By Gregory Harris and Maria L. Kelly
The South has long held a pivotal but uneasy place within broader American history and culture. Uniquely American musical and literary movements emerged here, while many great political and social leaders hail from the region; yet histories of violence, disenfranchisement, and struggle dating back centuries also reverberate. For these reasons, the South is perhaps the most mythologized, stereotyped, and visually represented region in the country. In many ways, to understand America, one needs to grapple with the South.
In 1996, the High Museum began commissioning photographers to explore the American South’s rich social and geographic landscape and to engage with its fraught history. It was the year Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympic Games and the world’s attention was focused on the South. The first commissions coincided with an exhibition titled Picturing the South that surveyed the history of photography in the region and argued for the previously uncharted importance of the South in accounts of American photography. The commissioned artists were given unusual latitude to photograph any subject of their choosing in whatever manner they liked with the intention that they could move beyond visual cliché and glib observations to create a new vernacular of Southern photography and emphasize previously untold or underrecognized narratives.
These initial forays were such a success that the High has continued to commission photographers to make new photographs in the region ever since. To date, the Museum has commissioned sixteen artists and has built a collection of more than three hundred photographs from their endeavors. In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of this landmark program, this exhibition brings together all of these bodies of work for the first time.
The Picturing the South initiative is entirely unique among American museums in its longevity, commitment to place, and range of artistic perspectives. It has resulted in some of the most iconic photography projects of the last quarter century and has been instrumental in bringing emerging and midcareer artists to greater prominence while encouraging major shifts in the work of more established artists. The project reflects the Museum’s evolving priorities, and in recent years, the High’s Photography department has cast a critical eye on its practices, making a concerted effort for the projects to better reflect the varied viewpoints, backgrounds, diverse makeup, and identities of the United States. Taken as a whole, the Picturing the South initiative amounts to a complex and layered archive of the region that addresses broad themes including the legacy of slavery and racial justice; the social implications of the evolving landscape and built environment; and the distinct and diverse character of the region’s people.