of my childhood and adolescence just a fifty-eight minute drive away from it, and until this year, I’d never heard of the place. Isle de Jean Charles is a narrow speck of land hanging off the coast of Terrebonne Parish as it gives way to the vast waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But for its small coterie of residents, mostly members of the Chitimacha and Houma Native-American tribes, it is more than that. It is the only home they and two centuries of their ancestors have ever known. It is their livelihood, and it may be their watery grave if nature has its way. You see, Isle de Jean Charles is quickly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Some residents and geologists say that it is sinking at a rate of one football field’s worth of land an hour.

The reason it is sinking: the salt water intrusion and erosion which are the natural consequences of the numerous canals that the shipping and oil industries have cut through the coast of Louisiana; the inability of the Mississippi River to deposit silt in the area due to its present locked-in course; the devastating effects of the recent barrage of violent hurricanes which have hit Louisiana’s coast; and rising sea levels. It is believed that Isle de Jean Charles will be the first community in the United States to be completely lost to the sea because of climate change and the rising tides that accompany it. The horrifying devastation of the island’s ecology due to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010 has only added insult to continuing injury.

If you’ve seen nascent director Behn Zeitlin’s recently lauded film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, then you’ve seen some parts of Isle de Jean Charles and its residents. The island and its inhabitants were major inspirations for Zeitlin’s fictitious community, “the Bathtub,” in the film. Within the past few years, another creative professional, Kael Alford, found herself drawn to the island as well. Alford is a mid-career documentary photographer and resident of Dallas, Texas. What ultimately brought Alford to the island was a detour arranged during a documentary assignment covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, she had already been photographing the island and its residents when the High Museum of Art in Atlanta contacted her about a possible commission.

In 1996, the High Museum of Art began the series known as “Picturing the South” by commissioning works by noted photographers that creatively document the terrain, people, and culture of the South. Sally Mann is just one of the photographers who participated in past installments of the series. For this year’s exhibition, Kael Alford is joined by the internationally acclaimed British photographer, Martin Parr, and Shane Lavalette, an emerging photographer hailing from Vermont. The results of their individual efforts are on display inside the museum through September 2, 2012.

Martin Parr’s work is celebrated for its satirical take on popular culture. True to form, Parr decided to give his audience a taste of the “unbearable lightness of being” in Atlanta. Parr’s photographic wild-ride through the city’s upper echelons, mid-level purgatories, and lowdown dives is a humorously kaleidoscopic skewering of the city and its residents as a whole—practically no one escapes his mordant lens.

martin parr atlanta photography

“An Art Gallery Opening at the High Museum” by Martin Parr. 

In his series titled “Up and Down Peachtree,” Parr juxtaposes the boorish idiosyncrasies of socialites hobnobbing at a High Museum function, holy-rolling ladies at a Baptist Church in various states of ecstasy, good ole boys tailgating at Turner Field, a posse of pawnshop employees “keepin’ it real” while showing off their prized scroll saw, anonymous, cog-like office workers toiling away on computers, seething Bible-thumpers excoriating homosexuals at a protest, aging hipsters sharing beers and conversation at an anachronistic drive-in, and seemingly everything in between, including a heaping helping of gaping maws and a garishly unappetizing rainbow cake. 

martin parr atlanta photography

“A Pawn Shop” by Martin Parr. 

martin parr atlanta photography

“The Georgia National Fair” by Martin Parr.

Rather than limiting himself to one city or location, Shane Lavalette hit the open road, mimicking the itinerant lifestyles of the Southern blues, bluegrass, and gospel musicians who inspired his series of photographs. Being from the Northeast and having never been to the South, Lavalette’s entry point to the culture and the landscape was its roots music. He set out to find musically historical locations, and in the process, he met contemporary musicians and discovered random pockets of the Southern landscape that poetically evoked and weaved into the photographic story of the sounds he was chasing.

shane lavalette southern photography

“Crossroads” by Shane Lavalette.

Lavalette’s photograph of a dreary and generic street intersection is revealed to be the supposed crossroads on which blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil—the crossing lights blear red as a lone car bears witness. Lavalette also visited Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry’s famous juke joint, which is only open to the public on Thursday nights. The photographer was lucky enough to be visiting on Seaberry’s seventieth birthday, and he managed to take a smashing photograph of Seaberry looking a bit perplexed in an outside corner of the shack with an obligatory birthday dollar pinned to his shirt.

shane lavalette southern photography

“Po’ Monkey’s 70th Birthday” by Shane Lavalette.

It’s the photographs of landscapes and empty interiors where Lavalette really excels. Whether he’s photographing a junked car in the darkened Athens, Georgia, night, an abandoned warehouse parking lot being encroached on by kudzu, or the riotous, graffiti-laden walls of the Ground Zero café, Lavalette captures the lonesomeness and rebellion at the heart of Southern roots music. 

shane lavalette ground zero

“Ground Zero” by Shane Lavalette.

Kael Alford’s photographs of Isle de Jean Charles, titled “Bottom of Da Boot” (a play on an island resident’s tattoo referring to the shape of Louisiana and the poverty and institutional neglect she discovered on the island), splits the difference between Parr and Lavalette’s works. Alford’s photos express much in the way of bitter truth. Besides the documentary function of the series, one gets a sense of the search for self and a desire to locate human resilience in the face of disaster.

kael alford southern photography

“View from (the late) Virgil Dardar’s Porch” by Kael Alford.

Viewers are confronted with a vast landscape of sea and sky nearly devouring a miniscule house located on a thin strip of eroding land, the muddied, decrepit view of the community of Isle de Jean Charles from a deceased man’s front porch, a child blankly staring from atop a grounded boat, a homemade sign proclaiming that the eroding land it is lodged in belongs to Native Americans (oil booms float in the fore-grounded water of the scene), a gentleman posing before the hurricane ravaged, up-ended home of his father, and two young boys covered in mud between the planks of a broken dock.

Kael alford southern photography

“Joseph and Jasmon Jackson Play in the Bayou” by Kael Alford. 

Alford’s portrait of resident Jacob Walker serves as a counterbalance to the photographs described above—it’s a moment of quiet dignity, tranquility and saintly resolve. The inked boot of Louisiana displayed prominently on Walker’s upper, left arm is the eponymous tattoo which inspired Alford.

kael alford southern photography

“Jacob Walker’s Tattoo” by Kael Alford. 

All together, the three photographers in “Picturing the South” do an exemplary job of mining their subjects for the elusive qualities that draw together and consummate what it is to be Southern. One thing that nags me, however, is that I’m not particularly astonished or surprised by much of the imagery in the exhibition, besides a few of the more unconventional and mysterious places in Lavalette’s series. Despite Parr’s emphasis on the distinct flavors of Atlanta, all of his images seemed easily read, recognizable, and digestible; yet, one can’t fault him much. His aim is humor, and humor rides on cliché. Alford’s work, which is much more fraught, substantial, and nourishing—like any great tragedy—didn’t offer any surprises either, although, as a whole, it is my favorite body of work. However, that sentiment comes from a familiarity with some of Louisiana’s other coastal communities which mirror Isle de Jean Charles in many ways. I can imagine that viewers from other parts of the South may be thrown off guard by Alford’s work.

These are all small complaints, though, and nit-picking ones at that. One has to step back and look at the big picture of the “Picturing the South” series: With every installment comes a new face of our region to behold, ponder, and reconcile, along with a status update that is far more poignant and searching than anything on Facebook.  

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