As a freelance photo editor/art researcher, I work with multiple clients. One of them is Art Researcher for the Oxford American, a magazine of “writing and art from or about the South.” In the years I’ve worked for the OA, I’ve concentrated heavily on fulfilling the promise of getting artwork by Southerners, or artwork made in or about the South, into the pages of each issue.
Searching for this type of imagery over the past few years, I have found that what is most easily found, most readily offered up, is work steeped and mired in tradition. This is likely because most sets of eyes and ears worldwide are prepared—through visual and historical indoctrination not particular to the South by any means—to recognize and respond only to imagery about familiar Southern themes. If the audience for the art isn’t there, if means don’t support these voices and visions, they will go largely unrecognized, or worse: they will stop making art. The same point can be made across boundaries and borders, and it transcends the art world, to be sure.
That the South is a diverse place with rich and varied tradition and history is something that should be assumed. To assume otherwise—to pigeonhole the South and Southerners, to simplify this vast region as many of us are in the unfortunate and dangerous habit of doing (not excluding all Southerners, by the way)—is to overwrite history, to negate the existence of people that have always been there. I realize this is, in fact, a terrible yet longstanding, ongoing human tradition. But should we not at least attempt to break away from this forever?
Though the tally varies depending on who you ask, the Oxford American magazine counts 13 states as Southern, so that’s what I go by. Included in the thirteen are the second largest state (Texas) and three others on the top ten list of largest states. Population-wise, the South includes 124.75 million people, more than a third of the country’s 327.16 million. The South is not monolithic; neither are the various groups of people within it. It’s astonishing that our visual cues are generally so limited in terms of what we see—or want to see—as Southern. This is, however, changing.
Making strides toward this goal of breaking away from accepted Southernness is a huge, wonderful exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, New Southern Photography. Richard McCabe, the Ogden’s Curator of Photography, cracks open the rigid form of what Southern is usually allowed to mean. The exhibition brings together “25 emerging, mid-career and established photographers.” So many! The show takes up space on three floors of the museum. It is massive, it is awesome, and anyone with the ability should rush to see it before it closes on March 10.
The catalog for New Southern Photography includes essays by Richard McCabe; Ogden curator Bradley Sumrall; and writer and photographer L. Kasimu Harris. It was published by The University of New Orleans Press. It is beautiful, and it is almost sold out. Get it while you still can.
FYI: RaMell Ross (top photograph) made a beautiful documentary, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which is nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. See it before it wins, or doesn’t, this Sunday.