On the list of adages no one believes anymore, right up there with "A man's home is his castle" and "A picture is worth a thousand words," is "The camera never lies." We all know that nobody gets to be king of the La-Z-Boy anymore. That thousand-words jazz was just a slogan used to sell illustrated ad space at the beginning of the 20th century. And the camera … it might not lie (that's Photoshop's job), but it says exactly what its user wants it to say.
Of the dozens of lavish photography books published in 2012 – most not widely read outside fine-art circles – two have special relevance to the South. Martin Parr's Up and Down Peachtree: Photographs of Atlanta (Contrasto, 208 pages) and Lucas Foglia's A Natural Order (Nazraeli Press, 80 pages) both peer into the Southern way or ways of life, but the process by which they observe and the things that they find couldn't be more different.
Parr, a British fashion photographer known for his acerbic documentation of his countrymen's bad taste and bad behaviour, here turns his lens on America. Commissioned by the High Museum of Art as part of its Picturing the South project, Peachtree depicts scenes found along Atlanta's long and heterogeneous thoroughfare – two little girls in a stroller being fed sprinkle-coated cake pops, ketchup-drippy hot dogs on a red plastic plate, scenes from an art auction at which every single hand clutches a full wineglass – and his cynical bystander's eye is in full effect. A photograph of a man eating a barbecued turkey leg on the street is perfectly angled so that the tinfoil wrapping torn off the drumstick seems to form a tinfoil helmet – visual shorthand for "crazy person." In some cases the implied commentary is in the juxtaposition of images, like a picture of a line of white guys watching a gay pride parade laid out across from one of a pew full of black churchgoers, arms raised in worship.
While their mandate is superficially the same – portraits of American Southerners – the hot candy colors of Parr's Up and Down Peachtree stand in stark contrast to the cool, dusty greens and duns of A Natural Order; the formal elegance of Foglia's rural images is worlds away from Parr's poppy swagger and from-the-hip urbanity. So too is Foglia's attitude diametrically opposed to Parr's. A Natural Order documents several "outsider" communities – hippies, survivalists, Mennonites – and Foglia grew up off the grid himself, the child of '70s back-to-the-landers, which lends an empathetic beauty to his portraits of hardscrabble lives chosen, not necessitated. Instead of the eyebrow-cocked interloper, he's a collaborator.
As Geoff Dyer wrote in a 2005 essay on photography, "That's the thing about all great photos … Everything in them is essential – even the inessential bits." That's borne out in A Natural Order's 45 large images (the cloth-bound book is 11 inches by 14 inches). Foglia's photograph of venison chunks soaking in a Tennessee bathtub has an immediate gory punch, but it's the details that instruct: There's a wall outlet, but the three fat candles on a tall rustic stand make us wonder whether this house uses electricity. The rag rug says they make what they can; the towels neatly rolled in a basket tell us they buy what they can't. A plastic go-cup reminds us that they live in the modern world, even if they don't partake of all of it.
One thing both books share is a frustrating lack of text. In the case of Up and Down, the lack of identifying detail simply intensifies Parr's snarkiness, and the design of the book furthers that end too. The volume begins and ends with a few pages of pure color plates, each bearing just one "telling" isolated detail – a shakily hand-lettered placard reading "I <3 My Gay Sons" stripped of the woman holding it; an overflowing garbage can labeled "Keep America Beautiful" minus its context of tidy surrounding fairgrounds. In A Natural Order, Foglia does include a short statement describing his childhood outside the societal norm; it's enough to explain the empathy that radiates from his pictures of people that another photographer might portray as freaks. Clearly both of these photographers are still convinced that a picture expresses more than any words can.
"Up and Down Peachtree: Photographs of Atlanta"
by Martin Parr
(Contrasto, 208 pages)
"A Natural Order"
by Lucas Foglia
(Nazraeli Press, 80 pages)