Alan Rothschild and the Do Good Fund Featured in the Georgia Review
Tracing the American South: An Interview with Alan Rothschild
Find original article: http://garev.uga.edu/blog/rothschildinterview.html
In September 2015, Tom Rankin and Rachel Boillot sat down with Alan Rothschild, founder of the Do Good Fund, and talked with him about building a public collection of photography from and of the American South.
Rothschild began collecting photographs in 2013—though the seeds of inspiration were planted long ago during his childhood in Columbus, Georgia, which founded his lifelong interest in regional history. While he has been working full-time as a lawyer, his activities have evolved over the years to include widespread public programming and community dialogues centered on the photographs and their collectively told history.
Here, Rothschild discusses his early vision and how it has evolved, his long-range plans for acquiring and sharing photography of the region, and the overall mission of his public exhibition program.
Tom Rankin & Rachel Boillot: We’d like to give people a pretty good sense of where your collecting comes from—your individual mission and the mission of Do Good, in so much as they might be the same or overlap, and also your sense of the South—to you, what is the South? These are big topics, but I guess the place to start—and we could start anywhere—is here: as best as you can recount, where does this project come from—this interest, and then your acting on the interest?
Alan Rothschild: It comes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was a textbook in one of my high school classes as well as in an undergraduate history class at the University of Virginia. I was just struck by Walker Evans’ photographs in that book. Living in Columbus, Georgia—which is a medium-sized town on the eastern edge of the black belt—you didn’t have to get too far out of town to see in the 1980s, 1990s, and even today, scenes that look a whole lot like Evans’ images from Hale County, Alabama, in the 1930s. So it struck me that although a lot of changes were happening in places like Atlanta, Evans’ South was not too far away.
It also turned out that a good friend of mine had a family farm located in the country just below Hale County, near Uniontown, Alabama. In the early 1980s we started visiting his farm and it gave me an opportunity on the way see some of the places that Evans had photographed, and to see even more starkly that fifty years later, in some respects, very little had changed.
Somewhere along the way I got to know William Christenberry’s work and many of his images spoke to me as well, though he documented the South very differently than Evans. In some ways more hopeful, but in others maybe not so, revealing the same conditions that Evans did. Having the chance to drive around Hale County and see many of the places that Christenberry and Evans photographed really connected their work with the place, a place I was very familiar with having grown up in the eastern Black Belt.
As an undergraduate history major many of the survey courses tried to cram history down your throat through statistics and charts. Graphs showed the most destructive battles of the Civil War: 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg. And that didn’t mean anything to me. A billion, a million, or for that matter 50,000 didn’t really mean anything to me. But somewhere in those textbooks in the Civil War chapters would be one of Matthew Brady’s images, and when you saw the dead, bloated soldiers on the battlefield—it brought the war forward 150 years. You could see the horror and feel the horror. So the photographs, whether they were Brady’s images of the Civil War or Evans’ images from the Depression-era South, or those of the Civil Rights photographers—I learned a lot more history from those than I did from the survey texts we had in our classes.
TR & RB: Can you remember when you were impressed with photographs as a kid? Or, if you think back on photography in its place early in your life, what do you think of?
AR: My father was fascinated by cameras, but he never did any developing or printing of his own, just had a camera around to document family events. I’ve never been a very good photographer but I’ve always been fascinated by the power of the camera to preserve what we see. I remember I got my first 35 mm camera for my sixteenth birthday. I had decided I was going to be a street photographer and was driving around downtown Columbus. I imagine that was probably after I had been exposed to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in high school, so I fancied myself as Walker Evans and took a lot of pictures of a lot of broken-down houses and barns, and of people on the street. We had a small homeless population in Columbus even back then in 1976, and I remember a spot where I took a picture of three homeless men on the curb. Ten years later when I came back to Columbus to practice law, I saw two of those three men still wandering downtown. Today one of those guys is still in Columbus—thankfully no longer homeless, but living in government-subsidized housing on the same block as our law office.
I still carry my camera, but it doesn’t get used as much as I’d like. I keep thinking that with the quality of new cell phone cameras I no longer have an excuse not to pull it out. But I rarely do, in part because I have come to appreciate how hard it is to take a really great photograph. I’ve taken a lot of mediocre photographs, and they’re fine for personal consumption. But you’ve got to take a lot more pictures and be a lot better than I am to take ones like we have in the collection.
TR & RB: Speaking of your law office, how did you come to be a lawyer?
AR: I didn’t know what else I wanted to do! [Laughs] I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and you know, I think there’s a whole generation of southern lawyers that would tell you Atticus Finch is the reason they went to law school. I’m scared to read the new version [Go Set a Watchman] because it may change my view of things.
