In a project spanning five years, Peter Stitt takes us on a homely journey through the small-town streets of South Carolina and Georgia with a documentary series that feels personal, intimate and strangely familiar and comforting.
Now available in a new book titled, A Southern Verse, Stitt's photographs explore modern-day life in the rural South, a part of the United States that he feels hasn't changed in recent decades. "It became clear that the towns I was visiting were seemingly no different from those we travelled through growing up," Stitt says of the series. "Instead, these places seemed stuck in a time loop where as much as they changed, they very much stayed the same. There was something beautiful about it, though. There is a seemingly stoic sense of both a desire to progress and a stubborn hesitancy to change."
In the book's introduction, Matt Porter – an artist and curator at the Morris Museum of Art – writes: "A 'verse' as it is commonly used in music or poetry is a part of a whole, it carries a rhythm, a tonal pattern. The images collected in Peter Stitt's A Southern Verse are lyrical in the way they collectively explore the contemporary rural southeastern United States."
What's unique about Stitt's photographs is that they are devoid of people, and instead focus on the details of a place to help tell a region's story. Blurring the past and present, we see hints of life in the American South, and the communities that build their lives there. "To look at this collection, we are riding shotgun with Pete and encouraged to marvel at a landscape that is often humorous, bleak, and frequently without answers," Matt Porter continues.
Reminiscent of other Southern photographers, William Eggleston and Walker Evans, it recalls the New Topographics period, a term coined by William Jenkins in 1975 to describe a style of photography that explored urban American landscapes.
Stitt happens to call South Carolina home and he shares, "Growing up in the south, though, something comforting repeatedly brought me to these places. The lines, the light, and the subtle things that make them feel definitively of the region are features that drew me in. There is a familiarity regarded by many, even by those from outside of the area. However, there is an almost emotional connection to those from the south that is hard to ignore."
As we browse through each social landscape with its muted palette and focus on murals, signage, storefronts and buildings, line and space, colour and form, there's certainly a nostalgic feel, perhaps recalling an abandoned movie set of a small rural town. "As with all my work, though, I desired to portray details of a region that are both comforting and familiar yet elicit questions that seek answers only the viewer can provide," Stitt writes. "Recording a landscape that is oddly common and curiously foreign, I want to guide the audience on a journey through the southern landscape in a way that is free of both criticism and praise, leaving one free to contemplate the environments as they are."
And free of criticism it certainly is. The span of the works contains a reassuring pattern and rhythm. Perhaps they evoke a call for home: a place we might never return to but find comfort in knowing it will always be there, stubbornly unchanged, despite the world changing all around us. Whichever way you look at these photographs, Stitt's commitment to form and framing shows an unwavering curiosity and love for the region he calls home.