ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: Kael Alford’s bleak, heartfelt Louisiana photographs, at High and in Fall Line’s first book

Review: Kael Alford’s bleak, heartfelt Louisiana photographs, at High and in Fall Line’s first book

Alford: "Juliette Brunet on the levee, Isle de Jean Charles. Janaury 2008"

Kael Alford has spent seven years exploring a remote community on an endangered stretch of land on the Louisiana coast. “Bottom of da Boot” is her powerful portrait of life in the tiny towns of Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles and the hardscrabble lives the inhabitants stubbornly maintain even as their land yields to the Gulf of Mexico.

The High Museum of Art, which commissioned the project as part of its “Picturing the South” program, is exhibiting a selection of her photographs through September 2. They are also the subject of a recently published eponymous book from Atlanta’s Fall Line Press.

Alford, a longtime photojournalist best known for pictures she took as an unembedded reporter during the Iraq War, spent years developing this series. Her time in the community tempered her sharp news eye. Instead of the headline-quality photographs typical of her work, these are subtler and require a longer involvement. She worked hard to build relationships with the families, a process aided by personal ties: this was her maternal family’s ancestral home until her great-grandmother eloped and moved away.

The photographer’s emotional connection and dedication show. In contrast to the dispassionate gaze of the portraits in bodies of work such as Alec Soth’s “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” “NIAGARA” or any of the clones his style has spawned in recent years, Alford’s portraits, landscapes and interiors are heartfelt. There is a yearning that comes out in her subjects’ expressions, the knickknacks placed around their homes and the depiction of the water that creeps ever forward.

How these images affect the viewer, however, may depend on their context.

Kael Alford: "Juliette Brunet on the levee, Isle de Jean Charles, January 2008"

THE EXHIBITION

The High Museum presents Alford’s photos along with Martin Parr’s and Shane Lavalette’s in a series of galleries bookended by “Picturing New York,” a selection of iconic photographs from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals From Talladega College.” This mash-up of diverse media and subject matters, while interesting in concept, feels a bit awkward and misplaced in execution. In order to see “Picturing the South,” the viewer must walk through one of the other exhibits, which may affect one’s experience of “South.” By forcing the viewer through the larger exhibitions, the High seems to relegate contemporary photography to a space of little significance, almost an afterthought. It feels tilted toward celebrating the history of art instead of looking toward the future.

Viewing “Picturing New York” is like walking through a textbook on street photography: all the masters, all the techniques, all the trials are there on the wall. It’s as if the museum intentionally makes the visitor take a history lesson before entering the world of the contemporary. As a viewer already engaged with photography, this felt to me like a slight. But given that the High serves a general audience, perhaps it makes sense.

Alford’s secluded space in the back corner serves her well. Painted a cloudy gray, it echoes the sense of being on the edge of the world captured in “House on eroding land near Leeville, March 2007.”

Alford's exhibition at the High Museum of Art. (Photo by Ryan Nabulsi)

Walk into the gallery at the right time and you’ll hear the rumbling of a shrimp trawler in a video by Alford, which captured a sunrise shrimping trip. A map of the Louisiana coast and a bleak text about the degradation of its land set the context. The map, unfortunately, is somewhat hard to read and interpret, while the text gives only a small amount of information.

Alford’s photographs do little to reassure us that these people will be all right. But they emphasize their tenacity in battling the disappearance of land and culture.

Grids of pictures merge a complicated story into an easily understood visual narrative. One shows a house floating in the ocean, an orange boom failing to hold back oil from the 2010 Gulf spill, a small two-man fishing boat in a vast waterscape and three portraits that serve as a snapshot of life on this coast.

THE BOOK

The book “Bottom of da Boot” is a first-time venture for the artist and Fall Line Press. Although Alford has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers and was one of four featured photographers in Unembedded,” this is her first solo book. Fall Line has published smaller bodies of work in its Free Fall magazine, but it has never before undertaken a project of this scope and magnitude.

Through a highly collaborative process and by learning from previous efforts, they have produced a magnificent book. It follows a classic documentary photobook format — introduction, essay, photos — but adds clever touches. The mixture of full-bleed images, images with borders and two-page spreads helps break up the flow of images.

Alford's "Flooding on Island Road, looking toward Isle de Jean Charles, September 2008"

Particularly inventive is the two-page image of Island Road between the chapters on Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes, a placement that mimics how the road connects the two communities.

Brett Abbott, the High’s curator of photography, contributed the preface, which speaks to the importance of long-term documentary projects, especially in a time of more voyeuristic documentary photographs (think iPhone). Alford’s introduction, one of the book’s highlights, discusses her personal relationship to her subjects and offers information not apparent in the photographs. 

Each presentation has its advantages. The exhibit offers punch, clarity and accessibility to a wider audience than the book. Also, having this work in the High’s permanent collection means that it will have a public life even when the book is out of print. On the other hand, a story as complex and intricate as “Bottom of da Boot” seems more suited to a book, which can treat the work in a more detailed and comprehensive way. It also affords more intimacy with the material and ease of repeated viewing.

The ability to revisit these images over time brings smaller details to light. For instance, I started noticing how muddy everything appeared and wondered why. I found the answer in “Alton Verdin and his house after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Pointe-aux-Chenes, September 2008.” Everything is muddy because the land is sinking. Although this fact is stated in texts and image, the concept of losing one’s house in this way was so unfathomable that it did not hit home until constant repetition of the imagery focused my attention on the mud.

This work excels in both presentations. Sometimes, only a photograph can make the unbelievable seem true. Alford’s ability to capture it while at the same time remaining sensitive to the people of this land is an amazing accomplishment.

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