New York

“‘I Shall Save One Land Unvisited’: Eleven Southern Photographers”

The main thing that “‘I shall Save One Land Unvisited’” had over the shows at Wolf and Prakapas was that there were half a dozen to a dozen images by each of the 11 photographers included. It may be that I liked this show better not because the photographers in it were better, but simply because there were enough pictures by each to let me make a judgment. I know that I don’t like the photographs by John Menapace, around whom this show was organized, but I am moved by some of the other imagery in the show. Menapace’s photographs are a tribute to a dead son—the show’s title is a line spoken by a father mourning a son in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel—and they inspired Professor Ray Kass at Virginia Polytechnic Institute to enlist the aid of poet-publisher Jonathan Williams in finding ten more Southern photographers to include in a show. Ironically, Menapace’s pictures were among the most self-conscious and formal here. Work by other photographers seemed more spontaneous and open to feeling, though not necessarily feelings as stringent as grief.

The only photographer whose work is well-known was the late Ralph Eugene Meatyard. The pictures seen here are characteristically bizarre—blurry figures in motion against sharp, static backgrounds. This gives Meatyard’s work a rich ambiguity. The figures seem both ghostlike and quick in the archaic as well as the current sense of the word. And the backgrounds have the solidity of the actual, yet always look abandoned and desolate like a haunted house, as if they were the past, a mere memory. In order to deal with the South, even photography seems to need a baroque, quasi-surreal style like William Faulkner’s. Meatyard’s were not the only photographs in the show that have this quality. All the ones that are good do. They share a sense that there is about the South something incongruous, manic, vaguely sinister. The incongruity may lie in the fact that sprinklers are watering a lawn that’s already flooded, or in the way that an elderly couple with righteous, old-fashioned faces looks out of place eating ice cream cones in a parking lot. Both these examples are from the work of rural Georgian Paul Kwilecki, but they might as easily have been by John McWilliams, whose extraordinary image of two black men standing in a road literally engulfed in kudzu has an equally crazy look. One way or another, every effective picture in this show had a whiff of the same madness in it.

Colin L. Westerbeck Jr.