Since 1996 The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia has invited photographers like Sally Mann, Alec Soth, Emmett Gowin and Richard Misrach to participate in their ongoing documentary series Picturing the South. The initiative prompts photographers to break from the regions potential visual clichés, in favor of a more open-ended approach. In his new book, One Sun, One Shadow, 2012 invitee Shane Lavalette focuses on the rich history of Southern music with an eye that strays from traditional documentary tropes.
There are no photographs of guitar players’ aging hands, nor are there caricatured images of Deliverance-style banjo players plucking away on back porches. Less than five of the photographs in the book include instruments or literal signifiers of music. Instead, the series reflects the ambiance of music and its rich sensation through landscape, portraits, still life. “I knew immediately I didn’t want to set out to illustrate significant places and people that are part of the musical history of the South, or directly trace any specific lineage,” says Lavalette. “I wanted to explore the subjects on the fringes of these places and focus on the atmosphere.”
Bookended by black and white photographs of shredded roadside tires, One Sun, One Shadow officially opens with a color photograph of glass bottles hanging from a tree. At first glance it conjures a makeshift set of wind chimes, or perhaps a tangent of a child’s game of tin-can telephone. It also nods to Creole mythology surrounding bottle trees. While their meaning has evolved for hundreds of years, one of the common uses is to protect the home from evil spirits, which are said to be destroyed by the sun once caught inside. According to some folklore, the musical sound of wind blowing over them is the sound of sprits trapped inside.
This sets the stage for Lavalette’s look at the landscape with an eye for metaphors that implicate an anthology of hidden sounds. The light is muted, still, and almost silent, but emits a quiet hum. Lavalette guides the viewer into a disjointed narrative – a photograph of foggy, sun soaked woods transitions into an empty bed frame; a lone anonymous train; birds flying above a freshly plowed field and so on. The sequencing has a meandering tone that could likely be infinitely re-ordered without disrupting its power, yet often feels like a carefully curated mix tape or soundtrack to Lavalette’s journey through the land.
One Sun, One Shadow's intentionally ambiguous storyline travels through a balance of black and white and color pictures. What started as a defense mechanism against the perils of shooting color in harsh light transitions into an intentioned play on the contrast of immediacy and nostalgia. "I realized that I was interested in the oscillation between color and black and white,” says Lavalette. “To me, it symbolizes a number of things but one of them is a sense of time. Black and white suggests something might be from the past. Certain images actually feel 'timeless' and then there are ones that have hints of contemporary life in them.” For Lavalette, these transitions riff on the lineage of music passing through generations, and how they continuously evolve as storytelling devices.
As a Vermont-raised Northerner, Lavalette had a removed experience and understanding of the region. “I didn’t have a personal relationship with the South, but rather an idea of it that was influenced by things like films, the history of photography, and music.” This added a contrast to some of the past High Museum photographers, many of whom had a more direct connection to the area. Building on this distance, the specific location of Lavalette’s photographs is less relevant to the series than the larger metaphors they represent, and thus, he omits their names from image titles.
The people in Lavalette's photographs often manifest as fleeting fragments of the storyline. While their body language may suggest an inner monologue, they function more as notes or chapter markers than studies of human condition, and are linked by a shared sense of contemplation. In one photograph, a man in a muddied undershirt gazes longingly upward, likely towards a vertical image of upward floating balloons, which Lavalette places page left. In another picture, one of the few containing actual musical objects, another man stares into foggy landscape, back facing the camera, holding a banjo by his waist like a tennis racket or gym bag. Lavalette consistently imbues the people in his photographs with poetic neutrality that might rest somewhere between Alec Soth’s portraits of strangers in Sleeping By The Mississippi, or An-My Le’s topographical photographs of Vietnam reenactors in Small Wars.
It’s ironic that a meditation on a regions rich, lively music could read so quietly. They speak to Lavalette’s thoughtful approach, his ability to go layers deeper than a traditional documentarian, abstracting what the American South sounds like with pause and contemplation.
Bio: Shane Lavalette is an American photographer, the founding Publisher/Editor of Lavalette, and the Director of Light Work in Syracuse, New York. He holds a BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette’s photographs have been shown widely, including exhibitions at the High Museum of Art, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Aperture Foundation, The Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and Musée de l’Elysée, in addition to being held in private and public collections. His first monograph, One Sun, One Shadow, was published in 2016, and a solo exhibition was presented at Robert Morat Galerie in Germany. Lavalette’s work has been featured by The New York Times, TIME, NPR, CNN, The Telegraph, Hotshoe Magazine, among others.