Picturing the South: Photographs from the Do Good Fund Collection in Athens

Gordon Parks, Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.
Gordon Parks, Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.

Spread across six different venues in Athens, Georgia, “Pictures of Us: Photographs from The Do Good Fund Collection” is a meandering, all-encompassing photographic tour of the South organized by the University of Georgia’s Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. The themes of the exhibition are myriad and overlapping: place, architecture, humor, people, social conventions (both innocuous and harmful), and the passage of time. Many of the individual shows closed in February, but there’s still time to catch “Pictures of Us: Southern Portrait Photography from the Collection of the Do Good Fund” at the Lyndon House, which closes March 5, and “Gordon Parks Confronts the Color Line” in the Richard B. Russell Building’s Hargrett Library, which closes March 21.

“Gordon Parks Confronts the Color Line” is the most focused and information-rich show of “Pictures of Us.” The photographs might be familiar to anyone who saw the Parks’s retrospective last year at the High Museum, Jackson Fine Art, and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. However, their presence in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library gives Athenians access, and the images find an appropriate home amongst the many historic objects of the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries. Ample contextual information enriches the small, one-room exhibition of photographs, including a clip featuring Parks discussing his work. Pages from Parks’s photo essay “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” (of which the nine images on view are included in) are on display alongside other selections from Life magazine, such as “The Background of Segregation: The Voices of the White South.” It’s disturbing to read defenders of segregation from the Jim Crow South; yet, such context not only educates, but also situates Parks’s photo essay as a crucial commentary regarding a culture in crisis.

Gordon Parks, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.
Gordon Parks, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.

Parks’s images of one black family, the Thorntons, are—to employ an old adage—both personal and political. Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 shows a young black girl and her grandmother standing between two storefront displays. Encased in layers of glass, white mannequins wear current fashions. Tanner and her grandmother, who wraps an arm around the girl in a protective manner, seem ensnared in a racist culture of visible and invisible oppression. An empty schoolroom, the subject of Black Classroom, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, reveals how out-of-date the classroom is. Uncannily, it also foretells the plight of Allie Lee Causey, a teacher and member of the Thornton family, who was targeted and victimized due to her participation in this project. Life helped her relocate, but she never taught again.

While there is ample didactic context and a satisfying sense of completeness to the concise show of Parks’s work, the Lyndon House’s “Pictures of Us: Southern Portrait Photography from the Collection of the Do Good Fund” features twenty portraits of individuals and small groups of figures. Each image suggests a dormant, equivocal narrative; it’s satisfying in a wholly different way.

Oraien Catledge, Untitled, 1985.
Oraien Catledge, Untitled, 1985.

Oraien Catledge’s Untitled (1985), for example, shows a man and woman holding a baby. They are bone-thin, seemingly past their childrearing years and dressed for the beach. The baby’s tiny hand clasps the larger hand of the man, which is looped affectionately around the neck of the unsmiling bikini-clad woman. Like many representations of the South, such an image seems to rely on strange juxtapositions for impact and can seem exploitative. On the other hand, there’s something happily unorthodox about this family portrait.

New York photographer Rosalind Solomon conjures the high priestess of weird, Diane Arbus (both were taught by Austrian-born Lisette Model), in her double portrait of a grinning, elderly couple in Collins Ave Couple, Miami Beach, FL (1976). The square, black-and-white image captures a hackneyed – but apt – notion of sunny Florida. Posed in front of Miami-modern architecture, a woman wears a sundress with oversized polka dots and a floppy hat, while the man sports a straw fedora. Both ooze midcentury charm and read as congenial, anachronistic throwbacks—reminders of a bygone era of American optimism. Bill Yates’s Untitled (1973) pictures a couple as well. However, the placid expressions and slumped body language of the pair—a thin, bespectacled man and a heavyset woman wearing rollers—seems to belie romance, but there’s transgressive allure to such an unforgivingly ordinary pair.

Rosalind Solomon, Collins Ave Couple, Miami Beach, FL, 1976.
Rosalind Solomon, Collins Ave Couple, Miami Beach, FL, 1976.

Mark Steinmetz’s black-and-white photograph Athens, GA (1996), from the series “South East,” offers up a dreamier, far more introspective portrait by way of depicting a supine girl leaning against the hood and windshield of a car. A reflection of her face captures her pensive gaze that seems at odds with her environment, a parking lot. As with so many of his other photographs, Steinmetz uses contemporary space in a poetic—dare I say, transcendent—manner. As pictured here, the parking lot surpasses its mundane function and seems transformed: a space associated with anticipation and transition that echoes the teenaged girl’s phase of life.

Given its theme of girl and car, in an easy comparison to Steinmetz’s Athens, GA is Cynthia Henebry’s Mavis in the Backseat (2013). The large-format photograph pictures a girl in the traffic-facing backseat of an old station wagon. Light falls in diagonal bands across the child, illuminating her un-childishly stern countenance and patterned azure dress, and the car’s drab, navy interior. As is the case with the Steinmetz’s image, an everyday circumstance seems transformed and potently ambiguous.

Mark Steinmetz, Athens, GA, 1996.
Mark Steinmetz, Athens, GA, 1996.

Such an all-encompassing collection inevitably courts old stereotypes of the South, but it also confronts the South’s contentious and troubled past. All-and-all, the pictures from the Columbus-based Do Good Fund’s collection are wide reaching and inclusive, and such a diverse and collective composite of the South is welcomed and needed. Do Good’s mission to grow and share its collection at small, regional venues and its mix of high-profile and emerging artists is laudable. I hope to see more.

Rebecca Brantley lives in Athens, Georgia, and teaches for Piedmont College and the University System of Georgia. She is board president at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art. She was a participant in the first cycle of BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program

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