(Re)Photography in the American South (Part Two: Birmingham, Mobile, Chattanooga)

I was originally planning to include these all as part of one giant post from my travels, but then I got carried away writing about the experience of getting that picture from the balcony at Royal and St. Ann in New Orleans. These three cases did not incorporate nearly as intriguing processes of inquiry. They mostly involved luck and convenience. The only danger I encountered came from traffic turning onto MLK Boulevard in Chattanooga while I was taking this:

July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014

Not bad! I knew I would eventually scan the original so you could all have a better look at the original postcard (folded into a souvenir packet from 1938; below). If you’re seeking a good example of a southern city that’s done almost everything within their power correctly over the past three decades, look no farther than Chattanooga. All it took was a New York Times article in 1980 about what a hellhole the place was at the time, and the city’s elites set the wheels in motion. Today, it’s a somewhat-undiscovered gem. A big part of the city’s renovation was (like even the less-progressive southern cities have realized for themselves) major investment in their downtown. This brought about a nicely-maintained park across the street from the old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse Building. That park made it pretty hard to get a full photo of the front of this quintessentially Depression-era architecture that’s stood since the height of that period (1933); trees blocked any view I had of the full building unless I crossed MLK Boulevard and disrupted traffic for a second. Anyway, here is the original 1930’s postcard print.

ChattPostOffice_020937As Jakle and Sculle wrote in Picturing Illinois:

Postcard buyers embraced images that positively reinforced what most Americans believe the United States to be. Indeed, the nation’s postcard craze was largely a matter of self-congratulation. (p.5)

Self-congratulatory or not, the early twentieth century also continued a highly American tradition of, for lack of a better term, idol worship. Few things better signified the impact of an individual or a group on a place than a statue. In Birmingham, I was wandering through Five Points and I landed on the statue of Brother James Alexander Bryan, one of the most notable (if overlooked, outside of Alabama) white proponents of the civil rights movement.

The Brother Bryan statue at Five Points, Birmingham. July 12, 2014.

The Brother Bryan statue at Five Points, Birmingham. July 12, 2014.

From what I’ve gathered from some light research, the city has moved the statue a few times, which explains why the placement seemed off compared to the original 1930s postcard from the Birmingham souvenir packet.

Picture 006

You can just make out the statue on the pavement island across the street. Birmingham, AL. July 12, 2014.

It seemed that the statue’s original placement sat on a (mostly) treeless island in the middle of the Five Points South intersection. Today, the statue’s location may be similar, though the city has either rebuilt the street behind it (it’s more of a walkway today, which you can see in the close-up photo of the statue), or placed the statue much closer to that gray building. I’m sure I could dig up articles from the Birmingham News about the statue’s moves, but I’ve only got so much time in the day. Also noteworthy, this postcard was mailed in the late 1930’s, and Brother Bryan didn’t die until 1941. Is it as rare as I think for somebody to be immortalized in that style while they are still alive to see it?

Speaking of the intense relationship between Christ, spirituality, and the South, here’s my second-favorite recreation I accomplished on the trip: Bienville Square in Mobile, AL.

Postcard from late 1930's Mobile souvenir packet.

Postcard from late 1930’s Mobile souvenir packet.

Picture 027

Bienville Square, July 14, 2014.

How cool is that? The big cross and that gorgeous fountain in the background have largely been untouched. The grounds immediately around the cross are not as grassy, and there appear to be more trees immediately surrounding the cross than there were 75-80 years ago, but the character of the park seems strikingly similar. I stood in several different spots trying to cancel out the trees right next to me while still framing the cross and fountain closely to how the postcard did. I took one picture with the postcard in the foreground that actually worked, surprisingly.

Anyway, I’m here in Knoxville for August, preparing to begin teaching GEO 101 and continuing with my research. I’m so tempted to turn these photographs into something else if I had anything resembling the spare time. I’ve actually had a few people suggest I keep compiling these antique postcard re-productions and turn them into a book. We’ll see.

 

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One thought on “(Re)Photography in the American South (Part Two: Birmingham, Mobile, Chattanooga)

  1. Pingback: Lyrics, Letters and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving | Sonic Geography

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