I feel as if many photographers working today owe a lot to Bill Eggleston. Or perhaps not. Either way, his influence among the art world has been sort of delayed about 40 years. Like many art students, I learned about him in an introductory photography course during my freshmen year in college. I was ignorant to any photographer shooting seriously in this “snapshot aesthetic” — the only photographers I knew about were Man Ray and Ansel Adams. And I no idea one could make art about one’s home — his hometown in Memphis, Tennessee. The South. Ah, I thought, something I identify with readily that many of my classmates didn’t. I understood it. His pictures felt like home, my home. I ended up going home over Thanksgiving break and making pictures around the countryside with which I was duly familiar. The landscape I spent most of my grade school years attempting to escape. Now, here I was, stopping my car on the side of the road with my camera out, taking in appraising stares from strangers bypassing in their cars. I’ve done this every time I’ve gone home.
I owe a bit to ol’ Bill Eggleston. What he did for art and color photography and more importantly, what he made me realize about southern imagery. Even though he claims his pictures aren’t necessarily southern (and I don’t think they are either), but that art could be made about whatever is around you.
“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” — William Faulkner, “Light in August”
It’s been a while since I’ve written about my pictures regarding my senior thesis. So here’s an update. Since my crusade of shooting 100 sheets of 4×5 film during the summer, I’ve dabbled here and there in Northern Virginia, much closer to DC than North Carolina, shooting only a little bit. Thanksgiving break saw a 90-sheet increase in my shooting and later at Christmas, 140 sheets down. I took my first picture within the bounds of thesis during the first week of July 2011. It’s a portrait of my father on the beach. The last image I took for this project (for now) was of a red out building out in the community of Vale, North Carolina. The sun had just set and the landscape had sort of a blue sameness to it, except for this pale red barn out near my great aunt’s house. I’m not one to take pictures of barns, but with one last sheet left, I couldn’t resist the visual symmetry on this clear, winter’s evening. Sometimes you have to take those kind of pictures to get to the next ones. Both of these images I described were taken in extreme circumstances, 100+ degree temperatures on a windy beach, the other, nearly below freezing temperatures out in the foothills. As of now, neither one of these pictures made it into the final edit.
A lot of things have come up when talking and photographing this project regarding growing up in the South, that is say, Southern memory, personal and historic. I’m not so sure “what’s Southern” can even be described in words without mentioning some of the stereotypes of the culture. The South I grew up is nothing like the South Bill Christenberry or Bill Eggelston photographed. It remains a part of American mythology. To me, what’s Southern is something much more simple than old storefronts, sweet tea, or NASCAR, although I have photographed those things to get to the next things. Coming closer, but never quite being able to define Southern heritage. It’s almost like living in a photographic paradox, separating what’s Southern from what’s actually American, or more importantly, what’s personal from what’s global. Of course I think it begins with the Civil War, but, writer Walker Percy puts it more eloquently. It’s a statement of his I still stand by.
“There is a Southern heritage, and it has nothing to do with the colonel in the whiskey ad. It has to do with the conservative tradition of a predominately agrarian society, a tradition which at its best enshrined the humane aspects of living for rich and poor, black and white. It gave first place to a stable family life, sensitivity and good manners between men, chivalry toward women, an honor code, and individual integrity. If one wishes to sneer at such values, let him; but I can’t help wondering if the sneer does not conceal a contempt for all traditions.”
I think that’s what my thesis is all about. Here are some new images from that body of work.
Isabelle Evertse is an interesting photographer whose work touches a lot of notes. At one moment you feel a nostalgic longing for something that never was and the next wanting to dive head first into an African village that may or may not exist. These constructive narratives are something that l found interesting with her work and something I stride to be a quality of my own.
Evertse’s series, Thorny Hill, takes the initiative of informing the viewer that what they are seeing may or may not be real. This knowledge conflicts with what we are seeing though, a series of aesthetically traditional documentary imagery, and starts prompting the notion of what is real and what is not. But even this is a bit absurd; these images are real in the sense that these events happened, these people exist and while they may not all dwell within this created atmosphere, that atmosphere does in fact exist. So what may not be real about these images?
The validity of the narrative, the story of what we the viewer create through viewing the images verse what the photographer intended. While this may seem like a moot point of interest, I find this really interesting because our perception of images and how we read images is constantly changing. This change is in part because of the general distrust of what we find within our digital culture. When photo manipulation becomes so easy to do, this aesthetic type of imagery begins to hold a certain sense of validity and certainty to it. In blunt terms, this photo looks real so it must be. But why do we feel that way and what can photographers do with this?
I feel the product of all of this is the constructive narrative. While people like John Gossage set the foundation for the contemporary understanding of the constructive narrative back in 1985 with the publishing of, The Pound, the application to a documentary aesthetic is fairly new. Evertise’s work is an interesting blend between the old and the new understanding or application of this idea. While Evertise continues the path of a visual narrative, it alternatively becomes a personal reflection of a former life. The distance within the images from the subject matter help to keep the narrative loose and unbinding to a predestined path while the aesthetic helps to retain the series within the validity of ‘truth.’
The product is a constructed narrative that follows the line of a loose narrative that harps on a sense of remembrance and forgetting. An openness to interpretation though allows for the viewer to convey their own intentions and interpretation upon the work, truly forming a completed structure. The lasting effect is a series that can be revisited upon multiple times and a different story gained through each viewing. This to me is an essential element within storytelling and what really makes this series work, an application of function to aesthetically pleasing and interesting images.
You can see more of Isabelle Evertse’s work here. (The series, Burnish, and Come Night, are definitely worth your time)
Unless you will is an online monthly publication of photography curated by Heidi Romano. I have yet to see an issue that doesn’t captivate me in some way. Each issue is focused on contemporary photography from around world but all with a certain mood that keeps me coming back. I can describe almost every photographer I encounter as maintaining a certain quiet brillance. Each issue reads as a sublime encounter with documentation and experimentation.
Previously unknown to me until Issue 18 of Unless you will was Palmer Davis. I felt it very important to share Davis’ work because he has, not only informed my own photography, but also achieved a method of storytelling that relies heavily on mythical and heartfelt elements. I like it.
Images from Davis’ American Stories series:
Domestic Creature, an “essay on childhood” about the photographer’s son Noah:
In the Mystical Realm of Color — Davis explores the people and color scheme of India.