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Visual Culture Syllabus

Southern Cultures is an excellent resource for the study of visual representations of the South. Images accompany all essays, and in some cases, the images comprise the essay. Illustrations come from archives and from contributors’ own collections, many times representing the work of an author on a single, in-depth documentary project. The visuals in Southern Cultures are excellent classroom resources, both as discrete objects of study and as discussion starters. One may ask: How is lived experience invoked visually? What are our expectations of southern subjects? Who and what get represented? Who gets to represent and why?

The following essays demonstrate the strengths of Southern Cultures in the realm of visual culture:


“Protesting the Privilege of Perception:
Resistance to Documentary Work in
Hale County, Alabama, 1900 – 2010

Scott Matthews, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2016)

Matthew’s article is a great jumping off point for talking about representation in general, and representation of southern communities, in particular. He looks at the “history of documentary work there from the perspective of those who have been photographed, filmed and described. Instead of a place defined by documentarians, Hale County becomes a battleground where struggles over who gets to represent a people and place, and why, have flared for more than a century. The resistance of the documented rather than the revelation of the documentarians becomes the dominant theme” (34). Southern Cultures is full of pictures of southerners who could be considered marginal or disadvantaged. Why might this be so?



“‘Those Little Color Snapshots’: William Christenberry”
Bill Ferris, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

This article features photographs by artist and Alabama native William Christenberry as well as excerpts from an interview Ferris conducted with him for his film Painting in the South. Christenberry’s photographs feature a homemade grave marker, an old church and a shot gun house. He professes an attraction to things that are “decaying” or “vanishing from the landscape,” not because he is trying to represent a “decaying South,” he insists, but because he finds these “old and changing” things beautiful. We might ask: wherein lies their beauty? Read the complete piece online for free.

Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1977, vintage Kodak Brownie, 31/2″ x 5″.


“Working Women”
Susan Harbage-Page, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

Harbage-Page’s photographs of the women she worked with at the Bollag International Corporation in Charlotte feature subjects at their work place, looking squarely into the camera. Excerpts from interviews accompany the photographs and tell part of each woman’s life story: “I’m thirty-nine years old, and I have six kids. I was fourteen when I had my first one, I was twenty when I had my last one” (104). How does the content of these excerpts fulfill or challenge our expectations? How does the portraiture style Harbage-Page chose, plus the text, impact the way we read the images, these women’s bodies?

“All I’m trying to do is get me a job and take care of me and my child.”—Cassandra Harris. Photo by Susan Harbage-Page.


“In-Between the Color Lines with a Spy Camera:
The Appalachian Urban Folk Photography of Isaiah Rice”
Darin J. Waters, Gene Hyde, Kenneth Betsalet, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring 2017)

Isaiah Rice was an amateur photographer who documented everyday life in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. His photographs featured here offer an insider’s perspective of a vibrant African American community and reveal implicitly the racial segregation that divided (and continues to divide) all southern cities. People attending parades, waitresses in conversation, friends visiting in homes: Rice’s images are often of candid moments that subjects might not be aware are being photographed. These intimate snapshots of Rice’s Burton Street Neighborhood form a picture of an Appalachian town perhaps at odds with readers’ expectations. Read the complete piece online for free.

East End Community around the YMI Cultural Center, aka, The Block. All images from the Isaiah Rice Photograph Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville 28804. Images copyright Darin Waters.


“Handiwork: A Postscript from The South in Color
William R. Ferris, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter 2016)

This photo essay features Mississippi people, sites and objects. Ferris’s captions to his color photographs tell of aesthetic preferences and a deep sense of place. Handmade canes, quilts, signs and, in several cases, their makers, fill up the frames of Ferris’s photographs. What do these handmade objects and the faces and hands of their makers evoke for readers? What conversations do they invite? What is missing? Pair this piece with others in Southern Cultures by Ferris.


