Myth, Manners, and Memory: Photographers of the American South

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK

The phrase ‘myth, manners, and memory’ neatly combines several narratives of the South with a poetic notion of photography in an alliterative escalation of syllables, rhythmically introducing a photographic exploration of, as exhibition curator Celia Davies puts it, the ‘mind of the South’. In a spare yet insightful essay, Richard Grey develops the theme by ranging widely across a rich cultural landscape, drawing in Muddy Waters and William Faulkner and the historic legacies of race, religion, and resistance. Grey introduces these images of the South with almost hypnotic repetition, discussing ‘place, past, pessimism, and performance’ in a way that emphasizes the otherness of the region. The piece is notably entitled ‘Another Country’, referring both to the perceived difference of the cultural and social character of the South and the failed secession that ended in military defeat by the North. Arcane and archaic, this mythic South appears as a haunted presence within contemporary America, a folkloric phenomenon that emerges most vividly in cultural representations, namely songs, films, novels, and especially photographs.
This hugely enjoyable exhibition clusters work by five contemporary photographers, largely hailing from the southern states, alongside canonical photographs from the 1930s by Walker Evans. If Evans’s work serves both as a thematic epigraph for the show and a literal historical precursor, then it is interesting that his was an outsider’s vision, an aesthetically charged analysis of the South performed for Northern magazines, government agencies, and museums. Evans conveyed people and places in an up-close yet curiously unsentimental manner, an almost forensic observation of incidental yet poignant details that MoMA exhibition curator Lincoln Kirstein memorably termed ‘tender cruelty’ (‘Walker Evans’ Photographs of Victorian Architecture’, 1933). Although this is an excellent selection of his work, it is a pity that none of his images of Louisiana planters’ mansions were included. Dilapidated monuments in a crudely parochial rendering of Neoclassicism, these abandoned houses stand eerily picturesque upon the scrubbed ground, guilty reminders both of a thriving cotton economy predicated on slave labour and America’s desperate plight during the Depression.
Many of the images on display are indebted to Evans’s potent idiom. William Christenberry often quotes Evans’s motifs and techniques, such as a fixed viewpoint onto a wall monitoring poor black southerners passing by, or multiple shots of a creepy green barn. Christenberry knew Evans well and accompanied him on his final Polaroid sorties, and this unofficial mentoring perhaps informed the striking Green Warehouse series, a study of light and colour made up of twenty-one ektacolor prints assembled in a grid. William Eggleston is arguably Evans’s logical heir as a supreme botanist of the everyday uncanny and this is a fine taster of his deeply resonant dye-transfer prints, including his most famous photograph, the brilliantly macabre Red Ceiling, Greenwood, Mississippi of 1969-71. Alex Soth’s images of an abandoned iron frame bed in the undergrowth, a kitchen knife and Bible combo, and a cluster of motley juveniles in a graveyard also invoke an Evansesque iconography of disaffection and dissipation. Whilst there is much to admire in the works of these photographers, ironically the exhibition’s theme is most pronounced in the selections of photographs by Carrie Mae Weems and Susan Lipper, both of whom invoke Evans’s photography less directly than the aforementioned.

Susan Lipper: From The Grapevine Series (1988 -1992), Archival Pigment Print, Courtesy of the Artist
Susan Lipper: From The Grapevine Series (1988 -1992), Archival Pigment Print, Courtesy of the Artist

Weems’s photographs from the series The Louisiana Project match the spookiness of Evans’s South, conjuring a past that seeps into the present through the barely healed scars of racial segregation. A young black woman clad in a Victorian cotton dress is the protagonist of these photos, a lone figure who wanders through an array of Southern spaces, from railroads to cemeteries. In the exquisitely composed A Distant View, the woman languidly reclines on the grass under a tree pondering a gleaming mansion, in a scene that recalls the bucolic serenity of Pictorialist photographers like Clarence White or Gertrude Käsebier. As this building is in fine repair, the effect is that past and present are blurred, and so the scene becomes essentially timeless. In this instance a ruined house might pander to liberal sympathies by insisting upon a facile dialogue of progress and redemption. Furthermore the viewer of these photographs is unwittingly rendered a voyeur by the positioning of the subject. Regardless of the background, the woman looks or walks away, like a spectre crossing the photographic frame, somehow inhabiting these homeless places that recall the crime scene quality of some of Evans’s architectural images (following his enthusiastic discovery of Eugene Atget’s Parisian studies). However the gentle lyricism of these images refuses any monolithic accusation of the crimes of the past, but indicates a more profoundly engrained trauma, a haunting that cannot be exorcised.

Susan Lipper’s grotesque investigations into caricatural perceptions of the South consist of ersatz documents of the Grapevine Hollow area of West Virginia, where friends and neighbours perform staged scenarios that work, as Davies puts it, by ‘playing to our own stereotyped understandings’ of poor whites. A deer hangs from the gallows of a basketball goal as if lynched, two burly bikers adorned with leather caps, one armed with a handgun and a beer can, perform a homoerotic blowback on a joint, and a terrifying disfigured man stands in an open doorway with a Magnum pistol on his hand looking ready to coldly waste the (implied) cowering viewer. These snippets from the fractured narrative of a contemporary gothic saga are brutal, alluring, and comical. Lipper uses the rhetoric of the reality effect of documentary photography to create a portfolio of fictional episodes that tell possible truths about the habits and fantasies of a small segment of the white working class of the South. By spending several months in Grapevine her immersion into the community mirrors Evans and Agee’s embedded stay with the sharecroppers, and whilst the photographs develop the latent dark humour of Evans’s work there are also hints of Cindy Sherman’s imaginary movie scenes, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and the frantic and ribald opening credits of the TV series True Blood, a gruesomely erotic montage that pastiches the mythology of the South.
Indeed, with its garish ensemble of a polite yet visceral southern gentleman vampire, a telepathic waitress, a Cajun serial killer, a faith healing supermarket worker, and a bar-owning canine doppelganger, True Blood has cheerfully riffed on myth, manners, and memory by indulging such metaphors with the subtlety of an automatic shotgun, ironically producing a nuanced yet consistently entertaining take on the social fissures of the South. Whilst similar notes are struck in photos by Lipper and Soth, this exhibition by contrast offers a more elegiac meditation on an area that was only an actual place for a short while in the secession, but that nonetheless echoes menacingly yet majestically in the contemporary imaginations of both its populace and outside observers.
‘Myth, Manners, and Memory: Photographers of the American South’ was on view 1 October 2010 – 3 January 2011.