How the Ogden Museum Is Desegregating Southern Photography

Story by L. Kasimu Harris


 RaMell Ross: Yellow; 2012

RaMell Ross: Yellow; 2012

 

There are no separate bathrooms or entrances, and you won’t see “whites only” signs in museums or galleries. Yet, the genre of Southern photography remains segregated. Image makers who are not white men have been suppressed as it relates to recognition and opportunities for their visual contributions to the category. It’s time out for that. There’s a need for an André Benjamin moment, to disrupt the industry.

At the 1995 Source Music Awards in Madison Square Garden in New York, Benjamin strode to the stage, as a confetti of boos fell about his ears. He was draped in a purple dashiki and dark jeans, and the neglect of Southerners of the black diaspora was on his heart. The civil war between the east and west coast, for hip-hop supremacy, was at its apex — everywhere else was overlooked. Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, the hip-hop duo Outkast, were named Best New Rap Group. As Outkast, proud lyrical ethnographers of black life in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, and beyond, reached the stage, the debris of boos fell on their backs.

Benjamin paced and clapped with conviction, replete with frustration. Then he took the mic. “But it’s like this, though, I’m tired of folks, you know what I’m saying. Closed-minded folks, you know what I’m saying,” Benjamin said slowly and swayed side-to-side. His speech accelerated and became more emboldened. “It’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody want to listen,” he declared. “But it’s like this, the South got something to say. And that’s all I got to say.” He and the cadre of Southern creatives exited the stage. That moment changed the demographics of rap forever.

Southern photography hasn’t been ignored in decades. From Walker Evans, William Christenberry, and Clarence John Laughlin to William Eggleston, the visual aesthetic of the South is globally recognized. But the majority of the promoters of the genre, such as curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors, and editors — fields dominated by white men — have exclusively uplifted the photography of white men. (The exceptions have been Eudora Welty, Sally Mann, and Debra Luster.) These gatekeepers were tasked with the responsibility of telling this region’s story, but conversely, they disrupted our story by presenting incomplete narratives.

From pines to magnolias, from red dirt and mud to metropolises, from the Delta to rolling hills and mountains; from white, vinegar, or no sauce at all to Civil Rights Movement activists to children of the confederacy: This region is anything but monolithic. The visual storytellers of the South have reflected the demographics of the region—but the disseminated accounts have not.

Benjamin described aspirants on the outside of the music industry, seeking to be heard, with audio recordings in hand that demonstrated ability. Yet, the establishment ignored them. And much like these aspirant rappers, photographers of color and women have been rebuffed by the closed-minded folks who are uninterested in their visual offerings. Just as Outkast and Southern rap weren’t accepted because of their region, people of color and women haven’t been embraced in Southern photography, because of their ethnicity, gender, and perhaps sexual orientation. It is not merely a Southern problem. Globally, folk of color and women have been recognized more within the photography industry—however, not by much. There is still a dearth of inclusion within photography and beyond. Two websites, Diversify Photo and Women Photograph, were launched in 2017 to address the issue and serve as databases of talented images makers who are not white men. MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora was also published in 2017, taking another route to telling these omitted stories.

But there hasn’t been a defining moment for people of color and women image-makers in the South — until now. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s latest exhibition, “New Southern Photography,” is the boldest step yet toward a fuller representation of the work being made by Southern photographers. From these previously muted voices, fresh perspectives, themes, and mediums have emerged.

This exhibition features 25 image makers. Thirteen of those come from the pool of underrepresented brilliance — 10 women, including three of color, as well as three men of color.

From black and white to color images, decay has long been a theme of Southern photography. It’s ubiquitous, but it’s a chord change in the 12-bar blues for one to improvise upon. In the Ogden exhibition, we see images of blighted homes transformed into an examination of redlining and its impact on black neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a 21st century perspective on an existing theme. And throughout, “New Southern Photography” is a true depiction of today’s photography in the South. It perpetually crosses boundaries and explores motifs that have been excluded, underrepresented, or not told for the community by that community: The South is more than black and white, men and women.

Photographer RaMell Ross has lived in the community he documented and looks like the people whose stories he told. That’s an important benefit as it relates to bias, access, and perspective as opposed to appropriation, gaze, and exploitation, which anyone could do, regardless of color. Ross lived in Hale County, Alabama, for six years. As jazz is to New Orleans, blues is to the Delta, and hip-hop is to the Bronx, Southern photography was birthed in Hale County. That is where James Agee, Walker Evans, and William Christenberry made indelible work. Ross uses the venerable visual narrative of the South — the chord changes — while intentionally widening the parallel lines between the historic representation of the area and his depiction of the area. It is an effort to lessen the grip of the classical meaning of Southern photography. Whether examining his daytime or nighttime images, Ross’ work has mood and sense of place.

In Ross’ “Giving Tree,” the branches of the massive perennial plant jut through the frame, moss dangles like bangs before the viewer’s eyes. But the young girl, who has perhaps folded herself across a low hanging bough, demands attention first. Her red shirt shouts against the muted green and brown palette of nature. Her bangs and arms reach for the ground and her black sandals strapped around her brown feet hover above the fallen leaves. She appears lifeless. The spirits of the 340 black people lynched in Alabama from 1887 to 1943 are visually represented on this tree. Yet in the simplest distillation, this tree isn’t an involuntary tool of terror—it’s a toy. This girl is playing. This girl is being what black folk are too often not allowed to be: a child, innocent, at rest, imagining. To be a girl who’s just being a human being. In “Here (2012),” we see a girl on a school bus, seemingly alone, toward the back — where the cool kids sit. The same position where folk of her hue were forced to sit until financial losses from the Montgomery Bus Boycott were too great.

Perhaps people in Jared Soares’ photographs were once freestyling students on the back of buses. Now, they’re lyricists who look ready for a slick hip-hop magazine or Instagram. But they’re residents of Roanoke, Virginia, a hamlet in the landscape of rap. With dreams of “making it,” their demo tapes stream from the cloud. They still seek being heard. Where they are from should not matter.

And in Southern photography, how one looks or who one loves should not matter. Closed-minded folk have controlled the narrative, and too many other things, for too long. It’s time to recognize the brilliance of the underrepresented Southern photographers; they have something you need to see.