Reckonings and Reconstructions; Southern Photography from the Do Good Fund combines photography from the American South since the end of WWII with contemporary essays from some of the South’s finest writers.

The book’s editor, Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, is curator of American art at the Georgia Museum of Art and co-chair of the Association of Historians of American Art. In addition to contributing two chapters, Mr. Richmond-Moll chose essayists Jasmine Amussen, Rosalind Bentley, W. Ralph Eubanks, Grace Elizabeth Hale, Lauren Henkin, RaMell Ross, Alan F. Rothschild Jr., and Jeff Whetstone to contribute as well. The book includes 125 photographs by a diverse group of 73 photographers.

Mr. Richmond-Moll sat down with Nancy McCrary of South x Southeast magazine to talk about the book.

 

Nancy McCrary: Good morning, Jeffrey. I’d like to thank you for taking this time to speak with us about this extraordinary collection of southern writing and photography. There is also a traveling photography exhibition that corresponds to Reckonings and Reconstructions, which opens this month at The Georgia Museum of Art in Athens.

Tell us about how this all got started – the book, the traveling exhibition, the collaboration between and with the University of Georgia Press, the Georgia Museum of Art at UGA, and the Do Good Fund.

Jeffrey Richmond-Moll: I first visited the Do Good Fund collection in fall 2019, shortly after joining the Georgia Museum of Art. Its founder, Alan Rothschild, has been a longtime friend and supporter of our museum, and we discussed the possibility of a show and major book to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the collection. I was deeply impressed with the breadth and depth of their photographs and knew that we could create a really special opportunity, not only to commemorate the founding of the collection, but also to survey and revisit approaches to southern photography at large.

In keeping with the teaching and research mission of our museum and the University of Georgia, where we’re located, my goal was to examine the complexities and contradictions of southern culture in light of what we can see in southern photography over the last fifty years. I chose six themes to structure the project—land, labor, law and protest, food, ritual, and kinship—that I thought captured the distinctive character of the South and could suggest something about how the region is changing. I was also noticing that a lot of southern photography shows were focused on very contemporary artists, or what one exhibition called “the Newest New South.” By mixing young and old photographs together, I wanted to think about how our southern present is always informed by its history and how the South’s future depends on a reckoning with the past. It’s the kind of historical and cultural whiplash that I’ve experienced ever since moving to the South—we’re always looking back to see forward.

Once the exhibition had taken shape, and I had gathered a roster of authors and a conceptual framework for the show, I approached the folks at UGA Press to see if they could partner with us on the project, and they agreed to co-publish it and serve as distributor. Lisa Bayer and her team were champions of the book from the beginning, and their Bradley Hale Fund for Southern Studies has been a great support for bringing it to fruition. Our many collaborators, like the Press, other colleagues at UGA like the Wilson Center for Humanities, and Arts and our four tour venues for the show—the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Lowe Art Museum, the Figge Art Museum, and the Columbus Museum of Art—have really embraced the range of perspectives that this project brings to the material. Everyone has also bought into the aspirational, even hopeful framework that comes with thinking about the South not only as it has been but as it could be.

 

NM: We’re all accustomed to photography being used as illustration for the written word. But with Reckonings and Reconstructions it feels the opposite. Can you tell us more about the synergy created by the two?

JRM: Yes, the temptation with photography is to see it as supportive, illustrative, and documentary—in other words, as subservient to a text. Newspapers, magazines, and the internet, among other popular media, have inundated us with photographs. And they have done so in ways that can desensitize us to the communicative and aesthetic power of photographs when they stand apart from the written word. As much as possible, in the book and in this show, I wanted the photographs to do the talking. As I told each of the contributors to the book at the start of the project, readers will want to hear their unique voices and perspectives on the material—whether they are a historian, literary scholar, art critic, artist, food writer, or journalist—but the images must always be the backbone and the lodestar.

