Into Cinema

Our Strange New Land: Photographs by Alex Harris is the latest chapter in the ongoing Picturing the South project, for which the High Museum commissions artists to create original bodies of work that offer new perspectives on the South’s social and geographical landscapes. Whilst the show is closed, find out about Harris’ methodology, and what we can learn from visual narratives and the power of independent filmmaking.

A: Where did the inspiration for this series originate? 
n 2017, when I began to work on my Picturing the South commission from the High Museum, I had been teaching in Duke’s new MFA program for five years, working closely with serious filmmakers focused on the process of telling stories with moving image. So having been immersed in the process of filmmaking, thinking about and sometimes even dreaming about my students’ films, I was fascinated by and somewhat familiar with the world of filmmaking, even though I’d only been on a film set once before. 

I was also inspired by my then decade-old memory of my first and only time on a movie set, for Steven Soderbergh’s CHE. The producer, Laura Bickford, invited me to photograph in Mexico where Soderbergh was filming the last battle of the Cuban revolution, a battle in which Che Guevara played the key role. Before I arrived in Mexico, I imagined that photographing on Soderbergh’s movie set would be a kind of exercise in make-believe, fundamentally different from my experience photographing in Cuba itself for my earlier book The Idea of Cuba. But when Benecio Del Toro walked on set, the actors and extras responded as if Che were there amongst us.

When I arrived on the set of CHE, a set photographer was already hired to make pictures for publicity. The producer was interested in how I would respond as a photographer to being on set, to whatever unfolded on set or behind the scenes. I found myself drawn not so much to the stars of the film, but to the extras, the ordinary Mexican townspeople playing Cubans at war. 

The complete freedom to photograph on or around set – as long as I didn’t get in the Soderbergh’s way – was enormously interesting and something I thought to replicate in movie sets in the South. On set for the first time for Soderbergh’s film, I found that within moments I was given extraordinary access to photograph emotionally charged events and visually compelling people, something that would take me months or even years to achieve in my earlier work. And, if I missed a shot during filming, the scene was almost always repeated with another take, from different distance or angle. That is a photographer’s dream! 

A: How do you perceive the “collective idea” of the American South? Why do you think filmmakers are, or were, drawn to this landscape? 
Practically all of us carry pictures with us in our minds about the South and its history – images formed from so many tropes in books, films and television, depictions of southerners we’ve read and seen over the years. I’m happy to say that you won’t find one white-columned mansion, confederate flag, or chain gang member amongst my pictures. 

What’s interesting about photographing on independent narrative movie sets in the South is that each of these films was set in a particular place. Even even if the set sprang from imagination of the writer, director, location manager or set decorator, the southern landscape often became the foreground or background to the scenes in the film.

Actually, I think my pictures comment not so much on the collective idea of the South; they comment on a new breed of narrative filmmakers looking at this region through a much more diverse and democratic lens than in the past, filmmakers from different social backgrounds, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities. These filmmakers are evoking a broad range of experiences, coming to terms with matters of race and class and sexuality that relate not just to the south but to the whole country.

A: How do you think the landscape of cinema has changed in the last few years? How have you tapped into this with the images? 
AH: This project focuses on the work of independent narrative filmmakers making features and short films – some with thousand dollar budgets some with several million dollar budgets. I was especially drawn to independent filmmakers because as an audience we don’t immediately have a sense of the characters in their films or the stories they are telling as we would have if I’d photographed large-budget films or series we know from major releases on Netflix and Amazon. 

Our Strange New Land is a project about the imagination – my own certainly – but also the imaginations of 41 different filmmakers in nine Southern states over two years. And yet I photographed only a tiny sample of what must be hundreds or even thousands of independent films being made in the South and across the country every year. I believe an explosion of visual storytelling and movie making is occurring in part because the access to video cameras and editing software is more and more accessible and affordable, but also because this generation is more visually literate than any before. This new generation of producers, writers, directors, and cinematographers was filmed constantly by their parents, picked up their parents cameras before they could speak, started making films on their phones, and grew up inside the moving image culture we all increasingly inhabit. 

In fact the title of this project, Our Strange New Land, describes not only the south that emerges in my pictures and out of the imaginations of these filmmakers, but also the strange new land of visual storytelling that we all increasingly inhabit. Well before the Covid 19 pandemic, we increasingly engaged with one another and the society around us – received our news of the world – not from actual interactions with one another, but from small screens we carry with us, from larger screens in our homes, restaurants, and places of work – through visual stories. This phenomenon is so prevalent it is difficult for us to remember how recent it is. 

A: Was there anything you hadn’t expected to see whilst on set? How much of the photographs is spontaneous and how much is staged?
AH: As a photographer and teacher, I come out of the documentary world. One of the central dilemmas in this world is how to engage an audience to see and care about important, but often difficult, subjects. I was surprised by the way these narrative filmmakers were accomplishing just that kind of engagement and focus on key issues facing society. Emily Dickinson wrote “to tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In many ways that is what these filmmakers are doing to get us to focus on important subjects. 

As I travelled around the South to different fiction movie sets, I began to see recurring themes and preoccupations that have become central to American life. For instance, in Thunder Road, a film set in Louisiana, it tells the story of the gradual emotional breakdown of a policeman, also manages to explore the painful entwined history of race and law enforcement in the South and at the same time to get at the heart of life in contemporary working class America. Miner’s Mountain, a horror film made in Wilmington, North Carolina, was about a monster that haunts a rural community also managed to tell the story of the complexity of a long marriage.

Hallowed Ground, another horror film set in Mississippi, put a same sex relationship front and centre to an otherwise fantastical tale about a native American community’s clash with a neighbouring clan. Let Light Perpetual, an experimental film set in Atlanta, Georgia, and made to be projected in huge scale on the face of a building, managed to show the sexual harassment that so many women endure and reminds us of the Me Too movement. And The People Could Fly, a short, experimental film in shot in Columbia, South Carolina showed both the resilience and the lasting impact of a drug culture for a child growing up in that world. I photographed on other narrative films that explored war and the reality of war, the nature of work for so many low waged people in this country, and environmental themes like factory farming and pollution. 

A: Do you see yourself as an actor within these images? What role does the photographer play? 
AH: The role I assigned myself was to follow my instincts: to photograph whatever drew me, however off base or illogical it might seem at the time. So, for instance, I found myself fascinated by the gaffers and lighting technicians, and often followed them around and photographed them setting up their lights to create the mood of a scene. Through them, I began to pay more attention to the nuances of lighting in each scene and some of my pictures are actually about light itself rather than the actors or set the light illuminates. 

I am less an actor in this exhibit as I am collector and curator of my images. Walker Evans, a seminal photographer I was lucky enough to know and study with in college, wrote that the impulse to photograph is much like the impulse to collect. As a curator, after choosing my photographs to keep, I arranged those images in ways were most meaningful for me and ideally most compelling for others who would see my pictures.

1.Alex Harris (American, born 1949), Greener Grass in Gay, Georgia, 2018, pigmented inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. © Alex Harris. 
2.Alex Harris (American, born 1949), Miner’s Mountain in Wilmington, North Carolina, 2017, pigmented inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. © Alex Harris. 
3. Alex Harris (American, born 1949), Abducted in Waxhaw, North Carolina, 2018, pigmented inkjet print. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, commissioned with funds from the H.B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust and the Picturing the South Fund. © Alex Harris. 
4. Alex Harris (American, born 1949), And the People Could Fly in Columbia, South Carolina, 2018, pigmented inkjet print. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, commissioned with funds from the H.B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust and the Picturing the South Fund. © Alex Harris.