Lauren Henkin graduated with a BA in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and is currently based in Maine. She is the recipient of multiple awards including the Archive of Documentary Arts Collection Award for Documentarians of the American South (2017), among many others. Her work resides in a number of institutional collections, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; and Yale University, New Haven.
Southbound focuses on Henkin’s What’s Lost Is Found series, which documents the people and places in the heart of the Black Belt of Alabama, a region also explored by fellow Southbound photographer Jerry Siegel. What’s Lost Is Found was made when Henkin was the inaugural Artist-in-Residence for The Do Good Fund, a nonprofit organization in Columbus, Georgia that acquires, exhibits, and promotes contemporary photography made in the South. Henkin focuses on storied Hale County in particular. Much has changed since Walker Evans made his famed images of sharecroppers there, but much has also remained the same. Whether what has remained is a result of tradition or stagnation is in the eye of the beholder. It is this tension between preservation and extinction that characterizes Henkin’s work. Henkin says of her experiences in Hale County, “I found a place and people full of contradictions—a place that can’t be defined, dissected or stereotyped.” In an effort to capture the perceived sacredness of the place, she titles her images with Bible verses.
A red dirt road, so emblematic of this region of the South, is captured in the vivid midday sunshine. There are no structures or vehicles in sight. Only the utility poles that line the edge of the forest remind the viewer that this image was made in today’s South. Otherwise, this scene might have been just so in 1815 instead of 2015, when Henkin made the photograph. She titled it The life of the flesh is in the blood (2015). The phrase is drawn from Leviticus 17:11, a proclamation from the Lord to Moses that gives instruction on the proper rituals of sacrifice and atonement. Red blood, with its celestial significance of selflessness and love, is vital to the Christian experience. Fitting then, that blood-red roads run throughout the spiritual South, threading together the region’s diverse populations of the faithful, the curious, and the skeptical.
Red dirt roads may well have led Henkin to the restaurant where she made As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God (2015). The decor, which features a row of stag head trophies, is strikingly similar to that of J&R’s restaurant, photographed by Jerry Siegel in neighboring Perry County, Alabama, and also included in the Southbound exhibition. Ornamentation of a different kind is on display in an image titled Look to the lord and his strength (2015), a phrase present in both 1 Chronicles 16:11 and Psalms 105:4. There, an elderly African American woman, her hair carefully coiffed beneath an elegant veiled hat, is dressed in her Sunday best. The reservation of choice outfits for church services has held fast in many Southern communities, even as hip megachurches encourage casual dress in an effort to shed Christianity’s “stuffy” reputation among young people. Tradition holds strong in the Bible Belt.
A gas station eatery called M&M Mustang Home Cooking is featured in So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (2015), whose title derives from Romans 13:12. The gas station’s brilliantly lit fluorescent armor showcases the antiquated gas pumps and requisite fluttering American flags. M&M is likely one of those places where you can count on daily lunch specials of chicken fingers, country-fried steak, and, certainly, fried catfish in a county whose seat, Greensboro, bills itself as the “Catfish Capital of Alabama.” Even when the station is barricaded and empty in this nighttime image, the viewer can imagine the distinctive scents that must waft out from the doors during lunch hours. These and other images in Henkin’s What’s Lost Is Found series revisits a region of the South that is critical to the history of Southern photography, showing us what has weathered the storms of time and what has been washed away with changing attitudes and shifting cultural climates.