Journey to the South

Nature is an active force in the South. Indigenous live oaks, Spanish moss and the ever-present kudzu flourish. Snakes, possums and raccoons populate the countryside. The impenetrable atmosphere softens form; nature pulsates with a quickened cycle of life. This is not a passive environment, but one that imposes itself on the the men and women who live within it, people defined by a strong sense of place and obsession with the earth. The embodiment of this identification with the land is the flat, alluvial plain known as "The Delta," a tortured crescent of farmland in north Mississippi traditionally acknowledged as beginning in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and extending south to Catfish Row in Vicksburg. Integral to this sense of place is a veneration of the past and tradition, a veneration with the notion of family -- blood and friends (or familiar enemies) -- at its core. Virtually all the verbal narrative that has poured from the region in the past 60 years is powered by, and reflects upon, the ancient nexus of blood and the close relations of a rural/village world of family and neighbors.

It's simplistic to suggest that in this region, which has embraced a variety of artistic and literary styles, there could be a single Southern voice. However, the South has always held an attraction for people interested in great stories and prone to a certain susceptibility to illusion -- William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, James Agee and Truman Capote are just a few who come to mind. We see in their works a wedding of magic and nature, a blend of myth and reality that finds its antecedent in the great Southern oral tradition -- chronicling a very real time or place, but also throwing in a dose of imagination for good measure. Their stories convey the tragedy and shared guilt brought by the endless legacy of slavery, the horrors of Reconstruction and a fragile, uprooted life.

Native photographers like Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard often attempted to do in visual terms what the writers accomplished in words. In all their images -- human, architectural, landscape, surreal -- and in the photographs of their successors, these witnesses surrender to the South's demand to be seen and understood as a compelling, even noble story. And the South continues to offer an almost infinite braid of urgent stories, all waiting to be retold in fresh voices or to be uncovered as revelation.

What do these people eat? What do they grow in their gardens? Where do they worship? What animals do they keep? What games do they play? What is it about their lives that constitutes hope or joy? These are the questions Beaumont artist Keith Carter raised when he began photographing in Mississippi's Tunica County. One of the poorest counties in the United States, it lies along Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway for the scores of musicians who, like itinerant preachers, made their way out of the cotton fields and spread the blues gospel north. The spirit of these Delta people is in their music; Carter uses those roots metaphorically in the photographs, aiming to play his camera like a guitar or harmonica, bending a note here and there or hammering a chord into a rhythm.

Still, Carter doesn't go looking for objectively important themes. He is interested chiefly in what he sees, and what his camera can do with what he sees. His raw materials are light and time, and any examination of the work must start by observing how he manipulates them. These are the obsessions of Southern literature, too. Without pretending to occupy some high moral ground, the South's great writers address the sorrows of rootlessness and weakened attachments. The land is a great provider, they all say; it is the essential provider, and we fool ourselves to think we can put it behind us.

Taken literally, "On Higher Ground" -- the title of Carter's series of 40 black-and-white photographs at the Houston Center for Photography -- offers a penetrating vision of Southern reality. After all, the extractive nature of cotton farming is a process that can be as ruinous to the land as strip mining. As such, Carter's poetic images are not nostalgic or sentimental, but subtly evoke the brutal realities of Southern life and history (and its survival in the present world) at the level of the pain of individuals whose lives have been distorted or wasted. His subjects are not "the mute face" of much Southern documentary photography; they manifest a search for life itself. Like Walker Evans, whose images often walked the line between a literal photographic description and a faith in the validity of intuition, Carter's images possess a taut athletic grace, an inherent lyricism that gives them a life in metaphor. Even if Carter's subjects are humble people, they are never ordinary. They seem to endure a world which is far stranger and more fascinating than we can imagine, a wild and exotic land of stirring psychological implications wherein the reality we think we know is only a small part of the total picture.

Of course, Carter has explored worlds of separate selves and shared landscapes before. His first series, "From Uncertain to Blue," documented small, decaying Texas towns, and the portfolio "Blue Man" examined the communities and piney woods of deep east Texas. More recently, Carter journeyed through rural Texas, Louisiana and Mexico, as well as Mississippi, to produce "Mojo," an anthology of images dealing with the cultural, religious and folkloric possibilities revolving around people, the animals they live with, their rural magic and the ways they spend their time.

