Alex Harris: Our Strange New Land
Alex Harris’ new book, Our Strange New Land (co-edited with Margaret Sartor), looks to reframe the question “How do you tell the story of the American South?” Based in Durham, North Carolina, Harris knows it’s a region with a complicated history; a legacy marred by hatefulness and prejudice. But it’s also the home of the Blues and folk and Country music. Of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, Po’ Boys and hush puppies. In Harris’ work, there is a modern light cast on the historical shadow of the Southern story, one that shines through the people who live there. Photographing on the sets of forty-two independent films depicting the South, Harris used the “make-believe land” of a film set to reimagine how the American South might be rendered.
Harris eschews the stereotypes of the contemporary South and instead gives space to a fresh perspective. These are not the moments that make the news, instead they are isolated imaginings of everyday life. These images are tricky and complicated in their simplicity; they are filled with a quiet heaviness that observes issues of race, class, and sexism and occupy a unique photographic space in that they are documentary images of narratives set up by the filmmakers. The light environment is artificial and the figures staged, but his work is documentary. Harris moves the viewer in and out, sometimes showing what appears to be a slice-of-life photograph, and by pulling back, shows the artificiality of a film set. He uses his lens and the fabricated world of a film set to reframe another creative’s visualization of the contemporary South. His handling of this simulacra in Our Strange New Land, blurs the line between fiction and reality and is where his photographs shine.
Alex Harris is a photographer, writer, and teacher. He is a founder of the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University and of DoubleTake magazine. Harris’ awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography and a Lyndhurst Prize. His work is represented in major museum photographic collections and his photographs have been exhibited widely, including a 2019-2020 solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art as the recipient of the Picturing the South commission. As a photographer and editor, Harris has published eighteen books, including River of Traps, with William deBuys, a 1991 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction, and most recently Dream of a House: The Passions and Preoccupations of Reynolds Price (2017), and Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897-1922 (2019), both with Margaret Sartor.
Harris is represented by MB Abram in Los Angeles, Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, and the Webster Collection in Santa Fe. He can be found on Instagram at @ourstrangenewland
Margaret Sartor is a writer and visual artist. Her seven books include the critically acclaimed memoir Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets, and Growing Up in the 1970s (2006) and What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (2000), with Geoff Dyer. As a curator, Sartor has worked with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the International Center for Photography in New York, the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in Mumbai, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Her photographs are represented in private and permanent collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Ogden Museum of Southern Art and North Carolina Museum of Art.
Our Strange New Land
Commissioned by the High Museum in Atlanta as part of its Picturing the South series, photographer Alex Harris chose to examine the rapidly evolving world of independent fiction filmmaking while also exploring our increasingly visual culture. Made on over 40 film sets throughout the region, his photographs reveal a new generation of filmmakers coming to terms with matters of race, class, and sexuality that relate not just to the South but to the whole country. Harris’ photographs also hint at more universal aspects of life – the ways in which we are all actors in our own lives, creating our sets, practicing our lines, refining our characters, playing ourselves.
Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor have created this immersive photobook, using still photographs to evoke their own cinematic-like narrative. Our Strange New Land is a portrait of the American South that is at once familiar and surprising, delightful and frightening, sobering and beautiful.
As Charles Bethea wrote about one photograph from this book for the New Yorker, “Harris’s photograph bring(s) to mind the especially painful intertwined histories of race and law enforcement in the South. Yet the scene is a doubly staged moment of conflict—a picture of another picture being made in a region, and a country, that has not yet been able to fully make sense of, or prevent, scenes of the real thing.”
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