Photographer Julie Moos has made some powerful work with an astoundingly simple device. Portraiture traditionally focuses on individuals or groups, but Moos' images of farmers, housekeepers, teenagers and others feature two subjects photographed together.
The dynamism of two people presented side by side has become the most immediately arresting component of Moos' documentary photography and a way of distinguishing her from the photographic pack.
"I think it's a way of forcing the viewer to stay engaged in the image," says Moos. "It becomes more of a story. You can linger a little longer with a double portrait than you would with a single."
There may be a poetic reason for that focus, too, says Moos.
"The story goes, my twin didn't quite make it. My mom thought she had lost her pregnancy, but I was still there. I guess I've always imagined what that twin would have been like." That curiosity has led Moos to meditate in her work -- which addresses race, class and teenage violence -- on how one person can be dramatically enlarged by adding another person to the equation.
Moos' doubled portraits have been included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and a host of national exhibitions. Two of her portraits of African-American "Hat Ladies" are currently on view in Atlanta's Solomon Projects show Portraiture (Every Picture Tells A Story) through Aug. 2.
For those "Hat Ladies" images, Moos teamed up members of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., home to a congregation of middle- and working-class African-Americans. Moos presented these regal, proud women dressed in their Sunday finery, always crowned with some elaborate hat crafted of veils, peacock feathers, a curtain of pearls and all manner of ornament. The "Hat Ladies" series presents a compelling portrait of fierce, stylish, independent, not-taking-life-lying-down individuals.
New Pilgrim church member and City Councilman Elias Hendricks first invited Moos to photograph the women in his church in 2000 after seeing another body of the photographer's work called "Friends and Enemies," featuring high school students.
Shot at Birmingham's private Altamont School (where Hendricks had children enrolled), the project focused on the senior class. After extensive research into the social structure of the school, Moos teamed up her teenage subjects with either a friend or an enemy -- leaving her audience to guess at the relationships in the photograph. In the wake of Columbine, "Friends and Enemies" became a powerful statement on the psychologically charged atmosphere of the high school where matters of cliques, friendship and ostracism can seem a matter of life and death.
Subsequent series include "Domestic," featuring some of Birmingham's upper middle class photographed alongside their black domestic help. Her next project, on hunters (which will be shown on video), will feature another quintessentially Southern phenomenon and star more of Birmingham's residents.
The South has provided fertile territory for Moos, as well as her share of controversy.
Moos has been criticized for photographing African-American subjects, a sentiment especially pronounced north of the Mason-Dixon line. Some people have taken issue with the notion of a white woman objectifying and perhaps condescending the black subjects in her images. Implicit in some criticism is a refusal to accept the complex, often close relationships between black and white Southerners in a region still viewed by outsiders as poisoned by racial tension.
Ironically, Moos says the Hat Ladies themselves and the Birmingham community as a whole embraced the show when it opened at the Birmingham Museum of Art in May 2002.
"It was such a profound experience for all of us. It had such an impression on these women. They celebrated it so much. They had the opening at the museum and the choir came and sang and blew the roof off the museum," says Moos, speaking from her home in Birmingham where she lives with husband David, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and their 5-month-old son.
And the Hat Ladies? They became celebrities, cruising around Birmingham with stacks of the museum catalogue in their cars.
It wasn't until New York, where Moos exhibited the work at the 2002 Armory Show, that Moos realized how volatile the work was. "The ladies in Long Island, the collectors, were just up in arms, negative toward it," she says.
"Why would a white photographer be photographing this particularly black subject matter?" was the complaint levied against her work. "I would respond that maybe that attitude and that kind of thinking is part of the problem. I think a lot of the New England crowd, they're very quick to just accuse [us] here in the South."
Moos, who was born in Canada but raised in Amherst, Mass., admits that she too once viewed the South through an outsider's eyes, and it's only after having lived in Birmingham for five years that she sees the possibility for progress.
"There's an extremely corrupt and intense history here, and I think everybody has politely pushed it aside. ... My philosophy is, the more out in the open it is, then people can talk about it. I find that a way of detonating the situation."