Part of the unique focus of the show is the even split between photographers who are from the South and those outside the region in a show that draws from the High’s impressive collection of some 9,000 photographs, 3,000 of which are of the South.
Co-curated by the High Museum’s curator of photography Gregory Harris and Sarah Kennel, curator of photography and director of the Raysor Center at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, this survey exhibition features 170 works both historical and contemporary.
Credit: William Christenberry
Credit: William Christenberry
In essence the show is “a history of American photography with the South at the center, rather than at the periphery,” said Harris of an exhibition that encompasses some of the major movements in photo history, including documentary photography, color photography and some of the iconic images of the civil rights movement.
“A Long Arc” is an effort to look at both the stereotypes and the singularity of the South.
“I think it’s also trying to kind of delve into that mythology and just kind of explore what are the myths of the South? How did they come about? How are they accurate? How are they not? I think we’re really trying to examine the contradictions,” said Harris.
“We both felt that photography made in the region has both created and exploded widely held concepts about the South, which in turn really illuminate who we are, broadly, as Americans,” noted Kennel. “This medium has both formed certain ideas and myths about ‘the South’ over the past 175 years and at the same time offers us ways to reimagine, rethink and reject those mythologies.”
In the history of photography, Harris points out, places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco were considered important centers. The South, less so.
“The South was not really talked about in any specific way, it was kind of like a minor background character in that larger story. And so really being able to spend time kind of relearning that history has been interesting.”
Some of the works may be familiar to local audiences, having appeared as part of the High’s ongoing “Picturing the South” commissioned project that began in 1996. But many are on view for the first time. Especially noteworthy are images from the Julia J. Norrell collection of 19th century American photography, which the High acquired in 2021.
The collection includes images of the Civil War from well-known photographers of the time including Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady and George Barnard. Some images complicate our usual ideas about that war, notes Harris.
“What is really striking about this collection, is how it speaks to the role of Black Americans during the Civil War,” said Harris. “It wasn’t just white soldiers fighting these battles. But there were many Black Americans who were involved in their own emancipation.”
These early representations of Black Americans are one of the exhibition’s revelations. One of Kennel’s favorite images in the show is a daguerrotype made around 1850.
“This portrait of two free Black men, breathtakingly handsome and dressed to the nines, was made a decade before the Civil War in a portrait studio in Richmond, Virginia, just down the street from where enslaved people were sold,” observed Kennel, who says the image “raises more questions than it answers and undercuts rigid concepts around race, class and place in the antebellum South.”
Additional thematic groupings include Reconstruction and the Great Depression; the postwar period; the civil rights era; the Southern emphasis on narrative seen in work by Sally Mann and William Eggleston; the legacy of white supremacy in the region; and finally a section titled “A New South, Again,” focused on both Southern progress and an ongoing grappling with history.
Credit: Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Credit: Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Photographer Rahim Fortune, who contributes an essay to the exhibition catalogue, points to the iconic documentarian images by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange that catalogued the most abject side of the region during the Great Depression.
Having grown up in Texas and Oklahoma in a family with Chickasaw and African American heritage, Fortune wants his images to counter that outsider vantage of the region with a more subjective vision.
“I was more interested in something that was a bit more intimate and personal, versus this idea where you need to find the most kind of downtrodden or exotic community to implant yourself within,” Fortune said.
His photograph in “A Long Arc,” called “Line Me Up, Kyle, Texas,” is a tender portrait of a backyard haircut. One man stands as he steadies a seated man’s head with two fingertips, clippers poised at the base of his neck. It’s a scene of ordinary intimacy between two men of color that speaks to something more nuanced than the racial divisions and conflict often associated with the region.
“I think that this show will give people a really broad image of the South that maybe they hadn’t imagined. Because there really are so many interesting narratives in the American South that aren’t necessarily a part of our popular imagination,” he said.
For his own “Picturing the South” commission for the High Museum in 1998, renowned photographer Richard Misrach created a haunting body of work focused on a region along the Mississippi River in Louisiana dubbed “Cancer Alley” for its concentration of petrochemical companies. His contribution to “A Long Arc” is an image of a corroded pipeline running through a brackish green swamp, a wilderness despoiled by industry in “Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana.”
Misrach says he was initially unsure of his focus after receiving the “Picturing the South” commission and having no concrete vision of the South. “I kind of just fumbled my way through and decided that the actual petrochemical corridor was an unknown part of the South but a really big part of it,” Misrach said, “and a huge part of the economy there. African American communities are adversely impacted by this pollution.”
After its run at the High, “A Long Arc” will travel to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the biggest lenders of work in the show.
Harris is glad that audiences outside of the South will have a chance to see the show and enrich their understanding of the region.
“There have been a lot of shows recently that are about Southern art and a handful of shows about Southern photography,” he said. “Most of them stay in the South, and so we’re kind of just talking to ourselves.”
“A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845”
Through Jan. 14. $18.50. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, high.org