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Old South

David Yoakley Mitchell remembers a time and place

You pass the homes driving through miniscule Southern towns and know instinctively about the people inside. It's easy to imagine their cozy, neat-as-a-pin living rooms with the dropped ceilings and corduroy recliners, or the bedroom with the colorful afghan spread on the double bed and a poodle pin cushion on the spotless vanity.

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They are the spiffy, carefully tended homes that speak to the values and rituals of the elderly occupants within. They are the familiar worlds of our own parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, sopping with memory.

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In his artist's statement, photographer David Yoakley Mitchell says, "My photographs are about a time and place that are unique to me."

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Mitchell's concise, evocative solo exhibition at Inman Park's Whitespace Gallery is a tender, sentimental, but never saccharine homage to a vanishing place. Glennville is a vision of home and family so precise you can almost hold it in your hands. As much a storyteller as a photographer, Mitchell packs his photographs with the kind of telling details that make short stories sizzle with life. A born observer, the photographer is obviously aware of the effect clothes and environment and decor can have in describing a life.

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But he also realizes the best stories don't need to be forced or contrived. The quality and character of a person's life can be seen in sly, potent details as in "Americus Columbus Mitchell IV" in the way an elderly man with liver-spotted arms sits in the cramped cab of a pickup truck. Dressed in a worker's jumpsuit and thick, utilitarian Timex, he arranges his arms to give the driver room. Because his face is not visible in the frame, you become an observer, like Mitchell, of his life via posture and accessories and dress.

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In another partial portrait, "Ed Dowd," a man sitting in a tidy, carefully decorated living room hides his face from the camera. But his sensible black shoes, plaid shirt tucked neatly into his pants, and the spray of blue plastic flowers in a cut-glass vase behind him show how demeanor and decor can speak volumes about the kind of life he leads.

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Mitchell's hometown is Rome, Ga., and his photographs capture the distinct people and landscapes that constitute his own sense of place. But many of the visitors to Mitchell's sublime exhibition might disagree about the uniqueness of the slice of reality he documents. For many of us, the details of this world will feel exquisitely familiar, like variations on our own families. Glennville deals with universal experiences and the recognition of how time passes so bitterly and hauntingly on elderly family members and the worlds of our childhoods and past they often represent.

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Mitchell's elegy is for his own aging relatives, but it's also for a South composed of small, unhurried towns where time seems to stand still, the people ensconced in a safe and familiar bubble of habit and tradition. It's a place where time can be measured by the expansiveness of the "Echols Begonia" that hangs in the corner of a room, or by the date, "1938" set into a stone building in "N. Broad."

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Mitchell's South feels like a cross between the domestic vivisection of Chris Verene and the cool, measured, romantic conjuring of place in William Eggleston. You can feel the contrast between an outside world speeding madly by and the small, insular peaceful snow globe world some never escape in "Flagler." A speeding train is seen from the weedy, wild edge of the railroad tracks, the kind of place where exploring children linger. It's a seemingly unimportant, tangential slice of land, a place for a train to race by, and yet Mitchell makes us understand the emotional centrality of this place — what it represents of a peculiar, disappearing generation of small-town Americans.

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Remembrance of a fleeting time and place is crucial to Mitchell's work. What his atmospheric, fragile photographs give is the sense of honoring people and places whose days are numbered.



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