TR & RB: You started off by discussing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is a great aesthetic achievement, obviously, and at least one of its goals was to reveal the lives of people who were the unseen. In terms of your own goals, how do you see this very big topic we call “the law” and issues of justice in what you think is important when you look at all the images that you could collect and not collect, if you see what I’m saying?
AR: I know we all have our biases, and I can’t act as if this is a totally objective collection, but as it grows we are trying hard to show different perspectives. I love Dennis Darling’s story about his Ku Klux Klan series, which we’ve got a couple of images from in the collection. He said when it was published he got some angry letters from folks in the KKK saying that he depicted them as being evil when they weren’t, and he got an equal number of letters from folks not in the KKK that said he was depicting them as too nice when they were really evil people. To me that means Dennis probably got it exactly right.
Auburn Market, Atlanta (Marilyn Suriani)
Paul Gaston, the famous southern history professor at the University of Virginia, was a wonderful teacher and I took every possible course I could from him. During the first week of class, he hung around afterward and got to know some of the students on a personal level. He said, “Alan, you’re from Columbus, Georgia.” I said, “Yes, sir.” He goes, “Well, what part of the textile industry is your family in?” I was just this naïve young student who had lived in one place all his life, and I thought, how the hell did this guy know that my family had anything to do with the textile industry? When you live in one place all your life, you have a real inability to understand how it fits in either to the region’s demographics or to the rest of a very different world. In Paul’s class we used Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a textbook. In his twentieth-century southern history class we also used Faulkner, and that was really the first time I had ever been exposed to a frank discussion of the South since World War II. I think that was something we were not sure about, or a little bit ashamed of, and we didn’t want to talk about it or didn’t know how to talk about it.
TR & RB: It’s great you don’t have a mathematical principal in place and that your collecting is more intuitive. But if you think about the chronology of the collection, when do think of it as starting?
AR: The Do Good Fund’s collection is made up of images taken in the American South since 1954. I know the art folks tend to use the end of World War II as the dividing line. That’s reasonable, but from my perspective the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in ’54 was a defining moment in the South. In 1954 a lot of the South still had a very 1920s, 1930s sort of feel to it. Certainly Atlanta in 1954 looked a lot more like it did fifty years ago rather than fifty years later.
TR & RB: What was the first piece you collected?
AR: Keith Carter’s Garlic. Part of the way that happened is that Jane Jackson, the founder and owner of Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, is a longtime friend. I went to visit Jane and told her that we were going to put some resources behind this project and see where it went. She was very dubious, because she thought we needed to focus on more than just photographs taken in the South since 1954. I told her what our budget was and told her what we were trying to do and she said, “You really don’t have the resources to go out and get a William Eggleston or a Sally Mann and to stake your claim and reputation built on those ‘big names’ in southern photography.” So she suggested that there were some photographers that were well-respected and did beautiful work, but whose pieces were much more reasonably priced. She gave us three names: Keith Carter, Shelby Lee Adams, and Debbie Fleming Caffery.
Bathing Cane at Sunset, Louisiana (Debbie Fleming Caffery)
I was not familiar with Keith three years ago, but fell in love with that Garlic, only to find out that it was not available. I like challenges, and I wasn’t going to be defeated that easily on our first purchase, so I began a search to run down a copy of the image. Thankfully, we were successful and found the image in a Dallas gallery.
I’ll share a quick aside to that image. We like to deal directly with photographers whenever possible, and we consider our acquisition to their work to be a partnership. In exchange for adding their image to the collection, we hope that when we come to their community they will help us host an exhibition, which includes not just the show but also community-related activities. We also ask the collected photographers to give us names of other photographers whose work they admire, particularly want young ones we may not know.
During some of our early purchases Brandon Thibodeaux’s name came up a lot. I got to know Brandon, and when he saw Garlic at one of our shows he told me, “You know, I was an undergraduate at Lamar University and I needed an elective, and I asked my roommate, and he says, ‘Well my uncle teaches this photography class and they say it’s pretty cool’.” So Brandon just randomly signed up for Uncle Keith Carter’s photography class, which obviously had a big impact on him. And Brandon recalled that a copy of Garlic was up on the darkroom wall, as if to say, “This is what you need to aspire to make your images look like.”
Harry Hope, Mound Bayou, Mississippi (Brandon Thibodeaux)
TR & RB: Something we are interested in is how you consult with so many people and create a community alongside your collecting activities—that’s part of the narrative of the collection, really. How has that all unfolded and evolved over time?
AR: I think it’s very valuable to talk to people about what’s going on in the South and to learn about new photographers. For example, Mark Steinmetz is someone, again, who I didn’t know three years ago, and now I absolutely love his work. Mark lives about a quarter-mile from our daughter, a student at the University of Georgia. So whenever I can, I’ll visit with Mark when I’m in Athens. He introduced me to the work of Rosalind Fox Solomon, whose southern work is now at least thirty or forty years old. She now lives in New York, I believe, and photographs around the world.
