It was mid-October, the fall of 2000, near my twenty-fourth birthday. Close to finishing an undergraduate degree in Microbiology, I was questioning where my life/education would take me, and although I was nowhere near a definitive answer – I was almost certain it was not going to be a career that involved a lab coat, safety goggles and latex gloves. With this in mind, and a desire to avoid the bitter realities and responsibilities the post graduation blues would inevitably bring, I decided to take a semester off from East Tennessee State University. My leave of absence took me to San Francisco where I was living with three good friends, one of whom was enrolled in a photography class at the San Francisco Art Institute. This particular evening her class was scheduled to attend an exhibit at the Robert Koch Gallery as homework. She begged and pleaded with everyone in the apartment to accompany her to the gallery. I asked her who was showing work, she couldn’t remember, but did recall the artist being from Tennessee. I reluctantly agreed, and if I’m being honest, was going more as a favor than an interest in the exhibition.
I remember vividly, maybe not like yesterday, but not the close to two decades that have passed since the life experiences and teachings of a semester off culminated on one serendipitous day. I don’t know what brain chemical, neuron or synapse caused this moment in my life to seem so monumental, or why it was so permanently etched into my consciousness, but seeing Mike Smith’s You’re Not from Around Here fueled a sea change that eventually brought me back to East Tennessee to pursue a Master of Fine Art degree in Photography under his tutelage. I desperately wanted to make photographs with similar conviction and the crystalline vision that was demonstrated on the walls of the Koch Gallery that adventitious evening. Being raised in the shadow of the East Tennessee hills I expected commonplace and nostalgia, and on the first pass was rewarded with those comforts. When I spent more time with each photograph, I began to sense something greater lurking beneath the surface. My initial sense of contentment quickly turned to perplexity, and as my comprehension grew the loss of familiarity induced a disorienting jolt of anxiety. Mike had radically reformed Upper East Tennessee and South West Virginia into a place that was foreign to me. The exhibition muddled my admittedly shallow understanding of the landscape and people of my childhood and now young adult life. I was invited and encouraged to rethink everything from the smallest inconsequential moments to the large looming questions of our collective human experience. Up to that point I had never seen a rainy fall day in Tennessee more than anything but a day to avoid and stay indoors. Smith’s photographs gave me pause. They were revelatory. Robert Adams offers a vital truth regarding the medium of photography, “The final strength in really great photographs is that they suggest more than just what they show literally.” Smith’s work proved to be a testament to the core tenant of Adams’ musings. The dark mud became sensual. A reflection of light from a mirror projected what looked like a tombstone above an elderly mans head, and signified not only the end of a life, but the end of a way of life as well. A rooster’s garnet, lapis and golden feathers lorded their brilliance in early morning light and seemed to have been plucked from a Caravaggio painting. Overcast fog ridden landscapes imbued in the photographs not only a sense of atmosphere, but also became a formal strength, and allowed Smith to work with a color palette that was vital to the tone of the photographs. A strategy that inevitably linked Appalachia to the dank Irish, English and Scottish countryside, the predominant homelands of those who settled this region nearly two hundred and fifty years ago.
Gregory Crewdson wagers, “Every artist has a central story to tell, and the difficulty, the impossible task, is trying to present that story in pictures.” For the past thirty-six years Mike Smith has thoughtfully considered myriad ways to perceive and visually define contemporary Appalachia, an often misunderstood and maligned region. His narrative is a tough one to pin down though. Smith is as visually comfortable in the sparsely populated deep dark reaches of Troublesome Hollow as he is in the shiniest new strip mall of Johnson City’s rapidly growing suburbia. When asked how he decides what to photograph Smith often responds with a sly, “Some days I go right out of my driveway, some days I go left.” What at first seems humorous and like an avoidance of the question is actually a mindful answer when fully unpacked. Anything and everything is raw material, and when the astounding amount of detail afforded by the medium of photography collides with his unwavering devotion, critical understanding and visual acuity, even the most mundane moments and subject matter emphatically pierce the veil of our quotidian understanding of Appalachia. Smith has never wavered from this preeminent objective.
