APG's Esther Griffin recently spoke with Know South / No South Juror Richard McCabe about the inspiration and intent for the exhibition, and his own work as an artist. McCabe received an MFA in Studio Art from Florida State University in 1998. In the same year he received a Fellowship to New York University to attend the American Photography Institute, National Graduate Seminar. From 1998 – 2005 he lived in New York City where he worked for numerous art galleries and museums. In 2005, He relocated to New Orleans, Louisiana and has worked within the curatorial department of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art for the past twelve years. In 2010, he became the Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum. In the fall of 2017, Aint – Bad published LAND STAR; a monograph of McCabe’s photography.
Photography has been a life long passion for McCabe. He got his first camera for Christmas when he was only 10 years old and has been hooked ever since. His first subjects were his dog, his little sister and family, but those first steps led to a spot on the high school yearbook staff and then art college. His love for photography came first –his work in museums and galleries later, for which he could use his talents in photography as well.
McCabe is not very experimental in a way that he kept a love for the same type of subjects over time: family, memories, place, travel, the roads and cars, the south. However, his techniques did change over the years. For instance, over the last four years he has been working on a project for which he only used Polaroids to capture the disappearing environment.
McCabe is also not shy to admit that his photography skills do not apply to all subjects. For instance, he finds it challenging to take photos of people. “It's hard to control the human body and to have the kind of interaction needed for a good photo. It's hard to break away from stereotypes.” So he stays away from the subject all together. This does not mean he doesn’t love these types of photos, he just leaves it to other talented artists to produce them.
It is colors, shapes, signage and landscapes that McCabe works on. It’s about the aesthetics, not even about the subject. His work can stand on its own, it is subjective. So, different from the work in the exhibition Know South / No South, McCabe was able to pick seven artists and from each artist six works. Each series of six works tells a story from start to finish.
The applicants made it very difficult for McCabe. “This was the hardest show I ever had to do, the work was very good. There were about 60 applicants, and of those applicants, the work of at least 45 photographers could be in the show. It was brutal to narrow it down to even 20 artists, let alone bringing it down to just seven!” But the fact that the exhibition is showing only seven artists is also a plus according to McCabe. “This way, you really get to see a body of work of each photographer, which is different from having only one photo from 45 different photographers.”
He was also surprised about the interpretation of the theme of the show. What is the South or can you even say there is a South in this world of globalization? “An overwhelming majority chose to represent the romantic ideal of the South: a rural based, sentimental imagery. Obviously, that would represent the Know South part of the exhibition. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not real life, it is more an idea, a feeling or a memory for Southerners. Fewer applicants chose to represent the modern South that gets harder and harder to distinguish from other parts of the world and therefore would represent the No South of the exhibition.”
Asked what makes a good photo McCabe replies that light is most important. “A photograph is basically writing with light, so that is of the essence. Luckily, the vast majority of the applicants for the show had that covered.” So what does McCabe take into consideration when judging the show? “Subject matter and the ability to tell a story without the use of (a lot of) text.” He also appreciates metaphorical photos that reveal a deeper meaning and keep on giving the longer you look at them.
McCabe can surely be called an expert when it comes to Southern art, especially photography. As the Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, he has put together dozens of exhibitions. Starting October 6, 2018, his show New Southern Photography will be on display; a traveling exhibition McCabe has been working on for years and that explores the role photography plays in formulating the visual iconography of the modern New South. Regarding its theme, APG’s Know South / No South can be considered a taste of that upcoming show.
Asked what art McCabe himself has on his walls at home, he lists outsider folk artists, such as R.A. Miller and Justin McCartney. Other artists that made his collection are Shelby Lee Adams and Mark Steinmetz, to name just a few. “Through my work in museums and galleries, I have been very lucky to be able to buy, trade or been gifted many pieces of art, but when I go to an auction every now and then, my budget is usually around $200. Art does not have to be expensive.”