Toxic landscape

New acquisitions at the High's photo gallery

Divided into four rooms loosely organized by theme, the High Museum's exhibition Building a Collection: Recent Photography Acquisitions gives Tom Southall an opportunity to display some of the work he's done over the past several years as the museum's latest photo curator.

In the first room are pieces from photography's old guard, including Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange's "White Angel Breadline" and work by Edward Weston, most of which show a heavy curatorial emphasis on portraiture. The second room builds upon the High's 1996 Picturing the South exhibition with its focus on regional themes and Southern photographers. Along with images of folk artists and their environments, lost-in-time barbershops and Alain Desvergnes' familiar portrait of a baby belle in "Yoknapatawpha, Oxford, Mississippi," are nods to the usual suspects such as Coretta Scott King and George Wallace.

The third alcove is dominated by works that expand the parameters of photography both formally and conceptually. Carrie Mae Weems' use of framed text to flesh out the content of her photographs is illustrative, as is Amalia Amaki's and Guatemalan artist Luis Gonzalez Palma's incorporation of found objects into their images, which meld elements of collage, assemblage and photography.

Beyond these arrangements that seem more skewed to give out-of-towners a cursory read of the High's collection and a mini-tutorial on Southern identity, the real reason for locals to see Building a Collection is in the gallery's fourth room: an arresting, brutal series of works commissioned by the High by California landscape photographer Richard Misrach.

Misrach's work documents a depressing stretch of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans dubbed "Cancer Alley" that has been used as a corporate sewer by Union Carbide, Dow Chemicals and other industrial monoliths. Misrach defers to his specialty - landscape - and focuses on homes and graveyards, swamps and river's edges rather than the human victims of cancer. What might seem a cold and calculated denial of people is, in actuality, a shrewd and deeply evocative concentration on a landscape that becomes as haunted as the gauzy, contaminated antebellum homes and spoiled Eden of Sally Mann's "Deep South" and "Motherland" series. While photographs of cancer victims might allow us to dismiss suffering as discrete, Misrach's use of landscape demands we see it as a threat beyond the individual, seeping into the communal soil in the most nightmarish terms.

Using the ghostly, intrusive presence of the river licking at the water's banks as a stand in for an invisible pollutant, Misrach conveys a feeling of bodily engulfment. Rather than signaling freedom, the vast sky tinged with sulphurous yellow or steely gray only emphasizes the entrapment suffered on Earth below. Using a language of chilling displacement, the work gives an immediate impression of the inescapable creep of the river and with it the poisonous specter. The most potent image might be "Hazardous Waste Containment Site," in which a toxic chemical zone sits, ironically, in the center of a river that flows through the chain-link fence that pretends to "contain" it. Misrach's ever-present towers belching yellow smoke, smokestacks spouting chemical flames and landscapes colored in shades of rust, fungal green and ochre convey the inescapable toxicity of the physical world. In these images of barren Cyprus trees and cemeteries in the shadow of a chemical plant, we witness a ruined place, a world slowly dying along with its residents.

While much of the work in Building a Collection references a familiar photographic vocabulary, Misrach's does the photographer's most difficult work - transforming the commonplace to allow us access to something wholly new, taking its well-deserved place in the High's collection.

"Building a Collection: Recent Photography Acquisitions in the High Museum of Art" runs through June 24 at the High Museum of Folk Art and Photography, located in the Georgia-Pacific Center at 133 Peachtree St. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-577-6940. Free.

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