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It’s a rap: Deborah Luster’s Young Rappers, 1993.

Places in the Soul
By David Brickman

Visualizing the Blues: Images of the American South, 1862-1999
The Hyde Collection, through Sept. 8

If you get a chance to catch Visualizing the Blues at the Hyde Collection before it ends on Sept. 8—and I highly recommend that you do—you’ll see wonderful photographs of:

Blacks, whites, sharecroppers, gamblers, worshippers and whores; cops, protesters, child laborers, revelers, prisoners, soldiers and debutantes; farmers, storekeepers, Klansmen and ghosts. You’ll see lizards, churches, chickens, diners and bayous; stores, houses, shacks, kitchens and signs (neon and painted).

And you’ll see exactly one (unidentified) person playing an acoustic guitar.

Visualizing the Blues: Images of the American South, 1862-1999, which premiered at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis in late 2000 and then went on tour, attempts to portray not the musicians who created the blues but the place from which the music sprang. And though the exhibition does not entirely succeed, it doesn’t really matter, because curator Wendy McDaris has assembled so many impressive, elegant and, in some cases, truly great pictures that even viewing them without an overarching premise is a worthy end in itself.

For lovers of blues music, don’t expect to see evidence of your favorite musicians at work, or much about the specific places they inhabited. Instead, go to see the world that inhabited their minds and hearts, depicted by a virtual who’s who of Southern and erstwhile Southern photographers spanning the medium’s entire history.

For lovers of serious art photography, though this is a historical show in spirit, don’t be put off—it features only beautiful, well-made images, and takes the risk to include plenty of works by newer names in the pantheon, and a few very pleasant surprises (more on those in a bit).

Finally, for everyday museumgoers, expect to enjoy an exhibition of images that is as high in quality as it is broad in appeal. A selection of blues music plays over a speaker system, not too loudly, adding a nice looseness to the gallery atmosphere. Though the range of the show is great, both geographically and temporally, it is tightly enough edited and organized to provide a comfortable hour’s viewing, with helpful but not overly rhetorical text panels to guide you through, and cogent, concise labels next to the individual photographs for detail. There is also an accompanying hardcover catalog available in the gift shop (though it may be sold out by now), which reproduces most of the images and features an introduction, a foreword by John Grisham and an essay by the curator.

Historically speaking, the show includes only a handful of pictures made before 1900, but much more densely covers the Depression (a very rich time for documentary photography) before moving on to the civil rights era and then quickly to contemporary work.

Organized more or less chronologically and thematically, the presentation succeeds in places but also causes a few problems. Among the several photographers who have more than one or two pieces included, only one has all his work shown together. The others are scattered all over the room, making it a bit confusing if you’re looking for a sense of consistency. For example, a relatively obscure photographer named Peter Sekaer, who lived from 1901 to 1950 and worked in a manner stunningly similar to Walker Evans, is represented by five pictures hung on four different walls. Similarly, several prints relating to the Ku Klux Klan, and referred to in the catalog essay as “a series,” are on three walls.

I suspect that the show may have been edited for travel, or to fit into the space at the Hyde. There are images in the catalog not present here (such as one by Edward Weston), and there is a reference in publicity for the show to the great Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, but none of his pictures are included. However, there are pictures by the other two best-known Civil War photographers, Alexander Gardner and George Barnard, so Brady is not really missed.

The occasional glitches in presentation may be due to the exigencies of getting the show installed into a space for which it was not designed, but they still can distract.

Geographically, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia are included, with the emphasis heavily weighted toward Mississippi, New Orleans and Memphis. This makes sense considering the musical theme.

The earliest piece in the show (somewhat perplexingly dated 1852) is a lovely anonymous daguerreotype portrait of a black slave woman holding her charge, a white baby. Many other pictures addressing issues of race follow: Perhaps the strongest is, curiously, by a Frenchman who considered himself a surrealist, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The 1962 image shows a country storefront with segregated outdoor lounging space. On the bench marked “colored,” two men hunch crowded together, while on a much longer bench, a lone white man, grinning smugly, stretches out in a mockery of luxuriance.

Eudora Welty has a number of fine pieces in the show. Among them are two from the 1930s that present venerable male Mississippians, one white, one black, each posed with his equally impressive garden produce. The two figures are coyly juxtaposed by the curator—separate but equal. Many of Welty’s finest contemporaries from the era of the Farm Security Administration are also shown: Mike Disfarmer, Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano and Margaret Bourke-White. Anyone familiar with American photography knows they are all masters, and this show provides a nice opportunity to see good examples of their work in one place.

Other name photographers present include W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisenstaedt, E.J. Bellocq, Gordon Parks, Danny Lyon, Lee Friedlander and Sally Mann. And, as is too rarely the case, color photography gets plenty of room here, due largely to the fact that two of its foremost practitioners, William Eggleston and William Christenberry, hail from the South. Both are amply represented, and many of the new names seen here, such as Allison Knowles, David Julian Leonard, Jane Rule Burdine and Huger Foote, also work in color.

I like the color work, and it’s a pleasure to see so much of it in a primarily documentary show (where black-and-white typically dominates), but it seems to me that the best pictures in this compendium belong to a group of mid-career photographers who work in black-and-white. Nicholas Nixon’s Yazoo City, Mississippi 1979 is both a warm and revealing double-portrait and a sumptuous formal design; Debbie Fleming Caffery’s study of sleeping lizards has delicacy and humor; and Jack Spencer’s extreme-closeup Happy Child, Como, Mississippi captures a world of childhood exuberance in one toothy grin.

Maybe best of all is an ambitious 1999 piece titled One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana by Deborah Luster. It consists of 20 small portraits organized into a grid. Included are blacks and whites, singly or in groups; male and female, indoors and out; at work, at prayer; displaying handicrafts, tattoos and, in one case, a huge bloodhound. This update on the Family of Man is at once affecting, contemplative, respectful and sad. Bluesy, you could say.


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