Photographer Shane Lavalette had the good fortune (and as we’ll see, the tough climb) to be commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta do a study of America’s South. (He’s from upstate New York.) The book that resulted is One Sun, One Shadow, published by Lavalette’s own publishing house.
Photos in the book alternate between black-and-white shots and color ones; between portraits, landscapes, and abstractions; between crisp images and the murk of heavy southern air. We get a lot of different pictures: a couple kids making out, a shot of praying hands stenciled on a wall, balloons against a clouded sky, a model of a church in a sweep of meadow grass, a pair of binoculars on a green table surrounded by cherry tomatoes.
For a theme to hold the book together, Lavalette says he chose music. Makes sense. Certainly music is central to the South, what with blues and jazz and country music emanating from there, not to mention rock and roll. He also chose not to shoot anything as obvious as only musicians. There are some photos of instruments and even a moody green-fog landscape with a barefoot boy holding a banjo, but if there is a true music to the book, it has to lie beneath the wide array of different kinds of pictures, and the photo-rhythms they try to capture. (Perhaps something in line with Walker Evans’s vaunted comment about his work being “lyric documentary”?)
So how well does music hold One Sun together? Do all the photos flow together to make up a book? Long breath. I can’t say they don’t, but I also feel flung around an awful lot. If the book’s a musical composition, it’s less Brahms and more late Schoenberg, with the disparate pictures testing tonality. Take five photos I turned to randomly from the middle of the book. We jump from a large black-and-white two-page shot of a hill, dried flowers in the foreground; to a color shot of a middle-aged African-American with a couple dollar bills stuck to his uniform shirt; to a Stephen Shore–like rainy traffic intersection; to an elegant, almost Walker Evans–esque curved outdoor staircase, to that same black-and-white staircase printed in reverse on the next spread. Again, five shots in a row, not much in common. Tonality … or atonality? Music … or noise?
The two allusions just above point to another concern with One Sun: the looming presence of other photographers. Consider two of the photos I mentioned a few paragraphs back, the model of a church, the binoculars with the cherry tomatoes. Here’s how the Southern fiction writer (and, incidentally, photographer) Eudora Welty spoke of a similar concern. Regarding William Faulkner, the great novelist (and her friend), Welty said that being a Mississippi writer along with him was like living under a huge mountain.
Well, that model church shot lurks under a small hill of southern photography: William Christenberry. The binoculars on the green lace tablecloth? A photo inescapably beneath the towering photographic peaks of William Eggleston. And for a quick side trip, a shot of a black guy with binoculars before a wall of bricks, followed immediately by a distant shot of what looks like the same guy entering a discount clothing store calls to mind the sequential-photograph path Paul Graham walks in “A Shimmer of Possibility.” Oh, and Evans again? A bare brick wall almost cries out for the torn scraps of an old minstrel show bill.
Influences? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just the way certain photographers take over a landscape, a people, a scene—a way of shooting—until not much is left. I can’t quite say Lavalette’s photos are simply derivative, it’s just that he hasn’t been able to escape some pretty well trod ground.
Can anyone? How does any photographer replenish a world in 2017 so well-scoured? Is it possible to make a photo of an American flag fresh after Robert Frank? (I’ll admit in my own work I’ve tried, playing off the colors rather than the flag itself, but who knows?)
Yet that’s our job as photographers. If we have to climb looming mountains, we need new, original paths up them. And if we have to venture deep into land previously so thoroughly staked out, well, isn’t there new land we can find if we tread past the well-known?
I don’t think Lavalette set out simply to tramp around over such well-trod ground (though I just looked at the next photo after my five-shot sequence above, and see a shot of a bearded guy before a table on a porch, gazing wistfully off; I can’t help but wonder if Alex Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi is hovering over that one). But it’s also hard to see how he found a wholly original way to capture the South.
One photo that doesn’t immediately call up other influences is one clearly important to Lavalette. It’s a black-and-white snap of a totally ripped-apart tire on a stretch of pavement, the rubber and its shreds weaving and circling through the picture. The photo opens One Sun, a similar one backs the first, and a third version is the last shot in the book. I’ve driven southern highways; destroyed tires is as good a central image as any. (Though of course shredded tires turn up on any highway anywhere.)
Still, that photo is a potentially strong motif for the book, this ripped-apart rubber, highway detritus, not to mention the rubber circles and flung-off rough strips, and yet I don’t see these initial notes repeated in the rest of the shots in the book. Music? Music states its theme, then plays around it; it harmonizes, reveals inner connections, sums up into a work of perceptible power. Is there enough music here? Turning the pages, I don’t feel that inevitable flow, each photo belonging to the whole, and being in the right place.
So what are we left with in One Sun, One Shadow? A book of disparate photos, black-and-white and color, portraits, moody landscapes, and those trashed tires, many that call up allusions (probably not intended) to other photographers, and an underlying run of notes that, as they leap and turn, don’t build to any perceptible climax.
Still, One Sun is an honorable piece of work, and you can almost feel Lavalette on his assignment, down from the north, working to discover his own version of the American South … and almost getting there. But as Faulkner also famously said, in the South “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
All of us as photographers are burdened by our glorious photographic past each time we shoot. Is that street photo too much like Garry Winogrand, that American-vernacular one too Evans-y or Stephen Shore–like, and why does Eggleston loom above almost any richly-saturated color shot of banality? It ain’t easy finding our own way, but it’s always worth the effort.
One Sun, One Shadow by Shane Lavalette can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.