“Southern Borderlands:
Music, Migrant Life and Scenes of a ‘Mexican South'”
Alex E. Chavez, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall 2015, Music)

Chavez’s photo essay and its introduction invite readers into the world of huapango arribeno music that migrants and immigrants from the Mexican highlands bring with them to the American South. He delivers ethnomusicological perspectives on flows and borders and points to how musical culture is a form of mobile place-making, with the power to dissolve the fixity of nation-state boundaries. Chavez’s photos feature dancers and musicians in US and Mexican contexts. An elaborately ornamented tablado—elevated stand for musicians—in a plaza in Mexico contrasts sharply with sparer counterparts in rural Mississippi and Texas. Couples dancing, straw cowboy hats and tight jeans, straight-backed musicians and flouncy quincenero gowns offer motifs to think with and invite conversations about the “Mexican South.” Do Chavez’s photographs invite a voyeuristic gaze? Or do they provide a self-possessed counter narrative to more desperate conditions revealed in other views of migrant life? (See “Those Who Complain Often Don’t Come Back: Stories of Migrant Life,” Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 1, Documentary Arts.)

Musicians perched atop a tablado during the New Year’s Eve topada in Xichú, Guanajuato, Mexico, 2012.


“An Eye for Mullet: Charles Farrell’s Photographs of the Brown’s Island Mullet Camp, 1938”
David Cecelski, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Photograph courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

Farrell’s photographs of the Brown Island mullet camp off the North Carolina coast are packed with visual information. Cecelski’s detailed descriptions of each photograph explain the significance of their subtle content: a free-range hog wandering in the sea oats; the smooth and narrow Intracoastal Waterway in the distance; a fisherman’s hat waterproofed with linseed oil. The photographs and Cecelski’s descriptions illuminate a history of southern fisheries, the work of two families, and the rhythms of daily life at the fishing camps. A few years after Farrell made his photographs at Brown Island, the two families ceased their annual migration to the fishing camp. How do the photographic choices of documentarians such as Farrell impact our understanding and interest in certain places and pasts?

“Angela, Agnes, Esther and Ivy
Amy C. Evans, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring 2015)

Evans’ essay features her original paintings of vintage food packaging paired with other symbols–some from women’s worlds (combs, oil cloth table coverings, jewelry), some with resonances beyond those worlds (a rabbit’s foot keychain, a wooden ruler, a dollar sign). Evans describes her artistic process and a bit about her inspiration: “I gravitate to food-related packaging for its connection to another era—one of cheese-laden casseroles, mayonnaise drenched salads, and strong drinks at lunch” (8). How do Evans’ paintings speak to particular perspectives on the South? On southern women and their domestic offices, their significance to larger social fabrics?

Agnes loved combing mayonnaise through her hair curls, 24×24”, acrylic on wood panel, 2014. Painting by Amy C. Evans.


The Art of the Saltville Centennial Cookbook”
Ronni Lundy with paintings by Amy C. Evans, Southern Cultures online (Vol. 23, No. 1: Appalachia)

Lundy’s discovery of the Saltville Centennial Cookbook in the southwest Virignia town’s history museum led to inspiration for this richly emblematic piece published on the Southern Cultures website. The biographical narratives that accompany these small-town recipes inspired Evans’ original paintings redolent with images of food, kitchen and women’s aesthetic lives. Each of Evans’ paintings illustrates an excerpt from a recipe narrative.


Teenage Pastime
Natalie Minik, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer 2014

This essay features a short, thought-provoking introduction to Minik’s photographic portraits of teenagers from the Georgia piedmont. Subjects are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and appear in different contexts, from shopping malls to farm fields. Minik writes: “I wanted to explore the South through its teenagers, in the gray area between affirming and questioning their roles in the places they occupy. This ambiguous personal space resonated particularly well in the evolving suburban landscape of the Georgia piedmont, a place undergoing its own transitions and forging a southern identity beyond the agrarian stereotypes often associated with the region” (40). How do the teenagers featured in Minik’s photographs embody notions of the contemporary South? How do they stand in for the multiplicity of southern experiences?

Photo by Natalie Minik.


For other particularly visual features in Southern Cultures, check the “photography” subject heading. However, nearly all Southern Cultures texts are illustrated, and a visual culture lens may be applied to any images that accompany articles. Many are historic and illustrative of historic documentary impulses. They may be analyzed from the perspective of gaze, composition, documentary content (what information about a particular time and place are included in a photograph, for example), archival bias and privilege, or the thematic preoccupations that people “think with” about the South.

Header image: Aaron Canipe, Near Cat Square, North Carolina (detail), 2012. Courtesy the artist.