If I love a photographer’s work and the stories they are telling, I can’t think of a more effective way to collect than to ask them about others who influenced their work, or even just about dramatically different work that they really admire. That’s the best way to learn about other photographs for the collection.
I’ve also realized that, probably like many things in life, the photography world is very clique-ish. We have worked hard to intentionally broaden our circle. And now, for example, I feel we need to grow the number of images that feature the urban experience, and Atlanta is certainly one of the big stories of the post-1954 South. We want to find images that speak to us from photographers that documented the early years and from those shooting the urban South experience today.
TR & RB: There are a lot of people collecting photography who do it as individuals—and you could have just gone out and done the same. What prompted you to think about this as a foundation, as more of an organization and a different kind of model?
AR: There is a very practical answer to that, and it is where the resources are located. I sit on the board of a private foundation that encourages entrepreneurial grant-making by the individual trustees. The bulk of the foundation’s grants are given by the foundation’s board collectively. But a very small portion is given by each trustee. The idea behind that was if everybody else didn’t like my idea, I wouldn’t get my feelings hurt and create a counter-productive situation; I would have a small grant pool of money to fund a project I believe in that I couldn’t sell to the full board. This approach allows us to experiment, to take risks. We go out and do some things, and if they catch on they might turn into something the foundation gets behind.
Shooter, Selma, Alabama (Jerry Siegel)
I’ve always been a believer in the arts, the power of not just the visual arts but literature and other mediums, to inform us about the human condition, about who we are, and where we live. I really believe in museums as community resources. But in the South we were fifty or a hundred years late getting into the museum business, and consequently we have a lot fewer museums than other parts of the country, and many areas in the South simply don’t have access to top-quality museums. At first, some of my entrepreneurial grants went to regional museums, but I realized fragmenting the contributions just allowed each institution to do little more than what they were already doing. I’ve also sat on museum boards and I remember one acquisition committee meeting we de-accessioned a collection of works, perhaps ninety works, that this particular museum had owned for fifty years but had never shown. Museums do great work and safe-keep and interpret so much great art, but it troubles me that somewhere around 95% of the average museum collection is in its basement at any given time. And that’s fine from the stand-point of preserving these works of art, but I think it’s pretty ironic that when you have a photograph selected for a museum collection, they put it up in “New Acquisitions” or maybe five years after an acquisition they do a show, and then off it goes to the basement. So I started asking if we can do something, not to compete with but to complement what the museums do. Let’s see if we can build a collection of great works of art and make it broadly available, particularly in non-traditional venues.
Photography is relatively inexpensive and it means a lot to me as well. Not being subject to the same rigid standards as museums, we can take the collection to places such as storefront galleries in small towns. It may not have the perfect museum temperature or the perfect museum lighting, but we can show images in spaces that most museums shy away from. We had a pop-up show in an old cotton gin in Atlanta and brought in a crowd of 125 folks under thirty years old to see the show. I hope that got them interested in going to galleries and museums and seeing more. My exit strategy is that when the project gets too big for out volunteer group, or if something happens to me and others are not as interested in t as I am, it’s going to be a collection that will be strong enough for a regional museum to pick up as their own.
TR & RB: Where does the name “Do Good” come from? You could have called it anything—why that?
AR: In addition to having two great photographers come through Hale County, Alabama, an architect named Sam Mockbee also made his mark there. Mockbee had been stationed out at Fort Benning near Columbus, and took a part-time drafting job with a Columbus architectural firm. They saw his talents and talked him into enrolling in Auburn’s architectural school. When Sam graduated he took his first job as an architect with that firm in Columbus. Although Sam took his first job as an architect in Columbus, he was pulled back to Mississippi to try to use his architectural talents to make life better for the less fortunate. He was struggling to make ends meet near his hometown when a faculty position opened in Auburn, and he worked it out so he could begin an architectural outreach program that is now known as the “Rural Studio.” Sam picked Hale County as the place for the program’s headquarters because it was halfway between his hometown and Auburn, and because it also had no building code. So in my trips to western Alabama I spent a lot of time getting to know the Rural Studio project and Mockbee’s creative legacy. He believed that an architectural project needed to somehow improve the lives of the clients, and for public projects, improve the community. And so, at the end of each semester, he would tell his students, “Now go out and do good.”
TR & RB: What influence do you think growing up in Columbus provided for you in thinking about the arts and photography and this kind of a collection?