"On Higher Ground" continues the psychological complexities of "Mojo" by presenting both the myth and the reality. In the end, however, we must feel of the thing and decide for ourselves, then make our own stories from the visible facts. this sentence doesn't seeme to follow from the last Who is this tormented old woman sitting in a chicken pen and plucking a bird? How much longer can she go on? Why am I asked to watch? The visible facts of a fruitful place are likely to weave a tapestry of smaller tales of human blood and interactions of kin. Only by immersing himself in the community does Carter master a hard kind of witness, the long and unflinching gaze at family facts, the near-adjacent plights of neighbors.

Carter shows us that the South is both a lie and a reality in all those portraits of cotton fields back home and sweat-dappled laborer's brows. That's why Carter, and other contemporary photographers, never stop looking and showing. They understand that what we often don't see and must be made to acknowledge is the simple, hungering dream of the power to live. For the blues tell us that we're all going to die into the cold ground. And that inevitability of death is the same message handed to the white-robed smiling little girl about to be baptised or the slender young acolyte standing serenely in the water. That human wanting lifts them with faith into eternal freedom.

Doubtless part of Carter's urgent message is there's no South left, just America and traces of a lost culture, the withdrawal of a people to God-knows-where. The Delta emerges as a foreign place where imagination and sensibility take reign over the accidental, time-encrusted bits and pieces that, when put together, somehow express a gentle, intense, lonely search for wholeness and unity. Much like the blues, Carter's haunting visions seamlessly blend the multilayered tones of religion, superstition, love, pain, sex, sorrow and humor. For example, Jimmie Lee shows a man in his prime who stares unflinchingly at the camera with a slight smile. His hair is covered by a plastic shower cap, his white shirt is unbuttoned and tied at the waist, revealing a gold necklace that glistens against black skin. Eagle Stirred the Nest, a dark, sultry scenario, features a woman in the exteme foreground with her back angled toward us. As she looks down, the light catches the lens of her eyeglasses, directing our gaze back toward a blurred image of a musician with saxaphone.

A good number of images focus on hands as metaphors for spiritual strength and magical power. Two brothers hold up a large watermelon in front of their faces, their huge hands firmly grasping the sides as juices stream down their bare chests. In another, Carter photographs a small boy standing in the middle of a tilled field -- one hand in his pocket, the other holding the severed head of a white goose, which looks strangely like an extension of the boy's hand. Or another boy drapes his arms over the back of a horse about to be sold. The top of the boy's head is cropped out of the picture, forcing us to engage his sad eyes and doleful expression. The boy's massive hands are pressed flat against the horse's fur. In Dog and Coffin, an old white mongrel lays alongside a cropped view of his master's coffin as a hand dangles eerily from the upper right corner.

Throughout the series, an important affinity is felt for animals and the natural world. A haggard, doe-eyed little boy sits on a rock and holds up a single large sweet potato with roots and leaves. For Cotton Field, Carter has photographed a pair of weathered bare feet, the toes splayed and calloused, against the dry, cracked earth. Carter's dogs, especially, seem interchangable with their human counterparts. Road Dog has huge ears, sharply defined muzzle and piercing gaze, a portrait conveying the edgy alertness of someone who's had to survive by wit and instinct. Or there's Badass Horse, in which Carter focuses on the head of a nasty old grey with nostrils flared, lips curled, teeth bared and eye narrowed.

For the most part, however, Carter never romanticizes the animals as pets -- chickens, geese and pigs are destined for the dinner table. A pair of floppy eared swine, for example, are juxtaposed with an image of their fate -- two jars of pig lips. Moreover, horses serve as transportation or are used for plowing fields, dogs become companions, willing or otherwise.

Still other photographs evoke pagan spirituality and mysticism through a layering of enigmatic images. Looking a bit like some voodoo priest, a man stretches out his arms and towers over a small boy with a demonic expression. They stand directly behind a white picket fence and are shrouded by an almost impenetrable haze of smoke from a burning trash barrel in the foreground. Or in Chicken Feathers, three children in Halloween hats and costumes hold smoldering sparklers in front of their faces.

Tone, flavor, a sense of place. If anything, these images recognize that the soul looks out of the eyes unmasked and vulnerable. They show us respectful, if dignified people who are locked into a world in which life happens at all times in a context we do not understand and with actions that often go unexplained. Significantly, it's a world which has little to do with our inadequate ideas of time and death, or the purpose of being.


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