May 25, 2023

Picturing the South: 25 Years Explores Realism and Quixotism at the High Museum

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In Sally Mann’s Untitled (1996) there is an eerie yet quaint feeling present as the trees overhang each other suggesting an interconnection between past life and present day. Untitled (1996) is a bending representation of the ideas surrounding the American South and its culture: a firm mold of history easily rewritten over the years. It binds the entire landscape of the High Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “Picturing the South: 25 Years” and connects its adjacency to both realism and quixotism. 

Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Untitled, 1996, gelatin silver print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta,Commissioned with funds from the H. B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust and Lucinda W. Bunnen, 1996. 102.

Rural, racist communities, southern food and unintelligible dialect stand as repeated misconceptions summarized to mask the many, complex layers of southern life. With over 300 works added and 16 photographers commissioned, the exhibition attempts to combat these apocryphal ideas through the use of profound photography and each artists’ personal interpretation of what southern culture truly is. “It’s more wayward in the South. It’s quirkier, more interesting. I think it’s more preferable to photograph, if you like, because there’s so many layers that you can explore,” Martin Parr, British photographer, said.

The exhibition marks the 25th anniversary of the High’s “Picturing the South” series and examines all of the works commissioned through the series as it relates to defining the region, within a 25 year span. Some pieces date back to 1996, while others more recent-- yet a lot of the analyzed and represented ideas are still present today. Hyper Spirituality, ruralism, racial dimensions and a continual fight for identity, all introduce the concept of rewritten history related to the region’s slow movement towards advancement.

The show begins with Mann’s Untitled photograph in Chattams County, GA and makes its way across all areas of the region, even parts of Maryland-- sometimes arguably a part of the Southern region. The show then moves through to the second room and further, and becomes comparable to a scattered puzzle. As the viewer steps through each part of the exhibition, there are “pieces” from each artist’s body of work to take and connect to [or divert from] the next.

Parr’s work investigates southern culture through the lens of Atlanta’s distinctive contributions to society. While Atlanta represented a breeding ground for creativity for Parr, it was the opposite for photographer Alec Soth, who experienced trouble finding inspiration in the city. Commissioned by the High in 2006, the Minneapolis-based photographer’s reflective fantasy of running away, or a fugitive fantasy, intertwined with the basis of his works presented in the exhibition. The body of work is, partly, a reflection of or inspired by, the flee and manhunt of 1996 serial Atlanta bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph.

Alec Soth (American, born 1969), F. P., Resaca, Georgia, 2006, pigmented inkjet print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, commissioned with funds from Photo Forum and the Friends of Photography, 2009.16.

All works, partly fueled by an underlying theme, considerably covers the whole view, accurately depicting southern culture. The exhibition avoids erasing those often skipped concepts, and embraces them further, encouraging a closer look into where this growth begins and how to approach it; which is what makes it truly, “picture the south.”

For other artists in the exhibition, the inspirations are clear as other concepts like the fight for identity, and even class politics, are depicted through the works of photographers Kael Alford, Sheila Pree Bright, Jim Goldberg, Dawoud Bey, Alex Webb and more. The exhibition is now on view at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta until Feb. 6, 2022.