(2012 - 2015)
Perhaps more than any other region of the U.S., the South attempts to define itself, preserve its culture, and claim its relevance. Southern writer Willie Morris said that, “to understand the world, William Faulkner once said, you have to understand a place like Mississippi.” Faulkner’s portion of Morris’s quote has since been pulled from context and we are left with a perhaps misquoted William Faulkner as having said, “To understand the world, you have to understand a place like Mississippi.” Visit Oxford, MS—the adopted hometown of William Faulkner—and you will encounter the quote or at least the notion. From bumper stickers sold in boutiques on The Square to Southerners quoting it as summative insight, the quote considers the South as a prerequisite to contemporary America. The fact that Faulkner might not have ever actually uttered the words does however get at what might be most true of the South—the South makes itself and its past what it needs to be in order to remain relevant.
For the non-Southerner the South and its past is mysterious—an antiquated cultural landscape. For Southerners, the South’s past is a source of pride—a better time than the present. What one might see as dilapidation another might see as preservation, racism a misunderstanding, and poverty an embrace of a simpler life. A more nuanced truth is that for better or worse, the contemporary feels more mundane and less significant than the past.
The South is not just dilapidation and poverty. It does however exist in tense relationship to the former self that a weathered house or bail of cotton can so easily conjure. If the South cannot rid its past, it has certainly embraced it as being unique. In The New Mind of the South, Tracy Thompson writes, “if Southerners made a big deal about feeling different it’s because in a very literal sense we were.” Thompson goes on to say that this is because the South is a culture built upon the constant need to amend itself while maintaining values rooted in decency. These are constant qualities of the South that weather racism, poverty, and huge shifts in the demographic makeup of the region while sometimes contradicting itself or not getting the intricacies quite right. If the South makes an effort to distinguish itself from a most difficult past, then to reconcile that past in relation to the present permeates Southern identity.
Like a misattributed quote, the photographs in Overgrown South are perhaps not exactly as things truly are but at the same time point to a certain truth. They consider the tension between the South of the past, a contemporary South, and how it is often portrayed in a broader culture. If they are slightly mundane, it is because like a stereotype, they are vaguely recognizable as something familiar. The American South as portrayed in these photographs—like the effort prevalent to the region—is perpetually overgrown by the past, again and again manifest by the necessity of change.
(This project is followed by the currently ongoing project, Southern Tense)