In Black and White
EXHIBIT:"East Selma, Alabama: Forgotten America," photographs. Allen House Art Gallery, UVM, Burlington. Through November 27.
ARTWORK"Like mother,like daughter, in an East Selma yard," by Neil Callahan
Neil Callahan's photographic exhibition "East Selma, Alabama: Forgotten America" is timely for at least two reasons. Hurricane Katrina focused renewed attention on race-based economic and class divisions in New Orleans and, by association, the rest of the United States. And in late October, Rosa Parks, "the mother of the civil-rights movement," passed away. While her body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, flags all across the country were lowered to half-mast.
South Burlington photographer Callahan presents nearly 20 black-and-white images of African-American families whose lives have likely changed very little since Parks rejected the notion of separate but equal in Montgomery nearly 50 years ago. Nevertheless, and despite living in one of the poorest corners of America, Callahan's people are generally vibrant and proud. His photographs are also beautifully composed, which makes for a photography show that's formally strong as well as documentarily engaging.
Captions, rather than titles, appear with the images. "Like mother like daughter, in an East Selma yard" describes a rotund mother with her young and already chubby daughter beside her. Positioned at the right edge of the composition, both wear the same warm smile as they look at the camera.
Other captions and images are more socially charged. One photo captures a diapered baby standing in a doorway as his mother is about to leave for work. The caption reads, "CJ and his mom before she heads to work at Burger King, where she'll make $5.25 per hour. Also living there: CJ's brother and uncle."
Do brother and uncle also work for minimum wage, or at all? Is it a big house or a cramped apartment? The additional information manipulates viewers to read more into the photo than may be there.
In other cases, the explanation obfuscates the image. A photo of two girls sitting on a porch is accompanied by this explanation: "Twins on the stoop of a house in East Selma. Shortly before this photo was taken, the house was condemned as uninhabitable." If Callahan intended to expose the fact that children in East Selma live in substandard housing, a description such as "twins on the porch of their condemned house" would have been more edifying.
Ditto a lovely scene of a boy lake-fishing from a dock. Its caption reads, "Dequantye casting for catfish at the Dallas County lake 10 miles south of Selma, on a steamy summer afternoon. Cost to fish $2." Huh?
Such flaws aside, it's clear that Callahan works in the best tradition of American documentary photographers, by presenting to the greater public images of a forgotten socioeconomic class. Yet he's not an ordinary Life magazine sort of photographer who snaps a few shots and moves on. Callahan is actively involved in bettering the world he describes in this exhibit. He's an active volunteer and board member of the Selma Youth Development Center, and an organizer of the Selma Defiant Run Half-Marathon to be held on March 18, 2006 -- 40 years to the month since Selma played a pivotal role in advancing the civil-rights movement. It's a 13-mile run and obstacle course in which black-and-white pairs of runners will be chained to each other -- like Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis were in the 1958 film The Defiant Ones.
Through his art and activism, Callahan seems to be working to have all citizens -- of every race -- reach the finish line together.