Leading up to our exhibition Know South / No South on June 8, APG's Esther Griffin will be talking with the participating artists about their entries to the show and the idea of Southern identity. Next up is Aaron Hardin. An independent photographer based out of Jackson, Tennessee, Hardin's work focuses on life in rural southern communities. Currently a professor at Union University, Hardin was chosen by Juror Richard McCabe as one of seven artists to be included in Know South / No South.
What do you love about the medium of Photography? How do you make it work for you?
My favorite quality of photography is its inherent limitations. Photographs communicate such a limited amount of information that they are more akin to fiction than fact. But that fiction is often filtered through our subconsciousness as we try to interpret what we see and reconcile it with our own facts and realities. When I see a painting, I know it is fabricated. When I see a sculpture, I know that it was made by someone's hands. But when I see a photograph, I often assume that it is showing me something that I could see in real life with my own eyes. The conflict between my imagination and my assumptions about reality cause an exciting war in my mind. To me, a good photograph never tells me what to think or believe as much as it causes me to doubt my own reality.
In my own practice, I make photographs of and in places that are the least fantastic. I tend to work in a documentary mode, searching the streets (and paths) to find the treasures among the banal. Most of my photographs are found/seen rather than constructed. I've lived in Jackson, TN for over a decade and wasted many years bemoaning the town's cultural blandness. It isn't a special place. It is a two Walmart town. Eventually I realized that my town was much like every other non-metropolitan town across the USA. If I could be amazed here, then I could be amazed anywhere. And if I could be amazed, I could bring others into my common, every-man/woman landscape and convince them that my Nowheresville is special, and maybe even important.
Your main focus is the human condition in rural southern communities. What about this subject triggers your interest?
I will always have a deep concern with my community. As I age as a photographer, my definition of the human condition changes. When I was younger, I worked as a photojournalist at the local newspaper. I saw all sides of my town, from the rich or poor, the socially engaged and disenfranchised, the racial divides, and the people that sought to mend fences. But as I've progressed, I see my job as recording the feelings and consciousness of a time and people. I'm not as concerned with fixing a social issue by showing my viewers how hard someone's life is. Rather, I want to show how much of a gift existence is, even if that is through a group of people's struggles, failures, triumphs, and hopes. And through that, I want to implicate myself in that existence and stand with those I photograph.
Your entries for this exhibition come from your series The 13th Spring, that won the 2016 Magnum Photography Award for Fine Art Series, are about feelings of fatherhood and are inspired by your daughter’s birth. Can you explain the title, and how these pictures relate to the topic of the exhibition?
My daughter was born in the spring of 2015. A few weeks after her birth, millions of cicadas emerged from the ground and overtook my neighborhood. I remember walking to my car to head to a job one morning after being up all night with the baby and hearing the deafening cicadas' cry surge. They creatures littered my house and lawn. After doing some research, I learned that these particular cicadas live in the ground for thirteen years, then spring forth, molt, mate, lay eggs, and die. Their whole lives lead up to this one event. And this event for the cicadas coincided with the miraculous birth of my daughter. So, the title The 13th Spring is representative of these cycles, or markers, in life. Cycles of universally common, yet intimate and personal experiences. I knew that I would only be a father for the first time once. I knew that these feelings and experiences marked a new way of seeing the world around me. I wanted to embrace this new world and photograph this fleeting first time, before it was gone.
You published a book about The 13th Spring last year as well. Any other goals, dreams for the future?
I self-published a small artist edition of only 50 copies of The 13th Spring. Since the work was my graduate school thesis project, I wanted to make a small run of books available for all my family and friends that were a part of that journey, as well as having books to send to other artists and galleries. So, I hope to publish a trade edition of the book that could reach a little farther into the world. I'm in talks with a publisher that does some amazing work, so I'm hoping to be a part of their catalogue in the next couple of years. Ideally joining hands with talented designers, editors, and book folks will allow the work to take on a new life. Apart from the book, I continue to show the work and hope that it is collected and preserved by individuals and institutions.
What is the South to you?
It's really hard for me to say what the South is, because it is such a complex and diverse region. I was born in the rice fields of eastern Arkansas but grew up mostly in West Tennessee. I've always lived in places that people hope to escape from, usually to a bigger city. But these places are often populated by people whose families have lived there for multiple generations. If you go back far enough, someone's ancestor was either an affluent land owner, a share cropper, or a slave. I think the echoes of that past comes out in the attitudes of modern generations. You have the powerful versus the quiet perseverance of the poor and lower middle class. You have a large population of white and black blue-collar workers, just trying to make enough to care for their families. And you have varying interpretations of Christianity intermingled throughout the culture. I've never lived outside of the South, so I don't know how to operate in any other culture. I think that because you have a large population that descended from either poor sharecroppers or slaves, there is an attitude of making the best of a situation, no matter how bleak. That hope is a powerful spirit in a place, though it stems from unfathomable, multi-generational suffering. I think about Son House and his song John the Revelator. His voice carries such a weight of despair and agony, yet he sings with such hope still mingled with tragedy. I think the coexistence of both adversity and faith for something better gives me a deep love for and home in the South.
Who is on your wall? Who do you collect?
As for collecting, I am having trouble decorating my walls. I think it is mostly because I am indecisive and feel it impossible to choose what to put on my wall. There is so much good art out there, I find it hard to commit to a couple of pieces just yet. I know that sounds crazy for an artist to say. With books on the other hand, I can fit as many as I can on a shelf or piled in my office. Some of my recent acquisitions are ML Casteel's American Interiors -which is brilliant, pre-ordered Carl Martin's new book from Fall Line Press, and even recently added a classic: Larry Fink's Social Graces. Some of my most cherished books are Family by Chris Verene, Egypt Time by Robert Lyons, and Christmas Tree Bucket by Trent Parke.