Guardian Photo Critic Misses the Importance of Black & White
Sean O'Hagan is at it again. The photo critic at The Guardian has this review of a newly opened exhibition entitled "Myth, Manners and Memory: Photographers of the American South" (slide show here) in which he discusses work by Walker Evans, William Christenberry, Eudora Welty, William Eggleston, Carrie Mae Weems, Susan Lipper and Alec Soth. Fine photographers all. But the following statement brought me up short:
"Weems, the most political photographer here, confronts the turbulent racist history of the American south, placing herself in a series of resonant locations and contrasting the barbarity of slavery with the refined social etiquette that held sway among rich plantation families."Oh, and did he forget to mention Weems is the only African-American photographer he planned to to discuss? So, the fact that Weems makes race evident (meaning she explicitly makes it central to her work), while all the white folks (here not just the photographers, but apparently, the curators of this show) apparently "don't" do so is political? Why is it not political that the white photographers (mostly) focus elsewhere - or are least seen to do so? I'd put the stress on this last phrase because they don't really.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for instance, James Agee (Evans's co-conspirator) explicitly talks about why they are not going to address race - and then offers pointed vignettes demonstrating the cruelty of race relations in Alabama circa 1937. And, after all, do the white folks in Lipper's "Grapevine series" not play a role in, or suffer the consequences of, the peculiar way race works and has worked in the South?* Do they have no race? What about this image by Alec Soth? Does it plumb racial themes?
Who is that in the photos clipped and taped to the back of the closet door? Do those images contrast with the shabby apartment in any way? And did Memphis figure in "the turbulent racial history of the American south"? Is it, perhaps, a "resonant location"? By and large, I find O'Hagan's photo criticism wacky - and I don't mean that in a good way. I've said that several times here before. In this instance, I wonder what he was thinking when he looked at this exhibition.
* And, of course, race is an American problem, not one just for the South or just for blacks.