An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Constructed Views: New Meets Old in Mid-South Cities

David Wharton, University of Mississippi

Published: 
28 February 2007
Overview: 
Photographer David Wharton's forays into mid-South cities reveal intersections of old and new. As his images look through things (fences, barriers) that are close to the camera and toward things that are farther away, he offers a rough analogue, though often in reverse, of the historical layering process that formed the cityscapes.

Introduction:

Since coming to Mississippi in 1999, most of my photographic energies have gone into making images of the social and cultural landscapes of the rural and small-town South. During the spring and summer of 2004, however, I took a break from those kinds of places and photographed in some of the larger cities. For practical reasons, I limited myself to the states of the "mid-South:" Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I decided to photograph in all of the cities in those states that the 2000 census listed as having populations of 100,000 or more. There were fourteen: Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery in Alabama; Little Rock in Arkansas; Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans, and Shreveport in Louisiana; Jackson in Mississippi; and Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville in Tennessee.

My initial plan was to photograph in two parts of each city: the older downtown areas and places that attracted tourists. In some of the cities, the two overlapped; in others they did not. In both cases, my intention was to explore the intersection of old and new, to see how some of the more traditional aspects of these urban environments had combined with contemporary city life to form newer, but distinctly hybrid, urban spaces.

In the cities where tourist and non-tourist landscapes did not overlap, I found the separate spaces to be very different. In places that did not attract tourists, the physical environment often seemed the result of accidental, haphazard layering. Here, recent events — the pressures of changing cultural values and beliefs — left traces on historical cityscapes that already displayed little, if any, conscious purpose. In a figurative sense, this is probably why so many of the pictures I made of these spaces look through things (fences, barriers, etc.) that are close to the camera and toward things that are farther away — as a rough analogue, though in reverse, to the historical layering process that formed the cityscape.

In the parts of these cities that attracted tourists the physical (visible) space seemed less complicated. These were places consciously designed to appeal to people unfamiliar with the city. Accumulated layers of the past seemed stripped away in favor of making these spaces comprehensible to visitors who didn't know much about them. These were cityscapes I photographed as populated by strangers who are there only temporarily ("just passing through") but are nonetheless in the process of forging a relationship, even if only for purposes of entertainment, between themselves and the world most immediately around them.

Looking back on the project, I think I succeeded to varying degrees in different places, and perhaps not at all in some. Given the fact that I could spend only a day or two in some of the cities (and sometimes had my photographic time curtailed by bad weather), I may have tried to do too much. Even so, I think there are some interesting images here — images that might make us think about how the physical environment accrues around us, how it relates to the local past, and the degree to which that relationship has (or has not) been consciously constructed.

Photo Essay:
Click on each location to view images by city.

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