Southern Exposure

by Lynn M. Herbert

It was interesting to see that during FotoFest 1990, seven unrelated galleries exhibited photographs that depict life in the South. The subject has always been inviting and we’ve all seen our share of shallow looks into Southern life. Fortunately, each of the 10 artists exhibiting work on this subject at FotoFest chose to dig deep into their subject. In their photographs, they have captured a sense of people, place and time peculiar to the South.

The large glossy multiple color portraits of elderly cowboys in Nancy O’Connor’s “Echoes” series (Moody Gallery) may at first lead you to think that this is a superficial look at the subject. But when you sit down in front of one of her pieces, you hear the recorded voice of the man portrayed, talking informally about being a cowboy. Her subjects are telling you about how hard they worked, about how modern cowboys are different, about how they could talk to cows and how cows understood them, and about the dreams they have at night. As you listen, you realize that you are being given a glimpse of a dying way of life and you notice the meticulous craftsmanship framing the photographs and housing the tape recorders. As you experience each work, it takes on the solemnity of a shrine.

Words also play a role in Patsy Craven’s (Detering Book Gallery) portraits of some of the inhabitants of Colorado County in Central Texas. While O’Connor grew up with her subjects, Cravens has made a point to meet new neighbors. Her black & white portraits of people in and around their homes are accompanied by short texts that Cravens has composed about her relationship with these people. Once again, words make a memorable contribution to the whole. Craven’s photographs have always had an otherworldly and introspective sort of calm to them, whether they be images of a cow, a dog, a foot, or a windowsill. With this series of direct portraits and the eloquent texts that read almost like a private journal, Cravens allows viewers to share in her not-always-easy task of making new friends, getting to know them, gaining their confidence, and photographing them.

Native Houstonian Ferne Koch found herself in Daleville, Alabama when her husband was stationed there during the Korean War. Her photographs of the inhabitants of Daleville (Jack Meier Gallery) from that time reveal the daily rhythm of an era past. Her portrayals of children are particularly memorable. In her “Free Read” series, we learn that children were invited to pharmacies on Saturdays to read comic books. Seeing how engrossed they are in their reading, Koch eloquently tells us how important the Free Read and the fantasy world of the comics were to them during those years.

Earlie Hudnall Jr. and Debbie Fleming Caffrey were aptly paired (Benteler-Morgan Galleries) as they both photograph people in a way that transcends the individual. In Hudnall’s photographs of people, it’s the details that tell us so much about the world he’s documenting: the bold stripes of an elderly man’s shirt contrasting with the gentle wrinkles on his hands; the broad back of a mother holding her sleeping child; or the simple yet noble profile of a young boy. Caffrey, on the other hand, offers us no details. Her photographs of the sugar cane industry in Louisiana are dark and dominated by a smoky atmosphere. The people in them become imposing silhouettes in a mysterious world, and her images invite viewers to use their imaginations.

Keith Carter is also interested in the mysterious aspect of the South, but he confronts it more directly. Carter’s photographs of East Texas (McMurtrey Gallery) bring you face to face with an unusual world of killer frogs, pigs frolicking against a backdrop of angels, someone dressed as a rabbit standing in the woods, a girl in her underwear holding a dead bird, a man standing on stilts in front of a wild array or whirligigs, and tomato plants growing in gas cans. Even the more mundane subjects take on an air of mystery in Carter’s richly toned photographs.

Back in the city, Benny Joseph’s photographs of life in Houston from the 1950s onwards (African American Heritage Museum) tell of a vibrant black community: B.B. King, the DJs at KCOH Radio and their mobile studio dashing around town, Mahalia Jackson, parades in downtown Houston, Martin Luther King Jr., teen sock hops, NAACP meetings, Thurgood Marshall, Joseph’s home covered in snow, a kindergarten graduation, a car wreck, a debutante ball, and a deceased baby lying peacefully in his coffin. Joseph’s broad portrait of a community is uncontrived and refreshing in its direct appreciation of the events depicted.

Clint Willour curated a group exhibition (University of Houston – Clear lake) titled Three Generations of Photographers: The South, 1930-1990. The work ranged from the more emotionally charged photographs of Marion Post Wolcott (who photographed the rural depression of the South in the 30s and 40s) and Fred Baldwin (who followed the civil rights movement in the 60s) to the more subtle investigations into a Southern state of mind by Koch, Caffrey, and Carter (mentioned previously) and Birney Imes has dedicated himself to documenting life in the Mississippi delta and in his photographs you feel like you’re getting such an open and honest view into people’s lives that it’s hard to imagine that there was a man with a camera standing in front of them.

The South is unusual, exotic, rich, mysterious, gentle…. the list could go on and on. Each of these photographers seems to have found his or her own particular way to tap into that energy.