Caitlin Peterson: States Project: Alabama
This week we will be focusing on photographers from Alabama in continuation of The Lenscratch States Project. We have a wonderful and bright curator this week, Caitlin Peterson, who has collected a well-rounded group of photographers that we are excited about. Caitlin has spent a considerable amount of time making work about the Alabama landscape. Alabama, the Beautiful specifically focuses on the impressions humans have made onto the forests, mountains, and canyons of the state. Find out more about this body of work as Caitlin and I talk about her practice and her relationship with the Heart of Dixie.
Caitlin was born in Milwaukee, WI, but spent the majority of her formative years in Birmingham, AL. She received her BFA in Photography from the Savannah College of Art & Design in the fall of 2013 and is now based in Chicago, IL. Caitlin primarily uses a large format view camera to explore the relationship between man and the land. She has exhibited work in numerous group exhibitions nationally and internationally and had her first solo show featuring her work The Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia in the fall of 2014.
Alabama, the Beautiful
“We have been half persuaded by Thoreau and by the evidence of our own brutal use of the land that the earth is beautiful except where man lives or has passed through; and we have therefore set aside preserves where nature, other than man, might survive, and which men may visit in reasonable numbers and with adequate supervision, for their education and edification.”
– KJohn Szarkowski
In many ways, this project is a continuation of my project The Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia. After beginning that project, I became fascinated with this idea of “natural wonders” and the way that they are being preserved. Though, unlike Georgia, Alabama has no official list, I sought out my own list of natural wonders. The places that I visited for this project include Little River Canyon, Noccalula Falls, the Natural Bridge of Alabama, Dismals Canyon, and Rock City, which is located on Lookout Mountain.
Many of these locations have websites touting their natural beauty and describing them as must-see destinations. Dismals Canyon is even listed on the National Natural Landmark Registry, the purpose of which is to “encourage and support the voluntary conservation of sites that illustrate the nation’s geological and biological history, and to strengthen the public’s appreciation of America’s natural heritage.” Despite all of this, what fascinates me most about these sites is not the natural, but rather the artificial. In preserving these natural places, man has certainly left his mark, from trails and guards rails to signage and soda machines. And, ultimately, I think it begs the question: How much is too much? Is man’s mark on these places a necessary evil in order to preserve them? When does man’s presence become so great that we no longer deem a place natural?
Can you share your perspective on being an Alabama photographer?
Y’know, it’s interesting…I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought of myself as an Alabama photographer, which I suppose, in a lot of ways, isn’t very fair. I spent a lot of time while I was growing up feeling very out of place in the south and wanting nothing to do with it. But ultimately, my experiences growing up in the south shaped me into the person and photographer that I am today. Photographically speaking, I think Alabama lives under this weird shadow of the work of photographers like Walker Evans and William Christenberry, which is certainly not a bad thing. They are just some of the most notable photographers that come to mind when people think about photography in Alabama. But it’s fitting in a way too because Alabama is very much a state that is hesitant to let go of the past. And that’s one of the things that I find most interesting about the state and its culture: this conflict between wanting to hold on to what’s comfortable and familiar while accepting that eventually all things must progress.
What is your relationship with Alabama now? Are you still on good terms?
I actually just moved to Chicago, IL at the beginning of the summer and it marks the first time in my adult life that I’ve lived outside of the south. And it’s funny, because now that I’m out of the south, and it’s no longer my immediate environment, I feel more drawn to photograph it than ever before. Thankfully, my parents still live in Alabama, so I have an excuse to get back down there and keep making work. I don’t think I ever truly gave the state enough credit while I actually lived there, but I know for sure that I am not done making images in the south.
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