Is the “South” a geographical concept, a grouping of states with a common history or a place with a particular social and cultural sensibility? However we try to best characterize it, the South seems to be in constant flux.
In the past decade, the American South has become the nexus of film production — Georgia, now known as the “Hollywood of the South,” in particular. This is the identity that photographer Alex Harris, a native Southerner, embraces with his exhibition Our Strange New Land at the High Museum of Art through May 3.
The exhibit is part of the High’s Picturing the South initiative, through which it commissions artists to create “new perspectives of the South” for its contemporary photography collection. Sally Mann was the first artist commissioned, in 1996, which allowed her to shift her focus from intimate portraits to Southern landscapes (her A Thousand Crossings closed six works early at the High due to ceiling leaks). Last year, Mark Steinmetz turned his lens on Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and its particular environment.
Harris is no stranger to film sets. He founded the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he teaches, and is connected to independent filmmakers throughout the South. Most work on low-budget productions. His interest in film sets began in 2007, when he was invited to photograph Steven Soderbergh’s Che in Mexico.
“I began this project believing that, by photographing on contemporary Southern film sets, I might, through the visions and imaginations of these filmmakers, show the South in a new light,” Harris says.
In fact, The South in a New Light was the first title Harris used for this work. After traveling around Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas for two years, he started seeing his pictures in a new way.
“I found myself approaching these imagined dramas much in the same way I took on earlier, more traditional documentary projects,” he says, “following my instincts and editing my photographs not to tell a particular story but to discover the story my photographs have to tell.”
In earlier work on Cuban society (which led to the 2007 book The Idea of Cuba), he embraced this fluid way of working, not willing to “say something” definite but, instead, letting his images speak for themselves.
His visual work is not documentary, playing instead with a sense of ambiguity, attempting to “reveal mystery in what seemed so ordinary” in the vein of Walker Evans (1903–75), with whom he studied as an undergraduate at Yale.
Harris intentionally blurs the line between documentary and fiction in his newest work, using the interplay between what’s happening in reality and what’s being performed for the purpose of the film. In Thunder Road in Austin, Texas, for example, we see a confrontation between two police officers — one black, one white — framed by the bodies of cameramen. The tension between the officers is obvious, yet the cameras’ presence tells us this is a staged moment.
In other images, Harris shoots straight atmospheric scenes and portraits — exquisitely lit –without alluding to the activities that unfold around the set. Here again, he plays with the equivocal, focusing on tense expressions, deep emotions and suspended moments of serendipity that imply a psychological tone.
While most of his photographs remain at the periphery of what’s staged and manipulated, a few cross the line, using Photoshop’s magic wand to erase and make believe. This is the case with Untitled, Waxhaw, North Carolina 2018, in which a man appears suspended midair but is actually ringed to a set of cords that Harris admittedly erased.
He’s not alone in staging and fabricating reality in order to make believe. Many photographers take “full advantage of the presumably truthful nature of photographs to spin elaborate tales” — including Gregory Crewdson and Sarah Hobbs, whose work is seen in rooms adjacent to Harris’ exhibition. This isn’t reprehensible for photographers who openly define themselves as artists; it’s more problematic for someone like Harris who often puts himself in the realm of documentary photography.
How far we let the images destabilize our sense of reality and deconstruct our own narratives of the South is a matter of individual taste. As he has previously, Harris envisions his work as a catalyst for existential discourse, in this case, “the ways in which we are all actors in our own lives, creating our own sets, practicing our lines, refining our characters, playing ourselves.”
This has some truth to it, but blurring the lines between what is staged storytelling and actual life can mess with our instinctive desire to make sense of what we’re looking at and, by extension, the world we live in, as strange as it can be.