Since 1996, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has been hiring photographers with a very basic assignment, completely open to interpretation: Picture the South. It's a clever way for the museum to both build its collection and encourage artists to find inspiration in the region. And the results vary widely.
"It would be really hard to hang all these projects side by side," says Brett Abbott, curator of photography at the museum.
Except — that's exactly what they're doing. An exhibit that opened June 9 features work by the three most recently commissioned photographers: Shane Lavalette, Kael Alford and Martin Parr.
Past commissions by the High Museum include Sally Mann, Alex Webb, Emmet Gowin and Richard Misrach, all pretty big names — with pretty big differences.
"That's what's fun about it," says Abbott, who has been with the museum a bit over a year. "Each perspective on the South is going to be subjective, and it's going to be entirely different from the next. A Southerner's perspective is going to be different from a ... British citizen's perspective. And it's the sum of all these perspectives that becomes very interesting."
These three photographers are a case in point:
Shane Lavalette, 25, was born and raised in the Northeast and, Abbott says, takes a more "lyrical approach" to the region. He traveled to several states, exploring the legacy of Southern music traditions.
Photojournalist Kael Alford had already been documenting the American Indian enclaves of Iles de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes in Louisiana. As the museum puts it:
"Alford has evocatively recorded the landscape and its native inhabitants who tenaciously persevere in their way of life on ancestral ground that is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate. Severely damaged by gas and oil extraction and battered by storms, the marshlands are in a tenuous state."
And Martin Parr, on the other end of the stylistic spectrum, is a renowned British documentary photographer known for garish color and exaggerated perspective. His website says as much.
"The three that were selected for this round are special because they are so different from each other," says Abbott.
Indeed, a corn dog glistening with ketchup couldn't be more different from an eroding coastline. But maybe there's something there, some inexplicable Southern magic — that ties them together. Or maybe it's just geography.