Shane Lavalette: Musical Heritage in the New South

Courtesy of the artist and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Courtesy of the artist and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Spit in the Swamp, 2010

During his short but noteworthy career, Shane Lavalette has examined distinct regions of the world, illuminating their respective character without succumbing to powerful clichés. At the age of only 25, Lavalette has photographed the west coast of Ireland, a small town in northern India and his native New England. You won’t find any pubs, elephants or lush shots of fall foliage in these collections. Instead, Lavalette combines portraits of ordinary people with pointed images of each area’s commerce, culture and the immediate countryside to create a portrait of a place as it might be seen by a local, but through the eyes of a wandering explorer.

In 2010, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which for decades has been the leading art museum in the South, commissioned Lavalette to produce a new collection of photographs for their Picturing the South series. “Having grown up in the Northeast, it was primarily through traditional music–old time Blues, gospel, etc.–that I formed a relationship with the South,” Lavalette says of his project. “The region’s rich musical history became the natural entry point for my work.”

As in his previous projects, Lavalette steered clear of standard images of the American South: willows and oak trees wilting in the humid heat; cotton fields and mountain trails. Nor was Lavalette interested in shooting a documentary about Southern music today. Instead he turned to “the relationship between traditional music and the contemporary landscape through a more poetic lens.”

There are scenes of nature, but not the sweeping landscapes often seen in the South. Lavalette shot ripples on a pond, where the towering pines are only visible in the reflection on the water. There’s the graffiti-strewn interior of an old café, with a poster so covered in marker scribbles that it’s nearly unrecognizable. Lavalette shows the collision of modern life and nature in the form of an empty parking lot beside the rusted wall of a warehouse, where kudzu has begun to encroach upon the asphalt.

Music has always permeated the consciousness of the South. The home of blues, gospel, bluegrass and countless combinations of those styles, the South is a region rich with musical heritage, a perfect gateway into understanding the region’s history and its culture today. “Moved by the themes and stories past down in songs,” Lavalette says, “I let the music itself carry the pictures.”

Shane Lavalette is a New-York-based photographer. More of his work can be seen here. The exhibition Picturing the South is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from June 9 through Sept. 2, 2012.

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