Many years ago, after completing my doctorate, I was hired at USC Aiken to teach classical American literature, from colonial beginnings until 1899. One of the courses I regularly offered was the American realism, which covers approximately the second half of the 19th century; and one of the main literary components of this period is a movement called “local color”.
After the Civil War, many writers became invested in the attempt to capture the “color” or distinctiveness of a particular region by focusing on factors such as landscape, manners and dialect. Think Sarah Orne Jewett’s tales of the Maine coast, Mark Twain’s tales of the Mississippi Valley, and Kate Chopin’s novels and short stories based in Louisiana.
Local color is not just limited to literature. As evidenced by an exhibition currently on display at the Morris Museum of Art, photography is also a great way to capture the distinctive identity of a particular place. The photos on display until July 25, all from the museum’s permanent collection, can be divided into two categories: rural and urban.
A notable image in the first group is “Fork in Bayou, Baton Rouge” by New Orleans native William Greiner, who captured in color the magical intersection of water and land. Cleverly composed in a series of diagonals, the green fingers of the shore shine with their spring colors of yellow and purple subtly irradiated by sunlight.
Topography is of course only one area of interest for those trying to grasp the character of a particular region. The customs and conventions of a specific community are of equal or perhaps greater importance. These can be visually manifested without the presence of the human form; in fact, the photographer just needs to pay attention to the structures designed by man.
DC-based photographer Ken Ashton’s “Howard Theater”, for example, focuses on an African-American venue that once served as the setting for the musical styles of Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye. In the harsh glow of a streetlamp, the faceless facade of the long-abandoned building glows gold on a street littered with rubbish.
The current exhibit includes other vestiges of past glory much closer to home. In 2003, the late Janos Enyedi, specialist in industrial landscapes, focused his gaze on Augusta and, in particular, two vestiges of the city’s role as an important industrial center in both the Old South and the New.
Enyedi’s “Industrial Souvenir, Smokestack – Confederate Gunpowder Factory” focuses on all that remains of the legendary Civil War-era munitions complex: the 50-meter-high chimney whose imposing shaft is reflected in the water from the adjacent canal. It’s no wonder that the imposing fireplace was eventually capped and turned into a memorial obelisk. Its scale is monumental.
“Industrial Augusta Souvenir, Graniteville Company”, the second Enyedi photograph in the current exhibition, focuses on the large red sign on the roof of the Enterprise Mill, which was built in 1877 and, after a brief period of closure. 1983 to 1998, reopened as a residential and commercial complex. The red “Graniteville Company” sign glows at night, reminding passing motorists of the building’s proud past.
A highlight of the current exhibit is a photograph of Tennessee resident John Baeder, most famous for his photorealistic paintings of roadside restaurants. The photographic image titled “Short Stop” was most likely taken as a reference piece in preparation for another of Baeder’s paintings commemorating America’s “blue highways”. Clad in aluminum cladding, this particular restaurant conforms to the classic northeastern shape – that of a modified railroad dining car. The brightly lettered sign on top proudly proclaims its main culinary offerings: burgers and eggs in a skillet.
The focal point of this photograph, the Short Stop Dinner in Bloomfield, New Jersey, was built in 1953 but transformed into Dunkin ‘Donuts at the turn of this century. The restaurant is now the subject of a local campaign to restore it to its original incarnation.
The local color movement in late 19th-century American literature was largely a reaction to the alleged homogenization of national identity following the reunification of the country in 1865. Most of the dozen photographs of Morris’s current exhibition serve something of the same purpose, capturing images of those aspects of regional identity that risk disappearing from the American scene.