Southern (dis)comfort: Photographers expose their roots

“You don’t have a southern bone in your body,” a friend recently remarked. She meant it as a compliment, but the truth is I consider myself quintessentially southern. I was born in Lexington, to parents who were both native Virginians, and although I don’t identify with bigots, moonshiners, or those who pine for the Confederacy, I do love storytelling and the melancholia of faded beauty.

The South is fundamental to my identity, just as it is for the six artists with work in the UVA Art Museum’s exhibition, “Southern Views/Southern Photographers.” Each contributor offers a distinct aesthetic, but what Shelby Lee Adams, William Christenberry, Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, Pamela Pecchio, and Jeff Whetstone share is a sense of place and a nostalgic impulse that finds beauty in the not-always-pretty way history— both personal and impersonal— unfolds.

Three of the artists focus on landscape, viewing the exterior world as object and metaphor. Tennessee-born Jeff Whetstone’s oversized color prints from his “Post-Pleistocene” series contrast the natural formations in saltpeter caves with the layers of graffiti that have accreted since Civil War days. Atmospherically dark at the edges, his images speak to the passage of time, the folly of teenage boyhood, and the human urge to leave marks.

Georgia native Pamela Pecchio, on the other hand, uses wilderness landscapes as metaphors for complex emotions. Her luminous color prints suggest personal narratives represented by intertwined plant life shot during different seasons. William Christenberry takes a more objective approach, documenting rural Alabama structures and icons of times gone by. Rife with nostalgia, six of his 12 small color prints record the devolution of an abandoned roadside café over 10 years.

The remaining three photographers use black-and-white imagery to portray people. Inspired by the 1940s-era photography of Walker Evans, Shelby Lee Adams offers evocative yet dignified portraits of hardscrabble Kentuckians he met while accompanying his country-doctor uncle. Opting for a more personal approach, Emmet Gowin’s small photographs capture moments from summer visits with his wife’s family in Danville.

More intimate still— and simultaneously more abstract– are Virginia artist Sally Mann’s works from her “Proud Flesh” series that examines her husband’s deterioration from muscular dystrophy. Incorporating flaws introduced by the antique wet collodion process, Mann’s ethereal photographs create a parallel between the beauty of aesthetic decay and the evocation of nostalgia and tender loss.

“Southern Views/Southern Photographers” reveals the rich artistic depth that results from inheriting a complex sense of place.

The exihibition "Southern Views/Southern Photographers," featuring the work of Shelby Lee Adams, William Christenberry, Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, Pamela Pecchio, and Jeff Whetstone, is on view through June 4 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.

Read more on: artphotography