Artist in Residence Alex Harris: The Dichotomy Between Perception and Actuality

In a guided tour of the journey of photography, Alex Harris ’67, the Artist in Residence for the week of April 1, 2024, led interested students through the Addison Gallery of American Art’s current exhibition, “A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845.” This exhibition was organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and focuses on depicting the South’s critical role in the development of photography.

One of Harris’ photographs, “Thunder Road, Austin Texas,” was on display and featured two police officers, one Black and one white, seemingly engaged in a heated argument. Harris noted how although it initially appears to be a commentary on the historical racial divide of the South, within the context of the exhibit, the photograph instead tells the story of aspiring filmmakers.

“I was fortunate enough to have a curator at the High Museum in Atlanta to give me what’s called a Picturing the South commission… Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to look at the way that a new generation of young narrative filmmakers were imagining the South. If I could just get on a few of their film sets and could photograph what they were filming. Turns out I spent about two years on about forty different film sets and in the process I described, I chose the pictures I was most interested in, they didn’t necessarily reflect the story of that particular film, but when I put them together, the High Museum ultimately exhibited them. They told another story, a cumulative story, about the South from all those different film sets. It was a story about the imaginations and the dreams of a new generation of filmmakers in the South,” said Harris.

This dichotomy between the perceived story and actual story behind the image was something attendees of the event also found to be noteable. Alicia Zhang ’24, an Addison Community Ambassador, remarked on how listening to Harris speak about his work opened her eyes to how context can completely change the way art is perceived.

“My favorite part of the event was definitely when he explained the process that went into his photograph ‘Thunder Road.’ It’s very interesting to me because he talked about how his photograph is part of another series he did where he went around and took pictures of film sets. It was cool to hear the backstory of the photograph because seeing the photo in the context of the exhibition, you wouldn’t know that backstory. If you looked at it, you wouldn’t think it was part of a fictional story, you would think it was something that happened in real life. So it was cool to hear the context,” said Zhang.

The acted out scene being perceived as a real life event was the actualization of Harris’ intention behind photography. Harris explained that, when he takes a photo, his primary goal is to capture authenticity, and that he views photography as a response to a moment rather than the creation of one.

“What I’m trying to do is immerse myself in the moment. I want to respond in a way that allows me to make what I would call an authentic picture. We all know that we can have very close friends or family we take pictures of, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that person, it just feels like it’s someone showing up with a camera and taking photos… One thing that characterizes this exhibit is that the photographs do feel authentic. It’s a broad term but I think I’m looking for a way to render the world in a way that says more than I know. I want a picture to teach me something. I usually don’t go out thinking I want to take a picture of this or that and show this or that. I go out to photograph and then later I will edit my pictures and choose one out of ten or one out of a hundred. Once I put those pictures together, I discover the story that was there rather than seeing the story I set out to find,” said Harris.

The story of “Thunder Road, Austin Texas” served to tell an additional story when placed within the context of the Addison Gallery as a whole. Anthony Woo ’24 spoke on how this piece, and the exhibit as a whole, worked in coordination with the themes of unrest within America’s history.

“We have a few photography exhibitions going on right now and most of them are related to America. When we think about the identity of America and the tumultuous times of today we can look at these works for the history. For example there’s the Civil Rights wall upstairs with many photos documenting the Civil Rights movement. We also got to see faces and the relationship of landscapes and spaces which was interesting,” said Woo.