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Picture Perfect

Emilie Terhaar | Thursday, March 7, 2013



Scene writer

Get to the Snite as soon as you can. March 10 will signal the closing of the museum’s exhibit “Touching Ground: Finding the American South.”

Attending high school in an upper-middle-class suburb of New York City has taught me that the hipster kind loves polaroids. This exhibit is literally a whole two rooms of gigantic, mournful, heartbreakingly honest polaroids. They are the size of posters – 20 x 24 inches – each artful, iconic and one of a kind.  

Photographer Jennifer Trausch used one of Polaroid’s five hand-built 1970s monster 240-pound cameras and spent five years trucking it around the rural south, snapping photos of Southern people doing Southern things. Some of the photos are still shots of a dilapidated home, hidden swamp, listless child, or sad old man; others are quite moving – swooshes of motion, ritual and habit. People are working at a diner, eating at a fair and watching wrestling matches. They’re all incredibly stark, bare-bones shots. 

The collection showed Southern life like a Carson McCullers’ novel set in the modern day.  Looking at “Virginia 2006” was when the connection to McCullers really hit me. The photo is the closest to happiness the collection gets. It has a girl, caught in the midst of puberty, as a focal point amongst blurry surroundings. She stares into the camera and into the eyes of anyone viewing the photo.  Her skinny body is held taut, as if only for a moment before she turns around or walks off. Her mouth is closed, but her lips are pressed up just the tiniest bit in the corners into a smirk, as if she’s holding onto a smile and refusing it time or space on her face.

Virginia’s unending gaze struck me down and I could not help but see McCullers’ Mick from her first novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Re-examining Trausch’s collection in the light of a McCullers’ novel expressed in photographs opened my eyes to the temporal face of the South being displayed. It was clear Trausch was avoiding showing some more modern additions to Southern culture and was instead trying to highlight the still existent, but perhaps slowly dying, blue-collar culture. She has photographs from dances, fairs, auctions, bars, diners and junk shops but avoids other perhaps equally intrinsically Southern images that might involve fast food, or NASCAR or Walmart.  

Trausch’s portraits are mainly of children, teens or the elderly. In “Jose Brothers 2009,” Trausch reflects a changing South in what I interpreted as an attempt to capture migrant workers.  

Other images are slightly terrifying. The little bits of terror that sneak in and subside into melancholy fit with a reading of Trausch’s McCullers-esque style. In “Bailey’s” and “Maxine” we get hints of deviance. “Maxine” almost seemed to not belong in the collection; it’s an image of a woman’s lap with a gun resting in her hand on top of her naked, brown thigh. The picture looked right out of a Coen Brothers’ movie.  

“Bailey’s” was terrifying in a different way. It was one of the few nighttime pictures and seemed to show a gangster, but the only sign he was a gangster was the ill-fitting flash of the car he was driving and the beyond-ominous glint in his eye.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the 40-something photos in the exhibit. It is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into photography, Carson McCullers or the South. If you have 10 minutes to wait around in O’Shag, stop in and take a look. The pictures will stay with you. But be quick, the exhibit ends Sunday!

Contact Emilie Terhar at                    [email protected]