Overgrown South by Shaun H Kelly

Perhaps more than any other region of the U.S., the South attempts to define itself and to preserve its culture. And intentional or not Southern photographers have been defined by the region and as well, regarded as stewards of Southern culture. William Eggleston, William Christenberry, Sally Mann, Keith Carter, William Griener, Mark Steinmetz, Maude Schuler Clay, and Jane Rule Burdine to name a few are all photographers defined at least in part by geography. Their work is a visual of the South defining the region and even if unintentionally, preserving the culture of the region. Eggleston and Christenberry both by their own account however, were photographing what was in a sense in front of them at the time, documenting their contemporary worlds (as are or were most of the photographer noted above), not acting as delegated historians. Their work has also served as a start point for many contemporary Southern photographers. If it is difficult to understand color photography without the influence of Eggleston or Christenberry, it is even more difficult to have one’s own Southern photographic perspective. I would argue however, that to work as they worked, to start where they started, is no place to begin. This then presents itself, as a problem of where as a Southern photographer, should one start? What should one say? And is it even worthwhile to regard oneself as a Southern artist or not? That last question is where we should begin. If the answer is no, then there is no concern.


(from, William Eggleston's Guide by William Eggleston)

The American writer Willie Morris (b. 1934, Jackson, MS) said in a New York Times review of the book An American Journey by Anthony Walton that, “to understand the world, William Faulkner once said, you have to understand a place like Mississippi.” The quote within the quote has since been extracted from its context and attributed directly to William Faulkner (b. 1897, New Albany, MS), the context of Morris attributing it to Faulkner, dismissed. Although all a bit muddled, whether it was Morris putting words in the mouth of Faulkner or if he had access to Faulkner text that no one else had (the origins of the quote has never been, as far as I know, authenticated), does not matter. Either way Faulkner had a profound enough influence on Morris to do one of the two. There are within this story three things to consider and that is one, influence happens; two, the South must be important; and three, influence and the South are both very complicated. And so, there is enough justified concern to move forward from here.

So what is a contemporary Southern photographer to do if not to react to the work of photographers before us? Was Morris not influenced by Faulkner? Is just about any photographer living or born in a three state radius of Memphis, TN not influenced by William Eggleston? Photography is after all, a dialogue in which one photographer’s statement informs the response of another. In Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson says “photographers approach the world that is their subject… relying on the kind of direct, challenging response a later worker presents in his work to a famous precursor.” The “famous precursor” for so many Southern photographers is not only previous Southern photographers but also the Southern past. Many Southern photographers have built portfolios of work with the past as a starting point. This kind of work is good, important, and worthwhile. Like photography, it addresses the relationship between past and present. It often rightfully garners the public’s attention as well as the art world. It is in short, good but to be expected of Southern photography and too often relies more on the past than it does the present through stereotypes and expected tropes.

This is perhaps not the fault of the contemporary photographer just as Willie Morris’ quote about Faulkner and Mississippi would have any less weight if it were ever proven that Faulkner never uttered the phrase. And really, there is no fault even to be had because just as Morris spoke a certain truth, even if vicariously, so does the contemporary photographer. Consider Thompson’s idea however, that contemporary photographers are compelled (either by internal or external forces) to challenge previous photographer’s work, and as I argue for Southern photographers specifically, the past. Rather, it is the fault of the expectations placed upon the photographer by the general public, the art world or editorial outlets (those external forces) which one know what sells, two look for sensationalized content and three, can promote with a certain degree of confidence, what is to be expected from Southern photography: stereotypes of rural and dilapidated landscapes and impoverished people struggling to reconcile race relations. Photography however has the ability to address the less obvious. The rural degradation captured by Christenberry for instance, is a byproduct of the passing of time; or rather it is the passing of time Christenberry photographs whereas the degradation of the South is seemingly the start point for so much of the current photography that has garnered appeal. For the non-Southerner audience or art buyer, the South is a place of mystery. An eroding cultural landscape can provide for plenty of questions of why and therefore, mystery. For the Southern audience, it is a sense of pride. Either way, through depictions of homemade aesthetic, an antiquated place or a visual of poverty the photography we see perpetuates stereotypes by presenting the South as no more than a place of vivid color demarcated by hand painted signs or rural poor people elusively wrapped in questions of how can this exist in our contemporary times. There is however, a subtler more nuanced truth that is for better or worse, often mundane and unrecognizable as something that will one day hold just as much importance or mass appeal as what the likes of William Christenberry or William Eggleston have already photographed.


