Jack Spencer: Native Soil
Sept. 8-Oct. 16
Cumberland Gallery, 4107 Hillsboro Cir., 297-0296
Opening reception Sept. 18
Whether they’ve hung in Nashville restaurants, New York galleries, or Southern museums, for the last 10 years Jack Spencer’s black-and-white photographs have been making waves everywhere they’ve appeared. Now the publication of his first book of photographs, along with 10 forthcoming one-person showsat New York’s Bonnie Benrubi Gallery, South Carolina’s Greenville County Museum of Art, and Nashville’s Cumberland Gallery, among other locationsindisputably announces the rise of a major new photographer on the American scene.
For his first book, Native Soil (Louisiana State University Press), Spencer has focused his lens on the Mississippi Delta, which lies some 40 miles from Kosciusko, his Mississippi hometown. Although Spencer says that life in Kosciusko differs from that in the Delta, the intimate insight of his portraits and landscapes makes it clear he’s no stranger to the place or its doings. “The Delta is a rich and magical place, but I don’t know if I could live in it myself. You need to get away from it to see it,” says Spencer, a 10-year Nashville resident. This is a sentiment he shares with the Washington, D.C.-based photographer William Christenberry, who makes similar journeys to his native Hale County, Ala.
“The Delta is like a desert,” Spencer continues. “You can look across the fields of cotton, and it’s miles of white. Like Eudora Welty wrote, ‘It shimmers like a string on a musical instrument.’ ”
Despite the sudden beauty of his Southern landscapescaptured in the still waters of Lake Pontchartrain, in the eerie silence that shrouds the ruins of Sheldon Church, felled by Sherman’s troopsSpencer bristles at being called a Southern photographer. In all fairness, it’s a label no more appropriate to him than to contemporaries like Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Sally Mann, all of whom, like Spencer, have at various times taken their cameras to places far from home. Though Spencer has focused his lens on the Delta, he has come away with compositions of extraordinary elegance. Some of his pictures, like “Tree and Smoke No. 1 and No. 2,” possess an ephemerality akin to Alfred Stieglitz’s cloud series, exposing him as an artist working in a classical mode. Just as poetry is fundamentally about language, photography in the hands of Spencer is foremost about the image itself.
At the same time, Native Soil also represents Southern narrative at its best. Each compressed image is precisely timed to suggest the drama before and after the camera click, leaving the viewer to unfold the seldom-told stories of women like Gussie, who, in Spencer’s most recognizable image, grimly holds a magnolia bloom to her breast, as if to simply ask the world to see her as she sees herself.
Although Gussie is proud to have her picture on the cover of the book, she is uncomfortable in front of a camera, Spencer says, so while he speaks with her often, he has never asked to take her photograph again. Spencer’s main character, Cooter, though, loves the game of picture-taking and is a natural. “He is someone to hold to the light,” the photographer says of the 86-year-old sharecropper who saw 11 offspring off to college.
Pictured in the book’s last 10 imagespraising God, walking a dirt road, looking into the abyss of a calm and reflective lakeCooter is both muse and active participant in the picture making. So much so that he has even found props for his own portraits, like the horn he holds in “Cooter in the Corn With Horn.” Here, Cooter becomes a kind of Orpheus of the Delta, raising up the corn with his own song, until the stalks themselves become his chorus.
Whether Spencer is “planning” his imageswhich, as the novelist Ellen Douglas explains in her graceful preface to the book, implies something different from “staging”or whether he’s instinctively focusing his camera on what he finds at hand, it is in the darkroom where Spencer “uncovers” his photographs. For him, that often means going through as many as eight or nine printing stages and manipulations, from airbrushing the acetate-covered image to setting the finished print in a brown toner and then a selenium bath.
“A camera has limitationsit can only record light and shadows,” Spencer explains. “Through darkroom manipulations, I try to take the negative further and extend it, by adding and subtracting light, dodging and brightening certain areas, and letting the light expose the paper even more. In the darkroom, I try to bring out the emotional side of a photograph.”
His many manipulations render his blacks as browns and greens, his whites as pinkish, metallic silver, and creamy yellow, and certain pictures like “Willie Mae in the Milo Field” with a finish akin to a work in charcoal. Other photographs function like contemporary paintings, playing against the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. “Corrugated Shadow” and “Man With Fish” seem almost tactile, for example, while “Dawn Fire,” and “Hell Hound” crackle and howl with motion on their way to becoming abstractions of light.
Given that most of Spencer’s portraits depict African Americans, people both black and white often tried to run him off when he first began his odysseys down to the Delta in the mid-1980s. Even for the viewer, the very fact of a white artist seeking to photograph African Americans in one of the poorest regions of the country raises a host of questions: Is his work exploitative? Is it condescending? Is it offering an idealized portrait of life in rural Mississippi?
Each person who sees Spencer’s photographs will likely answer these questions in a different way. But the fact remains, his work is nothing short of strikingly beautiful, at once honest in approach and sophisticated in execution. That such questions canand perhaps shouldbe raised ultimately only deepens the impact of his work.
For the last decade, Spencer has made his home here in Nashville, and it’s somewhat typical of Nashville that the city has not done more to recognize an artist of such stature in its own midst. Now that Spencer has more than begun to receive the national acclaim that his work so much deserves, let’s hope the city will claim its own with pride.
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