When it comes to art exhibits, we in the media biz tend to focus on the big, “important” shows, leaving the smaller, humbler exhibits to fend for themselves. It’s not fair, of course. Just because a show doesn’t have the “wow” of a blockbuster like the Minneapolis Institute Arts’ recent The Louvre and the Masterpiece, doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. And just because it’s free doesn’t mean you’re doomed to get what you payed for. At the MIA, the opposite is often true.
Case in point: the MIA’s new photography exhibit, Southern Exposure: Photographs of the American South featuring 75 photographs culled from the museum’s permanent collection. This isn’t the sort of exhibit too many people would be compelled to pay for. It’s located in one of the MIA’s smaller galleries, most of the photos themselves aren’t very large, and their cumulative effect isn’t overwhelming. But if you take the time to get up close and look at the photos, your effort will be rewarded with a unique and thoughtful peek at the American south as seen through the lenses of some of our nation’s finest photographers.
The show opens with a few old Civil War photos and quickly moves to a series of images by E.J. Bellocq, of prostitutes in New Orleans’ red-light district (left), an area known as Storyville. (In the movie Pretty Baby, starring the young and notoriously nude Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine played Bellocq, the photographer who eventually marries Brooke’s character, Violet.) This is a famous series of photos, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them, because they document both a period in time and a way of life that is still rather mysterious. There is no airbrushing of the photos to make the women seem slenderer or more beautiful; they are simply human begins who are who they are, imperfections and all—and that’s enough.
Most of the photos in the exhibit are documentary in nature, so there aren’t many flashy, eye-popping photos. In fact, most have a stark, spare, reserved quality. Many simply record evidence of the political realities of life in the South—e.g., “white” and “colored” drinking fountains, the 1942 Atlanta riots, cotton-pickers in a field, etc. But many more are simply snapshots of daily life, from Walker Evans’ exteriors and interiors to Michael Smith’s panoramic shots of Mardi Gras, plus a spectacular shot of a distinctively American ritual: a national cheerleading competition. There’s also a bleak, sun-scorched photo by Alec Soth of prisoners working in an empty, desolate field.
But if you’ve read this far, and have any inclination whatsoever to poke your head into this exhibit, I want to direct your attention to the right side of the far wall, where hang three photos by famed Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine. As I said before, most of the photos in the American South exhibit are documentary photos; Bodine’s photos are not: they are masterpieces of what’s known as “pictorialism,” a style in which the photographer uses various means—dyes, emulsions, and other darkroom tricks—to manipulate the image and make it look more like a painting.
One of Bodine’s photos of Baltimore harbor is a perfect example. In it, a ship is docked in the harbor at night, with moonlight reflecting off the water. The entire photo is suffused with a soft, romantic glow—but it’s the reflective dapples of the moonlight on the water that are particularly alluring. They look like they were either painted on or airbrushed, resulting in an image that, artistically speaking, hovers somewhere between a painting and a photograph. The emphasis in the photo is on its ghostly atmosphere, not the ship itself, which is why later photographers, bent on capturing “truer,” more realistic images, ended up rejecting pictorialism as mere photographic gimmickry. Gimmick or no, Bodine’s Baltimore Harbor looks fantastic, and is well worth a trip to the MIA all by itself. Here ’tis—but digital doesn’t do it justice:
Historically speaking, Bodine, who began shooting for the Baltimore Sun in 1923, was late to the pictorialist party. It began in the late 1800s, in the early days of photography, through the early 20th century. Still, Bodine’s photos are prime examples of work that helped establish photography as a legitimate art form and jumpstart many an aesthetic discussion about what photographers should and shouldn’t be doing with this rapidly evolving technology. (As a side note, it’s also clever, curatorially speaking, to even include Bodine in this exhibit, because Maryland is a state on the border of north and south; it’s not really The South, it’s something in between. Likewise, Bodine was a photographer who operated in the space between the pictorialists before him and the photo-realists after him.) And to think, he was just a humble journalist.
There’s actually plenty more to say about the American South exhibit, but I’ll leave that to others. Check it out next time you’re at the MIA to see one of those big shows that get all the ink. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and here’s the Soth photo, if you’re curious:
Southern Exposure: Photographs of the American South runs through May 30 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
P.S. Another fantastic, almost completely unheralded photo exhibit is taking place now at the St. Paul Central Library and J.J. Hill House in St. Paul. It features 50 large-scale black-and-white landscape photos by Clyde Butcher. And when I say large, I mean large: the biggest one is five feet by nine feet. Trust me, they’re spectacular. But hurry, the show closes on April 15. Here’s one to whet your whistle:
Photos, top to bottom:
E. J. Bellocq, American, 1873-1949
Gelatin silver print, printed. c. 1978
The Miscellaneous Works of Art Purchase Fund, 80.11.12
Atlanta, Georgia. High school student Taylor Washington is arrested at Lebs Delicatessen. His eighth arrest., 1963
Gelatin silver print
The Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund, 2001.45.2.24
Marion Post Wolcott
Cotton Pickers Waiting in Line to be Paid Off in Plantation Store, Mileston, Mississippi, 1939
Gelatin silver print
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 87.55.2
A. Aubrey Bodine, American 1906-1970
Alec William Soth
The Farm, Angola State Prison, Louisiana, 2002
Color coupler print
Gift of Vance Gellert, 2002.278
Factory Falls 24, Clyde Butcher