This was a much-anticipated conversation for me. Documentary photographers Sue Ross and Jim Alexander sat down at the PATH Museum to talk about their overlapping experiences as photographers in Atlanta. Parallel Perspectives featured 84 framed prints (42 from each photographer) in a 1st floor gallery space in the Buckhead Tower at Lenox Square.
The draw for me was the photos on the flyers. Jim Alexander and Sue Ross snapped these photos to commemorate this moment which they called "Sisterlove" and "Sisten" respectively. In 1988, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole was inaugurated as Spelman College's 1st Black woman president. The photos show a group of Black women writers who were friends with each other and with the photographers, however seconds apart and responding to two different prompts. On the Top Row: Louise Meriwether, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Johnnetta Cole, and Paula Giddings; Middle Row: Pearl Cleage, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Cade Bambara; Bottom Row: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Mari Evans.
As the photographers reflect on the moment, they were also able to dispel some myths that have been circulating for some time. For example, that Sue Ross was hired by Spelman and Jim Alexander was not. NOT TRUE. Neither was hired. So where is the official photograph/who was the official photographer? Actually, it was Jim who got the group outside of the Rockefeller Building before the rest of the crowd and got them to pose together. Once ready, Sue Ross's photo appeared and shortly thereafter, Jim Alexander cracked a joke and captured their laughter.
This was my first time in this space. It is a corporate building with white walls. A few office chairs were rolled into the gallery space for a few of the attendees and the guests of honor. Ross and Alexander presented an equal amount of works that spanned entertainment, politics, education, activism etc. Both documentary in nature, Ross's photos identify the subject, event, year, and print type, and size of print, while Alexander shares the title and year of photograph. Their different approaches to tagging are interesting to me. For example, the titles beg questions on the line between art and documentation. Do the differences in titling and tagging inform the reader about what they are seeing in different ways? Does it affect interpretation? What do these photos say about place? What do these collections say about the photographers? What is the relationship between their collection organization and how they tag and report information on the art label? So many fruitful questions, I left with more questions than I came with.
Part of Spelman College's education is about identifying and knowing who these women are in this photo. The intersection of these women's personal and professional lives of these women has shaped and informed the possibilities of many women who have come through these gates. Spending time at the Women's Research Center and Spelman Archives have taught me a lot about how friendship has been the basis for so much of the work that has been done, captured, and preserved here.
Currently, Jim Alexander's papers and some of his photos are house at Emory University's Rose Library African American Collection. Sue Ross has not donated her archives, still needs to organize them, but is interested on building a relationship with an institution to care for her work.
Most of these photographs were taken by Sharon Dowdell. Dowdell is a member of Sistagraphy. Please visit her Instagram page @sharon_b_dowdell_photogaphy.