AR: I was very lucky to be in Columbus, even though it’s a small city, because it’s got some pretty unique cultural resources and some really neat and thoughtful people. My mother was not as interested as my father in going to cultural events, so I was frequently was father’s “date” to lectures at the museum and to the symphony and the theater, and I’m sure the reason I became a museum-goer and later served on museum boards was the influence of my father when I was young. We had great programming at our museum, which was, and still is, both an art and a history museum. There would be paintings in one room, and Native American relics in another, or sharks teeth or whatever in a third.
The author Carson McCullers was born and lived many years earlier in the neighborhood I grew up in. Only later in life did I realize how significant she was as a writer.
TR & RB: Were there many photographs in the museum in Columbus or were the photographs you saw mostly at home?
AR: The Columbus Museum had a modest commitment to photography, but I was fortunate to be able to visit the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Met in New York , and other large museums with significant photography collections. And I have had a long fascination with the New Deal-era photographs, and my history books, even the survey texts, had plenty of photographs. There were lots of New Deal-ers on the history faculty at the University of Virginia when I was there, and we certainly read our fair share of New Deal history. When I first came back to Georgia in the mid-’80s to practice law, the first thing I did to decorate my office was to order a dozen New Deal images from the Library of Congress and go down to our local newspaper office, which still at that time had a great archive of negatives, and get a dozen or so street scenes printed.
Blue Ridge Paper Mill, NC (Jeff Rich)
TR & RB: When you talk about Do Good exhibiting in storefronts and being a complement to museums, and about the “populist” nature of the project—with “populist” obviously being a word that comes from the New Deal era—is that really part of the core DNA of Do Good at this point?
AR: It definitely is, and for a couple of different reasons. Again, I don’t think folks are going to museums in the same numbers they used to. Even among my friends, fewer of them are going to museums. On the other hand, a lot of competition is online. You can take an online tour of most any museum now. But it’s not the same thing as being there. Also it just seems weird to me that there were all these great images of places like Hale County that Christenberry has taken for thirty or forty years, but when are the people in Hale County ever able to see them?
When we had our Do Good show up this summer in Hale County and Perry County next door, where Christenberry visited annually and Evans’ famous Sprott images were taken, a number of locals shared stories of running into Christenberry on his annual visits there, but no one could recall if they’d seen his images displayed anywhere. And it just troubled me that this work was about a place and about people who never got to see the images. And it’s not just about Hale County—it could be about any community. You know, how often did the folks in Bainbridge get to see Paul Kwilecki’s work? He is one of the most famous photographers from Georgia and his work is rarely shown in the state. We’re going to try to do our part to fill that gap, both because he deserves to be known by the people of Georgia, and because the people and places that were the subjects of his photographs ought to have the opportunity to see the work.
TR & RB: In the last two months, the way we have seen the South and the cultural landscape of the South looks very different since Charleston. We are seeing a proliferation of confederate flags in this odd time when we shouldn’t be seeing any. What does that mean for the visual history of this moment?
AR: I have thought about how the incident in Charleston might impact the Do Good Fund. Would some find the collection to be “out of touch” with what’s going on in the South today? Putting my history major hat on, I think part of the problem is we’ve either ignored or been ignorant of our history for so damn long. I’ve got two bright, reasonably progressive children, but they had no idea that the confederate flag was not part of the Georgia state flag until 1956. We sat down after Charleston and talked about that and why it was important for so many people that that symbol came off the Georgia flag some years ago, thankfully. They just didn’t understand the connection between Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and the confederate flag suddenly becoming part of our state flag in 1956. Hopefully, the Do Good Fund’s collection is more important than ever in helping us to understand where we’ve been, who we are, and where we might be going.
Rachel Boillot currently based in Caryville, Tennessee, holds an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University, where she recently served as a visiting lecturer in photography. Boillot has also recently worked as a multimedia documentarian for the Cumberland Trail’s Musical Heritage Project and as an assistant producer at Sandrock Recordings, a non-profit record label specializing in the music of the Cumberland Plateau and its surrounds. Her photographs and publications are housed in numerous collections worldwide, including the Booklet Library in Tokyo, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Sloane Art Library at the University of North Carolina, and the Indie Photobook Library in Washington, DC.
Tom Rankin is director of the Center for Documentary Studies, professor of the practice of art and documentary studies, and director of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University. A photographer, filmmaker, and folklorist, Rankin has been documenting and interpreting American culture for more than twenty years. Formerly associate professor of art and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi and chair of the Art Department at Delta State University, he was educated at Tufts University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Georgia State University. A native of Kentucky, he has curated a number of exhibitions and published numerous articles and reviews on photography and Southern culture. His photographs have been published widely in numerous magazines, journals, and books, and he has exhibited throughout the country. His books include Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (1993), which received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Photography; ‘Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre’: Photographs of a River Life (1995); Faulkner’s World: The Photographs of Martin J. Dain (1997); and Local Heroes Changing America: Indivisible (2000).