A Nurse with a Gun

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Southern Gothic

I have a fascination with street photography. I tend to associate candid photography on the streets with New York City, and have shied away from it. It is becoming easier for me to ask strangers for a photograph. I will simply ask politely, Alvin, Click to enlargebut other times point to my camera and wait for an affirmative nod. I'm not opposed to the surreptitious photo, but it doesn't seem right for me. I have found that the motor drive is a great tool. The second or third photo is often the best, as the subject relaxes, thinking the encounter is completed.

Another aspect that I have deliberately avoided in my photography is the peculiar convergence of social tensions that make up the region in which I live. That is a mistake, I think. Just as religiosity, sweltering heat and guns are an indelible part of life in the South, so are the social tensions of racism, self-righteousness, and the well known but unspoken etiquette that allows a peaceful co-existence of many dichotomies.

The often slightly flamboyant characters that emerge from the simmering gumbo of the South are unique. A few weeks ago I was lamenting that I am not able to travel to far off places to take photos as I did in the Far East years ago. Yet, there is an exotic spice that surrounds me. Larry, Click to enlargeI don't think I will reject the photos that show this imagery any longer. If the sunburned biker has a tattoo of a Confederate flag on his bicep, so be it. If the Red Hat Society is sipping mint juleps with too much bourbon, who cares? It's time to accept the quirky oddities that make up the life around me.

"Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic," declared Flannery O'Connor years ago. I suppose that's true. Trying to filter out the "Southerness" from my photography is choking the life from it. Southern writers, from William Faulkner to Lewis Grizzard, have embraced the Southern Gothic theme in their work. I'm not going to embrace it, but I am no longer going to run from it. The complexity of the region and its people is fertile ground for intriguing photography.

Yesterday, while attending an antique automobile show, I came across a pair of musicians playing Christian Bluegrass beside their pick-up truck and photographed them. Musicians, Click to enlargeThe older string bass player appeared to be a good old boy patterned after Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit. He couldn't be closer if he tried. The guitar player wore a T shirt with a religious message. Being obscured by his instrument, the message appeared to be of a neo-nazi bent. His fleeting glance towards my camera was reminiscent of Jeffery Dahmer. Now, the bass player could be a Methodist minister, and the guitar player could be the president of the National Honor Society, but the unity of the colors, hair styles and the separateness of the individuals who were making music together made for a photograph that should not be discarded.

There is a swashbuckling exuberance of life spent in the South. Perhaps it springs from too much time spent in the unrelenting heat and humidity. Perhaps it exists because more sane people have left for temperate climes. Whatever the reason, I will not discard the Southern Gothic genre from my photography any longer.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Mr.Potato said...

"It's time to accept the quirky oddities that make up the life around me."

we photograph the things that stand out. they peak our interest. beauty is everywhere, be it odd or within narrow confines of acceptance.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous TJP said...

We have our Yankee individualists, too--you just won't find them in the big cities, and the transplanted New Yorkers would rather that they not be seen. There were too many in New York to hide, so they moved. :-)

And I love that first portrait. The detail is so fine that I imagine I can hear the man's voice. (Note the refracted light in thin slivers on his face--and that's a reduced resolution.)

I also love candid shots, but I like the quirky ones the best. Life is quirky, and I want the camera to capture what I see. (As I preview my comment, I see that Mr. P. has chosen the same adjective. How quirky?)

12:53 PM  
Anonymous blackeagle603 said...

good stuff.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work Xavier. The South is a misunderstood bastion of both common sense and eccentricity not found in other regions. Being from Texas, it took a while to understand the True South, which has a flavor all its own. Cherish it's authenticity...

11:19 PM  
Blogger Terry Daniels said...

I applaud your change of heart - art is about the truth, and you should show it without reservation. I'm usually here for the guns but I'm happy to see some deeper musings too. ;)

North Texas wasn't too big of a culture shock for this transplanted Northeasterner, but the deeper, more humid south is a different beast. I've been to New Orleans just once and I found it perplexing and fascinating. I came home with a sketchbook full of stuff that I still haven't tapped into properly.

The contradictions, character, and real diversity drive the Euros crazy, but for an American painter (or photographer) it's a target-rich environment. Shoot away!

9:29 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Just to clarify, that shirt has nothing to do with neo-nazis. It is a religious shirt and has the words on the front under "Homeland Security" that says "Heaven Is My Homeland - God Is My Security". The quote on the back of the shirt says "God is our refuge & strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear". I have never seen the shirt before but I was able to pull it up on google in under 30 seconds. I love your blog but be careful before you accuse some of being a neo-nazi. He has a strange look on his face but I'm sure there are pics of all of us like that. Take care.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

David,

I did not accuse the young man of being a neo-nazi. Read the piece again. I wrote, and I quote:

"The guitar player wore a T shirt with a religious message. Being obscured by his instrument, the message appeared to be of a neo-nazi bent. His fleeting glance towards my camera was reminiscent of Jeffery Dahmer. Now, the bass player could be a Methodist minister, and the guitar player could be the president of the National Honor Society, but the unity of the colors, hair styles and the separateness of the individuals who were making music together made for a photograph that should not be discarded."

I wrote that the T-SHIRT, being obscured by the young man's instrument APPEARED to be of a neo-nazi bent. It appeared this way because of the colors chosen for the logo as well as the design itself, and because the message was partially obscured.

These colors and the design were probably chosen by the illustrator for the impact that they give that draws attention because of the association. Many T-shirts utilize incongruent associations to attract attention. This may be lost on the casual viewer, but not on the designer.

Now if you can show me where I accused the young man of being a neo-nazi, I will eat my hat.

4:27 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Xavier: Ok, after re-reading I see that you did not intend to call him a neo-nazi. Your wording is not exactly clear though.

If I said "A man wore a shirt with a religious message that appeared to be neo-nazi bent". It said that the MESSAGE appeared to be neo-nazi bent.

Without mentioning the design/logo aspect, I think that quite a few people would just think I was talking about a shirt with a neo-nazi slogan or symbol on it. Who wears those? Neo-Nazis do of course.

What else could a neo-nazi bent message be? You didn't say the design or the layout was neo-nazi bent. Maybe you should have written that the design was neo-nazi bent instead.

I get what you mean now, but only after you explained yourself.

7:19 AM  
OpenID womenofcaliber said...

These are some great street photographs. Keep 'em coming!

http://womenofcaliber.wordpress.com

6:16 PM  

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