Hale County Photo Exhibition: New Perspective on Old Tradition
By Nick Brown
Last year Lauren Henkin retraced the steps of the Great Depression photographer Walker Evans in rural Hale County, Alabama. The Birmingham Museum of Art has now selected 15 photographs out of the more than 50 she produced during a one-month residency with the Do Good Fund. The resulting exhibition, “What’s Lost Is Found,” opens Nov. 4.
Henkin acknowledges her debt to Evans’ classic photos of impoverished sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. She also notes the influence of William Christenberry, a Hale County native whose work is in the museum’s permanent collection. “It’s doing what Christenberry and people before her have been doing, which is capturing something that is both changing and static,” says Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the BMA’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “[Hale County] is progressing, but it’s not. And, looking at these images, we ask, ‘What are the things that look like they’re changing, what are the things that feel like they’re not changing, and what are maybe some of the things we don’t want to change?’”
The exhibition will feature images of people and landscapes, along with a few explanatory sentences for each. “We’ve tried to incorporate the artist’s voice in this exhibition,” Al-Khudhairi says, “We are taking the museum’s voice and putting it to the side and letting the exhibition be a direct conversation with the artist.”
The exhibition’s location was also key. “When I was introduced to Lauren’s work, I was really interested in it because the content that she produced in this particular group of photographs was so connected to works in our collection,” Al-Khudhairi says. “For Lauren it feels really important that these images get shown in a museum in Alabama because she feels like that’s the audience for them.”
We talked with the artist about the upcoming exhibition. Here’s what she had to say:
1. What was it about Hale County that made you want to accept Do Good’s offer to shoot there?
Every photographer I know has studied Walker Evans’ photographs of Hale County, Alabama, made during the Great Depression. Evans’ juxtaposition of formally composed subjects with crumbling architecture, the attention to form and light, and the dignity presented in both the people and landscape became a kind of backbone from which I developed my own work. William Christenberry’s lush and personal photographs of the same area cemented the place itself not only as sacred terrain for any photographer, but also as a place that lives in the imagination. I accepted Do Good’s generous offer because I wanted to see and experience the place that, indirectly, has played such a big part in my development as an artist while also giving me the opportunity to contribute to the history of the medium.
2. You’re from Washington, D.C. and now live in Maine. Do you feel like your perspective as someone who isn’t from the area distinguished it from other artists who’ve worked in Hale County?
I was born and raised in D.C., but I’ve lived all over the country and have, throughout my career, photographed in areas that were foreign to me. The alluring thing about photographing in a new place is that it’s a fully immersive experience in the unexplored—the color, the landscape, the light. I become sensitive to all that is around me, entering a kind of hyperaware state where I’m able to see the nuances that make a place unique. In this case, I was struck by how spiritual rural Alabama feels. I don’t mean in a literal sense, but in the wind, the shadows, the earth, the people, and the unexpected lushness of the landscape.
3. How do you feel like this portfolio fits into contemporary photography?
I think you can definitely trace a kind of lineage in this portfolio to the work of Walker Evans and William Christenberry, but also to Robert Adams and George Tice, who are also masters in defining our relationship to place. In all of my work, especially when I’m photographing in a place that I’m not familiar with, I try to convey a component of respect and dignity to my subjects, and I think that runs through all of these photographers’ work. Ambiguity plays a huge role in how I photograph and what I photograph. Photography as a medium is so perfectly suited to render the world in sharply descriptive terms, but the world itself isn’t that way. It’s messy and complex. In this project, I wanted to first avoid any of the stereotypical imagery I’ve seen of the South, but then to reference the undefinable. I think that tension between the crisply rendered images with the ambiguous, the unexplained, and while creating a space for the viewer to fill in the gaps is a theme that runs through all of my work.
4. What interests you about shooting on film rather than producing digital images?
I’ve never made any photographs with a digital camera. I’ve tried many times, but I’ve never liked surrendering so much control to the camera. Working with film, and especially with a large format camera that takes time to set up, forces me to be very slow, very deliberate. With a large format camera, you are viewing the subject upside down on glass, so the camera itself is abstracting the photograph, making it easier for me to concentrate on composition and form. With film, I might only make two exposures of a subject, but the chances of my liking that image are much higher than if I were working with a digital camera that could make many more exposures. The print itself is also very important to me. I think, especially with the consumption of imagery online, it’s even more crucial to experience photographs as objects.
5. What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming exhibition?
I’m very excited to be back in Alabama! I have cousins that live in Birmingham and spent a few days with them before I began working in Hale County. We spent one afternoon walking through your beautiful Botanical Gardens. I remember thinking how much I wanted whatever would be made in Hale County to show in exhibition first at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I think art is a collaborative process; the artist makes the first mark and a back-and-forth between the object and the viewer ensues. I’m very much looking forward to hearing about if or how the images align with the perception of what rural Alabama is from the people that know it best.
Lauren Henkin will give a talk at Art After 5 on Friday, Nov. 4 at 6 p.m. Admission is free for members and $10 for non-members.