The Levee: A Photographer in the American South

A photograph from "The Levee: A Photographer in the American South" at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Promising to explore themes of “connection, perspective and place”, The Cincinnati Art Museum’s new exhibit, “The Levee” was photographed during a controversial point in time for the South: spring 2016.

My first steps into the gallery were moderately underwhelming; the space was huge, yet seemed vastly unoccupied. Sohrab Hura’s 83 untitled photographs were uniform in shape and size, wrapping around the room in disarray. While I love art that screams a message at me, I came to appreciate the muted themes portrayed in Hura’s photography. It was exciting in a different manner; it required brainstorming to piece together a story that wasn’t so obvious.

The Levee: A Photographer in the American South

I was eager to figure out Hura’s views on being on the levees compared to his father, whose thoughts were illustrated through postcards he sent his son when working out there. One card read in a loopy scrawl, “When you get the chance tell me whats beyond the levee.”

That’s exactly what Hura did.

Upon first look at the works, the photographs seemed somewhat dreary and gloomy. One man described them as “ominous” upon noticing the dilapidation illustrated in some. However, as I progressed through the room I began to notice other recurring elements that portrayed more positive tones. The aforementioned theme of connection was clear through candid snapshots of smiling families and friends, people holding and hugging, enjoying each other’s company. The love and sincerity felt in many of the images conflicted with negative stereotypes placed upon the South at the time.

Something I especially liked about Hura’s grayscale photography was the stark contrast between black and white; it inspired raw emotions. Most prevalently, I was ridden with nostalgia after noticing a photograph of what could be up to 30 bikes propped against a single bike stand, their dark paint popping from the light colors of the park in spring.

The Levee: A Photographer in the American South

Perhaps the most crucial part of the exhibition was the birds. There were photographs of them all throughout the gallery; sitting in flocks or flying freely throughout the sky. There was even a faint chirping playing over speakers throughout the room, recorded by Hura on the grounds of a former plantation house. I believe the role of birds is what required the most interpretation from the audience. Viewers were asked how they interpreted the South that Hura experienced, and to me, the birds unified all the elements I’d observed beforehand. The South that Hura encountered was not the one villainized so often, but one overcoming its losses and bringing people together. The birds perhaps signified the departure of negative ideas that once existed, and the arrival and flight of goodness, love and a united community.

All of these themes were in contrast to his father, who was only capable of comprehending the South from a distance at the Levee, unable to grasp the same conclusions. If you’re looking to uncover your own theories about the meaning behind Hura’s works, I highly recommend taking a visit to “The Levee”in Gallery 105. The gallery will be on display until Feb. 2, 2020.