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Guest Review by Bill Franson
Welcome to the Big Easy, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and New Southern Photography: Images of the Twenty-First Century South! Seven years in the making, this expansive, though-provoking exhibit organized by the Museum’s Curator of Photography Richard McCabe will be on view through March 10th, 2019.
So what makes New Southern Photography new? For one thing, there is no work by Sally Mann, Keith Carter, William Eggleston, or William Christenberry here, though their influences are resounding. Mann’s memory and loss, and love of the land, Eggleston’s eclectic color, and Christenberry’s structural decay certainly echo through the galleries.
But again, what makes this work new? With few exceptions, color, vibrant color. Doesn’t matter which, just saturate. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a curious mix of the cerebral and the deeply personal. Twenty-five artists make up the exhibit, four of them working in pairs. All work was created in the past ten years. Close to three quarters of the artists hold graduate degrees, and more than a few are educators. Preconception drives the work.
The exhibition catalog opens with a quote by 20th century southern writer Eudora Welty: “the camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know”, a phrase written when photography was about 100 years old. Then, we were still asking what things looked like when photographed, according to Garry Winogrand. Can it be said that much of photographic practice deep into the 20th century was shoot first, ask later? By contrast, the 21st century work on view here appears to arise first from a question. Then it becomes a project.
Finally, I find a welcome sense of humanistic, personal honesty in New Southern Photography. No snarky cynicism here. Are we post-post modern yet? I hope so. Here are just a few examples of work by the remarkable exhibiting artists.
Ogden Museum Curator of Photography Richard McCabe led a tour and gallery talk on day three of the PhotoNOLA festival taking place throughout the city. At the beginning of the talk, on the ground floor (the exhibit extends to the 2nd and 3rd floors!) McCabe stood in front of Mississippi born Whitten Sabbatini’s black and white images from Another Day in Paradise and pointed out that Sabbatini, in contrast to most of the other artists, took color in the opposite direction, pushing the saturation slider hard to the left. Revisiting Mississippi as a current Chicagoan, Sabbatini’s images of the mundane are infused with a nostalgic desire for home.
In 2012, Andrew Moore came south, returning to a region he photographed decades earlier, and created large format, formal color studies of, in his words, “the bustling intersections of history…”, a decrepit trailer home in twilight, rusting industrial buildings, and carnival rides in an abandoned New Orleans theme park.
David Emitt Adams created sculptural wet plate collodion images of oil specific industrial landscapes on the circular lids of 55-gallon oil drums. The glossy warmth of collodion suggests that oil was a part of his photographic process. You can almost smell the work and it smells like an oil spill.
Susan Worsham’s large and luscious pigment prints surround a white granite block engraved with the singular word “Fruit” in the middle of a small separate gallery, the slab looking like a vandal-tipped headstone. Worsham’s images are like short stories with the last page missing. Familiar and mysterious, they conjure half remembered dreams of childhood friends and home. As you enter the gallery you see the stone and think, death. As you leave the gallery you look back and feel enlivened.
Street Ballet, works by trained dancer Elizabeth Bick, are 60”x 40” vertical grids of sixteen images. Suggestive in many ways of Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century pre-cinematic sequences of animal locomotion as well as Bernt and Hilla Becher’s Dusseldorf School typologies of industrial buildings, Bick fuses, freezes the modern with the post-modern.
The native New Orleans husband and wife team Louviere + Vanessa’s collaborative work Resonantia literally vibrates in pigment ink, gold leaf, and resin on Kozo paper. A synthesis of paint, music, and film, it makes their city’s jazzy music visible, note by note, in a grid of twelve prints.
Celestia Morgan’s Redline is a profound documentation of racially biased discrimination that hits close to home, literally. Her images are divided between depictions of broken down houses and “sky maps” of blighted district outlines on innocent blue sky and cloud forms. On the wall adjacent is a gauge, establishing a “redline”, the hazardous and “Negro concentration zones” established during the Depression era.
Courtney Johnson’s painterly Light Lure images were created with cookie-tin pinhole cameras and suspended underwater from piers along the coast of North Carolina. They are wonderfully abstract, and thoroughly photographic. Fishing for light in the Atlantic!
As Richard McCabe concludes in the exhibition catalog, “New Southern Photography is not intended to define the South or Southern Photography, but rather to create and open discussion…to broaden the conversation about Southerness by balancing myth and reality while expanding the previously held notions of the region through photography.” As I flew from Boston to the photoNOLA festival, carrying a case of B&W photographs of my Mason Dixon Line series, I hoped for a rich immersion in all things southern. But at the same time, a question nagged: in our amalgam of states, six hours max to fly anywhere, wifi everywhere, what’s left of region? In New Orleans the answer came rushing back, landscape and memory, landscape and memory. We are creatures of the land, and land is home. I left the Ogden and New Southern Photography enriched, enlightened, and even knowing my northern boy bones a little better.
Bill Franson is a Fine Art/Documentary photographer and educator, teaching at the New England School of Photography in Waltham, MA and Gordon College in Wenham, MA. Visit his website: https://www.billfranson.net/
If you can’t get to the Ogden, the hardcover exhibition catalog features the work of all twenty-five exhibition photographers: David Emitt Adams, Kael Alford, Elizabeth Bick, Christa Blackwood, John Chiara, Scott Dalton, Joshua Gibson, Maury Gortemiller, Alex Grabiec, Aaron Hardin, Courtney Johnson, Tommy Kha, Brittany Lauback, Carl Martin, Jonathan Traviesa & Cristina Molina, Andrew Moore, Celestia Morgan, Nancy Newberry, RaMell Ross, Whitten Sabbatini, Jared Soares, Louviere + Vanessa and Susan Worsham.
For more information about the New Southern Photography exhibit, go to: https://ogdenmuseum.org/exhibition/new-southern-photography/
To purchase the New Southern Photography exhibition catalog, go to: https://ogdenmuseum.org/product/new-southern-photography/