A panorama of the Atlanta skyline, a couple’s parting embrace at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the smiling staff of the Silver Skillet are a few of the sights students will recognize and reconsider at the High Museum of Art’s newest photography exhibit.
“Picturing the South: 25 Years” opened last Friday. The exhibit celebrates the “Picturing the South” photography series’ anniversary and displays nearly 200 works from the series’ 16 artists. Since 1996, the series has supported photographers creating bodies of work inspired by the American South. This exhibition is the first time works from all of the series’ past and present commissioned artists are presented together.
The scale of this exhibit allows for each artist’s work and interpretation of the region to be displayed prominently.
According to Rand Suffolk, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director, this commission and exhibition series are “entirely unique among American museums for its longevity, commitment to place and diversity of artistic perspectives.”
The exhibit varies greatly in subjects, styles and tones, but throughout each body of work, the artists present visually the opposing forces that form the south. Some artists develop a playful comfort with their subjects and present harmonies arising from paradox.
One photographer, Mark Steinmetz, commented on his work capturing scenes from the airport, saying that he liked “the idea of a quiet interlude in a crowded place.” These black-and-white portraits invite the viewer to be still in a bustling setting, allowing for a closer look at often overlooked narratives.
Some works lean into the discomfort of the Southern landscape and highlight the inequality that exists in the region. Sheila Pree Bright’s 2020 works featured in the exhibit find their subjects in her home of Stone Mountain. These black-and-white landscapes focus on the majesty of the forestry and nature’s reclamation of itself over man’s historical interruption. Bright brings a mysterious tone to the sight of kudzu overtaking an old post, train tracks dividing the forest and a monument to the Confederacy cutting into the mountainside.
Richard Misrach’s 1998 works in the exhibit depict landscapes shaped by the active intervention of mankind along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Misrach presents grandiose, vibrant industrial complexes centered in dilapidated scenes of nature. Misrach’s placement of the symbols of man in the foreground of these scenes makes a statement on the role of these industries in shaping human life and of the legacy they create. This presentation of this power and its manipulation simultaneously allures and repels, and Misrach himself likened his works to a “dysfunctional Disneyland.”
The legacy of the region complements the personal stories presented in the exhibit’s portraits of artifacts and people of the South. The exhibit has a lovely combination of both circumstances and their inhabitants that makes for a more intimate and moving experience of the narratives presented.
With this series’s longevity, there is a cathartic delight in viewing the exhibit as a time capsule of the many paradoxes and shared experiences of the South, but it is the exhibit’s attention to distinguishing these shared experiences that allow the viewer to gain a deeper look and a better knowledge of this life.
“Picturing the South: 25 Years” will be on display at the High through Feb. 6. More information and interviews with the artists of this exhibit are available on high.org.