The Civil War and the South
The American Civil War is taking up a lot of wall space at the Met right now, with two exhibitions devoted to works produced during and after this country's bitter North-South divide. As its title describes, Photography and the American Civil War focuses on photography, a new medium whose boundaries and possibilities would be fascinatingly tested by the contours of the conflict. You have to peer closely at the hundreds of small, black-and-white prints--palpable, physical objects saturated with such compounds as albumen and silver--to read their fine details. They show the dead and the injured with a nakedness not seen in contemporary journalism. They show slaves and soldiers, Lincoln, Lee, and a ravaged South, whose ruins look almost Roman.
Elsewhere in the museum, in color and in an intimate suite of galleries, William Eggleston's painterly photographs show the South more than 100 years after the Civil War, in At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston. Though Eggleston, as he claims, shoots without an agenda, the undercurrent of history runs through his images, heightened by the curators' decision to display them at a time when the museum is resonant with the Civil War.
The wartime South is decimated and remote. Eggleston's South, seen in his dye-transfer prints, is tattered and lush, washed in sunset colors. Like humidity, you can feel it on your skin. But there is continuity here: in the close skies and flat land, stilled by the camera, site of war and its effects.