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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Oraien Catledge Photographs looks beyond Cabbagetown

Scenes from Cabbagetown in the early 1980s are so deeply engrained in Oraien Catledge’s identity as a photographer that it almost feels intrusive to interrupt the flow of his body of work with photos taken anywhere else. But this latest collection of Catledge’s images — a kind of follow-up to the long-out-of-print Cabbagetown (University of Texas Press) — titled Oraien Catledge: Photographs (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson) is named after the man, not the place. Cabbagetown was published back in ’85 with an introduction by Robert Coles, and has since faded into obscurity. If you can even find a copy of it’s going to come with a pretty high price tag.

Therein lies a metaphor. In 2010 Cabbagetown ain’t what it used to be. It’s still a neighborhood that’s teeming with character but over time the generations of imported, Appalachian workers that staffed the looming cotton mill have vanished. With them went the drug-addled streets, the deep sense of land pride and the overwhelming poverty that consumed the neighborhood when the mill shuttered its doors forever; or at least until it could be turned into condos.

Decades later, the gruff, old Cabbagetown is romanticized in Atlanta’s collective subconscious as an intangible cultural treasure. Catledge’s photos are a concrete link to that past, but this book doesn’t attempt to present the work as an exotic documentary. Richard Ford’s introduction and Constance Lewis’ Q&A with Catledge bookend a cross-section of photos scanning Catledge’s body of work, while illuminating a bit about the man behind the camera, rather than staying fixed on the smudged faces of his subjects.

His childhood spent in Mississippi, his background working with impoverished people for the American Foundation for the Blind, as well as his own fading eyesight all contribute to Catledge’s character and his work. All of these elements are underscored by his close attention to his subjects’ faces, which mirror the rich details of the crumbling landscape. And being such an insular community, Catledge had to gain these people’s trust, which you can see in every one of his photos — be it a pair of hooligans on the street, a tired young mother smoking a cigarette on her porch, or the myriad children running wild on the street. They were all part of the landscape that accepted Catledge and his camera into the community.

Even though the sense of time and place is understated in the presentation of these black-and-white portraits, connecting-the-dots comes as naturally as breathing and blinking while turning the pages.

Children, adults, withered elders and their tiny dogs all hold the same, modest yet stoic gaze. Life was hard for everyone in Cabbagetown, but Catledge made no attempts to draw that out, dress it up or exploit it. One of his strongest qualities as a photographer is that there is no editorializing going on these scenes of a day-in-the-life for a mother and child, a husband and wife, a dilapidated mill town.

It’s clear that Catledge felt more at home in Cabbagetown than anywhere else.

On one page a legless man crawls along the sidewalk in New Orleans, surrounded by the legs of passers-by. The opposite page features a landscape shot of the cotton mill standing in the shadow of the modern Atlanta skyline creating a ominous scene. But if these photos together say anything, it was a cold world outside of Cabbagetown both for Catledge and his subjects. Which is another profound angle of his work as well, as it is the opposite view that most of Atlanta outside of Cabbagetown felt. But despite appearances, Cabbagetown was a sheltering, insular community that developed a unique character. Perhaps that’s the ultimate irony that Catledge’s work captures, but after all, it takes an outsider, to tell the story of outsiders.

An exhibit of photographs from Oraien Catledge is at Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Miss. through Jan. 16.

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