Since 1983 David Wharton has photographed the twelve states that define the American South, focusing his attention on rural and small-town culture, vernacular architecture and landscape, the role of religion in Southern life, and the relationship between Southerners, their natural surroundings, and the communities they have built. Small Town South is the result of Wharton's travels through a region that extends from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas in the west to Virginia and the Carolinas in the east, from Kentucky and Tennessee in the north to Florida in the south, with Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia forming the region's center in between.
No other photographer has devoted so much time and attention to recording this distinctive American place. The 115 duotone photographs which serve as the book's core, combined with the author's insightful text, convey an overall sense of what the small Southern town has become and looks like during the early twenty-first century. Wharton organizes his study into thematic portfolios that address themes such as the intersection of tradition and modernity, local commemorations of the past, the omnipresence of the church in town life, the difficulties of making a living in the New World economy, the look of Main Street, the display of public murals and memorials, and the iconographic unfolding of community values.
Many have likened Wharton's photographic eye and approach to the work of other photographic masters of the South, including Walker Evans, Eudora Welty, William Christenberry, Shelby Lee Adams, Alex Harris, Rob Amberg, and Martha A. Strawn. And, just as we turn to those artists to help us understand and reckon with Southern history and culture, we now can look to David Wharton as another pioneer photographer of the Southern small town in all its simplicity and complexity. (See the publisher's website for further information: http://gftbooks.com/books_Wharton.html )
About The Author
Small Town South by David Wharton is a black and white photography essay on small towns typical of the South in the United States. The photos are taken from unique points of view with the purpose of telling a story of yesterday and today. Each reveals something of the past, when some of these towns were thriving. But the photos are today, showing in some cases, that the town has fallen on hard times and many people have left, sometimes leaving advertising signs from yesteryear. The photos are a bit depressing and haunting in some cases, and not really beautiful, but are truly journalistic in their unique way of documenting and era gone and an era passing.
This limited-edition, horizontal-format book of photographs was beautifully produced by George F. Thompson Publishing and created by David Wharton (Director of Documentary Studies, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi in Oxford). The author suggests viewing the photographs as a long poem in nine stanzas, where each image relates to the next in ways that evoke but may not build a narrative. The print format, where blank facing pages alternate irregularly with single images printed on each page, also helps to create a sense of slow rhythm. Wharton's subject is the American South of small, empty towns, closely observed and mostly without commentary. The only text is at the back of the book, where each image is given its caption in a couple of sentences or paragraphs, small nonfiction stories about each place. The black-and-white images, of storefronts, signs, roads, and frame houses, have a flat clarity; they could be paintings or photojournalistic moments in which no drama is happening except what is always there. There is an incidental figure, an occasional old truck. His technique is to whisper rather than shout, and the book rewards slow looking. What the photographer draws us in to see has often been exploited for tragedy or kitsch, but Wharton is too wise and too wry; he knows this territory far too well for such easy commentary. Beneath what we thought we knew, he reveals a hieratic landscape. In Cherokee, Alabama, beside a blank brick building and an empty road, an unmarked sign says only, 'DANCE.'
The last 150 years have been hard on small rural towns. The incredible advances of the 19th Century had the dual effect of dramatically reducing the number of people required to tend farms as well as drawing those displaced former field hands towards cities with blooming manufacturing bases. The result is a string of small towns that have, undeniably, seen better days. And David Wharton captures slices of this reality. Wharton is quick to assert, however, that it's not quite so hopeless as all that...And make no mistake: there is beauty in the desolation. A welcome home sign for a local National Guard unit being blown violently by an 18-wheeler driving through a town in which it will not stop evokes at once the history and the culture and the life of those towns we all pass by on the freeway. Towns that will never be more than a name on a sign to most of us but which are and have been home to generations of Americans. Wharton shows a keen interest in establishing that sense of place. A Burger King sign inviting customers to 'Try Our New Bacon Swiss' across the street from a plaque commemorating a Civil War battle is, undeniably, a reflection of the South today. Small Town South captures this, and many other moments, with clarity and insight and organizes the pictures with thoughtfulness and intent.
Wharton's images are deeply felt, and they compel deep thought...The photographs include homages to history, as in the antique locomotive in Amory, Miss., and the many memorials to the war dead sprinkled throughout the book, along with newer developments like the courthouse in Hamilton, Al., a pedicure shop in Opelousas, La., or a meat store in Opelika, Al., startlingly juxtaposed with religious signage...The small towns that Wharton photographs often are places that are justifiably proud of their athletic teams, their church groups, their commercial ventures or their military units...Noting that most small towns I have visited remain racially segregated, particularly in areas of housing and some business districts, I asked Wharton if he concentrated on shooting the downtown sections to avoid racial issues. He acknowledges the predominance in the images of Confederate monuments and businesses owned by the white power structure. Yet he says that's what he found in the small towns, and that's what he shot. This let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude pervades the entire book. It's part of what makes 'Small Town South' so unsettling.