There remains a mystique about the South. In its pride and its wilderness. Its sins and its secrets. Even the boundary-dulling effluent of popular culture has not washed away the things that make life in the rural South distinct.
Photographs by UVA’s Pamela Pecchio like “On Longing” are shown alongside other works that celebrate the South in its myriad forms.
“Southern Views/Southern Photographers,” a recently acquired collection of landscape and portrait photography on display at the UVA Art Museum, presents fleeting but revealing insights into that mystique from places like a graffiti-slathered cave and the living room of a 105-year-old woman in Rocky Hollow, Kentucky.
The latter is the work of Shelby Lee Adams, who’s photographed the same people in his native Kentucky for 25 years. The exhibit’s black and white images, taken in the 1980s, offer an honesty and candor that almost feels voyeuristic. In “Bert Sitting in Front of Bed,” the middle-aged subject in a fraying stocking cap seems cut from the same worn cloth as the quilt upon which he sits. Two pictures hung on the wall beside his bed show a dead man in an open casket. Nearby, two or three pictures of children crowd the same crooked frame.
What Adams presents in his portraits, William Christenberry and Emmet Gowin capture in ramshackle landscapes and fading family snapshots. Christenberry, born in 1936, used an inexpensive Brownie camera to reveal the oddly interesting nature of faded advertisements or a clapboard store in Hale County, Alabama in the 1970s. Gowin’s pictures from the same era give a candid look at his wife’s extended family around Danville, Virginia, that drew me in like decades-forgotten prints discovered in my grandmother’s end table.
In the next room, the images turn toward the contemporary. Sally Mann, a native of Lexington whose work also hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, reverses the predictable tendency of artists to depict the female nude with “Proud Flesh,” a close study of her husband’s body distorted by the unpredictable chemical process of making contact prints.
Two photographers displaying a talent for blending outdoor photography with the abstract round out the exhibit. Tennessee native and University of North Carolina professor Jeff Whetstone’s series “Post-Pleistocene” shows the saltpetre caves of Tennessee and Alabama. Their rough folds of rock the color of graham crackers bear graffiti in spray paint and scratches that date back to the Civil War, a surreal documentation of history that Whetstone captures adeptly.
UVA assistant art professor Pamela Pecchio lends a similar air of whispered secrets to her close-cropped pigment prints. In one, vivid blue light caught sometime between night and day seeps between dark branches. In another, a skillfully angled shot of a small tree or bush seems to send its snow-covered limbs surging into the air from the shadowy ground.
It’s important to keep in mind that the exhibit claims only to be of the South, not to reveal it in full. One does notice that there are no black faces among the portraits. The collection as a whole implies no broad social statements, celebrates no heritage and draws no judgments. Like the narrow frames of the images themselves, “Southern Views” only captures thin slices of given moments in a given place. But it does that very well.