What is Southern photography?
It’s a simple if endlessly debated question with, predictably, some not-so-simple answers. The easiest ones usually involve pointing to photographers who were born or work in the South or work in which Southern subjects and motifs predominate.
But a more substantive consideration has to take into account identifying historical continuities as well as more subtle common sensibilities that link the astonishing range of work falling under the category of “Southern photography.”
This spring, two concurrent but otherwise unrelated shows at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art are giving viewers a chance to identify some of those commonalities themselves.
At the Ogden, work by Athens, Georgia-based Mark Steinmetz takes everyday scenes from below the Mason-Dixon line and elevates them via a masterful attention to composition and formal detail while continually upending expectations with an often subversive sense of humor.
Meanwhile at NOMA, a series of new works by New Orleans-based Josephine Sacabo underscores the role of photographic object as fine art through a series of sumptuously presented, dreamlike images.
On the surface, Steinmetz’s black-and-white scenes of the alternately prosaic and singular (and sometimes sinister) corners of the South couldn’t be further away from Sacabo’s gauzy and lyrical tableaux, with their enigmatic titles and references to French symbolist poetry.
Yet, both photographers still merit being viewed in a particular geographical context. (Steinmetz’ Ogden show is subtitled “South,” after all, and Sacobo is the first living New Orleans-based photographer to get a solo show at NOMA in years.) And together, they demonstrate the wide and sometimes contradictory range of attributes we can identify when we speak of Southern photography.
For his own part, Steinmetz mentions European masters of photography including Eugene Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson among his influences. But looking at his work at the Ogden, it isn’t hard to view him in the context of fellow Southern photographers like William Eggleston and Birney Imes: all produce legible images, often with a distinctly regional subject matter, that reveal increasingly complex formal and narrative layers the more you inspect them.
In one portrait, a young man in an oversized jacket with his tie and hair askew stares unflinchingly at the camera with a gaze that could identify him as a drifter, a prophet or a madman — or maybe all three. In another, a closeup of a praying mantis set against an expanse of blurred background acquires the outsized presence and strangeness of a visitor from another planet. There’s almost always something engagingly off-kilter going on in even the most deadpan of Steinmetz’s photographs, and the beautifully curated show at the Ogden presents a welcome opportunity to give his work the closer attention that it deserves.
By contrast, the Southern strains in Sacabo’s photography are more elusive to identify — at least on the surface, which is all softly focused and often fragmentary or multilayered still lives, landscapes, and figure studies.
Her 2013 solo show at A Gallery for Fine Photography took the writings of 20th century Brazilian modernist Clarice Lispector as a point of departure, and her current body of work at NOMA, “Salutations,” takes its title from a poem by 19th century French writer Stéphane Mallarmé. (Even the wet collodion on metal process Sacabo used to produce the images was borrowed from another time and place.)
But for all of its foreign literary allusions, you can trace the more overarching visionary element of Sacabo’s work in Louisiana antecedents like E.J. Bellocq, whose portraits of the ladies of Storyville read like postcards from a mythical vanished world, and Clarence John Laughlin, whose surreal portraits and images of New Orleans architecture were produced with a visual vocabulary more evocative than documentary.
Like snapshots from half-remembered dreams, Sacabo’s images rely on mood and atmosphere for their effect, and resist attempts at literal interpretation. And like Steinmetz’s images, you somehow can’t imagine them as being produced anywhere else but the South.