“Truth Told Slant” explores visual storytelling

Featured photographer Jill Frank explains her process of capturing the portraits in her “Homecoming” project. It depicts people feeling uneasy, especially during the pandemic. // Photo by Emily Piper Student Publications

This month, the High Museum of Art unveiled their newest exhibition, “Truth Told Slant,” a combination of five photographers’ projects that shift the traditional understanding of documentary photography. Through the works of Jill Frank, Rose Marie Cromwell, Zora J Murff, Kristine Potter and Tommy Kha, viewers walk through the awkward moments of life while experiencing the social and political perspectives the artists chose to explore. 

“Truth Told Slant” refers to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Moving through the exhibit takes you on a journey that connects strangers in one cohesive experience. The variety in photography and  stories builds an enjoyable reflection. The exhibition also explores the moral responsibility held by photographers. A common issue amongst documentaries and photography lies in how artists can responsibly create photos of real events and people. Despite photography’s many pitfalls, “Truth Told Slant” exemplifies a way to visually tell stories without exploiting the subjects of the projects. 

Frank’s portraits are first, capturing the essence of identity through irregular moments. In looking into the archetypes of youth, her photographs evoke a sense of authenticity. Featured works include young children at cotillion, talent show contestants and homecoming photos during the pandemic. All three events reflect times of celebration. However, Frank’s artistry reveals itself in her choice of timing. Her cotillion pictures show the children keeping themselves busy in idle moments before their class. The talent show, which Frank organized herself, offered an opportunity to record abnormal skills with intentional posing. This project used a slow camera, meaning each subject stood motionless for minutes, contributing to their uneasiness. One of the common emotions her work communicates is seriousness in the mundane. Her third project featured in the exhibition is side portraits of Georgia State University students for their homecoming dance. Frank’s approach to this set was especially personal, as this was the first time she had ever photographed at the school where she teaches. While her students prepared for the school-hired photographer to take their official homecoming photos, Frank stood to the side to capture the quietness and irregularity of COVID-19. Each woman was photographed alone, as COVID-19 prevented any group photos. By framing from the side and recoloring the portraits to black and white, Frank chose for the subdued weirdness of the pandemic to be baked into the reaction. 

Moving from Frank’s works, the exhibition flows into the works of Cromwell. Instead of people, her projects focus on Miami as a whole. Cromwell plays with unusual materials, such as printing some photographs on plywood to embody the increased mixture of global cultures and social struggles within the city. Featured works include laborers or lesser-known environments. 

For example, she photographs bold red text warning of the destruction of sin coming to Florida printed on a steel door. Disorientation is the core of her project, attempting to re-establish a new perspective towards Miami — one of distress and residential experiences instead of a sleek and flashy vacation. These messages tie into the composition of each photograph. Stark contrasts are made between the man-made elements of the subject, like colors that isolate its reaction from those of the rest of the background. This abstraction elicits a dreamlike state to embody the fast-moving shift in globalization
and climate change.

Murff’s works focus on a different aspect of life: the identity of being a Black American family. His documentary includes an autobiography in his project, “American Mother, American Father,” depicting perceptions of family and race. These two works are the largest of his photographs, standing as the epitome of his section of the exhibit. Both embody the stereotypes of a Black family while contrasting the nuclear white family. 

The few focuses on whiteness include oversaturation that makes distinguishing every detail impossible, reflecting its inherent invisibility. Whiteness becomes a foil to Murff’s work, as his images of Black culture are contextually ambiguous. 

Moments within his exhibition also purposely call to mind offensive stereotypes to underscore the exhibition’s themes. One photograph is a close-up of two Black hands exchanging money, with one holding a cigarette. Its subject is gas money, yet others may assume it is drug money based on first glance and implicit bias. These photographs explore how identity collides with society and reshapes popular culture’s definition of Blackness and whiteness.

Potter’s area of the exhibition dives into the history of popular music as it relates to crude, repressed areas of American identity. The introduction to her projects includes a video playing open mic night murder ballads. These songs celebrated violence against women and hate against racial minorities. 

In opposition to the violence, Potter stages her photography to depict the resurrection of these women. By reanimating the victims, her work challenges the darkness of the American past and gives strength to the underrepresented. Her work features portraits of women wringing out their hair or standing dripping in water to imply their rebirth. Other photographs include bodies of water, as referenced in the ballads, as a remembrance of the brutality and fear within the country. 

The last photographer is Tommy Kha. His work centers on how identity is constructed through all aspects of life, especially in family roots. As a queer artist with Vietnamese and Chinese parents, he is othered, as many of his identities clash with each other. In using humor, lineage and heritage, Kha builds the feeling of dislocation. One part of his exhibit features signs from local businesses and posters.

Through these photographs, he illustrates the loss of meaning or alteration in power certain words have given their situation, which reflects the evolving cultural essence in society as well as with identity. 

Rand Suffolk, the director of the High Museum of Art noted, “While they eschew conventional approaches to photographing the world as it is, these artists nonetheless draw our attention to real-world, contemporary issues of great importance.” Art is meant to express and act as a window into another’s perspective. All five photographers not only demonstrate a radical approach to documentary photography but also present life in a nontraditional way, highlighting moments of awkwardness or elements often overlooked in everyday life. It is a truly eye-opening exhibit and a peek into how documentary photography can transform the mundane into topics of conversation.