Foregrounding the photographs was also a way to break out of the conventional, sometimes overwrought perspectives about the South that we see in a lot of cultural commentaries. What stories have not been told? How can we tell the story of the South differently? How do we acknowledge both pain and joy, trauma and elation, loss and redress simultaneously? There is a nuance, ambiguity, and contradiction that a photograph can capture that is not always possible with the written word.

 

NM: How were the 125 photographs chosen for publication from the Do Good Fund’s collection?

JRM: Given the strength of the Do Good Fund’s collection, it was extremely difficult to narrow down the checklist to even 125 photographs, which is still a very large show. I wanted to combine the images that visitors would expect from a show about the South with photographs that challenge expectations. To surprise people involved leaving out some pretty famous images as well as photographs in the collection that had been exhibited frequently. I was also interested in creating conversations between disparate photographs and how those conversations could spark new understandings. So, building the checklist meant always looking at these photographs in relationship to one another, not on their own.

Thinking about the material in relation to key themes was also crucial. Ironically, one well-known southern photographer cautioned me early on not to do a thematic show. In his opinion, those shows often lead to unnecessary compromises, like deleting a brilliant photograph for the sake of showing an image of lesser quality that better fits a theme. Rather than ignore that advice completely, I made multiple passes through the list of works in the Do Good collection, sometimes picking out the highest quality photographs, other times looking for key themes, and then distilling the show from there. In the end, there were only two incredible prints—one by John Menapace, another by Ralph Eugene Meatyard—that I just couldn’t make work. But photography connoisseurs know those works, and, of course, this won’t be the last exhibition about the Do Good Fund either!

 

NM: I was particularly pleased to read Jasmine Amussen’s essay about Southern women. In all the microscopic examinations and dissections of the South there is never enough appreciation and reverence to the strength of a Southern woman. What compelled you to use that as one of the themes?

JRM: Credit here should really go to Jasmine’s brilliance. As an admirer of her writing, I initially reached out to her about contributing an essay to the book on the themes of labor, protest, and resistance. What she brought to the topic was a sensitivity and nuance that blew me away. Rather than explosive and conspicuous moments of resistance—the kind that make for flashy photographs on newspaper front pages—her essay tries to convey how small yet prolonged acts of stewardship and caretaking offer more subtle but no less powerful forms of resistance and repair in the South. In particular, with the unattributed quote “a woman is a nation” as her point of departure, she looks at the ways women have been “building nations” within their communities, in ways large and small, and how the photographs in the Do Good Fund convey that labor. This argument was also important to me because the Do Good Fund has been prioritizing support for women artists and artists of color in recent years, as well as emerging photographers, and I wanted the exhibition to truly reflect a more richly diverse understanding of southern photography and southern culture.

 

NM: Of all the hundreds, if not thousands, of books written about the South and its history, what do you feel sets this book apart from the others?

JRM: You said it well in our previous conversations. Often it feels like the South is apologizing for or defending itself. I did not want this project to do either of those things. But that also meant having a book that was as richly varied as the beautiful patchwork of this region: from the lyricism of photographer RaMell Ross and the personal reflections of W. Ralph Eubanks to the paradigm-shifting perspectives of photographer Jeff Whetstone on seeing the South as a place that plants made and journalist Rosalind Bentley’s appeal that we see food in the South as always steeped in a tension between plenty and lack.

I wanted the book to sit in those tensions and contradictions while striking a hopeful note. In other words, examining both sides of what it means to “reckon.” To look back and take an account, but also to surmise and hazard an idea of what could be. Throughout the history of photography, we have seen images of the South highlighting poverty, destitution, and backwardness. In the midst of a place and people who groan for renewal, I also wanted to bring together photographs and writings that capture the resilient bonds of southern communities and their breathless moments of exuberance.

NM: Thank you, Jeffrey, for this interview. And I look forward to seeing you at the upcoming events surrounding the book and exhibition.

 

Reckonings and Reconstructions is available from your favorite independent bookstore, online at Bookshop.org, Amazon, or UGA Press.edu.”

Click here for information on the exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia October 8, 2022 – January 8, 2023