Gulf Life, Poor Monkey's Juke Joint And Other Southern Stories : The Picture Show Photographer Dave Anderson wants you to get lost, and preferably in the American South.
NPR logo Gulf Life, Poor Monkey's Juke Joint And Other Southern Stories

Gulf Life, Poor Monkey's Juke Joint And Other Southern Stories

Dave Anderson wants you to get lost. "Who the heck is Dave Anderson," you ask? Well, I wondered the same thing. "Ambiguity is wonderful," he explained over the phone. So much for clarification.

It all began a few weeks ago, as I was reading about a photo exhibition called One Block — a story of daily life on one block in post-Katrina New Orleans. Curious to know more, I contacted the photographer.

Meanwhile, I had also been watching Oxford American magazine's documentary series about life in the American South. SoLost ("lost in the South" or, literally, "so lost") is described as an "off-kilter video journey through the side roads, backrooms, cellars and psyche of the modern South." (Read: It's awesome.) I decided to look up the producer as well.

Turns out, the One Block photographer and SoLost producer are the same person: Dave Anderson. And it gets weirder. Just yesterday he was in town presenting the latest SoLost installment, titled Gulf Life.

Warwick Sabin, publisher of Oxford American, explained on the phone that the goal of SoLost is to show "Southern culture in an accurate and artistic way." That includes vignettes like William Eggleston on the piano, impromptu Arkansas bluegrass and Tennessee letterpress printing. The series explores stereotypes; it celebrates everyday, local treasures; and it delves deep into a region sometimes dismissed by outsiders as culturally lacking.

In short, it's about artfully rediscovering the idiosyncrasies of the South. And it's fun. Anderson's ebullient character takes the form of vignettes like "Po' Monkey's Juke Joint," a playful discovery of one of the oldest existing juke joints in the country. He travels the South, pitching ideas to Sabin, who will pretty much green-light anything. Anderson has earned that trust.

Although he has only gotten into photography over the past decade or so, Anderson was in TV for years before that. After working on the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992, he was brought on as "director of television" at the White House. (You can imagine the stories.) After that, he landed a job with MTV news, traveling the country registering teens to vote — and writing what was essentially one of the first blogs, before the word "blog" even existed.

On that trip, he fell in love — not with the redhead whom he'd later meet and marry, but with back roads and small towns. "It whet my appetite," he says, "for getting to more out-of-the-way places." A few photography courses and several months in rural Texas later, Anderson had produced a story about the ambiguity of life in Vidor — a small town with a history of Ku Klux Klan activity. With that kind of past, he admitted, "hometown loyalty can sound very sinister." But from a more intimate perspective, "it's a beautiful thing."

Anderson may shoot in black and white, but he doesn't see life that way. "I don't try to draw really easy conclusions," he explains. "I just kind of like leaving people a little confused." In the Gulf, for example, while we've heard about plenty of horror stories and tragedies, Anderson found locals who still see serenity in the water.

"Ambiguity is wonderful ... and imagery is a Rorschach test for the viewer," he says. For Anderson, getting lost is the point, and discovery is the reward.

Anderson's series, One Block, is on display in two locations: at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco. It was recently published in book form by Aperture.