Facing South

A new book captures images of some of the South’s finest artists

as seen through the camera lens of photographer Jerry Siegel.

Photographer Jerry Siegel remembers spending a rainy Sunday morning with the artist Enrique Alferez in his studio, a converted old church in New Orleans. “He talked about riding with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution,” Siegel says. “He talked about Diego Rivera (the famous Mexican muralist), coming back from Paris and getting a big hat and gun and thinking he was part of the revolution.”

Siegel recalls finishing up and telling the artist he had taken enough of his time: “He said, ‘No, wait. I must show you some new things I am working on.’ He was so excited about it, at 96 years of age. That’s what I aspire to.”

This memory and the photo that is the physical remnant of it is just one of many Siegel has amassed in the long process that led to his new book, Facing South: Portraits of Southern Artists, which will be published by the University of Alabama Press next month.

“The artist series started with the portraits of two of my great friends, Mary Ward Brown, a writer, and Crawford Gillis,  a painter,” Siegel says. “I shot portraits of them in the way I shoot many portraits.  They were wonderful, captured moments with great friends.  I didn’t know I was starting a long term project.”

Sixteen years later, he had completed enough of these portraits for several gallery shows, and for the new book that chronicles Siegel’s quest to understand and capture the people behind the artistry.

“I have said many times how lucky I am to have the book produced, and have several museum shows to display the work,” Siegel remarks. “But the real joy has been the journey. I have met and shot over 140 artists in seven different states. I have been invited into their homes and studios. They have shared their time, their art, inspiration and knowledge with me.”

It is a rare gift of time and connection that he has been given, Siegel believes. “Being a good portrait photographer is about intuition,” he says. “And it’s about communication. Sometimes it’s in the conversation, sometimes it’s in the listening, or just in the ability to watch and see, to perceive.  It’s being able to feel or sense a person’s mood, their comfort level and energy.  It is an intuitive thing that I feel I was blessed with.  My uncle once told me I was an artist.  He said being an artist wasn’t about a photograph you shoot, or a painting you create; it’s about how you see the world and how you respond to it.”

On these pages, you can take that journey along with Siegel and catch a glimpse of that world.

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