In “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the poet and novelist James Agee praises the camera as “the central instrument” of his age. He believed that photography was capable of transmitting, as no other art could, “the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing.” Only photographers like his collaborator Walker Evans, he writes, captured “the cruel radiance of what is.”
“A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845,” a new exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta, might well have been titled “The Cruel Radiance of What Is.” The reach of its ambitions and the brilliance of its execution offer nothing less than a full visual accounting of this beautiful, punishing and deeply troubled region.
Even before photographs of battle fortifications and mass graves and prison camps and cities in ruin brought home in detail the enormous scale and human cost of the Civil War, images of the realities of enslaved people in the South inspired widespread moral outrage and aided the abolitionist movement. Southern politicians had been lying about both the benevolence of enslavers and the “three-fifths” nature of Black humanity since the founding of this country, but the real truth about slavery began to come clear to most people outside the South only when the first photographs of enslaved people emerged.
“Slave pens at Alexandria,” reads the hand-labeled reproduction of a photo by the celebrated Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady. Think about the cold fact of that label for a moment. The places where enslaved people were imprisoned before being sold weren’t called jails. They were called pens. Built to contain livestock.
The photograph of “Whipped Peter,” who fled a Louisiana plantation after a savage whipping, was among the most widely circulated images of the 19th century. “Peter barely survived the beating that made his back a map,” writes the scholar Imani Perry in an Aperture monograph that accompanies the exhibit, “and then ran to freedom, barefoot and chased by bloodhounds.”
The raised scars in that photograph were undeniable in a way that other accounts of slavery’s brutality, however powerful, had not been. The image tells the truth about slavery “in a way that even Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe can not approach,” wrote a journalist of the time, “because it tells the story to the eye.”
What a camera records, of course, is only what the human being who wields it wants it to record. A photographer shapes an image the way any other artist does: by making decisions about what to focus on, how to light the subject, what angle and distance to view it from, and the like. Those decisions are guided by a unique understanding of the world and a particular artistic intention, as well as by some sense of how a viewer might respond to the image itself.
Unsurprisingly, then, it wasn’t long before the moral clarity offered by photographs became considerably less clear as politicians discovered the manipulative power of the medium when its goal is manipulation. In 1867, long before AI turned every digital experience into a cause for uncertainty, leaders in New Orleans struck on the idea of commissioning a collection of photographs designed to attract investment in the city.
The beauty of the resulting images by Theodore Lilienthal obscures the dark reality of postwar life for Black Southerners. A photo taken on St. Charles Street and aimed toward the St. Charles Exchange Hotel, for example, makes no reference to the history of the site as a place where enslaved people had been auctioned in the very recent past. As Brian Piper, the photography curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, notes in an essay for the Aperture monograph, “What was meant to appear splendid on the surface was in fact rotten at its core.”
The curators of “A Long Arc,” like many documentary and fine-art photographers themselves, are far more interested in overt records of injustice. When something terrible has befallen other human beings, and when it continually befalls them for no reason but their own powerlessness, a perfectly captured photograph can sometimes wake the rest of America from its slumber and inspire at least a small measure of social change.
Therefore, this exhibition does not stint on the magnificent documentary photographs that emerged from the South during the Great Depression, emerged again during the civil-rights movement, and emerged yet again during our own age as environmental devastation has ravaged not just the earth but also marginalized human communities.
And yet the most affecting photographs in “A Long Arc” are not — or at least are not merely — visual records of exploitation. The most powerful images capture the beauty and the tenderness and the self-possession of people who are living out their lives mostly invisible to the rest of the world. Or of the scarred but beautiful landscapes they call home. Or of the ramifications of an unresolved history still unspooling in this history-haunted part of the country.
I’m thinking especially of Richard Misrach’s 1998 image of a pipeline running just above swamp waters in Geismar, La.
I’m thinking of Gillian Laub’s 2011 photograph “Prom Prince and Princess Dancing at the Integrated Prom,” taken the year after a high school in Montgomery County, Ga., finally integrated its prom for the first time.
I’m thinking of Dawoud Bey’s series pairing photographs of children the same age as the children who were murdered in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church with photographs of adults the age they would have been when the photos were taken in 2012.
Though I have focused on the social justice elements of “A Long Arc,” there is far more to this exhibition than I have room here to discuss. The High Museum is uniquely positioned to mount an extravagant and comprehensive show like this, in part because its curators began to collect photographs in the early 1970s, but also because they have done more than simply collect and preserve existing work. Through a series of commissions beginning in 1996, the museum has also empowered gifted photographers to chronicle the South as they see it. To help us see it.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, to see these photographs within a relentlessly unfolding timeline is to discover undeniable evidence that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not wrong about the arc of the moral universe. Human beings are no longer chained to an auction block in New Orleans or blasted by fire hoses in the streets of Birmingham, Ala., during a peaceful demonstration.
But in other ways, evidence of accruing justice is more difficult to discern. Except for the clothing and hair styles of the men in the photos, it would be very easy to confuse the subjects of Charles Moore’s 1964 image of segregationists at the Ole Miss riot in Oxford, Miss., with the subjects of Balazs Gardi’s photograph taken at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. And Wendy Ewald’s photo “Charles and the Quilts,” dated 1975-1982, might just as well have been taken by Walker Evans during the Great Depression.
The magnificence of a retrospective like this is not just the accounting offered by its historical sweep, but the way it conveys the immense complexity of this region, to inspire a renewed attention to the cruel radiance of what is. Suffering does not always lead to compassion and change, but photographs like these remind us that standing in witness to suffering surely should.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.
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