One Fine Show: ‘A Long Arc’ at Atlanta’s High Museum

A new exhibition at the institution presents photography that captures the arc of a moral universe that bends toward justice.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A black and white photo of MLK Jr. at a police station
Charles Moore (American, 1931–2010), ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Arrested, Montgomery, Alabama’, 1958, gelatin silver print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1994.63. © Estate of the artist

Photography is one of the few mediums where the major works of genius require a degree of luck. A photographer cannot have complete control over his output because the ones that people like best tend to have some reality-based or documentary element. When the framing is good or a person makes an expression that could not hope to be replicated, the viewer feels that same frisson of being in the right place at the right time. Artists like Cindy Sherman and Stan Douglas resist this element by proactively staging their perfect photos, but such performance has done nothing over the years to erode the photographic power that emanates from truth.

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The newly opened show of photography at the High Museum in Atlanta, “A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845,” takes its name from the Martin Luther King Jr. quote about the arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice. The show features more than 170 works, matching photographers who documented the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s such as Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, Doris Derby and Ernest Withers with contemporary capturers of the modern South, like Dawoud Bey, Kristine Potter, Mark Steinmetz, Sheila Pree Bright and RaMell Ross. In between we have such luminaries as Sally Mann, William Eggleston and William Christenberry, whose work captures the no-less-important aesthetic changes, the ruins that constitute the late 20th century American South.

Why not kick things off with A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia (1865), John Reekie’s battlefield portrait of African American soldiers for the Union army gathering corpses onto a stretcher, where five skulls roll around? There’s something of those skulls of the disco ball hanging in the trees in Alec Soth’s Enchanted Forest (36), Texas (2006), because there’s nobody in that photograph and it has the same feeling of aftermath. William Christenberry’s Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama (1983) offers a nice bridge between the two in terms of themes and chronology, as it portrays a red brick building in the middle of nowhere, with the area where the door should be bricked up too.

But it’s not all bleak. The photos from the civil rights movement are pure Hollywood, full of that almost unbelievable serendipity that staged photos can’t compete with. The lighting and water from the hoses in Bob Adelman’s Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama (1963) mingle to turn a horrible scene into something ethereal. It’s hard to describe the pose captured in Charles Moore’s Martin Luther King Jr. Arrested, Montgomery, Alabama (1958). King seems a little shocked, which at first feels odd because this used to happen to him often. His surprise might stem from the fact that there isn’t often a camera there to document the moment.

Reality is served. In all, it’s that great mix of documentary and artistry.

A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845” is on view at the High Museum of Art through January 14, 2024. 

One Fine Show: ‘A Long Arc’ at Atlanta’s High Museum