Southern Exposure: Portraits of a Changing Landscape

by Ivan Riascos

I have driven by Jacksonville several times, but I never been to the city itself, so I planned a day trip to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville to view a show titled “Southern Exposure: Portraits of a Changing Landscape” with works by contemporary photographers William Christenberry, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, Jeanine Michna-Bales, Richard Misrach, Andrew Moore, and Alec Soth.

This show touches upon the themes of history and time in the southern landscape, starting with the work of William Christenberry, “House and Car: Suite of 20,” taken in the time frame between 1978-2005 ( ). These images are a good example of Christenberry’s method of working as an artist. He makes work about the area he was born and raised in Alabama. Even though he currently resides in Washington D.C. he goes back once a year. You witness the wear and tear over the years on a house and car. When he first started the series there is evidence that the house was occupied by a family, but over time the family disappears, then the car falls to disrepair quicker than the house, and eventually you see house collapse. The images are all the same size, they all have this beautiful cerulean blue sky in the background, they feel that they were all taken at the same time of day with the same camera, and since the area is so rural you do not see the progression of modernization. If it wasn’t for the evidence of wear and tear on the objects you could swear the images were all taken the same day and not over a span of several years, emphasizing that when you are out in the country time slows down. It only becomes apparent when an artist has a strong tie and dedication to an area that is close to him heart.

Another artist working similarly is Sally Mann, with her bond to the Virginia landscape and its Civil War history. She is not documenting the land over a long period time like Christenberry, instead she time travels using old techniques of wet collodium plates that were utilized by Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer. She sets up her large format camera at locations where famous Civil War battles took place; the results are images with imperfections, scratches, light leaks, and brush marks of how she coated the plates ( ). Upon seeing these images they become dreamlike; southern world charm on a hot summer’s night. At the same time they are eerie and haunting remnants of the past where hundreds of men died. Only one image snapped me back to the present time and that is because electrical lines were apparent in the background. Upon seeing this it made me appreciate the power of photography and the closest I can relate to time traveling for Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”

Deborah Luster created one of the more powerful series in the show. A tragic past in her life was the catalyst for the project titled “Tooth For an Eye: A Choreography of Violence in Orleans Parish” ( ). At first what you see are black and white urban landscape images that are circular, and devoid of people. Deborah researched the violent history and mapped out murderous crimes that transpired in Orleans Parish; each image is accompanied with info on the location of where the photo was taken, a date, a person(s) name and age(s), and cause of death. The images are very haunting in several ways, one being the lack of people in the images. I am reminded of the opening scene from “The Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston, where there is only one person left alive in the city. The circular presentations of these images make me think of being a witness and viewing these crime scenes through a peephole or being the triggerman and viewing my victims through a riflescope. We humans are capable of such violent acts, what justifies killing a person? What pushes us or creates a mentality to commit such a crime?

The next artist, Jeanine Michna-Bales, retraces the history of the Underground Railroad with the body of work titled “Through Darkness to Light.” They have the similar dark, eerie, and southern charm quality of Sally Mann’s work but are sharp and in color. She uses available light such as moonlight, streetlights, or occasionally artificial light to create the mood in the images. The body of work was beautiful, making me relate visually the history of the path taken by slaves and what they must have endured on their long trek on foot, risking their lives to be free, reaffirming what impossible odds humans will overcome for a better life.

Richard Misrach’s large color photos depict how the underprivileged are taken advantage of by large, powerful corporations. His project is titled “Petrochemical America,” which are landscape photos taken along an area nicknamed the Chemical Corridor. The images usually show a rural area, but in the background the photographs is either overshadowed by large factories, or far off in the horizon you get a glimpse of a factory. The irony is the similarity to how companies overshadow lives of the inhabitants near these chemical plants or indirectly affect the health of primarily black southerners with the disposal of chemicals into the water, and soil, or the release of air pollutants.

This show was curated very well, with the exception of the works of Andrew Moore and Alec Soth. The pieces chosen for this exhibition did not exemplify the strength of these two photographers, especially Alec Soth. Do not misunderstand me. The images are beautiful, but the pieces chosen from Moore and Soth’s work lack the coherency that is apparent in the other artists represented in this show. Curating a show of greatest hits from several artists to create a cohesive show addressing an over reaching theme is very difficult, should the curator then throw caution to the wind in hopes the strong outweigh the weak? Or should the curator not have taken the risk and omitted the work? I believe the risk was worth it. The majority of times the images worked stronger to give a more empathetic and understanding of history in specific regions, which this show did.

As a kid I was intrigue about history and I still am, but when would sit in class learning history, or I go on a historical tour or read a history book with dates, places and names I often felt a lack of comprehension on why this historical fact had any relevance to history. Photographs that reenact or are remnants of the past gives a better grasp of understanding the importance of remembering and marking it on timeline of history.