Natchez good enough for gallery display

Published 12:22 am Friday, August 3, 2012

When I asked Tommy Polk if his bed deserved to be in one of America’s most prestigious art museums, the Ferriday native laughed in my face and shook his head in disbelief.

In fact he forgot the day a New England photographer visited his house to take a few photographs a couple of years ago.

Yet, several hundred miles away a framed picture of the songwriter’s white-painted iron headboard against a vivid green wall hangs on the walls of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

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The photograph is one of 76 images in an exhibit the museum calls “Picturing the South.” The exhibit is open until Sept. 22.

For the last 16 years, the High has sent noted photographers to seek out images that capture some essential slice of life in the South.

A couple of years ago the High charged emerging photographer Shane Lavalette to present his view of the American South.

One of the images he returned with was Tommy Polk’s bed.

Before coming to the area, Lavalette’s only connection to the South was through the region’s music and through the movies. He is a Vermont native and has focused his camera primarily on New England, until the High approached him for their exhibit.

Lavalette’s love of the blues, gospel and other music genres inspired him to seek out images that, in his mind, told the musical story of the South. Moved by themes and stories passed down in song, he let the music carry him and his art.

It is no surprise that the music would lead to Natchez and to Polk’s doorstep.

After all, Polk had a successful 20-year career as a Nashville songwriter. He returned to Natchez in 2007, restored his house, named it Shantybellum and almost immediately contributed his time and talents to revitalize the Ferriday music culture.

With a colorful home and a colorful personality, Polk and the bed where the songwriter dreams up some of his biggest ideas and creates future musical masterpieces were sure to be discovered by Lavalette.

It is also no surprise that he would end up pointing his camera in Alvin Shelby’s direction.

A photograph of the Natchez gospel choir director and piano impresario sitting behind the keyboard at Holy Family Catholic Church also hangs with Tommy Polk’s bed in the galleries high above Midtown Atlanta.

Lavalette traveled up an down the Mississippi River and U.S. 61 taking photographs inspired by the music of Polk and Shelby — the blues, gospel and good old down home music.

The Devil’s Crossroads, the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, the Rev. Dennis’ Bible Castle to God in Vicksburg all are featured in Lavalette’s music-inspired photography.

Then there are other images of the South that are less prominent as places, yet depict an all-too familiar landscape from which the music of the South was born.

Many online readers have chided these images as highlighting everything that is depressing and bad about the South. Two other images from Natchez depict a young black woman standing on a porch of a house on Madison Street that has seen better days and the words “Bad Dog” spray-painted several times on the side of a rusted Natchez warehouse.

Time magazine’s Nate Rawlings says Lavalette steers clear of the “standard images” of the American South to record images with “a poetic lens.”

When I asked Tommy Polk if he thought his bed was art, he laughed once again and said, “Maybe they will feature my bathroom next time.”


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