Below the line 

Out of the South offers a fresh perspective

The national basement that Northerners fear to enter, home to various and sundry yokels, runaway brides and religious zealots, the South only appears to interest the national press when someone screws up. The photographer's -- and to some extent the curator's -- job is to defy such easy stereotypes and illuminate where others simplify; to poke and prod the unspoken and overlooked nooks and crannies. And a curator of a show of Southern artists carries the additional burden of finding work that expands rather than reaffirms notions of the South.

So what, exactly, does a British-born, previously Los Angeles-based High Museum of Art curator with a specialty in the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron see when he thinks about the South?

Julian Cox, the photography curator in question, sees a South that will prove in some aspects very familiar to locals: a South defined by flux and resistance to fixed ideas but also by the themes that continue to demarcate the region, including history and race and idiosyncratic personalities.

Out of the South at the Atlanta Photography Group Gallery features six artists whose work has been selected by Cox and who traffic in a South both familiar and below the radar. Atlantans who are residents of this strange pioneer divide called "the New South" will find special resonance in Bill Boling's work. Boling has photographed various sites on the proposed Beltline route, which will one day lasso the city, but are for now abandoned, marginal parcels of undeveloped land. In doing so, he has shown that rusted-out region lurking at the margins of this go-go-go city.

Boling's work is some of the strongest in the show. Rather than finding some expected contrast between neglect and possibility, squalor and development, what Boling finds is a zone outside of city sanctification where human beings have made their mark in snarky graffiti or in a homemade shrine to a dead child.

It is Boling's assertion that a city's identity exists in these small, fragmentary glimpses of human presence amid what we would otherwise write off as neglect and squalor.

Boling's work captures the peculiarity of always on-the-cusp Atlanta, but also a larger character of the South, a place of improvised memorials and a people who can sit back to contemplate nature in any setting.

Another artist who also honors individual voices amid the fracas is Chandler Leathers, who documents the painfully green soldiers often overlooked in the South's patriotic bluster. Leathers' haunting portraits of impossibly wide-eyed University of Georgia ROTC members capture the youth and vulnerability of America's front line in the war on terror.

Another demonstration of the gender equity Cox has shown in the past is the fact that there are as many female voices as male ones in Out of the South. Andrea Brown creates wispy, lyrical, but often ethereal-enough-to-blow-away black-and-white photographs of pretty girls and nature tableaux that hark back to the stage-crafted romanticism of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Elona Miller-Long and Megan Ledbetter are essentially documentarians, providing a small keyhole into their subjects' personalities that almost requires a larger scope to convey what, exactly, these photographers are striving for. Miller-Long documents an interracial family and Ledbetter an array of unsettled, contrary-looking Tennessee teenagers whose feminist coffee mugs, mohawk hairdos and swipes of blue eye shadow below sulking eyes attest to something other than compliant Southern youth.

The South is part of the content, but not the defining feature of all the photographers in Out of the South, save one. In black-and-white photography, Don Dudenbostel charts a South that, of all the work in Out of the South, probably most inflames the national imagination. There are ramshackle old-timey country stores, Klansmen and scruffy Appalachian children. It's a view of Dixie, in other words, that people from Jersey who have never ventured farther south than Newark imagine, where you don't want your car to break down after dark.



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