Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mississippi Photographs: 1860 - Present

Kathleen Robbins, The Skinning House, 2007, Digital C-print.

Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

French artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the first practical form of photography in 1839 - the Daguerreotype. In 1850, the Mississippi census reported ten practicing “Daguerreian artists” in the state. Photography in the state of Mississippi has always mirrored national and international photography in both technology and artistic trends.

Photography quickly replaced painting as the most authentic means of recording the human form. In the 1860s, tintypes were the cheapest and most common form of photography. The 1863 portrait of Private Samuel McNulty of the 3rd Battalion, Mississippi Infantry is an example of early tintype portraiture.

Bruce West, BURNING FIELD, MS #1, 1999, Type-C print.

Promised Gift of the artist.

The tradition of photo portraiture is continued in this exhibition with the work of Eudora Welty, Jane Rule Burdine, Bruce West, and Maude Schuyler Clay. These photographers work outside the studio on location, producing portraits within the documentary tradition using natural light.

The power of the photograph as a tool for reportage was pioneered in America during the Civil War. Reportage photography or documentary photography would lead to photojournalism. William Henry Jackson’s 1899 chromolithograph, Mississippi Cotton Gin at Dahomey, is an early example of documentary photography – photo documentation of the daily life of people and places. Chromolithography is a method for making multi-color prints that stemmed from the process of lithography.

In the early 1900s, documentary photography became more socially conscious, as exemplified in photographs of Lewis Hine. Hine photographed the living and working conditions of Americans. His photographs documenting the horrible working conditions of the early 20th century was one of the factors that lead directly to the reform of child labor and workplace safety laws.

Marion Post Wolcott, Movie Theatre, Belzoni, MS, 1939, Silver gelatin print.
Ogden Museum, gift of the Roger H. Ogden Collection.

The documentary power of the photographic image was at its zenith during the Great Depression. Through the New Deal, the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), under the guidance of Roy Stryker in the 1930s and 1940s, employed photographers with the goal of “introducing Americans to Americans.” Photographers Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott and others fanned out across America documenting the working and living conditions of the nation. These FSA photographers produced some of the most important images of the 20th century. Examples include Walker Evan’s Edwards, Mississippi and Marion Post Wolcott’s Movie Theater, Belzoni, Mississippi.

Eudora Welty, Child on Porch, 1935, sepia-toned silver gelatin print.
Ogden Museum. Gift of the Roger H. Ogden Collection.

Eudora Welty is known primarily as a writer, but she was also an accomplished photographer. Welty applied to the Information Division of the FSA with the hopes of becoming a staff photographer. Although never hired by the FSA, she worked for the Census Bureau in the 1930s and 1940s, travelling and photographing her native state of Mississippi, producing a wonderful body of work including Child on Porch and Woman of the Thirties.

The ability of the photograph to incite social change continued during the civil rights movement of the 1950 – ‘60s. This is exemplified in the photographs of Matt Herron, George Ballis, Franke Keating, and Danny Lyon. The Southern Documentary Project, founded by Matt Herron, was a group of photographers that recorded the rapid social change taking place in Mississippi and other parts of the South as civil rights organizations brought northern college students to work in voter registration and education. Dorothea Lange served as informal advisor to the project. Many of their photographs were published in newspapers, and magazines such as Life, Newsweek, and Time – bringing images of the struggle for equality in Mississippi to the masses.

The photographs of Jessica Ingram and Milly Morehead West are contemporary takes on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s – 60s. Ingram’s Prayer Helps, near Meadsville, MS, is part of her Civil Rights Memorial photo series. Ingram re-photographs sites where eventful and sometimes tragic events relating to the civil rights movements took place. Milly Morehead West’s color photograph Schwerner, Chaney, & Goodman shows mug shots of the slain civil rights workers out of context and displayed in a modern convenience store amongst items for sale.

Stuart Klipper, House of the Blues, Clarksdale, 1992, Type-C print.

Collection of the artist.

David Rae Morris, Tom Rankin, Stuart Klipper, Jack Spencer, Mark Steinmetz, Jack Kotz and Kathleen Robbins work within the documentary photographic tradition, but infuse their photographs with a more formal artistic aesthetic. These photographers use their skills as visual artists to produce work that is within a documentary tradition, yet is executed with the craftsmanship and skill of a fine artist. They produce work that reflects both their sensitivity to formal design and their affinity to the land and culture of Mississippi.

Music, folklore, and the cultural traditions of Mississippi inform the photographs of William Ferris, Roland Freeman, Birney Imes and Terry Wood. These photographers use their camera as an anthropological tool, thus attempting to preserve, through their work, the dying traditions of a culture whose way of life is quickly vanishing.

Important historical art movements of the 20th century both inform and influence the work of photographers: Clarence John Laughlin, Lyle Bongé, William Eggleston, and Seth Boonchai.

Clarence John Laughlin, The Enigma, 1941, silver gelatin print.

Gift of the Roger H. Ogden Collection.

A friend of Man Ray and a fellow surrealist, Clarence John Laughlin produced dreamy photographs that pay homage to a mythical past within the context of modernity. Man Ray described Laughlin’s photographic technique as the "symbolic use of the camera." The Enigma, a photograph of the ruins of Windsor Plantation in Port Gibson, Mississippi, is both allegorical and beautiful, combining classical architecture framed within a ghost-like blur of flora – moving like spirits in the wind.

Lyle Bongé’s abstract black-and-white photographs capture amphoral shapes and tones in nature, and relate more closely to Abstract Expressionist paintings than photography. These abstractions are created by utilizing patterns within nature. In Low Winter’s Tide, Biloxi, reflected light off the shifting sands produces white tonal highlights that combine with the water of the gulf to produce dark-toned shadows. The high contrast photographs of Lyle Bongé create a painterly esthetic reminiscent of black paint splattered across a white canvas.

William Eggleston, Clock -- Vignes Florist, 1984, dye-transfer print.

Gift of the Roger H. Ogden Collection.

William Eggleston - one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century - pioneered color photography in the 1970s and invented the snapshot esthetic, in many ways influenced by his love of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Eggleston’s mastery of color in this exhibition is evident in Moose lodge, Greenville MS. In this photograph Eggleston captures the saturated warm light of the magic hour just before sunset.

Conceptual art informs Seth Boonchai’s Cedar Lawn, a floor mounted photograph of a Mississippi cemetery. By placing the photograph on the floor, Boonchai disorients the viewer by requiring the viewer to see the image as it was taken – looking straight down at the ground. The work also allows the viewer to walk on the photograph, which is a statement on the rejection on the preciousness of materials and the sanctity of the photographic process.

S. Gayle Stevens, Pool, West Beach from Pass Series, 2006-2010, tintype.

Collection of the artist.

Mississippi Photographs 1860s to Present, ends where it began with the use 19th century photographic processes in the work of Euphus Ruth and S. Gayle Stevens. The tintypes of Ruth and Stevens are on the forefront of the revival of early photographic processes that has exploded in popularity in recent years to counter the domination of digital photography. Ruth’s photograph, House, Hwy 8 West, looks out of time in 2011, like a relic of the past, and yet it is so modern. S. Gayle Stevens’ tintype series, Pass, documents the aftermath of the destruction of Pass Christian. Placed in a grid, these photographs of ruins, artifacts and the ocean present a lush and fresh take on the destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Richard McCabe, August 2011