By Erin Dunn, Assistant Curator
What do photographs of Appalachia, Beauty Queens, Cotton, Elvis, Football, Pine Trees, Swamps, and Waffle House all have in common?
All of them depict the contemporary South.
In May, Telfair Museums acquired a collection of 26 photographs whose subject matter is the South. Initially, this group of photographs was gathered for an exhibition titled Southern Icons A to Z that was shown at the SlowExposures Photography festival in Pike County, Georgia in the fall of 2016. Twenty-six photographers were selected to contribute images corresponding to a list of “icons” of Southernness. Organized by Meryl Truett, Donna Rosser, and Rob McDonald (whose photographs also are represented in the collection), the exhibition traveled to LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia and the University of South Carolina in Beaufort before being presented for acquisition at Telfair.
These photographs form a compelling visual catalogue of the South as it is being lived and experienced in the 21st century. Taken by emerging, mid-career, and established artists, they add a contemporary viewpoint to Southern photography in Telfair’s permanent collection. The South has always inspired a rich body of photography, from the Depression-era photographs of sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama by Walker Evans and the neglected rural buildings captured by William Christenberry to the intimate family portraits and memory-laden, dark landscapes of Sally Mann. These images helped establish visions of the South to the larger world. These major artists are currently represented in Telfair’s collection, and their work is strengthened by the addition of the new photographs. By expanding the dialogue about photography of the South into the present day, the newly acquired works help reveal how Southern photography continues to evolve as the region itself transforms socially, politically, and economically.
By revisiting, rethinking, and expanding on the photographic iconography of the region, these images offer visual counterpoints to the often perpetuated Moonlight-and-Magnolias mythology of the South. In the past few years, museums have launched a concerted effort to show what the contemporary South looks like through exhibitions such as Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South organized by the Halsey Institute in Charleston in 2018, and New Southern Photography organized by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in 2018. With these new photographs, Telfair Museums is excited to join the conversation.