An Interview with Forest McMullin by Nancy McCrary
October 12 – November 10, 2018
Opening Reception for the artist: Friday, October 12, 6:00-8:00 pm
Gallery talk by the artist: Saturday, October 20, 2:00 pm
Thomas Deans Fine Art
690 Miami Circle NE #905
Atlanta, GA 30324
Gallery Hours: Monday – Saturday, 11-5
Thomas Deans Fine Art is pleased to present Late Harvest, an exhibition of photographs by Atlanta-based photographer Forest McMullin in his first solo show in Atlanta. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, McMullin set off on a personal journey to try to make sense of the results, traveling through remote corners of the Deep South. Using only a paper map as guide, McMullin spent weeks on the road in areas completely unknown to him as a northerner. He drove through rural North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, finding his way largely by chance or whim. The photographs he made on the trip frankly but sympathetically document the people and places he visited, and they lead the viewer to draw more nuanced conclusions than McMullin himself anticipated. The photographs reveal unexpected beauties and a profound sense of place. They are McMullin’s personal, empathic record of a region and its identity.
Forest McMullin is known for his documentary photographs. He often documents social groups seen as “fringe,” bringing out their dignity, while still showing them with directness and honesty. At first McMullin assumed that Late Harvest, too, would be a portrait project documenting the faces and environments that seemed emblematic of the region. He thought the project might be something along the lines of “Adventures in Trumpland.” But as he stopped to photograph people and to listen to their personal stories, he was touched by their kindness and openness. He soon realized that the towns, landscapes, and buildings he passed shared a visual power that he also felt compelled to consider and record.
Forest McMullin moved from New York to Atlanta in 2008 to teach at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). His photographs have been exhibited across the United States and as far away as Paris and Beijing. His work is found in numerous public and private collections. He has received many fellowships, grants, and artist residencies. His photographs have appeared in countless periodicals, including Time, Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, People, Audubon, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, The London Sunday Times, Der Stern, and Le Monde, among others.
Forest McMullin is no stranger to South x Southeast having shown three other bodies of work on these pages. So, it was with great pleasure I agreed to interview him for this remarkable new series. If you’re in or around Atlanta in October this is one show you don’t want to miss. And if you’d like to view other articles just plug his name into the search bar. -Nancy McCrary
Nancy McCrary: I’m always interested in viewing the South through the eyes of a non-native. Many times it’s predictable. But then there are photographers, like yourself, who aren’t distracted by the bright shiny objects and focus on the uncommon beauty and underlying stories. Your upcoming exhibition Late Harvest: On Back Roads in the Deep South is a selection of 21 images from your 2016 and 2017 trips across the South. This is your first solo exhibition in Atlanta. Tell us about the choice of images and what you would like people to take away from this show.
Forest McMullin: I chose the pictures based on balance. Some are straight forward documents of rural sights one might expect to see, like grain silos and corn fields. Some are documents of things one wouldn’t expect to see, like a purple house with black zebra stripes or a pergola with the floor beneath it painted pink. Still others are images where I isolate elements and create formalist compositions and color studies, like the hoses of an abandoned car wash or the remnants of green stucco on the walls of a burned out bar. And then there are portraits with stories. I think these somewhat disparate elements combine to suggest the complexity of Southern identity. It is that complexity that fascinates me about my adopted home.
NM: Your driving trip around the South was prompted by the 2016 election of Donald Trump to President of the Untied States. You took an extended look at the South in response to our electing someone so remarkably different than previous presidents. What answers to your questions did you find?
FM: I initially thought this project would be called something like “Adventures in Tumpland” and be primarily portraits, like much of my previous work. But by the end of the first day, I began to realize that a different direction would be called for. I often start projects with some ideas of where they might go, but I also try to be open to what I find. That might mean being open to the way my subjects relate to me, or the kinds of things that are important to them and how they live their lives. With Late Harvest I immediately responded to the specifics of what I was seeing in the environments. Many of the towns were well past their primes, but the visual power of the buildings, houses, fields, and public spaces captured my attention and compelled me to find ways to document them.
But answers? Probably not- just more questions. With the folks I met and photographed, I mostly stayed away from talking about politics. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to find common ground with people who were very different from me and Late Harvest was no different. I asked a lot of questions and I listened to the answers with respect. I found most of my subjects open and welcoming and happy to share stories with me. And I was happy to hear them.
NM: Some of your previous series have examined topics that are edgy, if not uncomfortable, for some. I always feel like I’m looking at fine art presented as documentary in what you produce. What I found strikingly different right off the bat with these photographs was the softness, both with the architecture and the portraiture. More fine art than documentary this time. Have you become a Southerner, Forest? And, either way, did you feel a connection with these people and places?
FM: I think it would be a stretch for me to call myself a Southerner, but I absolutely feel a connection to these places and people. I love living in the South and Atlanta has given me some great opportunities. I can live and work in a major American city and have access to all the entertainment and cultural events and institutions that are important to me and my career. This show is a prime example. The work originated with a fellowship from my employer, the Savannah College of Art and Design that funded the first year’s travel. Then, to have a solo exhibition at a gallery of the caliber of Thomas Deans Fine Art during their 35thanniversary year and to have it during Atlanta Celebrates Photography is incredible! I feel very lucky. And yet, the mountains are only a few hours away and my wife and I get away to camp and hike as often as possible. I love it here. But my soul is still rooted in the Northeast, even though I don’t plan to ever live there again.
NM: I have heard many photographers say the South has a light like nowhere else. What was the most interesting thing you discovered about shooting the South when you moved here in 2008?
FM: I think discovering the complexities of the South surprised me. I definitely had preconceptions about the conservatism here and some of those proved to be true, but I’ve consistently been surprised by how much diversity of every kind there is here in Atlanta. I appreciate that and am happy to experience it, virtually daily.
As far as the light goes, I was more concerned with the fact that I hit an unusually long stretch of cloudiness when I was first on the road in 2016. After living with the pictures for several months, I decided I needed to try to find some other kinds of light. The first set felt too relentlessly downbeat. I needed to expand my view, so taking another trip in 2017 was necessary. With the additional pictures from that trip, I found more positive images that allow for the balance I saw and felt when in all those locations.
NM: If you were to make this same trip again in 10 years, what would you expect to find?
FM: I have no idea what these places will look like in ten years. Perhaps they’ll disappear under an ocean of kudzu. Shorter term, I’m hoping to take an extended trip through the Upper Plains (Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and eastern Montana) and possibly the Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Nevada) in 2019. My plan is to employ the same technique of using a paper map, not GPS, and traveling only backroads and visiting only small towns. I’m curious to discover whether geographic differences will present new visual possibilities even though the demographics and economies are similar.
All Images ©ForestMcMullin