Lyrical Attentiveness

Walker Evans (1903-1975) is an influential figure in the history of American documentary photography. On the 11th of March 1964, the renowned photojournalist gave a lecture at Yale University where he talked through his term “lyric documentary.” Since he considered the second word “inexact” and “vague,” he instead strove to produce work with the subtle qualities of poetry, where deeper meaning hid beneath the surface. This is something he admired in the work of French documentarian Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who could “select details – and not just any detail – but the most poetic detail.” This is no small feat because, as Evans continues, this can only be achieved “unconsciously”, “unintentionally” or “accidentally.” The best photographs convey more than the physical subjects in front of the camera. The High Museum of Art presents this approach in the 21st century by highlighting five emerging contemporary artists in the exhibition Truth Told Slant. Here, Rose Marie Cromwell, Jill Frank, Tommy Kha, Zora J Murff and Kristine Potter are not dispassionate observers but attentive participants in the scenes they capture. 

They achieve this by addressing the current social and political landscape from their own personal perspective. On display are issues artists have grappled with for decades but ones that remain pertinent to contemporary American life: race and inequality, identity and sexual orientation, immigration and globalisation, youth and coming of age, climate change and environmental justice and the pervasiveness of violence. This can be seen if we reflect on the work of Rose Marie Cromwell (b. 1984), who transports us to her hometown Miami, Florida. One portrait shows a woman with her eyes closed and head tilted towards the sunlight. Elsewhere, three potted cacti stand beside a bin. Colourful plastic wraps the plants so shades of orange and pink contrast the grey and green. Cromwell presents a city that showcases the wider country’s struggles with economic inequality, excess and climate change. As curator Gregory Harris aptly says, this is a show where image-maker’s “personal histories and experiences inform their perspectives.”

These are poignant and thought-provoking pieces. Tommy Kha’s (b. 1988) The Small Guardian (2018) stands out in particular. We are presented with an assortment of crosses, flowers and toys arranged on the rocky terrain next to the path. The waterfall in the background adds a dynamic intensity that feels out of place right alongside the neglected items. A cuddly dog toy draws our eyes to the centre of the memorial. Another shot shows a restaurant with the sign “authentic Asian cooking” and “steaks & Bar-B-Q our specialties.” Kha’s subject matters include his family and friends, as well as the built environments in Memphis, Tennessee. Informed by his own experiences as the son of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, the artist’s work considers the visibility and invisibility of underrepresented populations in the USA.  

These artists blur boundaries between realism and subjective techniques whilst steering clear of elaborate staging and fabrication. Across the exhibition, photographers reference archives, autobiography, historical imagination, memory and performance. For instance, in Dark Waters, Kristine Potter (b. 1977) considers how rural landscapes and popular music betray powerful yet repressed aspects of American identity: fear, shame and violence. The series is inspired by “murder ballads,” which are folk songs that celebrate and memorialise gendered and racial violence. Potter weaves together landscapes, imagined portraits and spaces she found whilst travelling to pull apart mythologies and folklore and reveal a land and history marked by brutality. She points the lens at Southern waterways whose names reference the violence that took place there. Elsewhere, portraits of young women imaginatively reanimate victims of crimes. The work confronts dominant narratives, forcing viewers to come face to face with the country’s dark past.  

Truth Told Slant inspects our world. The artists on display notice the more subtle themes that hide beneath the surface to create responses that are critical but never detached. The show’s title takes inspiration from an eight-line poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) called Tell all the truth but tell it slant – (1263), which ends with the words: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” Art, from poetry to photography, offers glimpses at some form of “truth” so that we have to see the rest for ourselves. 

High Museum of Art, Truth Told Slant: Contemporary Photography | Until 11 August

Image Credits:

  1. Tommy Kha (American, born 1988), Canal, North Memphis, Tennessee, 2011, pigmented inkjet print,High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds fromCharles Jing, 2023.346. © Tommy Kha.
  2. Tommy Kha(American,born 1988) ,Lotus (Family Style, No 1), Summer Avenue,Memphis, Tennessee, 2021, pigmented inkjet print,High Museum of Art, Atlanta,purchase with funds from Charles Jing, 2023.344. ©Tommy Kha.
  3. Rose Marie Cromwell (American, born 1984), Through the Palm, 2020, pigmented inkjet print, courtesy of the artist. © Rose Marie Cromwell.
  4. Rose Marie Cromwell (American, born 1984),The Nursery, 2017, pigmented inkjet print,High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Wanda Hopkins, 2023. 104. © Rose Marie Cromwell.