For more than a century, photographers have documented the American South in its pleasantries, unrest, and eccentricities, many times with a focus on the people of a region where romantic traditions prevail. The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art opens a new window on the South with a collection that merges this past with present in the exhibition Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South, which is also showing at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in Charleston.
Fifty-six photographers contributed to this, the largest exhibition of photographs of the American South in the twenty-first century, on display until March 2. Many of the artists are Southerners by birth, others with ties by family, or some with a prevailing curiosity of place that led them to travel unknown paths of kudzu fields, trailer parks, churches, prisons, protests, rivers, beaches, oil spills, and battlegrounds. Co-curators Mark Sloan and Mark Long write, “Southbound is one slice of a New South in transition, sufficiently complex to capture something essential about the region in the early twenty-first century.”
Renowned art photographers from New York, Seattle, Hong Kong, and San Francisco display photographs that hang beside images created by Southern natives from small towns in states like Kentucky and Tennessee. Artists’ biographies include Yale graduates, Guggenheim fellows, a Life Magazine contributor, a professor at Princeton, a self-taught photographer from Greenville, Mississippi, and a couple hailing from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. The diversity of the contributing photographers blends into a compelling view of a new South seen through many different vantage points—a place where transition has become the new tradition.
Southbound combines mixed-media images, classic black-and-white photographs, wet collodion processes, and contemporary, vibrant color imagery made with a mix of cameras from large-format to state-of-the-art DSLRs. The exhibit frames racially charged issues in an image of African-American police officers in riot gear braced for action at a White Power March by Sheila Pree Bright, and Gillian Laub’s picture of Julie and Bubba, an interracial couple in Mount Vernon. Daniel Kariko’s aerial photographs of orange groves and cattle ranches illustrate the invasion of suburbia on the landscape in Florida. Susan Worsham and McNair Evans investigate memory through pictures of their homeplace. Kyle Ford explores the relationships between humans and the natural world at the Georgia Aquarium, while Stacy Kranitz photographs show displaced Native American tribes in Tennessee and North Carolina. And these are just a few examples of the powerful subject matter so thoughtfully researched and curated by Sloan and Long. The exhibit goes deep and runs wide through subject matter but is held together by the commonality of a place called the American South that at times seems mysterious, quirky, transitional, complex, and yet harmonious as seen through contemporary eyes.
Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South, through March 2. City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau St; Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, 161 Calhoun St, Charleston. (843) 953-4422, halsey.cofc.edu