Picturing the South, an initiative run by The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, provides fresh perspectives on the Southern United States. Each year, the museum commissions contemporary photographers to produce work inspired by the region. Gregory Harris, the High’s Assistant Curator of Photography, discusses this year’s chosen practitioners and the significance of the location to artistic endeavor.
A: Picturing the South supports both established and emerging artists. Why is it so important for the museum to foster talent, and how does it benefit practitioners?
GH: We like to give the artists who work on the commission a lot of latitude when they’re making the work so that they can explore not only the South but new creative avenues as well. For established artists, this may mean looking at a new kind of subject matter or experimenting with a new process. For example, Richard Misrach began photographing “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, and Sally Mann began making landscapes in wet collodion for their commissions. Both became creative breakthroughs that sustained their interest for a considerable time. For emerging artists, like Shane Lavalette, having the financial support to travel and focus on making work also led to important developments in his work. On top of fostering the creation of new work, the museum can bring attention to these great talents by acquiring, exhibiting, and publishing their pieces. While it’s vital for the museum to preserve and interpret the art of the past, we also want to be active in the dialogues around where the medium is now and where it is going.
A: The initiative commissions artists to create work responding to the American South. What is it about the region that makes it such an inspiring and engaging subject for artists and viewers?
GH: Keep in mind that I’m not a Southerner (I grew up in Massachusetts and spent much of my adult life in Chicago), but the South is a fascinating place. The landscape is varied and stunning, the cities are dynamic, the people are vibrant and the history is deep. It’s certainly not a place without its problems, both past and present, but I think all of these layers of richness give practitioners a lot to work with and present productive challenges. The history of photography in the South is also pretty incredible, from George Barnard, to Walker Evans, to Gordon Parks, to Eudora Welty.
A: What is it about the work of Mark Steinmetz, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Alex Harris that made them ideal candidates for this project?
GH: Steinmetz, Fleming Caffery and Harris, in addition to being amazing artists, are also all Southerners. The vast majority of the people who have received the commission have been from places outside the region, and the fact that these are all Southern photographers brings in a really compelling perspective. This time around, we wanted to see what would happen if the artists were looking at their home region. I think that familiarity brings with it a greater sense of intimacy and depth. My hope is that it also sparks something new in their work by allowing them to dig into a topic or place that they’ve not yet been able to explore. The South is a big and diverse region, so even though you may know Lafayette, Louisiana, like the back of your hand, the town a few hours away may be totally unfamiliar and therefore something new to engage with.
A: Each of the photographers has their own unique approach to the subject matter. Is there a defining feature that draws together their creative practice?
GH: They all make very different work, but I would say they all have a keen sensibility for documenting people. All of them capture a sense of character and pathos in their subjects.
A: Are there any personal highlights from the series to note?
GH: I’ve spent the most time with Steinmetz’s work. Harris is still shooting, and Fleming Caffery is just now wrapping things up. Mark has been making some long exposure night time pictures of planes taking off from the airport. They’re abstract and unlike anything else I’ve seen him do. They’re rather meditative and beautiful. I was excited to see him taking that kind of risk.
A: How will the work of Steinmetz, Caffery and Harris fit in with The High Museum of Art’s existing photographic collections?
GH: The High has one of the largest and most significant collections of photographs related to the South. It makes up about one third of our 7,000 photographs and spans time periods, genre, and process. In a lot of ways, it’s the foundation of our collection, so we’ll be able to contextualise the new work Steinmetz, Fleming Caffery and Harris are making within the larger and ongoing history of photography in the South. Within that collection, documentary photography, images that look at and responds to the world as it is, constitutes an important thread. All of them, in one way or another, work in that manner, so we’re adding to that history.
A: What commissions from past editions of this initiative stand out to you?
GH: I’m very fond of the project Alec Soth produced for the commission. It’s a strange and intriguing work about people who live off the grid. Many of the pictures made their way into his book “Broken Manual.” The first time I heard about the High was when I read a review of Alec’s show here. I was just out of college, and it put the High on the map for me and made me take notice of the museum.
A: What projects does The High Museum of Art’s Photography Department have on the horizon for 2018?
GH: 2018 is going to be a busy year! We have a powerful show by Amy Elkins that examines the psychological impact of long-term solitary confinement up until March. We also have an exhibition from our Civil Rights collection that brings together historical and contemporary work to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. In March, we open Mark’s show of photographs he made at the Atlanta airport. The title we’re working with is “Terminus,” which was the original name of Atlanta in the 1840s when it was just a small transportation hub. Nazraeli Press will publish a book to accompany the show. After that, the museum is planning a major reinstallation of our permanent collection galleries, and the photography department plays a big part in that.
First project is unveiled in March. Find out more: www.high.org.
1. Mark Steinmetz (American, born 1961), Untitled, 2016, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, Georgia. © Mark Steinmetz.