“‘All photographic imagery documents a moment gone—and I think much of my work is interested in that going, what is here and how it drifts to that gone place.’” —Tom Rankin
The following works were included in the exhibition People Get Ready: Southern Lens at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The images coalesce around an untitled photograph from William Eggleston’s series The Democratic Forest. This photograph captures Eggleston’s “democratic” perspective that engaging imagery could be found in any subject at nearly every turn of the camera lens. Characteristic of many of Eggleston’s images, the narrative or subject appears to be at the center of the image at first glance but gradually extends to the edge of the photograph. While the harvested tomatoes, perhaps waiting to be washed, take center stage, a jumbled assortment of objects and what appears to be food covered by plastic wrap sit across the sink, not completely recognizable. Above them, at the very edge of the photograph, a tiny glimpse of grass is visible, hinting at an outdoor location. And barely captured within the frame, a rifle sits propped against the wall below two hanging dust masks. All of these objects allude to human activities and form a condensed sensory experience rich with narrative potential. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, for example, the rifle and masks could be construed as ominous symbols or as the mundane artifacts of rural life.1
The other artists featured in Southern Lens likewise explore the South in its complexity through images of landscape, agriculture, and daily life. Historic photographs, such as Arthur Rothstein’s Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are juxtaposed alongside contemporary works, including one by Genevieve Gaignard, who, as a biracial artist, challenges notions of race and class in her subversive self-portrait by eschewing restrictive societal norms that marginalize individuals or require conformity. Everyday moments—cleaning fish or drinking beer—become still lifes in Jeff Whetstone and Henry Horenstein’s photographs. Eggleston’s carefully arranged tomatoes and Tom Rankin’s burial of an animal suggest human presence and activity not captured in the frame. Though few images offer overt connections to their southern location, elements of the landscapes, flora, and fauna connote a regional familiarity. Much the same way that Eggleston monumentalizes the quotidian, each of these photographers elevate and transform the ordinary to their advantage, hinting at deeper cultural narratives and allowing for imaginative possibilities.