Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, June 12–September 18, 2016
By John Duncan Bass
In the summer of 1974 Raymond Smith set out from New Haven, Connecticut on a cross-country road trip. Inspired by the iconic work of photographers Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Smith intended to capture a visual record of American culture.
The ‘74 road trip ended with car trouble in Kansas City, but forty years later Smith’s project found new life when he decided to publish a selection of images from the excursion.
The resulting volume, In Time We Shall Know Ourselves: American Photographs, 1974, features fifty-two of the 750 exposures Smith made on that summer road trip and subsequent travels the same year. In addition to Smith’s photographs the portfolio contains essays by Richard H. King and Alexander Nemerov.
The exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is a physical manifestation of the book, presenting Smith’s 52 black and white prints in the same order as the bound edition. Nemerov’s commentary dissects the sequence of Smith’s images, a structure that underscores the transitional nature of this period in American history—a nation with one foot planted firmly in the past and eyes on the future.
In the included essay Retrospect, Smith argues that photography is “more closely related to literature, especially fiction (despite its proclivity to depict ‘reality’), than it is to other visual arts.” Reflecting on his own work, the artist insists that “the portrait is primary, and the photograph is a short story exploding beyond its frame.”
The portrait is indeed primary to In Time We Shall Know Ourselves and Smith is adept at portraying convincing characters. By contrast, any nuance behind Smith’s “vernacular landscapes” is lost in translation. These street corners, graveyards and local watering holes feel forced—as if Smith is speaking this ‘vernacular’ in a foreign accent.
Half of the individual portraits in the exhibition (excluding Smith’s own mirror-“selfie”) find the artist constructing the narrative through some overt environmental context. One such photo captures a shoeshine boy on Bourbon Street waiting for customers. A wide-brimmed straw hat casts a dark shadow on his face and the blurred reflection of passersby can be seen in the darkened window above his head. Quality photographs such as Bourbon Street, New Orleans, 1974 present characters that do not beg to be developed, resulting in narratives that initially read as more cliché than complex.
Like many literary greats, Smith achieves his most captivating narratives by presenting his audience with compelling characters and allowing these characters to tell their own stories. Cecil Alabama, on the Road to Montgomery, 1974 depicts a weathered woman stopped on the road, squinting against the sun. Through her Smith captures the oppressive heat and the weight of the summer air, an image immune to aging.
Some of these characters are classic stills from any number of black-and-white films that were never made, but others are more intimate and land closer to home -wherever home is. The subject of Woman with Groceries, Savannah, Georgia, 1974 leaves behind a parked car, groceries in hand. She too squints against the summer sun as she hurries through the frame. More than a woman in a rush to get home and fix dinner, Smith captures a portrait of modern motherhood.
The exhibit also includes seven group portraits featuring sitters from different generations. If Smith’s individual portraits act as short stories then these images depict family sagas, extending the embedded narratives deep into the past and presenting the promise of new protagonists. In Three Generations, near Culpeper, Virginia, 1974 an adolescent girl confronts the camera with little affection. Behind her sit her mother and grandmother, momentarily interrupted from conversation for the photograph. Three Generations is a perfect representation of the unique time in history that Smith captures—the eldest subject was born into a country where she wouldn’t have been allowed to vote, while the youngest subject may see our first female president.
Despite Smith’s journey coming to an end, many of the exposures made in Kansas City unburden themselves from the heavy-handed narratives imposed on earlier frames. Mother and Children, Kansas City, 1974 (a multi-generational group portrait) is another intimate portrayal of the modern family. In a rocking chair on the front porch of a family home a mother reads to her children. In her lap sits a chubby baby boy, his kinky hair growing into a small afro. Beside them a little girl with fair skin and straight blonde hair collects her toys. These group portraits most clearly convey the image of American culture Raymond Smith depicts – a society with a difficult past, striving to secure a more promising future for its children.
While many of Smith’s portraits appear to be still frames captured in the middle of a narrative, the images made in Kansas City are more optimistic, depicting the beginning scenes to long and hopeful stories. Whether steeped in high drama or celebrating the quotidian, Smith’s narratives are reminders of both our progress and the problems we have yet to overcome.
This exhibition organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, also features artifacts from Smith’s 1974 journey including his notebooks and two twin-lens cameras. In Time We Shall Know Ourselves: Photographs by Raymond Smith is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans until September 18, 2016.
John Duncan Bass is a writer, critic and curator from Oxford, MS