More than 40 years ago, photographer Raymond Smith went on a road trip that would change his life. Along with a traveling companion and armed with two medium-format, twin-lens cameras, Smith documented much of what he experienced crisscrossing the American South.
The results were 750 photographs, of which 52 have been selected for Smith’s current exhibition, In Time We Shall Know Ourselves: Photographs by Raymond Smith, on display at MOCA Jacksonville through Aug. 30.
“The photographs are displayed in a linear progression of how Smith wanted us to observe the work,” explains Jaime DeSimone, MOCA’s assistant curator. “It starts with the photo of a Jacksonville security guard and ends with a photo of some tourists framing an American flag as they ride on a ferry on the James River in Virginia.”
The exhibition also includes a case displaying Smith’s Twin Lens Rolleiflex camera and a journal he kept during his travels.
“I’m always drawn to the storytelling possibilities of photography,” says DeSimone. “Here, Smith’s travel narrative unfolds in a handpicked order, where the small photographs each require time to look and see the image — see the story.”
The exhibition opens with the photograph “Security Guard, Jacksonville, Florida,” a 5.25-inch-by-6-inch silver print taken in 1974, showing a uniformed man resembling a young Sean Penn leaning against a brick wall, posing for the camera.
“That [photo] hooks us in to observing it and asking questions about who, where and why,” DeSimone says. “It will be a relatable image and curious one for our community as we learn this guard is one person of a much larger visual story beyond Jacksonville.”
Other photographs in the exhibition are of two watermelons placed side-by-side on an old couch in “Roadside Café, Sealy, Texas,” a boy posing with a shoeshine box in “Bourbon Street, New Orleans” and a grandmother, mother and daughter sitting on wooden chairs in a yard in “Three Generations, near Culpeper, Virginia.”
Last year, Smith published a book of the 52 photographs, In Time We Shall Know Ourselves, to coincide with the traveling exhibition which had been originally organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama.
The book also includes three critical essays, Richard H. King’s “Mirror with a Memory,” Alexander Nemerov’s “First and Last: The Sequence of ‘In Time We Shall Know Ourselves,’” and Smith’s own “Retrospect.”
“The duotone reproductions in the book are the same size as the vintage original photographs on exhibition,” Smith told Folio Weekly in an email, from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. “The installation at the museum faithfully follows the sequence of photographs I’ve constructed for the book.”
It’s been more than four decades since Smith left the Northeast in a friend’s Volkswagen to travel the American South and chronicle the everyday life of those he encountered, and the work is still as influential today as it was in the mid-1970s.
“Smith was photographing shortly after the Civil Rights Movement at a time of an integrated society,” says DeSimone. “While they mirror the country at that time and include portraits of African Americans, the photographs are maybe even more relevant after the current events in Baltimore.”
DeSimone explains that it’s Smith’s use of closely cropped figures, architecture and the iconic American flag that helps tell the story of the American way of life.
“He continues this tradition by tying the prints to literature, saying each photo is a ‘short story exploding beyond the frame,’” DeSimone says.
“With that in mind, each picture is important for what it suggests in our larger world. In essence, the portfolio captures the collective experience of things seen, pictured and remembered.”