Intentionally or not, Georgia Dispatch, Minnesota-based photographer Alec Soth’s exhibit at SCAD Atlanta, raises interesting questions. If you had to select 20 images to portray the entire state of Georgia, what would you include? Who would you include? Where would you begin? What themes or ideas would you hope to convey?
The answers might depend on who you are and where you are from, but if you were Soth, whose LBM Dispatch is an “irregularly published newspaper of the North American ramblings of Alec Soth and [writer] Brad Zellar,” you would start by looking. You would take two weeks and travel 2,400 miles across the state of Georgia from Chickamauga to the Okefenokee Swamp.
The writer/photographer team — think modern day James Agee/ Walker Evans but with social media — had traveled together to Ohio in 2011, where they created the first of their Dispatch series, followed by travels to Michigan, upstate New York and Colorado, among others. Georgia, the final dispatch in the series, was sponsored by the SCAD Museum of Art and curated by Aaron Levi Garvey, assistant curator of exhibitions.
This was not Soth’s first trip around the South. In 2009, the High Museum commissioned 12 works for its Picturing the South photography series. Alec Soth: Black Line of the Woods featured landscapes, manmade structures and people who chose to live on society’s margins. Inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic writings, Soth tapped into what Catherine Fox described in a review as the “archetypal, contradictory meaning of the forest as a place beyond the bounds of civilization.”
The 19 mostly poster-sized photographs gathered here, all black-and-white archival pigment prints, offer a slightly more contemporary look at a state that can’t quite forget its past. These are less O’Connor than Faulkner, who famously told us “[t]here is no such thing as was, only is.” It is through a less mystical eye that we view Charles Roark. Chickamauga, the exhibition’s most striking portrait. A Confederate Civil War reenactor reclines in corpse-like repose upon a quilt-covered bed beneath old family photographs. So much was in what is.
And though the Confederate battle flag makes an appearance in Wildman’s Civil War Surplus. Kennesaw, it, too, like Mr. Roark, reads more as relic than ideology. The store dummy in this photograph wears a Confederate uniform and hat covered in spider webs and cloaked in the dust of time and neglect, staring unseeingly into the past of a darkened window.
Piedmont Avenue. Atlanta offers a metaphor for the columned Antebellum South: Only the façade remains of the 1911 home that housed Georgia’s first chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Georgia’s famous kudzu makes several appearances. In Near Gainesville, Georgia, the exhibition’s largest photograph at 54” x 72”, a white frame house lists in a sea of it, threatened with erasure, and in Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. Summerville, kudzu has already done the deed. A rusted out car is barely visible, smothered beneath a blanket of the stuff. A hand-lettered sign delivers the narrative blow: “I heard the wreck out on the highway but I didn’t hear nobody pray.”
Speaking of prayer, in addition to the Reverend Finster, two other preachers show up. Jimmy Carter, who regularly teaches Sunday School at his Plains church, stands alone in a room, back to the camera, monitoring a video feed of the sanctuary he is presumably about to enter. The eponymous man doing yard work in Frank Norman. Southeast Augusta wears a tee shirt with a photo of the Reverend Al Green, singer of ‘70s tunes such as “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m So Tired of Being Alone.”
Issues of race receive a subtle touch, or at least one that doesn’t feel binary. In Babyland General Hospital. Cleveland the matriarch of what looks to be a mixed-race family chooses between a lighter-skinned baby and a dark-skinned baby proffered by the “nurse.” Another apparently mixed-race family stares back at the camera in Fort Benning (Crystal Padgett), decked out and ready for a swim on a summer day.
The young boxer in Dquan Morgan. Johnny Gant’s Art of Boxing Gym. Atlanta, lies on floor of a gym, eyes closed, hands raised. At first glance, the pose reads as a man in surrender, and the stain on the floor suggests blood. Is the photo meant to evoke the plight of too many young black men in the news? Or is it simply a young boxer on a stained wooden floor, exhausted from his efforts to improve himself? Soth lets us decide.
Time is the constant in all. In the lushness of weeds and creeping kudzu, in the peeling paint of mill houses in Augusta and the DAR façade, and the battered and useless hull of a fuselage at Fort Benning. It hangs in the air of the Okefenokee Swamp and in the abiding, almost sentient vegetation found there. It shows in the abandoned look of Centennial Olympic Park.
Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested that great photographs resulted from “the decisive moment,” the simultaneous recognition of the significance of an event and the precise organization of forms that gives it proper expression. By that definition, none of these is a great photograph, but the cumulative effect is clear-eyed and powerful. Georgia Dispatch bears the mark of a curious and engaged outsider who looked deeply and truly wanted to understand where he found himself. It reads like a love letter to the state of Georgia, warts and all.
Soth runs a small publishing house called Little Brown Mushroom, which is committed, he writes, “to experimenting with new ways of creating and distributing visual stories.” On his eponymous blog, he quotes writer Tobias Wolff: “We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things…”
Capturing a moment in the “unceasing flow of time” is what the best stories do. So, too, does the best photography, decisive or otherwise. With Georgia Dispatch, Soth has found the past in the present, the was in the is, of a particular place in a particular point in time. I wonder how it will look to us in 20 years.
Through January 20, 2016, in Gallery 1600.