How Do You Photograph a Gospel Song?

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How Do You Photograph a Gospel Song?

Shane Lavalette takes photographs about music. They're about the melodies you can almost reach out and touch.

These photographs are about music. They're about the melodies you can almost reach out and touch. Shane Lavalette took them nearly six years ago, over a series of visits to the South which he remember with fondness. He'd been commissioned to create a body of work by Atlanta's High Museum for their long-running initiate "Picturing the South."

Shane, a Northerner, didn't know much about the South, but he did know about the songs. That was his way in—spirituals, gospel—and it worked beautifully. He ended up with a series called One Sun, One Shadow. Now, six years later, the body of work has finally been printed and bound in a book of the same time. We talked to Shane about music and how the series would look different in the light of today's harsher sun.

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VICE: I'd like to start by asking why you think you were commissioned to shoot this project for the High Museum, as someone who's not from the South?
Shane Lavalette: I think that's precisely what they were interested in. The High's commission series had included a handful of great Southern artists already, and the year that they asked me I gathered that they wanted to also include some 'outsider' perspectives. I was completely honored to be asked to participate in the project, particularly as a young artist setting out to try and figure out a direction for myself and my work.

Did you embrace being an outsider, or did you try to embed yourself, get 'inside'?
Probably a bit of both. I'm inherently not Southern, but I absolutely fell in love with the landscape, people, culture, food, and so on. I eventually felt very much at home.

Did you shoot the series in bursts, or on one long road trip? How long did you spend there, all together?
I spent the entirety of the summer of 2010 living out of my car and traveling through most of the Southern states, but primarily focused on the deep south. Along the way, I camped at state parks, stayed at motels, and with friends and strangers. I did the same thing, though a slightly shorter trip, the following year as well. Other than that, there were just a few short trips to specific locations. It was about four or five months of photographing in total, and then a few years of scanning, editing, sequencing, and working on the book.

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In 2011, I accepted a position as the director of Light Work in Syracuse, New York, so I also work a full time job that's all about supporting the work of other artists. I try to make time on nights and weekends to spend with my own projects.

Spending time in the south, did you buy into the idea that America could be, culturally, two separate countries? The coasts versus the 'bible belt'?
Traveling around any part of America seems to illustrate how quickly places and people can change, yet there's also a connectedness to our country. I think there were parts of the south that I spent time in that felt familiar, or even reminded me of other regions, and also moments that felt completely Southern, specific and unique.

I read something where you said "I wanted to consider the history of Southern music and the relationship it has with the landscape." Are you trying to capture the things songs were written about—people and places—or is it something more esoteric than that? The actual musical motifs seem deliberately sparse.
Exactly. Music was my entry point to photographing in the south. I wasn't interested in illustrating any musical subject directly, though, or approaching the project systematically, by visiting places or people of historical importance and documenting them. Rather, I wanted to keep myself open to the feeling coming from some of the songs I was listening to at the time—old time, blues, and gospel—and simply looking for things that resonated. In terms of the themes that come through in the pictures, I feel like they reflect some of the subjects of these songs, but they also celebrate the musicality of the everyday, and are open to many readings.

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Can you tell me some of the things you listened to on the road?
So much music! Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Elizabeth Cotton, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb. I listened to a lot of classics, but also some more contemporary musicians that are doing modern renditions of traditional songs. I find this musical lineage really fascinating, and really started to see music as an oral history which can teach you a lot about time and place.

Have you returned south since shooting the series? How has the place changed?
I was in New Orleans briefly for PhotoNOLA last year. It brought back a lot of good memories of spending time there a few years ago, and my travels in general. I can't really speak to how things have changed regionally, but New Orleans is vibrant and there are less effects to see from Katrina, though it's still there. I also visited Atlanta this year for ACP. It was wonderful to return to the High and see some of the places I spent time around there, and some familiar faces. When working on the project, I was doing a lot of traveling and spending most of my time in rural areas, getting lost. These recent trips were also very different in that I was there briefly for photography events, looking at art, and seeing a different side of cities I had spent time in before.

If you were to shoot a postscript of sorts today, how would it look different to the main body of work?
Interesting idea. There are certainly some social and political layers in these photographs, but given today's climate—with the 2016 election in particular—I think I would have to dive deeper into some of those ideas. I could also see value in collaborating with a Southern artist or writer in some way, in order to push things in a new direction. Maybe some time down the road…

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One Sun, One Shadow is available through Shane's publishing house Lavalette.