The South has occupied an uneasy place in the history of photography as both an example of regional exceptionalism and as the crucible from which American identity has been forged. As the first major survey of Southern photography in twenty-five years, this exhibition examines that complicated history and reveals the South’s critical impact on the evolution of the medium, posing timely questions about American culture and character.
Featuring many works from the High’s extensive collection, A Long Arc presents photographs of the American Civil War, which transformed the practice of photography across the nation and established visual codes for articulating national identity and expressing collective trauma. Photographs from the 1930s to the 1950s, featuring many created for the Farm Security Administration, demonstrate how that era defined a new kind of documentary aesthetic that dominated American photography for decades and included jarring and unsettling pictures exposing economic and racial disparities. With works drawn from the High’s unparalleled collection of civil rights–era photography, the exhibition shows how photographs of the movement in the decade that followed galvanized the nation with raw depictions of violence and the struggle for justice. Contemporary photography featured in the exhibition demonstrates how photographers working today continue to explore Southern history and themes to grasp American identity.
An optician from Lexington, Kentucky, Ralph Eugene Meatyard worked at the edges of photographic practice, geographically and conceptually outside the mainstream of modernism. Though he considered himself a “dedicated amateur,” he became widely known for his staged scenes that disrupt the everyday by suggesting an absurd fantasy set in banal suburban environs. These scenes, which often feature props such as rubber masks and his family as actors, were informed by his Southern Gothic literary interests and drew on his imagination in search of inner truths amid the ordinary. In this photograph of his son Christopher surrounded by masks in a bucolic field, Meatyard considers youthful innocence while reckoning with mortality.