I SHALL SAVE ONE LAND UNVISITED - Through Sept. 25 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue N.W. Tues.-Sun., 11-5.
Photography is both a limited and limitless art, a phenomenon never better illustrated than by the exhibition of the work of 11 Southern photographers that opens this Friday at the Corcoran Gallery.
For those who, like me, prefer candid pictures or conventionally formal studies, about half the 88 works will be disappointing or even irritating. Those who appreciate "arty" photos - blurred or bizarre images, double exposures, screening and other darkroom manipulations - will like that half and not the others.
Which is about as much as anyone could ask of an exhibition of photographs. No other medium is so dependent upon what the viewer brings to the work.
There is one disturbing exception in the show, a nude study by Lyle Bonge of New Orleans. Until I saw it I had never really understood what the serious nude portraitists were trying for, my reactions have always been either erotic or negative. Bonge's model, lying elaborately posed in the shallows of a sandhill swamp, stimulates me at every level except the erotic. One of these days I hope to figure out why.
Perhaps I perceive her as the embodiment of the Southern girls of "good breeding" among (but seldom close to) whom I was raised. What distinguished - and still distinguishes - them from other nice, attractive young women is that they radiate a sense not only of who they are but who they will become: There is a formidable matron and a dignified old lady inside each and every one of them.One goes after such a girl not just to get her but to get children by her.
How do I read such an aura into Bonge's photograph of a woman who apparently takes her clothes off a living, lying in black swamp water among bullfrog eggs and mosquito larvae? I dunno.
We southrun boys carry a lot of such nonsense around in our heads, and for that reason the Corcoran show bothers me a good deal. The exhibition is titled "I Shall Save One Land Unvisited" (which is a quotation from Thomas Wolfe, the meaning of which I am not going to go into because poet and publisher Jonathan Williams takes a crack at it in the introduction to the catalog; his effort should serve as a warning to us all).
This being an exhibition of "Southern" photographers, I went looking for pictures of the people and places of my South, and they showed me theirs . My South is peckerwoods in the piney woods, great flat baking field dotted with black people full of fear and menace, little white ladies in big hats in big houses, thin beautiful children fading away in thin bright mountain air. . . .
Except for the photos by Paul Kwilecki and Alex Harris, their South is someplace else, in most cases any place else. That has nothing to do with the quality of the pictures, of course. The ones I don't like I wouldn't like wherever and for whatever reason they were taken.
The Kwilecki and Harris pictures engage me because they have selected the sorts of scenes I select when I'summon up Southern memories: Harris' sunshadowed gravel road; Kwilecki's great fat brooding black woman; riverside baptisms (by both); an unflinching study by Harris of a migrant(?) worker lying without repose on a sagging, filthy mattress. (I would feel better about saying nice things about Harris's work if his brother were not a colleague.)
I suspect all you Yankees and Midwesterners and New South-ers out there will like more of the pictures than I do, not bringing to them all the romantic baggage I haul around with me. As James Baker Hall says in the show's catalog:
"What it means then for a photographer to be from the South is simply this: not much when compared with what it means to be a photographer. Whatever deep ties he or she may have to a place or to a particular heritage - and obviously several of these photographers are proud Sotherners - those ties and little to do with photography. If the camera were all he were answering to, he could work as well one place as another..."