Atlanta

John McWilliams

High Museum of Art

John McWilliams, one of the leading photographers of the Southern landscape, has organized this exhibition entitled “Land of Deepest Shade” around a series of apocalyptic quotations from an 1844 shape-note hymnal entitled The Sacred Harp. At the entrance to the gallery the artist presents a quotation from Charles Wesley’s and A. Davidson’s Idumea: “A land of deepest shade, / Unpierced by human thought, / The dreary regions of the dead, / Where all things are forgot.” In the South as represented by McWilliams, however, things are not so much forgotten as ignored. The subject of most of the works is the waste and death at the borderline between rural poverty and urban growth.

The strength of these unpeopled landscapes lies in metaphor rather than narrative and when narrative intrudes, as in a 1978 series on Georgia’s Reidsville State Prison, or the grouping of two young white girls and an old black man in Tate, Georgia, 1974, the photographs lose some of their evocative power. Another hymn, Daniel Read’s Calvary sets the tone for McWilliams’ most potent work: “My thoughts, that often mount the skies, / Go, search the world beneath / Where nature all in ruin lies /And owns her sovereign—Death.” In Chatsworth, Georgia, 1976 bales of cotton on a flatbed trailer are torn or worn open, spilling out in wisps like the remains of a rotting ballgown. The image recalls both an immediate and a more distant past, but the message is more toxic than sentimental. Andersonville, Georgia, 1974, an image of a blasted gully suggests the landscapes of Civil War photographers Mathew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan in terms of both the printing technique and their funereal atmosphere. It is not the devastation of the “War Between the States” explicitly suggested by the reference to Andersonville that McWilliams represents, but rather contemporary ecological desolation. In Alabama, 1975, effluvia from a cotton gin has settled on an old oak, like sinister flocking. The images are melancholy evocations rather than documentary illustrations, and they simultaneously portray an environment tipped out of balance and a particular cultural milieu.

A number of the photographs in the exhibition are less gloomy but also less effective. Romantic images of live oaks, decaying plantation houses, and swamps, are beautiful and frequently suggestive. In Wambaw Swamp, 1984, the intertwined roots resemble (at least in the context of the exhibition as a whole) a naked soul in hell, swarming up out of the muck. A series focusing on the pleasures and dangers of the ocean is more personal, while several of the nudes, especially a sepia, pre-Raphaelite image of a partially draped young woman in a field, are plainly sentimental. The figures dilute the exhibition’s focus. McWilliams’ more effective landscapes tell a double tale of the devastating effect humanity has had on the land and the beauty and value of what is being lost.

Glenn Harper