Southern Elegy: Photography from the Stephen Reily Collection is a small exhibition in the North Building of the Speed Museum, and includes some black and white photographs by William Eggleston. If you choose to walk up the intrinsically modern stairway of the Speed, Southern Elegy is the first exhibition you approach as a viewer. It also reads as a precursor: As you’ll read below, the collection is predominately made of photos spanning from the 1930’s to the present, but includes a handful of photographs that precede the Civil War. Southern Elegy provides a historically chronological visual dictionary for the audience to pull from in viewing the next exhibition, Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art. Southern Elegy features seventy-five photographs from fourteen photographers represented include George Barnard, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Gedney, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clarence John Laughlin, Russell Lee, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Polidori, and Doug Rickard.
Southern Elegy is a collection of photography on loan from the Stephen Reily Collection and curated by the museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Miranda Lash. Stephen Reily is a prominent entrepreneur based out of Louisville, Kentucky who has served on the Speed’s board for more than ten years, and is currently the Interim Director. Reily has intentionally collected works that carry the burden of the history of the American South on its shoulders. According to the exhibition statement, Reily built a collection “on the premise of photography as an elegiac process, or a poetic form of capturing loss”. The American South has held captive the hearts and spirits of its artists, musicians, and writers since its inception: It provided artists with a “landscape shaped by slavery and the Civil War, and in later decades, discrimination, poverty, violence, and human made disaster”. Reily’s collection visually covers the whole of the south, but focuses heavily on his current state of Kentucky, and his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Southern Elegy is successful because it is cerebrally heartbreaking: Miranda Lash curated a group of images that portray the juxtaposing combative, devastating, and beautifully untouched Southern socio-political-cultural-physical landscape. My one qualm with the collection is the lack of representation of the wealth of the American South. For a collection that is intent on displaying the sense of loss, resilience, terror, and love that is the south, I’d expect that the collection would have imagery depicting the disciples who placed most if not all of the loss onto its fellow citizens.
The earliest pieces include works by George Barnard, the infamous Civil War photographer who later published Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, one of the most influential books of Civil War photography. Buen-Ventura, Savannah, GA (1866) is one of these images. Barnard was known for revisiting battle sites after the battle ended, capturing ghostly images of fields emptied of bodies, but still brimming with fear and devastation. Buen-Ventura shows long billowy branches, covered in moss and dipped in that especially hellish Georgia humidity. There are gated marble monuments, and a ghostly white unidentifiable something off to the right hand side of the image. Pieces from this era in the collection also come from Frances Benjamin Johnston, a prominent female photographer at the turn of the 20th century— known for her portraiture, images of southern architecture, and series representing African American and Native American subjects.
The collection also includes great examples of color photography, made popular during the 1950’s and 60’s: photographers working to document both the banal and the monolithic moments of the mid 20th century. William Eggleston’s images of the banal south, such as haystacks, quiet back roads—conjure humidity and the sounds of bugs. William Gedney’s images of families in Eastern Kentucky are fueled by his need to understand poverty as well as deal with his own suppressed homosexuality— a common theme throughout his work in Kentucky, India, and later San Fransisco. Walker Evans’ Steamboat Capitol, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 1935 (1935) documents the south’s love for and utility in steamboat history, a history that is a part of the river industrial complex of the 19th and 20th century, that connected the south to the rest of the country. A history that takes particular hold in in New Orleans as well as Louisville, Kentucky: where musicians on boats used to stop for days at a time, causing the influx of music diversity within both cities. Robert Frank’s Trolley, New Orleans 1955 (1955) documents public transit’s segregation. Sally Mann’s Untitled (Mississippi Landscape), 1998 wasn’t shot in the 60’s, but argues that the south has a way of holding on to its terror. Mann’s haunting image of the Tallahatchie River approaches the infamous site where Emmett Till’s adolescent body was dumped in 1955.
The contemporary works within the exhibition arrive predominately out of New Orleans, Reily’s hometown. This selection of images navigates away from architecture, agriculture, and civil rights. It submerses the audience into natural destruction, turned government abandonment, turned crime. Two photographers in particular really glue the contemporary works together: Robert Polidori and Deborah Luster. Robert Polidori’s works have tended to read as ‘ruin porn’ to me (if you aren’t familiar with the term; it refers to images of heavily decayed and time ravished infrastructure), but within the context of this exhibition they read as examples of empathy. Polidori’s images of home interiors after months and months of standing water are just. . . well, heartbreaking. . . for lack of a better word; his 2600 Block of Munster Boulevard, 2005 is as surreal as it is illustrative and concrete. Deborah Luster’s images are culled from her Tooth for an Eye series, which consists of black and white photos taken on location where a homicide had occurred; they are powerful reminders of the high homicide rate in neighborhoods most devastated by Hurricane Katrina and then abandoned by the local, regional, and national government made to protect it. Polidori and Luster provide the greatest examples of southern past informing its present and future.
Southern Elegy will be on display through October 14th, 2017 in the North Building of the Speed Museum. I encourage anyone vaguely interested in the history of the American South and the medium of photography to go see it. It’s particularly cathartic for people who have lived in the South. Just go. Also, the Speed is free on Sundays. Take the whole family.