A Picture Of The American South

I don't know if you can say there's such a thing as "Southern photography." I don't even know if you can really say that the South "looks" one way or another. But one thing you can say — and this might be my Tennessee bias — is that the South is a fascinating place with a complex culture, and a great place to take photos. (I mean that with firmly corroborated journalistic objectivity, of course.)

  • Cotton pickers wait in line to be paid in a plantation store. Mileston, Miss., 1939
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    Cotton pickers wait in line to be paid in a plantation store. Mileston, Miss., 1939
    Marion Post Wolcott/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  • Untitled, Greenwood, Miss., 1972
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    Untitled, Greenwood, Miss., 1972
    William Eggleston/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  • Untitled, circa 1911
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    Untitled, circa 1911
    E. J. Bellocq/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts
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    Walker Evans/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  • New housing development, Benbrook, Tex., 1978
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    New housing development, Benbrook, Tex., 1978
    Frank W. Gohlke/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  • The farm, Angola State Prison, La., 2002
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    The farm, Angola State Prison, La., 2002
    Alec Soth/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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But really: There's a mythology and tone and feel to the American West, for example, that also has a legacy in photography. Think Timothy O'Sullivan, Ansel Adams and Robert Adams and their endless landscapes, vast deserts, manmade developments. Maybe we're just informed by books and movies, but it feels big and adventurous and lonely.

The South, likewise, has a feel to it, if you think romantically. And again, it shows in a canon of Southern photos (be they of the South or by Southerners). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the seminal collaboration between photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee, for example, was a story about sharecroppers in the Depression-era Deep South — and it set the standard for documentary photography. Danny Lyon and Charles Moore documented the tumultuous civil rights struggle. Meanwhile, William Christenberry produced an account of the dilapidated South, and William Eggleston's lurid, kitschy vernacular broke the confines of black and white.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has attempted to capture the character of the South in an exhibition, pulling about 75 photos from its permanent collection to create "Southern Exposure." No matter what, it's a bold endeavor to classify photography by region. But even if there's no such thing as "Southern photography," it's still interesting to see who has been photographing in Dixie, and what they've seen.

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