If you’re into photobooks, Fall Line Press’ book cove at the Atlanta Photography Group gallery in the TULA Arts Center is one of the best places in the city to spend some time. You’ll find several rich shelves of books, enough to lose yourself for the better part of an afternoon – which is just what happened to me recently.
On one side of the cove’s main aisle are photobooks for sale, largely small press and limited-edition volumes you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Atlanta, including works by regional photographers and photo artists. If you’re familiar with the kinds of books for sale online through photo-eye.com, for example, this is the place in Atlanta to go and handle them yourself.
The shelf layout is intelligent. Against the logic of the warehouse, which treats books as one more type of product to move, these shelves aren’t packed tight. They’re shelves that behave more like mantels than shelves — places for books and the spaces between them. Many titles are displayed on stands, with the covers facing forward. Tucked into the spine of every book is a hand-cut piece of board with the item’s price, a small indication of a larger truth: that a book’s very appearance in this place means that people who know photobooks are recommending it. The top deck of the shelves is given to showing photobooks in their most beautiful state — open — inviting you to come over and turn their pages. Also at the top are copies of Fall Line Press’ periodical, Free Fall, and unusual items such as Laura Noel’s compelling experimental shufflebooks.
Across the aisle are books not for sale, from the personal collection of Bill Boling, well known in Atlanta’s arts and culture community as a photographer and book artist, and the founder and publisher of Fall Line Press. These shelves feature a potpourri of titles, including many classic works of photographic literature.
There’s a kind of mischief going on at Fall Line Press — the kind I like — in the very idea of mixing books for sale with books not for sale. This book cove is a place not just for photography but for the art of browsing itself. It’s a place for open-ended looking as distinct from focused searching, non-acquisitive looking as distinct from the reflexive desire to buy and own what you see, the kind of looking that has the possibility of surprise built into it. Fall Line has designed a space that induces a certain kind of lateral-mindedness, so that you allow yourself the simple pleasure of discovering an interesting thing you wouldn’t have noticed, precisely because it’s next to the interesting thing you did notice.
Of the many books worth writing about here, I want to dwell on Fall Line Press’ two new titles: Arthur Grace’s America 101 and Kael Alford’s Bottom of da Boot: Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast, both published this year.
America 101 is a companion to Grace’s 1989 book Choose Me: Portraits of a Presidential Race, now revived in the exhibition “Choose Me: Arthur Grace’s Portraits of a Presidential Race,” on display at the High Museum of Art through January 6. In Choose Me, Grace peers into the political pageantry of the 1988 presidential campaign, whose vanities emerge in retrospect perhaps more clearly and more acidly than in their moment. America 101 offers itself as a primer on the spectacle of American civilization writ large, in 101 photographs from the early 1970s to the present.
The book opens with a sequence featuring the U.S. flag as a migratory symbol of earnest allegiance, dubious nostalgia and deflected social pain. “Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 1988” shows uniformed Native American veterans proudly holding the flag of the nation that decimated their people’s traditional ways of life. In “Raleigh, North Carolina, 2003,” men stand on and beside home-built drag-racing cars, their hands on their hearts as if to pledge allegiance — to what exactly we don’t know. “Tampa, FL, 2004” brings us into a school auditorium where teenage cheerleaders pose with their hands on their hearts and sing piously, an American flag perched awkwardly in the center of the composition as the object of their devotion.
In “New Orleans, Louisiana, 1988,” a performing elephant holds the flag in its trunk as a kind of circus baton, and in “Bask, New Hampshire, 1975,” an aging couple seemingly cast off from a Grant Wood painting stands in front of their simple wooden country home, its porch bedecked on two sides by two flags. In “St. Paul, Minnesota, 2004,” three firemen gird a flag on a flatbed truck in a parade, and in “Hutchinson, Kansas, 2004,” a rickety Uncle Sam on stilts gesticulates above a Main Street crowd, the long flag-begotten stripes of his pants resonant of prisoners’ uniforms. In “Marina Del Rey, California, 2009,” three outsized plaster musclemen clutch flags atop a store that is going out of business, and in “Camden, Maine, 2009,” a weathered smokestack is wrapped with a flag as if it were a bandage.
This sequence on the flag is followed by one about guns and hunting, a series on politicians and one on other kinds of winners: extravagant poodles and llamas coiffed like poodles, heavily tattooed champion arm wrestlers, heroic hot dog eaters, 4-H striplings proudly displaying winning eggs and children bearing trophies bigger than their own bodies — for winning exactly what we don’t know, and it isn’t important. And it goes on: in Grace’s hands, America is a land of limitless Americana, countless hollow pleasures, endless conformist individualism, ceaseless self-appreciation, numberless ways of not taking serious things seriously and measureless true sincerity.
As those who think about American photography will quickly recognize, America 101 is not a new book conceptually. It follows in the long tradition of clever photographers hitting the road in pursuit of the great and errant America, epitomized in Walker Evans’ American Photographs, Robert Frank’s The Americans, William Eggleston’s Guide, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects and the better part of Lee Friedlander’s life’s work. The strength of Grace’s book owes in part to the sheer depth of his archive and the freedom of exploration it embodies. Grace, it seems, has been everywhere in America and is liable to turn up anywhere. His pictures show an obvious affection for the special discoveries to be found in nowhere special, with the result that his collection consistently retains the pluck of democratic encounter. Beyond this, he knows how to spot ordinary places turning out unexpected confessions and humble events freighting unwieldy meanings. In short, like the best of his predecessors and contemporaries, he knows how to cull the elements of myth from everyday life.
