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New photographs by Caroline Allison are a field guide to broken history

Wander Lust

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Caroline Allison wants to photograph Loretta Lynn's house. She hasn't done it yet, but that's her goal. When I tell her that I've never been to Lynn's ranch in Hurricane Mills, but I've window-shopped at the family antique store, her eyes light up with sudden recognition. She tells me about the salt-and-pepper shaker she bought there — it's a dusty ceramic egg with legs that comes apart, and the top half is filled with salt, the bottom with pepper. There's a Loretta Lynn autograph scrawled on it in Sharpie as if it were a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Allison is fascinated with the layered storytelling those kinds of objects carry with them. The bathrobe that Sissy Spacek wore in Coal Miner's Daughter — Allison tells me it's draped over a bed in the house as if it were still functioning as a movie prop — is a beacon to this sort of complicated symbolism.

Her exhibit More Than You Know opened Friday at Zeitgeist, the gallery that has represented the Nashville artist since 2006. The six photographs in the exhibition have an undercurrent of nostalgia and decorum that calls to mind the mementos from Coal Miner's Daughter that litter the Lynn household. There's a photograph of two chairs around a table in the cottage owned by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, pointed toward each other as if they're in silent conversation. The photograph of Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., one of the oldest historically black liberal arts colleges in America, is a study in both architecture and nature, time and disrepair. Allison isn't actively commenting on the scenes she photographs — she's much too curious to presume judgment on them. Instead, she seeks out spaces with a duplicitous nature. Sometimes that comes from what is in the frame, but often it's because of everything that isn't.

The interior shot of a Masonic Lodge in Mississippi is the first photograph in the gallery. Allison tells me she's fascinated by Masonic lodges and VFWs — places with a grandeur and a history that speaks with visual cues. Allison often approaches a site with her camera in hand, ready to shoot before she's even asked for permission. She dresses in denim and button-ups and has wheat-colored hair, and she wouldn't be out of place in one of Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl portraits — she is stunning but slight and unassuming, and she is almost always granted approval to shoot. She walked into this particular lodge and was so visually excited that she shot the photograph as quickly as she could — if you look carefully you can see a few bits of brown leaves that had blown in the door with her entrance. The room was used as a set for the film The Help, which explains its almost immaculate preservation, as well as the sense of hyperrealism in the room's perfect proportions — the painting of flowers matches the color of the walls, the chandelier hangs directly over the coffee table, the sofa and the curtains form a miniature indoor landscape.

Allison uses a large-format camera to take her fine-art photographs (although she has come to rely on digital for her editorial work, because "nobody wants to wait around for film anymore," she explains). Every shot requires a new sheet of film. She pulls a blanket around her head to cover the camera on its tripod and block out as much light as she possibly can. Once she's positioned the image in the frame exactly as she wants it, she opens the shutter, lets the light touch the negative, closes the shutter, and takes the film back out. If she wants to take a duplicate shot (and, citing Murphy's Law, she almost always does), she has to go through the whole process again. Combined with the shipping costs of mailing each negative to Atlanta to be processed, she says she spends around $10 to $12 on every shot. It's not exorbitant, but it does require a reverence and an intentionality that is almost ritualistic, and that comes through in the work. Her enormous prints are bold, but they don't yell at you — they're like taxidermied animals whose power is all behind them.

On a shoot one day, Allison was looking for inspiration and found a town called Defeated on a map — it's a small unincorporated community in Smith County about an hour west of Nashville. She spent almost all day there looking for scenery that appealed to her, like a hunter on the prowl, and was starting to get anxious that she had wasted a full day with nothing to show for it. As she headed back to Nashville she passed a sign for Difficult, Tenn., which was about five miles away from Defeated. There, just moments before the sun set, a beautiful orange-tinted light covered the broken landscape. She set up her camera and took the shot. There are clods of shadow along the ground where only a few angular leafless trees stand among a kind of earthy rubble, but the sky is fairly bright and crisscrossed with jet streams. The land is a former Civil War encampment that was in the process of being cleared for suburban development. Her photograph of Difficult is a testament to Allison's patience, and the talent she has for uncovering a story that everyone else seems to have forgotten.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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