Michelle Van Parys is professor of photography at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and the recipient of awards such as the South Carolina Arts Commission Fellowship and the Virginia Museum Fellowship. She received her BFA from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. and her MFA in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Van Parys’s photographs can be found in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, among others.
Like so many photographers, from pioneers on great surveying expeditions in the nineteenth century to Richard Misrach and his encyclopedic cantos, Van Parys worked for an extended period on making images in the American West, culminating in her monograph The Way Out West, first published in 2008. Since then she has turned her attention to landscapes closer to home, to great effect.
Van Parys contrasts the vast open spaces of the West with the tangled lushness of the American South in describing her ongoing series Beyond the Plantations: Images of the New South. Her purpose with this project is to come to grips with the layers of meaning vested in landscapes, overlaid one atop another, that parallel the vibrant and chaotic vegetation that is central to so many of the images in her series. Many of Van Parys’s photographs in Southbound are about peering through foregrounded elements to see into the landscapes that emerge from the tangle. That exercise is analogous to the need to move beyond received truths about the South to see the region as a place in flux, emergent, as geographers would understand it, a place always in the process of becoming, for all that we celebrate, vilify, or take for granted what we think we understand about the region.
Van Parys works in black-and-white in part to pay homage to the great tradition of landscape photography in the United States, from Eadweard Muybridge to Ansel Adams to Linda Connor. Many of the iconic images of the South that this series would enter into conversation with are also black-and-white photographs, which informed Van Parys’s choice as well. In one of her photographs, titled Jungle Slide (2013), an incongruous structure looms behind palm trees and live oaks, all threaded together by a tapestry of vines representing a much more formidable barrier than the chain-link fence that draws a line across the lower portion of the photograph. A closer look reveals apparently nonsensical twists and turns that come into focus as a water slide. This aqua park in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina sits on lands that once were part of the Carolina rice empire. The back-breaking labor of working the coastal plain for agriculture has long since given way to the tourism and recreation pictured in Van Parys’s photograph, which are such important drivers of the economy in today’s New South.
In another of her images, titled Tree House with Satellite Dish (2014), steps invite us up into a full-grown live oak dripping with Spanish moss, where a tree house is under construction, or in decay. Partly enveloped in the brush behind the tree is a satellite dish, conduit to digital universes far removed from the organic world of children playing in the forest. Van Parys’s images thus juxtapose old and new, framed by the perennial in the guise of the natural world, in ways that delve deeply into this region and challenge our stereotypical notions about the South.