Appalachia is a formidable place to make photographs. Many of the counties represented in Smith’s work are categorized as “At-Risk” or “Distressed” in the 2015 Economic Status Report provided by The Appalachian Regional Commission. In straightforward terms this means that these counties function well below the national average for three economic indicators: unemployment rates, per capita income and poverty rates. Artists with less than desirable ethics and an eye less scrutinizing than Smith’s own have trampled through the hills and valleys generating objectionable stereotypes that have proliferated through ignorance and mass media. Questionable values soldered to an anemic understanding create a vision that is judgmental, narrow and superficial. Smith’s practice has never been about making an “easy” or thoughtless image. He doesn’t fall prey to the heavily trodden, well-worn tropes and formulaic engagement with the region. Fixating on the beauty and/or despair of Appalachia provides a slippery slope to mediocrity. Smith’s lens artfully resides in the liminal space, or at the threshold of both ideas. This is where life is lived – in the gray area.
In “Come Healing” Leonard Cohen laments, “O gather up the brokenness and bring it to me now. “ Smith seems to be listening and looking intently – “Parting Shots”, his farewell exhibition and publication as a tenured professor, paints a bleak, somber, and at times ominous depiction of the region. As a people, we have been riding a wave of election induced stress and nausea fostered by one of America’s most bitter and divisive elections of recent decades. It is no secret that we, as a nation, are deeply troubled. Smith has dutifully offered his unflinching engagement to convey the weight of this tension in Appalachia. Those who are familiar with Smith’s work up to now might expect to engage with formal Appalachian landscapes suffused with sublime evening light and a refined color palette, all set to the rhythm of four fully formed and ever changing seasons. “Parting Shots” is a substantial departure from Smith’s previous meditations. The distance has changed. We are now confronted with space so intimate that at times it can be disorienting. The colors are no longer subdued and mirror the charged nature of the subject matter. Difficult themes of the social landscape such as: race, religion, sexism, xenophobia and guns are traversed in rewarding ways. Smith’s lens doesn’t waiver, it delivers nuanced complexities of a landscape fraught with economic and social hardship. There is an anguished psychology in “Parting Shots” that stems from the toxins of a complicated history, a history that seems tethered to an outdated set of values. An air of law and order is prevalent, and ironically crushes independence and freedom, core ideology to which the region fiercely clings. It is as if we have entered a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and the Tennessee hills are the backdrop. A three-legged cat is giving us the evil eye. Anarchy is flourishing. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus have been hanged, a troubling image on many levels, but maybe more provocative than the nooses around their neck, is the manner in which they have been callously discarded with this week’s garbage. The seventh trumpet is sounding, and the rapture is in full swing. This is a world in which (A)rt has no place. To make a beautiful picture of what is deplorable and in need of correction would be a disservice, and gives undo attention and significance to the subject. This is not to say that Smith has disengaged from the medium. On the contrary, his steadfast attention to form and composition is the shrewd anchor in this work. His photographs, as always, are salient and fully resolved. One of the unexpected and welcome aspects of “Parting Shots” is macabre humor. The addition of whimsy makes the harsh and distressing topics more accessible. A headless “David” has been shot with a slug in his groin. What looks to be a gruesome murder scene is actually a hanged nutcracker with red paint splashed on a white shed. Santa Claus, one of the most recognizable and wholesome figures in American culture is taking a smoke break. People of color don’t show up often in the photographs, and when they do it is usually sequenced next to the “stars and bars”. This paints a vivid picture of how severe their reality has remained. Women do not fare much better in “Parting Shots”. They are usually seen in seductive attire and suggestive poses. A female face on a flyer has been vandalized. Her likeness has been littered with bullets, and her eye has been maliciously cut out with care and purpose. Snow White and Cinderella, both iconic American symbols of beauty to adolescent girls for generations, look to be in prison or restraints.
Through force of vision and an undeniable fondness for his adopted home, Smith has accomplished one of the most elusive and critical roles bestowed on an artist – to convey the zeitgeist of the now. Even though ”Parting Shots” is a feat in and of itself, it is best understood and contextualized as yet another thoughtful layer to Smith’s expansive and rich ongoing narrative of Appalachia. The fact that after thirty-six years and thousands of rolls and sheets of film and more recently filled SD cards and Lightroom catalogs one could still work with genuine exuberance carries an enormous amount of weight. When Smith’s many decades of life experience coalesce with a photographic practice that is enduring and determined, we the viewer can expect to be rewarded with new discoveries, discoveries that confound and redefine our experience and understanding with not only photography, but the core human experience as well. Truman Capote assured us that, “Any work of art, provide it springs from a sincere motivation to further understanding between people, is an act of faith and therefore is an act of love.”