Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Southern Photography and Literature: Refocusing the Lens

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Southern Photography and Literature: Refocusing the Lens

Article excerpt

Serious Daring: The Fiction and Photography of Eudora Welty and Rosamond Purcell. Susan Letzler Cole. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 2016. Pp. 170. $34.95 (cloth). ISBN: 978-1-68226-011-1.

The Language of Vision: Photography and Southern Literature in the 1930s and After. Joseph R. Millichap. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2016. Pp. 176. $40.00 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-8071-6277-4.

Eudora Welty's Fiction and Photography: The Body of the Other Woman. Harriet Pollack. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2016. Pp. 344. $49.95 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-8203-4870-4.

Photography is an important crossroads where memory and sense of place intersect in the American South. Displayed on walls and tables in every home, photographs summon the familiar in powerful ways. They are the lynchpin through which we identify with and confront our past. Photographs display ancestral faces and places that anchor us within our region, viscerally embodying Faulkner's famous remark that in the South, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." Photographs assure us that the past endures in close, intimate ways. Indeed, in his classic study of American photography Reading American Photographs: Images as History: Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, Alan Trachtenberg encourages us to use photographs as a way of "reading the past . . . as a past which interprets our present-past images as present history" (288-20). Interestingly, Trachtenberg focuses on two photographers-Mathew Brady and Walker Evans-whose work is deeply connected to the American South.

Ellen Dugan argues in Picturing the South: 1860 to the Present that photographs in the region have "an undeniable immediacy and evocative power, and they reveal, perhaps most poignantly, the pervasive and compelling need to construct our own histories from the raw material of the objective" (15). Documentary photographer Tom Rankin suggests that photographs assume a dual role. They both link us to the past and free us to look forward. "At best our pictures help us remember and revise our stories and histories . . . to see our world anew, informed and unfettered by our past renderings as we look to re-imagine our place in the world" (27).

Throughout the region, familiar portraits of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy grace the walls of black homes and illustrate hand-held fans in black churches. Photographs of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King are also important. In the introduction to Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century 's Most Photographed American, John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier explain how they located "160 separate photographs of Douglass, as defined by distinct poses, rather than multiple copies of the same negative" (ix).

By contrast, white families in the South often own Sacred Harp hymnals that feature photographs of composers like Benjamin White and William Walker, and Elvis Presley's photograph is commonly found on walls. Photography clearly has a long, important presence in the American South.

When we try to understand our past, photography is an obvious resource. The growing interest in photography is intimately tied to the rapidly evolving field of Southern Studies. One measure of this growth is the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which has now evolved from its first publication by the University of North Carolina Press in 1989 as a six-pound, one-volume work to twenty-four volumes, each inspired by the thematic sections of the first edition. Its expansion is part of a dramatic increase of books on the American South published by university presses throughout the region. Those who study the region and its literature increasingly draw on photography as a means to measure and understand its worlds. Photographs summon memory and sense of place in both historical and fictional realms. Elizabeth Spencer views photographs as "images-especially, it seems to Southerners-that never go away; they do not even fade" (qtd. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.