During the past year, Richard McCabe – the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s curator of photography – has implemented an aggressive exhibition program that is quickly transforming the New Orleans venue into a powerhouse of cutting-edge and classic photography. Focusing on recent acquisitions and a growing collection, McCabe’s fluid exhibitions feature several artists at any given moment, each represented by concentrated clusters of work that amount to mini retrospectives, creating an immersive sense of the region’s vitality. In this interview, McCabe discusses the images and issues that challenge the epochal divide between the Old South and the New, but also celebrate the richness and diversity of Southern visions.
Susie Kalil: The Ogden’s photography collection provides a visual narrative of the ever-changing American South – the 19th century, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of a New South. Photographers whose work is in the collection include E.J. Bellocq, Elemore Morgan, Sr., Eudora Welty, Walker Evans, Clarence John Laughlin, Elliot Erwitt, William Eggleston, George Dureau and William Chistenberry. Since becoming curator of photography two years ago, you’ve aimed to balance ambitious exhibition programs and expand the collection. How can a museum promote new photography while also building its own holdings?
Richard McCabe: My goal as Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is to promote the up-and-coming photographers who are making vital work, while at the same time honoring the photographers of the past who built the foundations of what is possible in photography – technically, aesthetically and conceptually. What I’m trying to do is balance the new with the established, the tried and true classics of Southern photography. I want the museum to be a living breathing institution – a museum not a mausoleum. In a recent historical exhibition, Mississippi Photographs i86c>s-Present, I included Eudora Welty, Marion Post Wolcott, Lewis Hine with emerging artists Kathleen Robbins, S. Gayle Stevens, Euphus Ruth, in addition to the greats of late 20th century Southern photography – Birney Imes, William Eggleston. It was amazing how seamless the work flowed. I got a great satisfaction when one of the younger photographers would say, “I can’t believe I’m in a show with Eggleston.” That is what it is all about – the artists.
SK: The American South has always been about a sense of place – the land, the generations of families who have resided in the region. How are those perspectives changing? I’m referring to projects by Richard Misrach or Emmet Gowin that examine industrial runoff, garbage choked rivers, the stretches of land in South Carolina and Louisiana that are lined with factories and petrochemical refineries. Do you see a “game change” occurring in Southern photography – there are photographers like Misrach, Gowin, Alex Webb or Kael Alford who come to the South from other locales and investigate the terrain for specific projects. Then there are photographers like Birney Imes, Shelby Lee Adams, Keith Carter, who continue to mine the South as part of their heritage. All of them maintain deeply held notions about the South, but how do their perspectives vary in terms of documentation and the evocatively poetic or symbolic image?
RM: There has always been and will always be photographers from outside the South photographing the South – and bringing their life experiences to the visual imagery. Some of the best photographs of the South were not made by Southerners – the FSA/WPA work comes to mind. Some view that work as condescending toward the South – I do not. I think it is some of the greatest photography of the 20th century. Not being from a place lets you see that place with fresh eyes. Misrach, Gowin and Webb might view the land and place with less nostalgia, less attachment, and see the place in more objective light. Even Christenberry, who is from Alabama and photographs almost exclusively in Alabama does not live in Alabama. He lives in DC and likes not being so close to his subject. He needs his space to maintain a perspective on the place. Sadly, I just read Christenberry does not photograph anymore – he says the Alabama that nurtured his work is gone.
SK: How do others visualize the South from the outside vs. those of close proximity? Heidi Kirkpatrick lives in Portland, Oregon. Colleen Mullins works in Minnesota, but her series Elysium is an examination of the urban forest of New Orleans forever altered by the devastating canopy loss from Hurricane Katrina. Is there a distinction between images about the South and those made by Southerners?
RM: The Ogden Museum exhibits art that is either made by Southerners or is about the South. However, a number of artists from other parts of the country came to New Orleans after Katrina and tried to capitalize on the misfortunes of the locals, feeding off a culture they had little to do with. Some folks referred to these artists as carpetbaggers. I think every case is different – in Colleen’s case, the Elysium series – photographing deforestation of the urban forest – was a great project. Like all great music and art it was more metaphorical than most Katrina work – conceptually it was strong and brought attention to a little known byproduct of the storm. I don’t have a problem with people making great images and bringing attention to important issues – then again, that might go back to what I said previously about perspective and being too close to the subject – that you don’t see what’s in front of you.