(from, Working from Memory by William Christenberry)

Photography allows new relationships to be explored, things as they are as opposed to just what we’ve been told them to be. The South then, for instance, is not fully represented by dilapidation and poverty nor does it only exist in relationship to its former self. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman said once in an interview, “The past is not done with you because you can’t get rid of it.” And this is the sometimes-contentious relationship photography presents, the past married to the present. This is especially so with Southerners and Southern photography. 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.” She goes on to argue that the South is a culture built upon the constant need to amend itself all while maintaining values built upon food, faith, and family. These are constant qualities of the South that weather racism, poverty, and even the huge demographic shift currently happening as more and more Hispanics migrate to Southern states, which demands the question in a place that for so long has been regarding as made up of only two races, who then is even a Southerner?

If the South makes an effort to distinguish itself, to identify itself, more than any other region in the U.S. and if the relationship to the past, as Hoffman said, is most difficult to reconcile then this is perhaps where the South is in more a quandary than anywhere else. That notion, past in relation to present, not only permeates Southern identity but Southern photography as well. The relationship of past to present is a cornerstone of photography. We are reminded constantly of how young photography is and it is evident, as we struggle to define it, that in its approximate two hundred year existence we are still looking back to understand what is happening. Much the same, if Southern identity is not wrapped up in pride of heritage then it is in an effort to distance itself from the stereotypes that accompany it. This limbo doesn’t do any contemporary Southern photographer any favors. To photograph what was, is easy and admittedly enjoyable and appealing. Photographing the contemporary South without conceding to stereotypes is by far, more difficult.


(from, William Eggleston's Guide by William Eggleston)

The curiosity of non-Southerners, the pride of Southerners, and the demand by the art and editorial worlds for enigmatic images of a mysterious place make it difficult for contemporary Southern photographers to consider the otherwise simple task of deciding what to photograph. It is important to photograph what used to be. There is still plenty to be said about the past. But equally as important, is to photograph what is now, even if mundane. By and by, the on-goings of everyday life in the South, much like anywhere else, is not so distinctive or sensational that those living that life recognize it as anything other than routine work and play. As Eudora Welty said in her introduction to Eggleston’s The Democratic Forrest, “no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say.” It should be the keen eye of the photographer that brings this to light, acting as provocateur rather than historian. This is the world Eggleston so graciously showed us through his democratic approach. What seems to be promoted still in Southern photography however is not what is, but what was the South Eggleston has already photographed. And lastly, it should not be the intent of the photographer, Southern or not, to reveal some Kantian, existential meaning. I understand that I am offering up a contradiction, as I believe that photography is an ongoing conversation by way of photographers continuing to photograph subject matter that has been photographed before. And that this is an important dialogue, one that does create new meaning through new relationships. But that meaning comes by its own accord, not forced on us by the heavy hand of the photographer looking to the past in consideration of the present. We should be careful not to force juxtaposition, conscious that at some point past can usurp present as then we are left with a gap of photographic knowledge, a contemporary world undocumented and a lack of understanding of our contemporary existence that photography can provide. Photography is a wonderful medium to present nothing more than what we recognize each of us individually, Southern or not, to be true. It is the concern of the photographer to react, to implicate and at the same time reaffirm and to hold that truth is defined in relation to but not by the past.

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