Capturing the American South

Photographs at the Addison Gallery of American Art 

black and white photo of young woman laying on the hood of a car

 “Girl on Car, Athens, GA, 1996,” by Mark Steinmetz


A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845, opening March 2 at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, is a sweeping survey of the region. Yet don’t expect it to “distill the messiness and infinite nuance of the Southern experience into an easily digestible parade of ‘greatest hits’ ending with a satisfying denouement,” says curator Gordon Wilkins. Instead, the images ranging from the lead-in to the Civil War through a contemporary melting-pot culture, invite “viewers to dwell in the muck and the mire…to bear witness to the region in all its complexity and contradictions.”

First mounted at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, Georgia, the exhibit in many ways reflects the question of “whether the South is an exception to American democracy or the very crucible from which America’s identity was forged,” High Museum curator of photography Sarah Kennel notes in an essay. Themes, for example, speak to “agency and representation in photography of and by African Americans,” Wilkins says, but also to human resilience, how land embodies history, and the reverberating legacy of slavery.

Looking at Diane Arbus’s searching portrait “Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. on her front lawn, Atlanta, Georgia, 1968” and Walker Evans’s iconic 1936 “Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama,” visitors may notice a shared, bare-boned dignity in the subjects. Other emblematic images portray race relations. “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping, Mobile, Alabama” was taken in 1956 by Gordon Parks during the Jim Crow era as part of his 1956 LIFE series “Segregation Story.” Nearly three decades later, that sense of alienation also pervades “Domestic workers waiting for the bus, Atlanta, Georgia, April,” amid an affluent Atlanta subdivision, by Joel Sternfeld.

Gordan Park's “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping, Mobile, Alabama” COurTeSY OF aNd COPYrIGHT THe GOrdON ParKS FOuNdaTION

By contrast, “Limbeth and Karim,” 2021, by José Ibarra Rizo, features a young couple on a grassy shoreline locked in a tender embrace. They stare plainly into the camera, and their intimate connectedness, their innocence, counters ways in which Latin culture is “often misrepresented in popular media and political debates,” according to exhibit text. Mark Steinmetz’s “Girl on Car, Athens, GA, 1996” offers a mood of discomfort, or a desire to be elsewhere, debunking a stereotypical cheeriness sometimes associated with Southern women. All told, this first major survey of Southern photography in 25 years offers interesting juxtapositions that speak to an evolving understanding of a place and a people and of how, as always, individual experiences can mirror the bigger picture.  

Read more articles by Nell Porter Brown

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