What are we actually talking about when we talk about the New South, a term bandied about with the same frequency (and often the same conceit) with which people label Charleston “quietly progressive”? It can be hard to define and seems to really depend on who you ask. In a companion video to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art’s upcoming photographic exhibit Southbound: Photographs of and About the New South, folklorist William Ferris reminds us that “each generation has claimed to be the New South.”
As a point of fact, the term was coined in the 1880s by journalist Henry W. O’Grady. From its inception, it was meant to describe the emerging and restructured social, economic, and political order of the South after the Civil War. Popularly, it is often used to describe specific parts of the South that more closely resemble other urban and progressive centers of the country. For photographer and native of Montgomery, Ala., Andy Scott, for example, the New South always had a very specific connotation: “Growing up in Alabama, which is not the New South in my mind, it meant Dallas, Charlotte, and Atlanta … cities that seemed to be most like the rest of the country. Progressive socially, and in terms of business engagement.”
Still, for some, like artist and photographer Sheila Pree Bright, the term poses an open question more than it provides a clear answer. “What is the New South? That’s my question,” she says over the phone. A southern transplant (her father was in the military and she grew up all over, she says), indeed much of her work is engaged in underscoring what little has changed, not specifically in the South, but globally, as it concerns black, brown, and impoverished people all over the world. “I feel like we’re fighting the same fights our parents and grandparents are fighting,” says Bright.
With Southbound, Halsey curators Mark Long and Mark Sloan, along with 56 artists and photographers, engage these different (and sometimes conflicting) perceptions of the American South in the largest survey of photographs of and about the region in the 21st century.
“It’s been really long in its gestation,” says Long, who is a native of Ireland, but has been living in Charleston since 2002. “We’ve been working on this since 2014. Our initial idea was looking at photography in the American South as a way to get a handle on the region.” It is a beguiling subject for Long, a geographer by training, who explains that the built environment around us embodies elements of our culture, creating a landscape that photography is uniquely positioned to capture.
He explains that part of what made a massive show like Southbound possible was the internet. “We’re now in a digital world, so photographers have a presence on the web in a way they didn’t have at previous points in time.”
This way, he and Sloan, director and chief curator of the Halsey, were able to “visit” in excess of 600 artists, culling through recommendations that came in from fellow curators, photographers, writers, and photo editors. “We quickly whittled that down to 250 or so,” says Sloan. “Then we started asking ourselves what sorts of contours were starting to emerge.”
From there, the duo worked in vain to get the list down to 40. “Of course we failed,” says Long. “We couldn’t stop ourselves in a certain sense, so the Halsey is fabricating a wall so we get some extra space.”
The criteria for involvement in the show was fairly simple. Each artist had to demonstrate a sustained engagement with a southern subject over time, since the year 2000. Beyond that, Long says, “[They] were very deliberate about thinking about the diversity within the region.” To that end, he says that they made an effort to make sure African-American and Latino populations were well represented, not only in the photographs, but also behind the camera. Take for example the work of Titus Brooks Heagins whose series Durham Stories: Not Hell But You Can See it from Here!, explores the coexistence of “hope and despair” in scenes of rural poverty.
Long notes that female subjects and photographers also hold a prominent place in the exhibit, with artists like Sheila Pree Bright, Rachel Boillot, Magdalena Sole, and Stacy Kranitz exploring diverse themes from the Black Lives Matter movement to portraits of America’s first climate refugee community.
Driven by a desire to capture a multivalent, if not a comprehensive, snapshot of the South, Long says, “I have notes I generated over the course of the years reminding me that we also want to have images of the South’s various topographies, and images of all of the seasons represented.”
In an impressive and robust catalogue that includes essays, photos, and poems by local writers like Nikki Finney, it is noted that many of the artists in the show are “foreign born.” One notable example can be seen in the mesmerizing photos of the Deep Water Horizon spill by Daniel Beltra of Madrid, Spain. Asked why he thought it was important to include the perspectives of “outsiders,” Long succinctly explains, “Geography as a discipline is really about that which is taken for granted. By virtue of being an outsider, people bring fresh eyes and they are able to see things that other folks simply take for granted in their home environment.”
