Kathleen Robbins isn’t exactly sure what “the new South” is, but as one of 56 photographers displaying work in the “Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South” exhibit at the College of Charleston, she’s helping to try to define it.
“Southbound” is the largest exhibition ever produced of photographs of and about the American South in the 21st century, and strives to present multiple ways of visualizing the region.
The project’s purpose is to investigate the senses of place in the South that congeal, however fleetingly, in the spaces between the photographers’ looking, their images, and preexisting ideas about the region.
Robbins is professor of art and photography and an affiliate faculty member of Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina where she has directed the photography program and taught for 15 years in the School of Visual Art and Design. She grew up in Mississippi, near her grandmother’s farm.
After completing her MFA at the University of New Mexico in 2001, she returned to her grandmother’s farm and documented the experience in photographs. She came to USC in 2003, but continued to return to and photograph her family’s farm and the land around it.
Her project “Into the Flatland” (published as a monograph in 2015) was made from those trips and engages with issues of home, nostalgia, and loss. Robbins’ photographs have been widely collected and exhibited. Her work has been featured by Garden & Gun, NPR, CNN, and the New York Times. Robbins answered a few questions about her participation in “Southbound.”
Q. While taking photos for “Into the Flatland,” you tried to immerse yourself in your grandmother’s experience on the farm: “I read her writing, dressed in her clothes, and ate from her china,” but that you had trouble finding “the same level of poetry in my own life on the farm.” Did that experience change how you viewed your grandmother, or your family history?
A. Very much so. My impression of my grandmother’s life on the farm differed from my experience. After living there for two years and struggling with the isolation, I still imagined much of her experience to be poetic and driven by an artist’s lifestyle. However, my thoughts of her private life also became imbued with loss and melancholy.
Q. What were you looking for when you were taking these photographs?
A. I first began making photographs for “Into the Flatland” after I met my late husband, Ben. We bought our first home in downtown Columbia, and as I pursued tenure at USC I was aware of the increasing possibility that I would never live on or near the family farm again. The push pull of the landscape of home was what I was exploring. I was looking to understand my conflicted relationship to place and a sense of obligation to my family.
Q. Is “the new South” in the Mississippi Delta different from “the new South” in South Carolina?
A. I’m not sure I have a clear understanding as to what the “new south” is anywhere, although I do believe this exhibition, which is massive, begins to paint a picture. In terms of difference maybe there are differences between the way some South Carolinians identify as Southern in general in relation to some Mississippi Deltans. The Delta seems to me to be more closely associated with a mid-century and civil rights era South, whereas South Carolina seems to identify more with an antebellum South. That said, after having lived in South Carolina now for over 15 years I feel less confident in attempting to define the place where I grew up, and my experience here is largely limited to my downtown neighborhood, Hollywood Rose Hill. While my neighborhood is a place I’ve grown to love, it probably isn’t indicative of the state’s regional identity.
Q. What are your thoughts on what the “Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South” project reveals?
A. I don’t think “Southbound” attempts to define the South so much as pose questions about what it means to photograph here and now. I think it reveals among other things an ongoing and particular need to explore who we are through ideas of place and time.
Q. Do you have a favorite photograph among the ones you’ve displayed in the exhibit?
A. The “Blackbirds” photograph was made during the winter of 2007, after Ben and I married but before our son was born. I was caught or stuck really in the questioning of who I was in relation to generations of women who had come before, and the sounds and smells of the landscape were a charge. The experience of watching and hearing and smelling the blackbirds at dusk still brings back memories and narratives of being on the farm through generations. It’s frightening and incredibly loud really to be beneath such a mass of screaming birds. That image holds up for me and carries all the emotion of coming and going that was my life then and now.
Q. Do you have a favorite photograph among the ones displayed by other photographers?
A. Sophie with Mimosa, 2002 by Maude Schuyler Clay. I have a physical experience when I view the image. Maude’s portraits (those of her children in particular) have a visceral power. I also admire the work of Will Jacks and Euphus Ruth and so many others in the exhibition.
Q. What do you hope folks will talk about after looking at your photos in the exhibit?
A. I think the most pleasurable part of sharing work publicly is not knowing how viewers will respond and being caught off guard by a question or a thought. I hope that the photographs are both universal and particular to others. One lovely and meaningful thing that happened a few years ago- my friend and neighbor, Tim Conroy, came to see me speak about “Into the Flatland.” Afterward, he bought a copy of my book, and he wrote and later published a beautiful collection of poetry “Theologies of Terrain” inspired in part by my photographs. One of Tim’s poems was later printed alongside my photographs at the Columbia Museum of Art.
Q. Why should folks drive to Charleston to see this exhibit?
A. The curators, Mark Sloan and Mark Long, and their colleagues at the Halsey worked for several years to plan this exhibition as the most comprehensive collection of contemporary Southern photography in more than 20 years. I am honored to be among an esteemed group of artists. There are too many photographers to list. Many artists will be recognizable to folks who follow Southern photography, but perhaps the most exciting thing about this exhibition is the number of artists who will be unknown to visitors. I’m also quite proud to be included in the beautiful and dense catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.
About the Exhibit
“Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South”
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston presents the exhibition simultaneously at both the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and the City Gallery at Waterfront Park.
“Southbound” is curated by Mark Sloan, director and chief curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, and Mark Long, professor of political science, both of whom are on the faculty of the College of Charleston.
“Southbound” embraces the conundrum of its name. To be southbound is to journey to a place in flux, radically transformed over recent decades, yet also to the place where the past resonates most insistently in the United States. To be southbound is also to confront the weight of preconceived notions about this place, thick with stereotypes, encoded in the artistic, literary, and media records. “Southbound” engages with and unsettles assumed narratives about this contested region by providing fresh perspectives for understanding the complex admixture of history, geography, and culture that constitutes today’s New South.
After its debut in Charleston, Southbound will travel nationally, including stops in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., Meridian, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La.
If you go
“Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South”
Where: Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, 161 Calhoun St., Charleston; and the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau St.
When: Through March 2
Time: Halsey Institute gallery hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays. City Gallery’s hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon- 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays,
Cost: The galleries of the Halsey Institute and the City Gallery are open to the public and admission is free.