Primitive Myths: Photography and the American South

By Zanes, Warren | Afterimage, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Primitive Myths: Photography and the American South

Zanes, Warren, Afterimage

Regionalism in photography can be thought of in two different ways. The first is the notion of regional "schools," two examples being the Chicago school associated with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Illinois Institute of Design in the 1950s and the Southern Californian group formed around Robert Heinecken at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1970s. The proximity of artists to one another often encourages a speculative mapping of influences. Although such an approach can show differences rather than similarities among artists, positing a regional "school" or "tendency" remains a common organizing principle for exhibitions, conferences and books. As this understanding of regionalism often promotes a kind of collective impulse, however ill-defined, it clearly does not require the issue of place - as a common concern of the work itself - in order to produce a viable grouping. Without establishing too rigid a dichotomy between the two, a second conception of regionalism might then be established: a regionalism that does take place as its primary concern, understood more in terms of its subject matter than the regional "school" to which it might belong. In this regionalism, place is the governing term.

This second understanding informs Picturing the South: 1860 to the Present, a 1996 exhibition and book organized by Ellen Dugan. In the collection, one finds a regionalism that sometimes presages and very often profits from the inheritance of, for instance, Walker Evans's itinerant photography. It is a regionalism that puts more emphasis on the photographer going to a place, even if this means down the block, rather than coming from one - a regionalism haunted by the ethnographic spirit of '30s documentary work. Simply put, as the title suggests, Picturing the South promotes that regionalism which, as far as content is concerned, gives primacy to place. Another recent book, Alex Harris's anthology A New Life: Stories and Photographs from the Suburban South, while quite different in its avowed intentions, participates in this same regionalist tendency, albeit in a somewhat different manner.

In looking through the two volumes, it becomes apparent that this second regionalism, that not of geographically situated "schools" but of an explicit and primary interest in the specificities of place, has come to be associated with photographs of the South in particular. While images of the West have often been absorbed both into discussions of landscape, in which the issue of place is often in a losing contest with aesthetic questions,(1) and into discussions of the ideological work that art performs in relation to land rights, images of the South often remain more narrowly shackled to the simple fact of referentiality, which is to say, place. Perhaps because they can become the keyhole through which the almost mystical light of popular fantasies surrounding the South might shine, photographs of the South are rarely allowed to speak of anything so much as from where they came, even when, as in the case of many photographs from A New Life, it is merely the directing nature of a volume's title that makes region the issue at hand. As the issue of place is insistently imposed on photographs of the South, they are seen, in a reciprocal action, to embody regionalism itself. The potential elasticity of the term "regionalism" finally, and paradoxically, results in something quite unlike an arbitrary collection of photographs from all corners of the map. The South emerges as a place of particular fascination, even obsession - the subject par excellence of a regionalist project. How this came to be is a question worth exploring.

In thinking through this preeminence given the South in relation to what I've isolated as a second regionalism, one cannot ignore the impact of such popular books as Alexander Gardner's Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1866), Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's Have You Seen Their Faces (1937), Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), William Eggleston's Guide (1976) and William Christenberry's Southern Views (1982). …

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