And indeed, the concerns of the photographers involved in the show are about as diverse as their concepts of the New South. Pawley’s Island resident and Savannah College of Art and Design alum Jeff Rich’s work, for example, focuses on the ways in which Southerners interact with their natural environment, and specifically their relationship to the many waterways that snake through, irrigate, and flood the region.
“I moved to Asheville for a while, which is where the Watershed project started,” he says. Rich’s work in this series includes arresting images of the French Broad River, the Tennessee River, and the Mississippi River, some of which can be seen in Southbound. “At the time these two big tropical storms hit Asheville within a week of each other, causing historic flooding. That started me down this road of investigating how rivers work and how flooding like that can happen,” he says.
Over the course of his research into various regional waterways, Rich also came to terms with the vast amounts of runoff and waste pollution degrading them. “Superfund sites and big polluters, they consistently break the rules,” he says. “They all have permits on how much they can pollute, but they consistently pollute more than they’re supposed to, or they don’t report it to anybody.” This aspect of his work is perhaps most resonant in his series entitled Steve Harris, which focuses on one resident of Erwin, Tenn. Rich says that Harris built a house and created a secluded community where he hosted festivals on a 20-acre property. Described as “one man’s Arcadia along the river,” he even had plans to start an organic farm. That is until Harris, who passed away in 2012, discovered that his property, which was in close proximity to a radiation processing plant, had been severely contaminated by high levels of uranium and plutonium.
In many ways Rich’s Watershed project feels like the perfect metaphor for the New South. If the New South is defined by its constantly changing social, economic, and demographic landscape, its overflowing riverbanks make that change tangible and inescapable (even in a self-made Arcadia). It was, after all, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said you can’t step in the same river twice.
Andy Scott, who gained national attention with his photographic series and book Whistling Dixie, documents an aspect of southern culture that would seem, nonetheless, resistant to that change. In the Whistling Dixie series, some of which will be on view at Southbound, Scott captured thousands of images of Civil War reenactments leading up to its 150th anniversary in 2011.
“Even though I’m from Alabama,” says Scott, “I had never heard about these people who dress up and do these reenactments, singing ‘Dixie’ to one another.” It was only after stumbling upon a reenactment that he became fascinated by them. “It struck me that on the one hand it’s kind of weird and dopey … and on the other hand there’s this undercurrent that is scary. Because there are people taking this stuff seriously.” He said that what he observed was a continuum of people who just wanted to shoot a cannon and feel more important than they did in their daily lives, and then those who were the worst kind of white supremacists.
When asked whether there might be some cultural anxiety associated with the “constellation of change” that characterizes the New South, Long points to arguments over heritage and the Confederate flag as evidence.
“Heritage is a charged and powerful term,” he says. “There were plenty more images of the Confederate flag in the submissions we received than made their way into the show, but I think the reason photographers are making that particular picture is, in part, a response to heritage. But also a response to that anxiety. People are looking for an anchor in a changing world.”
How much the South, nay the world, has actually changed is of central importance to the work of Sheila Pree Bright. In her series #1960Now, some of which is included in Southbound, Bright documents responses to police shootings in Atlanta, Ferguson, Baltimore, D.C., and Baton Rouge. The series also includes portraits of under-represented participants in the civil rights movement like professors Lonnie King and Rosalyn Pope.
“The South was where, in the 1960s, you had the civil rights movement,” she says. “They took a stand. And eventually they took down the signs, the ‘whites only’ and the ‘blacks only’ signs, but racism never went away.” With her images of Black Lives Matter protesters organizing against contemporary examples of police brutality, she casts and recasts a critical question, “You see a repeat of history. Are we learning from history?”
Charleston audiences can judge for themselves and take in over 220 photographic works at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art and the City Gallery at Waterfront Park (where the exhibit will be shown simultaneously) from Oct. 19 to March 2. In addition, there is a range of educational programming and artist talks scheduled. You can find more information at halsey.cofc.edu.