Southern Discomfort

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The Independent Culture
A Stranger approaches a farmhouse in Louisiana and finds two people on the front porch, one a Northerner, the other a Southerner. "Who's that working your field?" asks the stranger. "Oh, that's Randall Smith," says the Northerner, who believes the name alone will suffice. Not so the Southerner, who continues: "His daddy works on cars and does some delivery work; his momma's the teacher who had that trouble last year with the Taylor girl, you remember, on that field trip to visit the capitol at Baton Rouge ... " And a long story follows.

The importance of story-telling to Southerners, who communicate easily via plot and character, cannot be over-estimated. Northerners get to the point more quickly, as is the case with New York photographer Susan Lipper, whose 10 visits to Louisiana and Texas between 1993 and 1997 have produced images of a dark, curious seam of southern life. Her mostly unpeopled, black-and-white photos offer first-person commentary on selected artefacts, signs and the region's rural, non-tourist landscape.

Yet Lipper has made a bow to narrative, and says her "photographs are meant to be interpreted as works of fiction rather than social documents." We, therefore, are invited to add plot and character to the images and stir.

For example, the characters I add to her photograph of a television set on an outdoor picnic table (overleaf) are a group of retired men who support David Duke, the former Louisiana Ku Klux Klan leader turned politician. They are the men I saw gathered around just such an outdoor television in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, on the eve of Duke's bid to get elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in the early Nineties. They cheer Duke's half-hour, paid-for political broadcast, a scripted interview in which Duke couches their racist views in acceptable language. They raise their beer cans in salute.

Lipper is known for her book Grapevine and its rural images of Grapevine Hollow, West Virginia, which were shown at the Photographers' Gallery in 1994. Those, too, were stark and unsettling, in the tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, photographers who focused their documentary lenses on the vastness of America and the pinched lives of the rural poor.

In Lipper's present work, the past of real-life Ku Klux Klansmen and slaves has been replaced with icons of that past. So we see images of images, giving a ghost-like quality that rings true, not false.

Lipper's ghosts are reappearing in real life as America approaches the millennium under a new economic and political climate which has brought with it a reassessment of the past. Young, white politicians no longer bound by the old racism, and black politicians and juries finding their stride over the last 30 years, have righted some of the sins Lipper remembers with her lens.

The ageing white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, for example, who in 1963 shot and killed Medgar Evers, Mississippi's NAACP - National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - leader, was finally convicted of that murder in 1994. Beckwith had been tried twice in 1964, but on both occasions all-white, all-male juries deliberated to a standstill. Three decades later, a jury with a majority of black members looked at the same evidence and convicted.

That case has led to the re-examination of other cases involving the murder of black people which never got to court. Most recent attention has focused on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday 15 September 1963, in which four black girls died - Spike Lee has made a film, Four Little Girls, about the incident.

If it is true that people will remember what you say if you say it with humour, Lipper's work has a good chance of lasting. Over the next few pages, amid the images of a skeleton in a wheelchair and a dilapidated fruit stand, is the memorable sign seeking a "Lost Dog, Three Legs, Blind in Left Eye, Tail Broken, Missing Right Ear, Recently Castrated, Answers to Name 'Lucky'."

"I have photographed what attracts and repels me," says Lipper. "Also things that puzzle me." She calls herself an "outsider detective" who is "looking for hidden artefacts in the landscape."

She has spied one that hit me square in the eyeballs, reminding me of a famous Billie Holiday song. A poster asking for votes on behalf of a black politician is tacked to a leafless tree, which might have served as a gallows for an ancestor. "Strange fruit" hanging indeed.

! 'Louisiana Series' is at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, 8 Cecil Court, WC2 (0171 836 0506) from 26 August MAIN PICTURE: STEVENSVILLE, LOUISIANA 1997