On first pass, I thought it was a mess. I still do to some extent, but I was happy I was so overwhelmed the first time through that I forgot to take notes. It's nowheres near as offensive as the first one. As you might expect, there are some huge problems here, starting with the fact that Meatyard, who figures as a major photographer in American art-photographic history, lived in Lexington, Kentucky, which is hardly the "deep South."
I have to confess a prejudice, however, before proceeding further. I hate "made" photographs. This is, of course, hypocritical: any photographer who has any options whatsoever with a photo plays with it, alters it, and changes it before printing it, which only makes sense. What I'm actually objecting to is as old as photography itself: the predilection of people who want to be artists and photographers to set up posed situations to Make Art out of a few models standing in awkward positions. I'm much more comfortable with people like Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank than I am with, say, William Wegman and his dogs. So when two-thirds of this show turned out to be painfully self-conscious Art Photography, I was going to react.
Let's start, then, with the least-known of the three, and the only one shooting color, Alex Harris. His work here is from his "Pilgrimage to Katrina" series, all of which may be seen here. It's pretty straightforward: with the exception of the two Mississippi triptychs (and a single shot of a devastated amusement park) it's three photos of the same house or location, shot six months after the hurricane. I'm not at all sure what's gained by presenting things this way, but the effort does focus your attention on one location at a time and, thanks to the three different angles, the context in which the devastation stands. It's decent reportage, but I'm not sure it's good art -- nor am I sure it's not. In their own ways, although posing as documentation, these are every bit as "made" as the photos by the other two.
On opposing walls from Harris' work are some of the 17,000 photos taken in New Orleans by Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985), "the eye which never sleeps," which range from evocative documentation to hyper-romantic balderdash. A book on him calls him a "prophet without honor," and it is claimed that he was the first American surrealist photographer, but I don't think his more outré work has worn well.
This one's called "The Mask Grows To Us," from 1947, and is one of an almost endless succession of pictures of women, usually veiled head-to-toe in some gauzy material, against some ravaged textured wall, or, even more clobber-over-the-head, in a graveyard.
This one, from 1940, is called "Where Shall We Go." There are some very nice photos of children in the poorer sections of New Orleans, burdened with titles like "A 'Lost' Boy," "The Disastrous Gate," "Figures From a Forgotten City" and "We Have Turned Away From Nature #1." I wonder if the work he did for Vogue is this pretentious.
But it's Meatyard (1925-1974) who's the real puzzle here. A successful optician in Lexington, he bought his first camera to photograph his kids, and then, in the mid-’50s, found himself attracted to Zen, which resulted in a bunch of odd photographs of light on water and his famous "no focus" photos, which attempted to impose abstraction on recognizable objects by shooting them without focusing. An interesting idea, and the few of these in this show are worth looking at. From there, he moved into a series dubbed Romances, which are more posed pictures of his family, some of which are very nice indeed:
Towards the end of this series, though, more and more of the subjects start wearing masks, which at first -- an obvious 3-year-old boy wearing an old man head -- are sweetly ironic, and then suddenly start looking more and more like Art. His culminating masterpiece, according to his fans, is a long series based around models -- Meatyard, his family, and his friends -- wearing a grotesque pinhead mask with a huge nose. This is the series he called "The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater," and boy, did it wear me out fast.
Everyone in the pictures is masked, and each bears a caption matching Lucybelle Crater with her friend/son/daughter/cousin who is also named Lucybelle Crater. Cindy Sherman (whose name is misspelled in the wall caption here) has said that Meatyard "is the only photographer who had any role in my artistic roots," but when it comes to "made" photos, I prefer hers, since the pretense of authenticity is much stronger, resulting, I think, in a more powerful artistic statement. I certainly got very tired of Lucybelle early on, and if that's because there's something disturbing there, it's not unconnected to the fact that this huge collection was what Meatyard was working on when he died at the age of 46. I'm willing to admit his mastery while also admitting to not liking it much.
At any rate, between this and the previous show, I'm tempted to tell the locals I'm Canadian, if these two exhibitions are what's informing Montpellierians about America. But if I were curating a show about the American deep South, I'd have headed straight to William Eggleston, who's surrealistic, Southern, disturbing, classically contemporary and big in Europe. I wonder, however, how the people who curate this odd building would respond to him. Not intellectually rigorous enough? Not trading in enough stereotypes? Not grotesque enough?
Anyway, next year they get to pick on another country. To be honest, this show isn't that bad, and just because it's not to my taste doesn't mean it won't be to yours. And hey: we're getting showers these days, and the Pavillon Populaire is dry.
Les Suds Profonds de l'Amerique, at the Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, open Tues. - Sun. 10am-6pm. Show runs until Jan. 30, 2011.