The High Museum's "A Long Arc: Photography and the American South Since 1845" gives a familiar pictorial history of the region's poverty, racism and environmental abuses.
While comprehensive in documenting the South's tragic past, the exhibition avoids the region's celebratory rituals of sports, music and story-telling. Missing are the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, NASCAR races, college football, major league baseball and hunting and fishing.
Rather than famous Southern politicians, writers, musicians and actors, the photos concentrate on average people. The South's traditional agricultural economy takes precedence over more recent industries.
The exhibit ends with a striking selection from a new generation of photographers, celebrating immigrant culture and changing lifestyles.
The 175 photos range from golden hits by famous names like Walker Evans, Auguste Belloc, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, William Eggleston, William Henry Jackson, Gordon Parks, Richard Avedon, Sally Mann, William Christenberry and Ernest C. Withers to portraits, landscapes and daily life by unheralded photographers.
Opening with portraits of freed slaves and Civil War pictures, the exhibit documents the poverty and racial conflicts of the Jim Crow era and the Depression, culminating with the Civil Rights area and demographic shifts at the close of the 20th century.
Curated by Gregory Harris, the High's curator of photography, and Sarah Kennel, director of the Raysor Center at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibit is a triumph for the High, drawing upon its extensive photography collection.
A high point is a sequence of photos from the civil rights area, from one of the famous images of police dogs attacking a young protester in Birmingham, Ala., to Martin Luther King's life.
King's arrest in the Montgomery, Ala., courthouse on Sept. 4, 1958, is shockingly captured by photographer Charles Moore. Elegantly dressed in a beige suit and fedora, King was arrested for "loitering" after arriving for a trial involving his associate, Ralph David Abernathy.
Moore's photo shows the officers bending King's right arm behind his back, twisting his body as he grabs a counter with his other hand. Moore surprisingly took the picture for the Montgomery Advertiser, one of the local newspapers disparaged for weak coverage of the civil rights movement and supporting white supremacy.
Life magazine picked up the photograph, giving it national attention. Moore later moved to Life, where he took many photos of the struggle for civil rights, including shots of Birmingham police blasting protesters with water from fire hoses.
A series of photos detail King's assassination, from Withers' shot of marching Memphis sanitation workers days before his death to the horse-drawn wagon that carried King's body after his funeral.
One of the exhibit's surprises is Diane Arbus' dramatic portrait of Coretta Scott King, illuminating the indomitable fortitude and resilience of King's widow.
Another Arbus photo of young rural white men on a porch in South Carolina, taken for Esquire magazine, more resembles the photos of grotesque subjects for which Arbus is best known.
Atlanta's rise as a gleaming Sunbelt metropolis receives limited attention. A photo of 14th Street before the 1996 Olympics gives an impression of urban desolation rather than bustling commerce.
The historic racial inequalities of Atlanta come forth in Joel Sternfeld's haunting "Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta, 1983," documenting the persistent theme of blacks from the city's impoverished Southside working in the homes of the affluent northern suburbs.
Part of Sternfeld's "American Prospects" collection, the photo shows the three domestic workers standing in isolation in an otherwise deserted Sandy Springs neighborhood of well-kept lawns and extended driveways leading to suburban mansions.
A new generation receives recognition including work by Memphis Chinese-American Tommy Kha and Atlantan Jose Ibarra Rizo's portraits of fellow Latino immigrants in Gainesville.
Atlanta artists Sheila Pree Bright, Angela West and Jill Frank are also featured, along with Athens residents Irina Rozofksy and Mark Steinmetz.
The exhibit ends with Rozovsky's shot of a young girl standing by a flooded Athens street, mesmerized by the rushing brown water. Rozovsky told the Atlantic that she sees the photo as more of a fairy-tale image rather than a statement of environmental threat.
Rozovsky's striking creation affirms that photography will give witness to the South's future.