SK: How has music continued to play a part in the work of Southern photographers – how the landscape of a place shapes the music that comes from it and vice versa? Among the most important portfolios in the Ogden collection are the poignant images of the last Delta juke joints by Birney Imes. Recently, you exhibited the 70s era rock n’ roll photos of Tav Falco, which seemingly took viewers on a “road trip” through the South during a radical era.
RM: Since the South invented country, bluegrass, jazz, blues and rock n’ roll, music is a very important component in the visual arts of the American South. I love the idea of the influence of music on the visual arts. The best music is always very visual. Music can paint a picture in your mind and also remind you of a place. And of course place is such an important part of art in the South. Birney Imes’ Juke Joints was one of the most incredible photographic series of the last 30 years – the power of those images and his technical skill are unmatched. This is a case of photography performing one of its most important functions – preserving memory. Those places are all but gone now and Birney recognized the importance of capturing the last remaining vestiges of these unique spaces – juke joints and where the blues was born. In the case of Tav Falco, it was rock n’ roll, the 1960s, Memphis and the influence of the blues on rock n’ roll. Tav’s work is more of a visual diary of his life – he founded the band Panther Burns with Alex Chilton of Big Star – so rock n’ roll was Tav’s life, but he’s also a great photographer, filmmaker and writer. Tav got his start in photography as a lab assistant to William Eggleston, developing and printing Eggleston’s black and white work. They became friends and would also photograph together – the Eggleston influence is very much evident in Tav’s snapshot style. In 2013, I plan to exhibit photographs by Jim White, an amazing alt-country singer/songwriter from Pensacola, Florida who now lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the narrator/actor in the BBC documentary on religion in the South, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
SK: Artists, curators and writers have been talking about a “New” Southern photography for quite some time – you’ve branded the recent acquisitions for the Ogden as part of that movement. Can you define what it is? Does regionalism still exist? Does the New Southern Photography reflect national and international trends?
RM: Southern Photography has always been more influenced by national and international trends than any other medium in the arts. To me, New Southern Photography blends innovation with tradition. The central themes remain – sense of place, identity, a reverence for history, family, the burden of history and relationship to the land. New Southern Photography builds upon that foundation and expands it further as seen in the work of photographers Lee Deigaard, Donna Pinckley, Frank Hamrick, Laura Noel, Deborah Luster and Susan Worsham. Innovation is tied to outside influence through technology and aesthetic trends. But innovation is a two way street. There’s still a distinct style associated with Southern photography – the Egglestonian effect, the snapshot aesthetic, and the Sally Mann inspired alt process, the 19th century process movement which is a push back against the democratizing of the photographic image via digital photography. There is a sense of nostalgia running through a lot of the work that is a part of the Southern psyche. There are many purists who disdain the digital revolution. I feel there is plenty of room for all the many diverse technologies used in photography today – keeps it interesting. I think you can trace the rise of 19th century processes to Sally Mann incorporating collodian-wet plate processing in her work in the mid 1990s. It took a while for the full effect of her shift to 19th century processes to inundate the photo world, but seven years ago you could have bought an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera for a hundred dollars, and now they are through the roof expensive because they are being snapped up by the 19th century process photographers. S. Gayle Stevens, Bruce Shultz are doing tintypes in New Orleans. Josephine Sacabo works almost exclusively with the Photogravure process. The soft focus dreamy look of alt process lends itself to themes consistent in Southern photography – memory, warmth of imagery, the past, the sense of place. As far as neo-surrealists, I would also list Richard Sexton, Maggie Taylor, Jerry Uelsmann and Louviere + Vanessa, all of whom have exhibited at the Ogden Museum in the last five years. Regionalism does exist, although I know some believe otherwise, but it’s rapidly becoming less prevalent.
SK: It seems that the gothic surrealism of Clarence John Laughlin continues to impact young and mid-career photographers. Similarly, there’s the Keith Carter “school” that focuses on ritual, a romantic visualization of the land and people. How can you define the New Southern Photography without dealing with that pervasive influence? How does the psychological element of Laughlin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard – the very “soul” of Southern photography – carry through to Debbie Caffery and Deborah Luster?
