Southern Elegy: Photography from the Stephen Reily Collection

Dates: March 17 – October 14, 2017
Location: North Building
Free with general admission

The Speed Art Museum is pleased to present Southern Elegy: Photography from the Stephen Reily Collection, an exhibition of photographs from the Louisville-based collection of Stephen Reily. Reflecting the complex history of the American South, the images in this exhibition address the themes of loss, ruins, beauty, and violence, through evocative images of the South’s natural landscape, architecture, and residents. Southern Elegy features 75 photographs, chiefly spanning from the 1930s to works from the past decade. The 14 photographers represented include George Barnard, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Gedney, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clarence John Laughlin, Russell Lee, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Polidori, and Doug Rickard.

Southern Elegy will be on view from March 17 to October 14, 2017, on the second-floor galleries of the Speed Art Museum’s North Building. A segment of the exhibition focusing on Eggleston’s black and white photography will be on view in the Cinema Lobby.

Having researched the photographers who have documented the American South from the nineteenth century to present day, Reily built a collection on the premise of photography as an elegiac process, or a poetic form of “capturing loss.” As a medium that records the past, photography provides a means of exploring the contested and difficult history of the South through the documentation of specific moments and places. The South provided artists with a landscape shaped by slavery and the Civil War, and in later decades, discrimination, poverty, violence, and human made disaster. Reily explains, “Southern photography is often inspired by its own sense of captured memory, self-aware of the losses that underlie the landscape before us as well as the losses that will transform it once again.”

The Speed’s presentation of Southern Elegy begins with George Barnard’s Buen-Ventura, Savannah, taken as part of his Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, published in 1866 following the American Civil War. The aftermath of the Civil War plays an important role in this exhibition, as Southern Elegy explores the role of the South as a literal and metaphorical battlefield, whose identity is often intertwined with conflict and loss. Through artists such as Walker Evans, Frances Benjamin Johnston, and Clarence John Laughlin, the exhibition presents the eroded architecture of plantations and the vivid streetscapes and courtyards of New Orleans at mid-century. The South’s history of racial discrimination is on full display in Robert Frank’s Trolley, New Orleans from 1955, an iconic image that documents segregation on public transportation and laments its impact on the Southern soul.

Moving forward in time, the exhibition features the quintessential artists associated with the transition to color photography in the South in the 1960s and 1970s: William Christenberry and William Eggleston. Christenberry and Eggleston present the banal beauty of the South, capturing its country roads, home interiors, and city streets. The Reily collection’s home in Kentucky is reflected in photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a prominent member of the Lexington Camera Club, and William Gedney, who documented families in Eastern Kentucky. Continuing with the theme of elegy, the exhibition includes sites of burial and death, from the small-town cemeteries captured by Christenberry, to Sally Mann’s Untitled (Mississippi Landscape), 1998. Mann’s haunting image of the Tallahatchie River depicts the infamous site where the murdered body of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was thrown in 1955.

The most recent works in the exhibition focus on the city of New Orleans, Reily’s hometown. In her Tooth for an Eye series Deborah Luster depicts sites of murder in New Orleans, acknowledging this city’s continuing struggle with crime and violence. Robert Polidori’s images of devastated homes and neighborhoods following Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levee system in 2005 demonstrate the human toll of this tragedy through the modern-day ruins it left behind. Doug Rickard’s #29.942566, New Orleans, LA. 2008, taken with the aid of Google maps, provides a window into this resilient city, where daily life continues amongst its streets and above-ground cemeteries.

Through its impressive range of photographers, Southern Elegy: Photography from the Stephen Reily Collection presents a terrain lush with detail and historical weight. These images of buildings, ruins, country roads, city streets, cemeteries, and homes, depict a landscape that is alluring and beautiful, even when these sites are connected to a dark past. The exhibition also provides a rare opportunity to see places in the South that have been visited by different photographers over time.

“The Speed Art Museum is extremely proud to debut Stephen Reily’s stunning collection of Southern photography,” said Speed director Ghislain d’Humieres. “Southern Elegy celebrates this treasure within our city and provides a timely approach to the history of the South. We are very grateful to Stephen for sharing this incredible work with the whole community.” Curator of Contemporary Art Miranda Lash: “Southern Elegy honors the thoughtful motivations which drew Stephen Reily to collecting Southern photography. Through these compelling images, the Reily collection takes us on an odyssey through the how the South’s past informs its present. Together with the group exhibition Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, the Speed is presenting a compelling program for understanding the South’s continuing evolution and future.”


Additional programming and events for Southern Elegy include:

Sunday, March 19, 1 pm: Free Film Screening, William Eggleston in the Real World, 2005. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Speed Cinema
Thursday, June 1, 6 pm: Public Lecture by Stephen Reily. Interim Director Stephen Reily shares his understanding of the American South, and how he built a collection of photography focused on the South as a terrain of loss, beauty, ruins, and remembrance. Grand Hall.
Every Sunday, March 18 to September 24, 2–4 pm: Deborah Luster’s artwork Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish will be available for public viewing with the assistance of Speed docents on Sundays, 2–4pm. 

Support for the Speed Art Museum’s exhibition season is provided by