Five Atlanta photographers examine why The Future is Behind Us

Stephanie Dowda curates an exhibit for the Atlanta Preservation Center's Phoenix Flies celebration

Only four buildings remain in Atlanta that predate Sherman's fiery 1864 March to the Sea.


"Sherman burned down half the city and we burned the other half except for four buildings," says Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. "We're the city too busy to be grateful."

For the last 12 years Coons has worked with the APC to fight Atlanta's itchy demolition finger, including successful efforts to save Ivy Hall/Peters Mansion, Paschal's Restaurant, and Grant Park's 1856 Lemuel P. Grant Mansion, the city's oldest building. In 2003, the APC held its inaugural Phoenix Flies: A City-Wide Celebration of Living Landmarks event to commemorate the Fox Theatre's 25th anniversary of dodging the wrecking ball after Southern Bell's attempts to raze the Moorish revival structure for a new world headquarters in the '70s.

"The Fox Theatre gave the city a flagship project that's been very successful. When that was saved it basically said that preservation was possible and that there were people invested in it," says Coons. "Preservation is not about an object in isolation but about the culture that evoked the object and what can enrich our own period."

2012's Phoenix Flies' lineup includes the group photography exhibit The Future is Behind Us presented in partnership with community arts organization WonderRoot. Curated by local artist Stephanie Dowda, The Future is Behind Us will feature the work of Atlanta photographers Chris Carder, John Paul Floyd, Jill Frank, Nikita Gale, and Chris McClure to offer perspectives on how Atlanta's architectural history can shape the city's future.

"As an Atlanta native, I understand the disbelief in how Atlanta has developed as a city; things that I've thought were beautiful or interesting have been leveled," says Dowda. "For the exhibit we're capturing a piece of time through our perspectives as artists and telling a story about how contemporary ideas about sites and buildings affect how we continue forward."

Dowda's loose curatorial guidelines asked the artists to shoot one of the historic neighborhoods in which the APC has worked. Carder and Gale photographed the Auburn Avenue area, Floyd snapped images of Cabbagetown, Frank took on Midtown, and McClure captured the Druid Hills community.

The Future is Behind Us' series of nine black-and-white, silver gelatin and archival ink jet prints will be installed in the drawing room of LP Grant Mansion (headquarters of the Atlanta Preservation Center), a building Dowda describes as "sweating with history." The drawing room's plaster walls are the color of red Georgia clay, one of the reasons Dowda chose to have the artists work in black and white. "Too much color would compete so I thought there's this sense of nostalgia that black-and-white photos evoke, and also the question of when these photos were taken, as if you're going through this historic document," she says.

Floyd's study "February 4, 2012" plays peekaboo with Cabbagetown's Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill's now defunct smokestacks. The two towers appear camouflaged among a cluster of naked trees, or fused to the gabled roofs of the surrounding cottages. Frank considers a pair of lonely old trees spared the axe amid the new construction in Midtown. In "Magnolia, Whole Foods parking lot, Atlanta, 2012," the title subject proudly puffs out its leafy chest at the surrounding strip mall. The hardwood in "Live Oak, 17th Street and Peachtree, Atlanta, 2012" has grown out of its concrete stranglehold with such urgency that it looks on the verge of yanking its roots from the earth and running away.

Rather than focus on a specific building, Gale walked the six blocks of Auburn Avenue from Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace at Hogue Street down to Jesse Hill Jr. Drive to engage the entire streetscape.

"I used to go to Auburn Avenue a lot as kid. My mom used to take my brother and I to Sweet Auburn Market. I hadn't walked around that area in about 10 years. I used the project as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the area," says Gale.

Gale shot everything at eye level to simulate the pedestrian experience in her images. Her prints resemble contact sheets, each with three rows of five consecutively shot frames. The individual rows each represent the view of a city block from the sidewalk across the street.

"It's always interesting to experience Atlanta as a pedestrian," says Gale. "It's such a car-centric city. I drive to and from work, and I'm in my car several hours a day. It's refreshing to experience those little details that you wouldn't if you didn't get out of your car every once in a while."

Most of us are just like Gale, focused on getting from point A to point B, rarely pausing to glance in the rearview at what we're leaving behind. The Future is Behind Us breaks to reveal the living history around us.

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