RM: Laughlin has had such a huge influence on photography. If you were to stroll the galleries of the Ogden Museum now, every photo exhibition and even the painting exhibitions are influenced by Laughlin. Tav Falco – Southern gothic travelogue; Louviere + Vanessa – New Orleans surrealists, who create monumental photographs that blend beauty within darker contexts using the city of New Orleans as backdrop. Their work has a direct linkage to that of Laughlin – both use themes of transformation and are informed by New Orleans. Shelby Lee Adams cites Laughlin along with Ralph Eugene Meatyard as his two biggest influences. Shelby visited with Laughlin in New Orleans and spent a good deal of time with him as a young photographer just out of art school. At first you wouldn’t get the connection between Shelby Lee and Laughlin, but once you really look and compare the work – compositional elements, subject matter, etc. – the Laughlin influence becomes more apparent. I’m curating an exhibition in 2013 titled Seeing Beyond the Ordinary and the Keith Carter influence – soft focus, warm light -will be very much evident. It will feature three photographers – Jim White, Laura Noel and Susan Worsham – who make exceptional imagery from seemingly mundane and everyday moments. Debby Caffery and Deborah Luster, too – Caffery is a master of the atmospheric portraiture, high contrast, moody imagery, and Luster the dark melancholy, psychological approach.
SK: Is the South a geographic location or a state of mind?
RM: For Kelli Connell, a sense of place refers to the love of an individual or a person within the context of the place, which I know from her talks, is the South – Texas and her native Oklahoma. She lives in Chicago but makes most of her photographs in the South, because she says the light is much better – yet in her images, the geographic location is somewhat ambiguous. I feel the South is both a geographic location and a state of mind. Speaking for myself, whenever I have lived in other regions of the U.S. – out West, NYC – I really miss the South. Although I’ve told myself many times – I will never move back to the South – I always do. I remember living in Seattle for three years – I walked around that town and thought to myself something is missing, but I could never figure what it was or able to verbalize it, then the words came to me – soul. This place has no soul – that is what I love about the South – it’s got soul.
SK: Significantly, you’ve acquired works by a number of women photographers who are examining family history and connection to place. Kathleen Robbins relocated from New Mexico to the Mississippi Delta to live on her family’s farm, re-inhabiting her great-great grandparents’ Victorian house. Her series Into the Flatland explores familial obligation and our conflicted relationship with “home.” S. Gayle Stevens recorded the ruins that once were the town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, a community on the gulf devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Lisa Silvestri shot black and white portraits of New Orleans teenagers using a large-format view camera and 19th century finishing process. These are the kids who returned to find what was left of their communities. All of them reveal personal distinctions and some reflections of a post-Katrina world. Donna Pinckley’s photographs of children include objects or environments that convey an intimate part of the individuals at a particular moment in their lives. A history is contained within each image, as told through the details of their surroundings, their stance, their expressions. We’ve already mentioned Colleen Mullins’ series on the deforested urban New Orleans. Are these women representative of a New Southern Photography? What’s coming out of this body of work?
RM: The images of Robbins, Stevens, Silvestri and Pinckley are within a straightforward documentary style of photography. Sense of place is in the forefront of their work. The only diversion is in the techniques employed, in particular the use of 19th century processes by Stevens – tintypes – and Silvestri’s platinum printing. But then again, the use of 19th century processes can be another nod to history of photography and the South. I know Gayle Stevens has stated the Pass series was made with tintypes because the dominant photographic technology at the time of Pass Christian’s founding as an artist community in the mid 1800s was the tintype – so this was a conceptual component to the work. With all these photographers, the concept forms the foundation of the aesthetic direction of their work, which is very modern but also rooted in the past. So that goes back to my definition of New Southern Photography, which is innovation with tradition. New ways of telling the same story. They are making strong work dealing with issues they care about – land, people, a relationship to nature and the environment.
SK: How do you see the trajectory of the Ogden photography collection? What are the missing links? Who is on your radar at the moment and what kinds of photography exhibitions will you be organizing for the Ogden?
RM: The Ogden Collection is rapidly expanding – currently we are focusing on emerging and mid-career photographers. Everything builds on Roger Ogden’s original vision – a comprehensive overview of Southern photography. I would love to have more historical 19th century photographs in the collection, which really gets strong around the 1920s to the present. I would also like to acquire 1960s-70s photographs from people like Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Larry Clark, edgy photographers from that special transitional time in the South. What’s on my radar? The State of Texas – what’s happening there is really exciting and I need to investigate that more. For 2013, we are opening with Deborah Luster: Tooth for an Eye: A Choreography of Violence in Orleans Parish. For over a decade, Luster has been making photographs that explore effects of crime, punishment and violence in Louisiana. In this series, she focuses her camera on an invisible population – people who exist only as a memory – homicide victims. We’re also in the process of working on the Eudora Welty exhibition that will feature many rare photographs, some never seen before. It’s such an exciting time for photography right now – there’s a great community here that is built around the New Orleans Photo Alliance, the St. Claude art district, the Prospect Biennials – the art scene has exploded.