In 2002, five years after Gillian Laub graduated from UW-Madison, she started doing freelance photography for Spin magazine. At that time, a high school student in Montgomery County, Georgia, wrote the magazine begging someone to come tell the story of her town’s segregation.
“It was kind of like a call for help because she couldn’t take her boyfriend to the prom because he was black and she was white,” Laub said. “So she wrote a letter to Spin, the magazine that she subscribed to.”
Laub was sent to Mount Vernon, Georgia, and that assignment led her to photograph the town for more than a decade.
Her coverage has included a spread in the New York Times Magazine, and an HBO documentary. It also led to newspaper stories about an unarmed 22-year-old black man shot and killed by a 62-year-old white man not long before the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin gripped the nation and contributed to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Laub’s telling of Georgia’s segregation story, “Southern Rites,” is coming to the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison. The traveling exhibit, organized by The International Center of Photography in New York, where Laub studied, is made up of 42 photographs and 29 objects, including high school yearbooks, letters and programs. It runs Jan. 25 until May 12, with an opening reception at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 24.
‘Haunted and fascinated’
By the time Laub got down South, the girl who wrote the letter had graduated, but the school’s homecoming dance was also still segregated, so Laub photographed that.
“It was really disorienting because on one hand, it was this beautiful, idyllic, suburban, rural town, and I knew of it because of Vidalia onions. I grew up eating Vidalia onions and that’s where it had these beautiful rolling fields of Vidalia onions,” said Laub, 43, who was raised in suburban Westchester, New York, and lives in Manhattan.
The homecoming parade she attended in Georgia reminded her of the parades of her childhood, and “felt very familiar,” she said. The crowd seemed diverse and friendly, “but at the same time, they were celebrating an event where they had a white queen and a black queen and the kids had to vote for a white queen and a black queen.
“So, it was really disorienting because I found it quite disturbing that was what they were practicing,” Laub said. “And I was haunted and fascinated at the same time and that’s what kept me going back for so long.”
More than photos
Amy Gilman, who recently completed her first year as director of the Chazen, is responsible for bringing the exhibit to town. She learned about Laub’s work from Kathy Chazen, the daughter of Jerome and Simona Chazen, the donors responsible for the museum’s major expansion.
“It just seemed like a really wonderful opportunity to showcase a UW alum who is out there in the world living the Wisconsin Idea, and also bring a really important and wonderful body of work to the museum,” Gilman said.
In terms of “Southern Rites,” photography was Laub’s initial, but, “by no means only, storytelling tool,” Gilman said.
Since she developed a relationship with the community over more than 10 years, and has continued to follow community members and engage with them, Laub’s photojournalism has deepened, Gilman said.
It’s “so nuanced and complex,” she said. “You get a sense of the personalities and of the place, but it is actually by seeing the group of (photographs) altogether, in addition to the other materials, that she has put together in this show, that you really have a sense of delving into the complexity that is this place and these people.”
Surprised by level of segregation
Laub said that when she first visited Mount Vernon, about 150 miles south of Atlanta, she was surprised by the level of segregation she encountered, and then experienced again in 2009. “I did not know that this was going on in our country at all. I thought that this was something that I read about in history books. I didn’t know that this was present-day America.”
She was thankful The New York Times Magazine published her photo essay in 2009, because it forced the town to integrate its prom the following year.
“After it was published, the town came under some serious scrutiny,” Laub said. “There was a lot of backlash and they had a town meeting and the school finally took responsibility and told the parents they had to integrate the proms.”
Laub became close with many residents of Mount Vernon from working there for so many years. A lot of people didn’t want her around, but others became her friends and allies, later alerting her to the integration of the dance.
As Laub was documenting a town coming together after segregation problems, one of her subjects, Justin Patterson, was killed. The racial tensions in Montgomery County, as well as Patterson’s complicated killing, were the subject of Laub’s documentary that shares the name of her exhibit.
According to a New York Times story, Norman Neesmith woke to discover two young black brothers in his home. They had been invited over by a teenage relative living there.
“Over the course of the next confusing minutes on a January morning in 2011, there would be a struggle. The young men would make a terrified run for the door. Mr. Neesmith, who is 62 and white, fired four shots. One of them hit Justin Patterson, who was 22 and black,” the Times reported.
Neesmith was sentenced to one year in a state detention center and nine years of probation for Patterson’s death, according to the Times.
HBO’s “Southern Rites,” directed by Laub and produced, in part, by Grammy Award-winning musician John Legend, aired in 2015. “I knew that there was a story to be told that photographs alone couldn’t tell,” the first-time filmmaker said.
In an interview Laub and Legend did on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” at the time, Legend said he was amazed that segregation problems existed in 21st century America. “I thought that it was truly a relic of the ‘50s and ‘60s and this couldn’t be possibly happening now,” he said.
“The legacy of separating us by racial difference is really strong and it’s really difficult for us to overcome, but I think it’s something we can overcome,” Legend said.
That year, Laub also put out a “Southern Rites” book. Last year, she did work for National Geographic and had two of her photographs in the magazine’s “Best of 2018” collection. The photos were taken in Pennsylvania as part of a story in the magazine’s “Race Issue,” headlined, “As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind.”
Laub calls her photo exhibit at the Chazen “a wonderful homecoming.” She’s been back to Madison twice since graduating with a degree in comparative literature. She spoke at a conference in 2017 and was here for another speaking engagement before that.
Next year, Laub is having a mid-career survey show at the International Center of Photography, and will put out a book chronicling 20 years of photographing her large, extended family.
When she comes to Madison she makes sure to visit the Memorial Union and walk State Street. But her favorite time to be here is in spring, she said, so she plans to come back then as well for a screening of her film followed by a Q&A.
“I’m very excited about it,” Laub said about her Madison show. “I was really, really hoping for this work to be shown at the Chazen. It’s a wonderful, exciting honor to show this work at my alma mater.”