Atlanta-based photographer Jerry Siegel is renowned for his intimate portraits, many of which are featured in his monograph Facing South: Portraits of Southern Artists (2011). In 2009 he received the first Artadia Awards Grand Prize in Atlanta. Siegel’s work is included in the collections of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama; and the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, among others.
Southbound features Siegel’s Black Belt Color series, which documents the unique cultural landscape of the South, concentrating on the Black Belt region of Alabama. A sense of place and home has kept Siegel returning to his Alabama roots to chronicle the region, its change and stagnation, and its people. His eye is drawn to the curious, the absurd, and that which is abiding in the Deep South.
J & R’s, Deer Heads, Perry County, Alabama (2002) shows the interior of J&R’s in Marion, Alabama, where customers may dine on one of the restaurant’s famed burgers under the watchful glass eyes of a herd of whitetail deer heads. Rolls of paper towels stand alert on spotless linoleum tabletops. Despite any errant deer fur with the potential to float into the ketchup of a hamburger, the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness” still rings true in Southern homes and establishments.
Homecoming, Selma, Alabama (2009) captures two things dear to the hearts of Southerners: Friday night football and young women sheathed in flounces of pastel fabric. Siegel’s lens looks out over the sacred turf of the John Tyler Morgan Academy Senators. The Academy, founded as a segregation academy in 1965, is named for John Tyler Morgan, a general in the Confederate States Army, six-term U.S. senator, and fervent supporter of Jim Crow. The Morgan Academy, situated in a community that is almost 80 percent African American, admitted its first African American student in 2008, one year before Siegel’s photograph was taken.
Outfitted in head to toe camouflage, with canine companion and a boxy truck that is sure to accelerate with a proper roar, the titular figure in Hunter, Perry County, Alabama (2010) exudes quintessential Southern masculinity. The subject of this portrait is one of the 3 percent of African Americans who hunt, according to a 2011 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey. Whereas today white hunters far outnumber their African American counterparts, white sportsmen of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries relied on local African American guides to navigate the land. Those guides served as valuable resources, but they were not permitted to participate in the sport. Slave Codes, later Black Codes, later Jim Crow laws, denied African Americans the right to own firearms. Siegel’s photograph of the hunter in Perry County, a minority within a minority, is both a portrait of that man and of the histories of race and constitutional rights in the region.
An image made at the Central Alabama Fair rings with echoes of this same repressive history. Shooter, Dallas County, Alabama (2007) depicts a young African American woman training an air rifle on colorful targets lined up underneath a prominently displayed Confederate flag. Even out of focus in a cacophony of color, the flag quickly captures our attention. The young woman’s arms, smooth, strong, and confident, hold her gun steady as she prepares to pull the trigger. This image, a slice of contemplative calm in what was most assuredly a boisterous atmosphere, is typical of Siegel’s work. Siegel truly sees his subjects, even when he cannot see their faces. His photographs draw out the remarkable fibers in the quotidian fabric of Southern culture. Through his lens, the places and faces we think we know well are held up for reexamination.