Art Notes

Reckonings and Reconstructions: The Do Good Fund Presents a Complicated South

“Southern Heritage Classic Parade” by Andrea Morales

Conveying the complex contradictions that have come to characterize Southern history, culture and identity, “Reckonings and Reconstructions: Southern Photography from the Do Good Fund” presents a visual narrative of an ever-changing region. Currently on view at the Georgia Museum of Art, the exhibition portrays the American South not as a land of uniformity and defined boundaries, but as an interconnected patchwork of wide-ranging perspectives and experiences. 

“As the individual images and stories in the Do Good collection bring to light, it is a place of bewildering contrasts, with great environmental beauty and degradation, and vast economic opportunity and systemic oppression existing side by side throughout the region,” writes the fund’s founder Alan F. Rothschild Jr. in the exhibition’s accompanying publication.

Since its founding in 2012, The Do Good Fund has steadily amassed over 800 photographs taken from the 1950s to the present. The Columbus-based charity’s mission is to make its remarkable collection broadly accessible through regional museums, nonprofit galleries and nontraditional venues, and to encourage community-based programming and discussion. 

Featuring 125 photographs by 73 artists diverse in race, ethnicity, gender and geography, “Reckonings and Reconstructions” is the first large-scale survey of the fund’s collection. Though it includes 25 Guggenheim fellows and five Magnum photographers, the collection also emphasizes the talents of early and mid-career photographers. 

“If anything, the project reveals the South not as a monolithic, homogenous realm of lock-step cultural thought, but a region of various, divergent, and heterogeneous awareness and artistry, in short, a region where documents, reports, dispatches, and pictures from a polyphonic land use varied voices to tell stories of resistance and redemption, legend and (perhaps its antonym) truth,” says William Underwood Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art, in the publication’s foreword.

©2022 sheila pree bright “#SayHerName (Young Man Crying” by Sheila Pree Bright from “#1960Now” series

The exhibition’s installation flows through six core themes: land, labor, law and protest, food, ritual and kinship. This approach positions disparate works together to collectively construct and deconstruct each thematic category. Rather than sugar-coating the South with images that only emphasize its rootsy, dilapidated charm, the exhibition demonstrates how past tragedies have bled into modern life. This deeper, more truthful reflection of the South reveals itself to be a place of both scarcity and abundance, loss and survival, alienation and belonging, trauma and healing.

Each image feels like a window into a memory, inviting the viewer to consider the moments before and after the photo was taken, or to imagine who or what might exist just beyond the camera’s gaze. As its title suggests, the exhibition attempts to reconcile the past and empathetically envisions a better future.

“What rings ever more clearly at this moment in our nation’s history is that we cannot understand the present realities and identities of the American South—be they legacies of racial injustice, the indelible marks of the Confederacy on the built environment, or the impact of ecological recklessness—without a thorough grounding in the region’s past, including its photographic traditions,” says Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, the museum’s curator of American art. “We also aim to reach beyond the American South, acknowledging that Southernness is a shared sensibility, rather than a consistent culture rooted in a specific geography.” 

Co-published by the museum and the University of Georgia Press, the exhibition’s accompanying book of the same title further investigates contemporary photography’s role in portraying the South. In addition to essays thoughtfully reflecting on the exhibition’s core themes, the publication includes anecdotes from over two dozen photographers who share invaluable context and insight behind their intentions and creative processes. These anecdotes are transcriptions of the Do Good Fund’s “Small Talks” series of audio stories, which can also be heard while viewing the exhibition.

“Reckonings and Reconstructions” will remain on view at the Georgia Museum of Art through Jan. 8. The exhibition will then spend the following year traveling to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA, the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami and the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA.