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Preview: Pierre Gonnord talks about his photographic journey through Atlanta and the South

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Renowned French photographer Pierre Gonnord, who has lived in Madrid for the past 25 years, was originally invited to photograph the South by SCAD and the French Consulate in Atlanta for the ongoing France-Atlanta Conference and to mark the 50th anniversary of William Faulkner’s death.
Pierre Gonnord

“It’s a big question: what is the South?” Gonnord says. He approached the question with trips to Atlanta in March (his first visit to the region) and again in May, and he’s now here again until December. Even with the several month-long visits, he says he feels that he’s still just beginning to scratch the surface of the region.

“I think it needs time,” he says. “I know Spain, I know Portugal, I know France, I know Italy. I’m used to coming back and coming back. But I do not know this territory. I need to breathe, I need to feel, I need to be like a sponge. It needs time, like archaeology.”

He knows about taking his time. He often photographs individuals who belong to old, close-knit, even closed-off communities — geisha, yakuza, immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jews in Venice, Gypsies in Seville, farmers in rural Spain, villagers in Portugal, who are not usually accustomed to or comfortable with having their portrait taken by an artist. “You are never welcome,” Gonnord says. “You have to spend time. You have to be patient. I’m never in a hurry. I have to connect with 100 people to convince one. I live with people. I try to transmit why I am so fascinated with them. And finally they say, ‘Pierre, let’s try.’ “

Most of the images in his group of Southern photographs were taken in or near Atlanta or Birmingham. (On his current trip he plans to travel more extensively, to Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans and Mississippi.) Among the Atlantans whose portraits are currently hanging in the SCAD galleries are two black women who were involved in the civil rights movement and were photographed in their Auburn Street residence, a homeless man the photographer met through the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, and a spirited little girl from a wealthy family in Cabbagetown.

One of the most striking portraits is of a black Birmingham woman wearing an elegant hat. “I thought very much of the servant of the house [Dilsey] in [Faulkner’s] The Sound and the Fury,” Gonnord says. “She never talks but she knows the whole story. They talk about painting in relationship to my work, but there is nothing closer to portraiture than literature. I admire every great writer, especially if they are the master of human excavation. When I do a portrait, I’m trying to tell a story, to dig something beautiful inside someone and transmit it to the public.”

Hattie, photographed in Birmingham.

Through his visits to the South, he says, he’s grown to love the region and to recognize some common threads with the communities he has photographed elsewhere. “The South has been, like Spain and Portugal, the crossroads of many influences. I’m very seduced by the South. I like your culture; I want to celebrate it. I don’t want to say something; I want to question, sometimes with no answers. That’s what I like in Faulkner’s literature. There are no answers. It’s the human condition. I’m sure it’s not my last trip to the Southern U.S. I’ve started loving this region.”

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