Alex Harris was a student of Walker Evans as an undergraduate at Yale University. Working in documentary photography, he has chronicled the American South, Cuba, the Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico, and the Inuit villages of Alaska. Harris is a founder of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, where he has taught for more than thirty-five years. Between 1994 and 1998 he co-edited the Center’s influential publication DoubleTake. At Duke, he is Professor of the Practice of Public Policy and Documentary Studies. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship, and a Lyndhurst Prize. His work is in the collections of major museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
A masterful photographer, Harris captures his subjects with a sharp intelligence and deep compassion that highlights their common humanity. His method replaces tired regional stereotypes with approachable images that reopen conversations about specific places and peoples for viewers who may live under quite different circumstances. His photographs of the South, for example, showcase peoples of different socioeconomic levels, races, and regional affiliations in a way that enlivens their diverse experiences for a wide range of viewers.
One of Harris’s projects has focused on the port-based city of Mobile, Alabama. Originally founded by the French, then taken over by the British, and later the Spanish, before becoming part of the United States in 1813, the city hosts a rich mix of cultures and traditions. For more than eighty years, Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations have been organized annually by the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, which hosts the formal Grand Marshals Ball as part of the festivities. Led by prominent African American community members, the organization seeks to promote cultural appreciation and civic betterment. Harris’s photograph Grand Marshals Ball, Battle House Hotel (2010) presents ball attendees socializing at the hotel in front of a mural of the city’s French cofounder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Founded in 1852, the original hotel hosted Confederate president Jefferson Davis along with Abraham Lincoln’s competitor for the presidency, Stephen A. Douglas. At ease and festive during the elegant celebration in a space marked by the city’s colonial, slave-owning, and segregationist history, the ball’s African American guests symbolize the diverse and ever-changing history of Southern places and identities.
Mardi Gras Nacho Stand, American Legion Yard, Government Street (2010) is another example of a Southern cultural mash-up. Here we see a food stand at dusk, lit with carnivalesque lights and decor, ready to serve American classics that in fact originate from the regional fare—nachos, funnel cakes, and sausages—of other nations whose immigrants have played important roles in populating the United States. The stand’s flashy decor contrasts with the stately, flag-draped facade of the American Legion building behind it, juxtaposing the distinct cultural tastes of different Southern social classes. Harris’s images offer intelligent, approachable, and optimistic views of the shared humanity of diverse people living in the South.