To my eyes, the weakness of Grace’s book is his inclination to treat myth as tantamount to cultural cliché and his willingness to render his insights as visual one-liners. Just as didacticism can deflate the impact of political art, blunt irony often narrows criticism. Or to put the point differently, just as we have a tendency to become the people we laugh at, work about kitsch has a way of verging on kitsch itself. In this sense, Grace’s photographs from the 1974 Boston busing crisis emerge as the book’s most urgent and telling work. Peppered throughout its sections, in these pictures we see Americans not as people who rehearse their own stereotypes but as citizens in contest and negotiation in the light of prejudicial myth. We see not just what is risible about American myth, but what is really at stake with it.
Altogether, I suspect that Grace’s archive contains a great deal more than what appears in America 101, and I hope that this book is the beginning of his retrospective testimony about late-20th-century America.
Kael Alford’s Bottom of da Boot is an elaboration of photographs she showed in the High Museum of Art’s 2011 installment of its multi-year, multi-photographer documentary commission, “Picturing the South.” Her work grew out of a 2005 assignment to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She traveled to Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana, home to her own family’s ancestral communities of French immigrants and Native American peoples. From 2007 through 2010, Alford returned to these villages to produce what she calls “an estranged family album” and to meditate on the state of the physical and cultural landscape.
“What I found in Louisiana,” she writes in the introduction to the book, “was a complex American history that had been largely unrecorded, in a distant part of the country that felt foreign and oddly familiar.”
We learn that this section of the Louisiana coast is being reclaimed by the sea at the rate of a football-size field of land every half-hour, which is to say an area the size of Manhattan every year. The causes are multiple and complex. They include the erosion of soil nutrition following decades of infrastructural flood controls in the Mississippi Delta, the deterioration of Delta marshlands, the removal of essential sediments in oil and gas extraction and the impact of global warming, which contributes to powerful tropical storms and rising sea levels.
“In Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles,” Alford writes, “the next generation’s biggest challenge will be the encroaching sea.”
We also learn that the Native American communities in the area have failed to receive federal recognition from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. The federal government maintains that, though many people in the area are descended from Native Americans, “there is no evidence linking these ancestors to a particular historical tribe, or to historical tribes, which combined and have continued to function as a tribal entity.” Thus admittedly authentic Native American heritage is denied tribal legitimacy and acquires a kind of liminal, subaltern status.
Linking missing land to missing history, Alford follows the route marked on a map printed on a glassine insert — an elegant and useful piece of book design — and offers a trilogy of linked sequences. Part 1 looks into Isle de Jean Charles, Part 2 the Island Road connecting the two communities and Part 3 the village of Pointe-aux-Chenes. Caption information for the entire trilogy is provided at the close of the third sequence.
All three sequences join contemplative views of the landscape with portraits of the communities’ residents, considering a particular land in the foil of particular individuals, both the land and the people standing by implication for other sites and other people not seen. The book opens associations without imposing conclusions. But this is not a book to flip open and read from the middle, as many people are inclined to do with books of pictures. Alford’s sequences are controlled releases of meaning, and best received by beginning at the beginning, reading the textual material first and allowing the pictures to dilate in awareness one after the other. Inasmuch as the mood of the work is plaintive rather than expository, and Alford’s subject is as much what is absent from view as what is present, the book asks for — and deserves — an honestly slow reading. Its full force emerges when approaching it like a book of poems rather than a report.
That said, I don’t find the three sequences equally compelling. In the first two sections, many of the landscapes are laconic, and most of the portraits are likewise formal, sometimes to the point of terse. It seems that Alford’s purposes really come together in the third sequence, most acutely in her remarkable portraits of Alton, Ray and Mandy Verdin, made in Pointe-aux-Chenes in 2010. These pictures have remarkable psychic depth, perhaps owing to the time Alford spent with members the Verdin family, including “Chief Chuckie” Verdin, whose picture is not in the book but whose importance Alford describes in her introduction. There is a qualitative distinction between sincere portraiture and probing portraiture, and most of her portraits are of the former kind. For me, the latter is key to allowing the place itself to register the sense of loss that Alford understands and wants us to understand.
Altogether, Alford is a sensitive and humanistic artist, and Bottom of da Boot succeeds in using observational photography to braid together what, in the hands of a less talented artist, might be a disparate set of inquiries.
It is a good book, but two things, in my view, would have made it better. First, in terms of design, a larger format with richer reproductions, non-glossy paper and smaller margins would have better carried the intensity of the images. Second, Alford is not just a good photographer but also a keen writer, and allowing her and her interviewees’ voices into the picture sequences would have deepened the reach of each spread. It seems to me that Bottom of da Boot is not just a work of photography but cultural geography by way of photographs. Its ambition, intelligence and complexities deserve the most capacious presentation the book form will allow.