Review: A complex region rendered in vivid photos in ‘Black Belt Color’

Jerry Siegel’s color photographs of Deep South beauty queens dolled up in ringlets and bedazzled gowns, pastoral landscapes and country restaurants decorated with the owner’s collection of taxidermied deer heads could have been shot in 1950 or 1970 or today.

In these contemporary portraits of Alabama, an air of timelessness reigns, a sense that things have always unfolded in this way and will continue to hew to long-established traditions and rituals, for better or worse. In Siegel-country, men will hunt and hang the stuffed remains of their prey on wood-paneled walls, young girls will brush their hair to a glossy sheen and deliver wide, frozen smiles for a panel of town elders, and downtowns with their discount meat and general stores will die slow, painful deaths as residents flock to bigger, fluorescent-lit name-brand behemoths.

A native of Selma, Ala., Siegel has been shooting in and around his hometown for decades. In a series of images of home interiors, there is a sense of familiarity in the mix of homey details: “fancy” crystal on a fireplace mantel, spice racks and outdated electric coffee makers in outmoded kitchens. These are family homes preserved in amber, rich with detail and a sense of place, set pieces for the drama of family lives. Alongside such domestic verite, Siegel adds the occasional quirky vantage, a show of life like the plaster “Venus” placed in all of her naked glory between two gas pumps at a Perry County, Ala., gas station.

Siegel’s book “Black Belt Color,” from which these photos originate, references the region’s notoriously fertile soil and status as a hotbed of civil rights activism. Published by the University of Georgia’s Georgia Museum of Art, in that book there is a darker strain: a feeling of economic desperation and a hint of violence in a bait shop sign “Would Jesus Steal Worms,” or a hunter’s bloodied knife.

But for the most part, the images featured in “Black Belt Color” at Spalding Nix Fine Art (with a few exceptions) are elegiac, dreamy, capturing a place with contours as exotic and strange as any far-off photojournalist’s reportage from Greece or Guatemala. The South in Siegel’s images is a peculiar and particular place with rituals and rites all its own. There is an air of familiarity in Siegel’s perspective, coupled with an observer’s wariness that not all those features are admirable ones.

In a series of newer works not included in Siegel’s “Black Belt Color” book, things can grow a little darker. Siegel shoots the torso of a tattooed young man who has emblazoned Nazi markings on his stomach. His angelic young daughter poses in the family’s front yard, flanked by a collection of Confederate flags hung from the porch.

Though people often factor into Siegel’s images, they are often tangential: just part of the storytelling. Siegel has a particular love of placing people visually out of reach: with their backs to us, their faces cut off by the camera frame. They become iconic types like the young black girl shooting a rifle in a county fair game draped with a ubiquitous Confederate flag, standing in for entire swaths of the population.

RELATED: ‘Gourd Girls’ craft a life of their own design, part of AJC’s North Georgia Mountains series

Siegel is admittedly training his camera on a familiar dimension of the Southern terrain with roots in William Castleberry and William Eggleston, a carefully edited place where old-time religion and Friday night football games are favored over vape shops and bland commercial strips of fast-food and chain stores. It’s a timeless view of the South, and that vantage can be both comforting or damning, depending upon your perspective. Timeless can be an admirable thing, but can also suggest stagnation and resistance to progress.

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