Based in New Orleans, Tammy Mercure earned a BA in photography from Columbia College Chicago in Illinois and an MFA in photography from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. She has held teaching positions at Columbia College Chicago; East Tennessee State University, Johnson City; and King University in Bristol, Tennessee. Mercure’s work is included in the collections of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; the Newark Public Library, New Jersey; and was part of the Midwest Photographers Project at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.
Mercure’s series Cavaliers documents some of the more raucous events and personalities sprinkled across the South, demonstrating conclusively that Southerners love a good spectacle. These photographs embody independent spirits, a deep respect for tradition, and a love of the land. For example, Kingsport, Tennessee (2013) shows the winner of the 2013 Boozy Creek burnout contest in all his glory. Every year on Mother’s Day, the Peacemaker Motorcycle Club of Kingsport hosts a large motorcycle rally with drag racing and other motor sports contests. With the economy in decline, participation in that year’s burnout contest was low, as a “burnout” involves ruining a pair of perfectly good tires. Feelings were rankled when a Yamaha took first place amid a sea of all-American Harley Davidsons. The winning prize? A set of new tires. The region’s large swaths of rural land allow for festivals and boisterous events to take place without the restrictions of noise ordinances or other restraints.
Testosterone is on full display in Bristol, Virginia (2012), another image from Cavaliers. Mercure’s photograph allows the viewer a literal window onto a scene we might otherwise never have access to. A shirtless man sporting a collection of tattoos, including a teardrop under his right eye, reaches behind him where his pit bull sits. The dog’s eyes, alert and intense, keep a watchful gaze on its owner’s motions. Depending on the viewer’s own tastes and experiences, this image may elicit fear or pride. In our current cultural climate, pit bulls are the source of heated debate. Reviled and revered with equal intensity, they are subject to breed-specific legislation and fiercely defended under the mantra of “bad owners, not bad dogs.” A person’s relationship with their dog is sacrosanct in the South, where dogs assist in the hunt, guard rural homesteads, and are lovingly manicured in dedicated canine beauty parlors.
Mercure’s love of New Orleans and its surrounding area is on view in her series Saints, which captures what she considers giant personalities, traditions, and events that have no counterpart anywhere else in the United States. The runaway vibrancy of Louisiana can feel foreign even to lifelong Southerners. Morgan City, Louisiana (2014) shows a family dressing an alligator in their front yard as they prepare to host a party. The gator’s bubblegum-pink muscles, laying in ribbons around its neck, are startling in their exotic beauty. Alligator hunting season starts each August or September in Louisiana, depending on geographic zone. For many, the meat is not consumed as a novelty but as a dietary staple. Unused hides may be sold for profit to licensed buyers or dealers. Properly skinning an alligator is a practiced skill, as any nick or hole severely decreases a hide’s value.
Exoticism is on full display in the image titled New Orleans, Louisiana (2014), wherein amateur jockeys clumsily race a pair of zebras. Every Thanksgiving at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, local families dress up and head to the racetrack to watch brave souls race zebras, emus, and more. Mercure’s image doesn’t belittle the jockeys, although PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) takes a less amiable stance. Though their technique may be lacking and they are missing the elegant jackets of their Kentucky Derby counterparts, the jockeys are simultaneously determined and lighthearted in a tableau moodily lit by the ominous storm clouds overhead.
Mercure’s photographs capture a vibrant, unapologetically whimsical South. The images selected for inclusion in Southbound present Southerners unleashing and unwinding in all their hot-blooded glory, a far cry from the firefly-dotted porch scenes so prevalent in the minds of many when they picture Southern leisure.