By Sean Patrick Hill
Rural America has long been hunting ground for photographers. Whether it’s Paul Strand’s shots of the farmers and small churches of Vermont, Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era portraits, or Walker Evans’ inventory of the American South, the genre is well-established.
Linda Bruckheimer has taken on, therefore, an enormous responsibility in photographing rural Kentucky — some may even say a burden. Her show “Family Gathering,” which has been up for over a year and continues through Jan. 6 at the Frazier History Museum, is inevitably to be judged against this pantheon.
There is precedent even in Kentucky for classic photography — if not the controversial photojournalism of the Johnson-era, then certainly the work of Kentucky native Shelby Lee Adams, the bulk of whose work is portraiture of the people of eastern Kentucky. There’s also the work of New Yorker William Gedney, whose photographs of Kentuckians are as striking as they are tender.
To confront Bruckheimer’s photographs with a sensibility informed by this tradition of American photography is to approach the photographs critically and thoughtfully.
Bruckheimer’s show offers no small controversy as related to her artistic choices, whether they be her compositions, choice of subjects or, especially, the titles.
The titles of the photos are problematic. Ansel Adams is famous for saying that the photograph must speak for itself — a photograph, that is, cannot be rendered in words.
To that end, titles were simple: “Moon Over Half Dome,” for example, was entirely descriptive and thus neutral. Bruckheimer, however, titles her photographs, or most of them, in an ironic manner.
Three men pictured on a sidewalk bench become “Three Wise Men.” An Amish carriage becomes “Amish Uber.”
Now take the image of a man in Bardstown. The focus, emphasized by the stark black and white, is on his shirt that reads, “If guns kill people, then pencils misspell words, cars make people drive drunk, and spoons make people fat.”
The viewer, naturally, confronts this text, along with the face of its wearer, who stares not at the camera but into an incomprehensible distance. Bruckheimer has titled the image, “Dressed to Kill.”
But witty as that may seem, what this title does is to stand entirely between the viewer and the image itself — between us and them. Taken as simply an untitled image, at least part of the responsibility lies on the viewer to make the effort to understand the photograph. Without a title, the photo challenges the viewer to look closely at the man, to try and discern a character, to consider what is clearly his message on its own terms.
But the title not only alters the perception of the man, it instills an interpretation that is decidedly out of step with the deeper character presented here — it is, in short, a judgment, based on an assumption that a complicated human being can be reduced to an appearance.
That judgment also threatens to focus the attention only on the man’s apparent message, and certainly the apparent demonization of the man, but additionally pulls the viewer’s eyes away from what else is interesting in the photo — like the bald head just behind the subject, with the tattoo “Skinhead” emblazoned on his skull.
In another image, a man outside a garage, too, clearly appears to be lost in his own thoughts, unaware of the camera. To give this man the title of “Chairman of the Bored” is an obvious interpretation that borders on degradation. To let the man be as he is affords him the necessary dignity and respect — and this task lies clearly in the eye of the artist as it does with the beholder.
What else is problematic is Bruckheimer’s admission, in her artist statement, that most of the photographs “were taken from the seat of my car.” Granted, a photographer like Garry Winogrand did this late in life, but it also had an aesthetic purpose.
In these images, one feels the distance that such shooting implies. The ghosts of master photographers rise up here, especially when one considers Walker Evans’ close-range photos of the tenant farmers in Alabama, or Paul Strand’s striking and memorable photo of the farmer, Mr. Bennett.
“Father and Daughter” is a shot that holds promise, but the distance is palpable in the shot. The viewer senses that the photographer is at more than arm’s length, and that distance affects, naturally, how the subjects may hold themselves.
To photograph people, one must gain their trust — a hallmark of Shelby Lee Adams’ lifetime work with people. Bruckheimer’s “Standing Room Only,” with its villagers standing before a shopfront, describes an image snapped in passing — neither compassionately confronted nor deeply considered. Such rendering, in the current political climate, threatens to intensify division. Objectification, as Adams has repeatedly pointed out, must be countered by intimacy.
There is, at the same time, possibility and promise in this show. The children in “Unregistered Voters” blossom with personality and clear joy — their uninhibited light is evident. The odd juxtaposition of a gorilla sculpture before a rural motel demonstrates the humor and character of its owners.
An equally weird juxtaposition lies between the drab, abandoned castle of the Old Taylor Distillery — an architecture that Walker Evans would have loved — and the bright green portable toilet at its doors.
The image of the Wigwam Village in Cave City is made all the stronger by its careful consideration of light, tone and composition, establishing a rhythm of shape that demonstrates care and attention. It shows, in Bruckheimer’s own words, a dedication to “unexpected light.” It shows that she stood in this clearly campy, commercial scene and found it beautiful.
Some of the images, too, seem purposefully arranged. To consider an image of a working tobacco barn beside a shuttered tobacco store is to comment on the state of the tobacco economy in Kentucky — an issue to which Wendell Berry has spoken eloquently.
This is not to suggest that the photographer is without attitude toward his or her subjects. The artistry of the photograph, by its nature, draws the attention to what is contained in the frame. Photography, like poetry, like painting, seeks to allow what is framed to speak for itself. It calls for intimacy with a working man and the landscape he inhabits, no matter what he wears or the condition of his house.
The photographer seeks to understand not only the subjects themselves, but the history that surrounds them and informs them. In Bruckheimer’s show, it is the viewer, primarily, who must bring that sensibility to bear upon the images. In the end, in regards to both what is depicted as well as the depicter, the judgment is entirely ours.
Bruckheimer’s “Family Gathering” continues through Jan. 6. A new exhibition by Bruckheimer titled “Roadmap to Heaven” will replace the show and open on Jan. 22. The photographs will chronicle a family’s journey from Kentucky to California in the 1950s.
The Frazier History Museum is located at 829 W. Main St.
Sean Patrick Hill is a writer, photographer and poet living in Louisville. He’s been awarded an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and two fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center.