scared

Extraordinary can be found in the ordinary

Published 12:03am Friday, September 13, 2013

Pike County, Georgia is not the epicenter of the art world.

And yet there is something about the rural area just to the southeast of Atlanta that has attracted photographers from California to New York City for the last 10 years.

Visit towns like Griffin, Zebulon and Molena and you might confuse the landscape of rolling hills and two lane roads with areas of north Mississippi.

Like Mississippi, the landscape is dotted with historic buildings, old gas stations and wooden barns — or at least that is what they appear to be from the road.

Closer inspection reveals something very different. For two weeks each September, old hardware stores, whisky barns and local bookstores become galleries filled with art — images of the rural south created by some of the country’s emerging talent.

In conjunction with the Atlanta Celebrates Photography festival, Pike County does, in a way, become the epicenter of photography with its Slow Exposures photography festival.

Like Natchez in the 1930s, a group of Pike County women searched 10 years ago for a way to preserve the heritage of an area threatened by Atlanta’s slow growth to the south. Before the bulldozers wiped Pike County clean of its historic structures, these women devised a way to attract artists and art lovers to the area and make the historic structures part of the attraction.

Each year, Slow Exposures invites photographers from across the country to submit photographs that feature all that is unique about the South — the good, the bad and the contradictions.

Last year I was fortunate to have had a photograph selected for the festival’s 10-year anniversary show. The photograph of three chairs, seemingly in a conversation in the Austin, Texas, Women’s Club, was awarded honorable mention in the show.

Two more images from my series of photos from Natchez and the surrounding area have been selected from 850 images submitted for this year’s competition.

Both photographs were created in the early dawn hours in the middle of a cornfield in Concordia Parish. As the sun rose over the levee near Lake St. John, its warm light hit the face of a small white church and the adjoining cemetery — a gorgeous scene that even my photographs had a hard time capturing.

If last year’s show is any indication, the two images will join a collection of photographs that will highlight everything from NASCAR and hunting clubs to swimming holes and suburban cul de sacs.

Two more Natchez images will be featured in a separate exhibit called “Southern Memories 3: Fin Fur Feather & Foliage,” an exhibit art collector and curator John Bennette has put together, inspired by his childhood memories of the South.

Bennette selected two images, one an explosions of azaleas gracing a suburban Natchez yard and the other of an overgrowth of kudzu threatening a U.S. 61 North roadside attraction. Both photos represent for me the beauty that is the Southern landscape.

Bennette also selected the azalea photo for a recent exhibit at the Photo Center NW in Seattle. A college friend who attended the exhibit reported that the photo “demonstrated a delight and depth in the ordinary that is so much more interesting than some of the gimmicky stuff.”

In a world when the South is typically described in clichés filled with barefeet and dirt roads, the extraordinary spirit of the South can only be found in the ordinary — something I have learned all these years taking photos of you.

 

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by email at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.