Signs of Return

Photography as History in the U.S. South

William Christenberry, Church—Sprott, Alabama, 1971, chromogenic print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © William Christenberry. Courtesy Hemphill Fine Arts.

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Signs of Return

Photography as History in the U.S. South

by Grace Elizabeth Hale
Southern Cultures, Vol. 25, No. 1: Backward/Forward

“[Parts of the rural South] became de facto open-air museums where poverty, vernacular culture, and a material sense of the past in the present seemed to be permanently on display, even if as time went on you had to crop the Dollar General out of the frame.”

It may seem impossible, given climate change and isis, mass shootings and growing inequality and disregard for black life, sexual assault and Russian hacking and the opioid epidemic, to worry about any other single thing, but history too is in trouble. I do not mean history as content. Beloved television shows and films take place in the past. Books about the founding fathers and the Civil War sell. Football coaches teach history to bored high school students. And some people actually get tickets to Hamilton. No, the problem is not content. The problem is form. Grand linear stories—those no longer tenable narratives of progress and decline—play now as fantasy fiction: Star Wars films, Game of Thrones episodes, and the stories alt-right guys tell to justify their anger. There are simply too many strands, too many pasts, and too many peoples and places to understand history as moving in unison. Alternately, the flatness of our always present digital backlist of sounds, images, stories, and styles pulled from multiple places and eras makes it hard to experience history as the feeling of being alive within the stream of time. History—the change we are living through and making—is working against history as historians understand the term, the meaning that emerges from context, contingency, and causation. Or, to put this another way, our content is erasing our form. Marveling at alternate worlds, we forget that history can be a mode of analysis, a tool for revealing complex webs of cause and effect.

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