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Native Son: Joe Leavenworth Searches for His Roots

By Dzana Tsomondo


Native Son: Joe Leavenworth
© Joe Leavenworth
"Untitled," 2011, from Joe Leavenworth's first monograph, Native Son, a project about his search for connections to the American South. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Photographs are inextricably connected to memory, and our memories are, in many ways, the sum of our lives. We grew up looking through photo albums at the people our parents were before they became our parents, and at images of ourselves from before we can even remember. We keep photos of events from long ago, showing people we have not thought of in years.

Native Son, the first book by photographer Joe Leavenworth, is a quietly compelling work that operates at the intersection of memory and identity. All of the photographs were taken in the American South—specifically in Georgia—and represent the artist’s attempt to explore and connect with the place where he was born. If that sounds fairly conventional, here is the catch: Leavenworth has no memory of growing up in the South, because after his birth in Decatur, Georgia, in 1985, he was adopted and raised by a family in small-town New England. In fact, he made his first trip back to the state of Georgia to begin working on Native Son.

Leavenworth’s parents were open about the fact that he was adopted, but as a child he had little desire to investigate his roots. He grew up with the knowledge that his birth mother had left a lengthy letter for him, but it wasn’t until he was an adult that Leavenworth wanted to read it.

“I decided to read the letter and that propelled me forward to begin unraveling the mysterious nature of my own beginnings,” he says. “She talked about Georgia and her family and how I came to be and my father … it had a profound impact on me, and that was why I needed to get down there and see this place.”

When Leavenworth made his first trip to Decatur in 2009, he was a young photographer. He soon realized that he was in over his head. His shyness made it difficult for him to approach strangers and, lacking any real plan for what he wanted to shoot, he achieved little. It took more than a year for Leavenworth to return to Georgia, but he was far more productive when he did. In the interim, he read voraciously about the state, studying its official and vernacular histories, taking note of places he might want to investigate.

When he finally headed south again it was with a colleague who was working on a separate photo project. This time Leavenworth gave himself a solid two weeks to shoot, and arrived with places to stay, people to network with and a clear idea of the areas he wanted to photograph.

Leavenworth returned to New York City excited about his work, but so broke that he couldn’t afford to develop the film for six months. In retrospect, he says, the dead time between creating the work and actually seeing it allowed him to “reflect and imagine my photographs as I’d remembered creating them, or the context of their creation. I found this process insightful … a little inclusion of a fictive element.”

In the book we see dilapidated clapboard homes and churches; a man glaring from his truck window; a rope hanging from a tree; a girl on a swing; a young African-American woman looking into the camera defiantly. Leavenworth does not shy away from ideas of race and class, but also refuses to make “any sort of grand statement,” as he puts it. At the same time, his personal search imbues what could be viewed as straight documentary images with a tension that elevates the collection into something more than the sum of its parts.

In this way Leavenworth’s outsider-ness is instrumental to the work’s success, because Native Son is a story of exploration and discovery. He is not trying to uncover some “truth” about the American South, but instead to make images that feel true to what he saw. “I am a collector, collecting evidence of my own lived experience. Nothing special,” he insists. “But I’m hungry, and I am obsessed with looking and questioning … and I want to share my discoveries.” He also wanted to make images that reflect some of what he felt when he returned “home” to a place where he never lived, a place to which he nonetheless holds a connection.

While Leavenworth continues to travel to Georgia and search for this elusive connection, he has not yet attempted to find his mother. “It’s something I have begun to think more seriously about,” he says. “But I don’t know yet, we’ll see.”

Leavenworth met his book’s publisher, Margo Dooney of VUU, at the NY Art Book Fair this past September. At the time, he was not actively looking for a publisher, and had already begun to research self-publishing options, determined to put the book out on his own if necessary. In working on his first book, Leavenworth’s biggest adjustment was balancing his own perfectionism and VUU’s tight publishing schedule.

Native Son
is almost devoid of text, until near the end of the book where there is a scanned handwritten note: the last page of the lengthy letter that Leavenworth’s biological mother left him. Although it is brief, it grounds the photos and brings some context to the work. For the artist, it was not an easy decision to add any text, let alone use his mother’s letter. But when his publisher asked for an artist statement, Leavenworth struggled to write something he was happy with, then thought of using the letter.

“I felt it belonged, but was a little skeptical due to the very personal aspect. It also remains slightly mysterious because she hasn’t addressed me by name … it may be confusing, but I didn’t want to qualify the letter in a statement,” Leavenworth explains. He says, “I’ve wanted to see this work in a physical book more as photographs only—no text—because it digs into that aura of mystique which one takes away from the photographs themselves … But the letter is the reason I am in Georgia.”

Related Article:

Joe Leavenworth Photo Gallery

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