Mike Smith

You’re Not From Around Here

Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego

January 15 - May 7, 2006


Mike Smith’s landscape photography documents the encroaching suburbanization of rural Tennessee . Smith’s vision instantly combines reverence for his subject with an outsider’s perspective. The 33 chromogenic dye coupler prints in this exhibit, document rural, pastoral scenes overlaid and dominated by the cast-off detritus of an urban society.

Following in the rural, documentary photographic tradition of Walker Evans and Russell Lee, Smith’s work in the landscape of Eastern Tennessee began after he moved there in 1981 to teach photography at East Tennessee State University . The title of the exhibit, You're Not From Around Here, springs from the reaction Smith received from the locals as they perceived him as a Yankee trying to gain entry into their closed world. Yet, the outsider perspective is exactly what makes Smith’s collection an important viewpoint on this overlooked world. Smith simultaneously sees both landscapes of this changing, urbanizing world as he photographs dairy farms interrupted by paved lots with ‘visitor parking’ signs, and pastoral scenes with round hay bales carved up with orange surveyor stakes. Smith’s images raise the emotional empathy of viewers as we react to the rapidly disappearing relics of America ’s agricultural past.


The common thread linking Smith’s exhibited photographs is the union of rural and suburban imagery. In the show’s opening image, Johnson City Tennessee 2004 , the viewer sees rolling hill country in the foreground blocked by a horizontal earthen berm rising like a fortification in the center of the frame. Through the berm a tunnel and roadway appear, while rising above it are the densely packed roofs of a housing development --- the tyranny of the suburban landscape lording over the old, rural world. In another example of Smith’s generational juxtapositions, he divides the frame of Gray Tennessee, in half, vertically. The left half shows an untouched ranch scene complete with cattle, green rolling hills and a wooden picket barbed wire fence. Almost exactly in the center, a yellow plastic wire wrap interrupts the placid pastoral scene as a telephone pole, highway and the blank, back of a stop sign complete the ugly, urban intrusion on country life.


In some of Smith’s artworks, the suburban intrusion is subtly placed, but always present. Cash Hallow displays the gray, snowy scene of the Morning Star church, a weathered wooden structure. Here the urban encroachment is limited to the foreground domination of a road and visible power lines. The road itself is marred by fresh tire tracks on its soft, snowy surface. In other photographs, the urban domination is so complete that the rural background is almost obliterated. In Piney Flats , a shiny new gas station has carved up the vacant lot of a former ranch. Smith displays the convenience market in all of its glorious, primary colors yet intruding on the view is a row of signs in the foreground advertising the church congregations that serve the former, rural community.


Smith’s content and his juggling of juxtapositions are the elements that make this display worth viewing. His documentation of the rapidly disappearing rural Tennessee ensures that this exhibit will become a valuable record in years to come.


Steve Hopson

February 14, 2006