“About three years ago,” writes photographer William Greiner, “I had occasion to visit Augusta, Georgia, as a participant in a panel that the Morris Museum organized in conjunction with an exhibition on contemporary photography in the South.”
“I had never visited Augusta before,” admits this New Orleans native, who now, post-Katrina, calls Baton Rouge his home. Yet, he took advantage of a long weekend in the city to explore the nooks and crannies of the downtown area with his camera in hand.
What resulted from this intense examination – “I had no agenda in making the photographs. I was simply reacting to a new place” – is the newest exhibition at the Morris, a collection of photographs by a distinguished contemporary practitioner, all in response to his seeing an unfamiliar place for the first time.
According to Greiner, the show titled “Oh! Augusta!” is sure to surprise many local residents who themselves may struggle to place the subjects of some of the images. “I think that I saw a lot of Augusta that many Augustans don’t see.”
Take, for example, the photo chosen for the cover of the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.
Just from the title “Merry’s,” most area residents might expect that Greiner was drawn to a particular commercial establishment – in this case, Merry’s Trash and Treasures, which has been a fixture on Broad Street for more than 40 years.
Everyone who has ever shopped on the upper end of that principal downtown thoroughfare remembers the giant armchair that graces the sidewalk in front of Merry’s.
Greiner, on the other hand, ignored the store’s carefully calculated commercial façade in favor of its rarely visited back entrance, accessed through an alley off Ellis Street. It’s a view with which I am familiar only because I once drove my vehicle around back in order to pick up a glass-fronted bookcase that I had purchased from the store.
Yet, I am sure that the proprietors of this particular furniture emporium would prefer that customers remember the Broad Street entrance as the store’s only public face and not the view that one might find in the urban core of any American city, the typically unkempt back-alley, rear-entrance access point that most customers seldom see.
In the Greiner photo, the rear façade is center stage, a squat cinderblock structure to the left and a dark, unmarked wall to the right. In the foreground lies a patchy grassy area, and overhead an overcast sky. The viewer’s eye is ultimately drawn to the word “Merry’s” over the rear entrance, but the overall scene is anything but jolly and festive.
Many of the photos in the current show offer evidence of much the same verbal irony. In another image, for example, the two-word phrase “Be Free” is spray-painted on a brick wall that is part of a landscape that offers no open vistas but appears instead to be part of a barren labyrinth; in another photograph, an empty newspaper dispenser, slightly akimbo, exhorts the viewer to “please take.”
Greiner himself observes that downtown Augusta has “seen better days” and that it is now “fighting to survive and reinvent itself in this economically challenged” climate. Yet, in a talk that he gave at the Morris just last week, the photographer also claims to have found beauty in the city’s commercial core.
As validation of this assertion, consider “Blue Barrels,” which focuses on eight metal drums that form a barricade across a downtown alley. To the right is a shingled wall fragment painted red, and to the left is a garage painted white. In the middle are the vibrant blue barrels.
Greiner, who has made his reputation as a color photographer, likes his colors to pop, and they certainly do just that in this carefully framed vignette of someone’s undoubtedly unconscious artistic statement.
Other photos exploit the often irresistible appeal of neglect and decay. In the photograph titled “Green Painted Wall,” for example, a storm-blasted tree stands next to a brick wall whose surface retains vestiges of green paint applied at one time in carefully orchestrated blocks of color. The faded green paint and the damaged tree offer a poignant commentary on the possibility of rebirth and renewal.
“Oh! Augusta!: Photographs by William Greiner” is a testament to the artistry of a photographer whose professional career now spans 25 years.
His first significant project was a series of color photographs taken of New Orleans cemeteries beginning in 1989, and from that collection he sold three images to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show is on view through Nov. 2.
For more information, call 706-724-7501 or visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.
Dr. Tom Mack holds the G. L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For more information on places of interest in this part of the state, consult his books “Circling the Savannah” and “Hidden History of Aiken County.”