In 2010, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta commissioned US photographer Shane Lavalette to create a series of photographs for its 2012 exhibition, Picturing the South. Lavalette is a native of Burlington, the small, forest-ringed town on the borders where Vermont meets New York State, and had studied the American South only through the history of photography and music.
He had never visited, but growing up listening to the blues, jazz, gospel and country music that the area was famous for was his “natural entry point for this project,” he says. “It was primarily through music that I had formed a relationship with the South.”
The resulting monograph is an extension of the work created for the original commission. Titled One Sun, One Shadow, the first edition was published by Lavalette’s own publishing house in 2016. He received the Unveil’d Photobook Award for the work in 2017 and will now exhibit it for the first time in the UK at Old Truman Brewery (May 16 to 19) to coincide with Photo London.
While the Deep South’s musical lineage is the nominal overarching theme of the series, the photography itself is varied, and often elliptical. “When I embarked on the commission, I did some research in order to outline a general itinerary related to musical history,” says Lavalette. “But I intended to stay open photographically and didn’t develop much of a shot list beforehand. It allowed me to be present, meet people and find things along the way.”
With that in mind, Lavalette developed a series rich in diverse imagery. We see shots in black-and-white and colour. We get portraits, landscapes, still lifes, documentary-based observations and abstractions. Alongside the more predictable images, we see teenagers kissing, balloons floating up to the clouds or coloured bottles hanging from a tree. “I was not interested in making a documentary, but rather to find poetic, musical images of the landscape of the American South,” he says.
“I wanted to move beyond obvious narratives and bring images together more playfully. In musical terms, I wanted to experiment with ideas of tempo and repetition in a way that creates both harmony and discord.”
Southern American music is closely associated with the civil rights movement. Many gospel songs have roots in the songs that slaves sang in the cotton fields, while Delta blues musicians, such as Muddy Waters, BB King and Howlin’ Wolf, sang of the struggles of segregation and second-class citizenry. Did this inform the project? “I was very interested in the South’s complex history,” Lavalette says. “And I was struck by how the music and the landscape reflect this history. America is an amazing country, but we have a lot of work to do still to move beyond a dark past – and, truthfully, a dark present. Music will always be a powerful form of protest.”
Only 32, Lavalette used the original commission as a springboard to involve himself in the photographic community of Upstate New York. In 2011, Lavalette was hired as the associate director of the respected Light Work, a non-profit photography organisation in Syracuse. He was appointed director two years later, in 2013. “[The residency] was instrumental in developing One Sun, One Shadow,” he says. “I scanned all of the film and proofed images during my residency and later printed the work for the High Museum exhibition at Light Work Lab. I had a wonderful experience, and when a position opened that same year, I was hired.
One Sun, One Shadow by Shane Lavalette will be exhibited at the Old Truman Brewery in London during Photo London (17 – 19 May 2019)