Atlanta photographer Anderson Scott has spent years documenting the strange byways of Southern life. He previously documented the ruins of the Nuwaubian religious cult in Putnam County, Georgia. More recently Scott has turned his lens on the practitioners of the Civil War reenactments that take place across the South.
In his intriguing photography book “Whistling Dixie,” Scott documents a pastime that looks like a cross between Dragon-Con costume play and Colonial Williamsburg living history demos where men in costumes forge horse shoes or dip candles. Some history, much recreation and a fair amount of fantasy are rolled up in these reenactments. Nineteenth century photographer Mathew Brady famously recorded the actual, unromantic reality of the Civil War: corpses littering meadows and battlefields. But Scott records the ersatz glorification, free of carnage.
Scott is a Southerner by birth but also a Yankee-educated Yale photographer whose point of view is complex. “I think most photographers operating in the documentary tradition — me included — usually are outsiders, regardless of what we are photographing,” said Scott. “We often are in the business of standing apart from things and recording what we see. So, while I as a Southerner might have had a bit more entrée, I don’t know that my being a Southerner makes much of a difference in how the pictures look.”
The images in “Whistling Dixie” turn on a dime from mocking portraits of reenactors to thoughtful pastorals in which subjects look lost in the historic reveries they have created for themselves. In an accompanying essay, Scott reveals a fairly blunt disdain for these weekend warriors.
“When reenactors talked about their motivations to spectators,” said Scott, “they generally talked about living history, remembering and honoring the past, and so on. I think that’s the safe stock answer for a reenactor. I suspect their real motives spanned a spectrum, from benign (simply enjoying a nice weekend camping) to frightening (a sincere wish that the South would return to the values it held in 1859 — including slavery).”
Anachronistic juxtapositions are at a premium in “Whistling Dixie,” which delights in rubbing up men in mud-splattered woolen period garb against the telltale signs of modern life. Camps sites with authentic-looking canvas tents are set up beneath power lines in “Atlanta, Georgia.” In “Bridgeport, Alabama,” a Southern belle in a hoop skirt and white gloves holds a plastic shopping bag in the crook of her arm and chats on a cell phone. Period accuracy, it seems, crumbles beneath our all-subsuming need for modern conveniences. Many of the images expose the bare-bones production values of these homespun exhibitions. In “Aiken, South Carolina” a wooden basket is heaped with plaster hands to illustrate the macabre realities of war-time amputations. The tableau is pushed over the edge by the addition of a plastic rat placed near the gory limb bin and a small paper sign warning “Look But Do Not Touch.”
There are welcome moments when the images rise above mocking critique and approach something more thoughtful. In “Chickamauga, Georgia” a frail young boy toting a large rifle wears an expression of panic as he walks through woods that look unchanged since the 1800s. In “Selma, Alabama” an older boy perches on a fallen tree by a river, lost in reverie as he gazes into the water. Such moments become strange historical reenactments in themselves. Those images give the fleeting sensation of momentarily stepping back in time, and perhaps convey the pleasure that some of these participants must surely take in this playacting enterprise.
But the aspect of the reenactment photos that is potentially most fascinating and to some degree troubling is the role of African Americans in the ritual, whether they appear as observers, souvenir-sellers or participants. In perhaps the most confounding image, “Aiken, South Carolina,” a white teenager in elegant period garb is posed before a large Confederate flag. At her feet sits a teenage black girl, also in costume.
“African Americans who participated in reenactments: that is an abiding puzzle,” admits Scott. “Photographing the Nuwaubians, and particularly the Confederates, made me much more aware of and interested in race as a subject. I have a suspicion that I’ll continue to explore some aspect of race in the South through future projects.”