The late photographer and Savannah native Jack Leigh is best remembered by the outside world as the man who took the iconic "Bird Girl" cover shot for John Berendt's 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
To those more familiar with his body of work and with the man himself, however, Leigh’s work is quite a bit more broad. It speaks not just to vaguely macabre cemetery imagery but to the lively and life-affirming folkways and natural beauty of the Georgia and South Carolina coast and Sea Islands.
It’s the full spectrum of Leigh’s vision and talent that will be celebrated at the SCAD Museum of Art this summer and fall, with the ambitious and extensive exhibit, “Jack Leigh: Full Circle, Low Country Photographs, 1972-2004,” timed to mark not only the first decade since his passing in 2004, but the 20th anniversary of the publication of Midnight itself.
"Jack’s work was so honest,” says show co-curator Susan Laney, who worked very closely with Leigh and managed the Jack Leigh Gallery for several years, including a three-year span after his death.
“He got to know people and really told their story, whether from his early books where he was recording life oystering and working the waters of the Ogeechee, or life at a fishing camp,” Laney says.
“He told stories about those people, and he recorded and documented their lifestyles—lifestyles which have now all but passed, really.”
The show is co-curated by Tim Peterson, SCAD’s chief curator of exhibitions.
“Leigh is a real icon for Savannah, but I also see him as underappreciated for the era in which he came to prominence,” says Peterson.
“He’s a wonderful peer of a number of other photographers in the Southeast who elevated the subjects of vernacular landscape, structures, and signage. He deserves to have equal standing.”
“This show is part of sustaining his legacy, and also the first museum survey of his work since his passing.”
In addition to Leighs’s photos, books, and papers, the show will also include work from artists deeply influenced by his vision—such as Marcus Kenney, Tobia Makover, and Lisa Robinson—as well as from artists who influenced him as well, like Helen Levitt and George Tice.
“It is a retrospective, but it’s different because it starts from Jack’s very first influences,” says Laney. “When you walk in, those first walls will have all of the work that inspired him, as well as work by contemporary artists. Then, the main section is all Jack—everything from his oystering work to his last body of work about Ossabaw Island.”
Adds Peterson, “It provides a great understanding of Leigh’s work before you get to this sort of Mona Lisa moment,” with the iconic Midnight image.
When SCAD approached Laney and asked if she’d be willing to co-curate a retrospective, “I said absolutely. So many people in town, natives or transplants, do know Jack’s work already, but there are also so many new people here now,” she says.
Indeed, Peterson himself admits he is new to Savannah and to SCAD.
“It’s been fascinating to dig into this from an outsider’s perspective, particularly in tandem with Susan’s insider perspective. The two of us together is very interesting,” he says. “It’s a real honor having the chance to immerse myself in his career. “
Not just an employee, Laney became a close friend of Leigh’s during their time at the Gallery, which was downtown in the space now occupied by P.J.’s Thai restaurant at Oglethorpe and Abercorn.
Starting work full-time at the Gallery in 1998, she became immersed in Leigh’s photographic style and technique. “He limited his work usually to 50 prints, 16x20 in size. So each print is essentially an original take on the negative,” says Laney.
She remained close to Leigh through his illness and death, often literally at his hospital bedside.
“His illness really came as a surprise,” she recalls. “He got very sick in October 2003, and he was told if he didn’t do chemo he’d only live six more months. Well, he did chemo and still only lived six more months.”
Leigh left instructions empowering Laney and his printer, Ben Beasley, to continue running his gallery “as long as it could stay profitable,” Laney says.
“He was not a guy who wanted to talk about not being around anymore. It was a very short conversation,” she remembers.
“He left it up to us to close the gallery when we thought we should move on. And for a long time we were doing great. His passing left such a big hole that we couldn’t imagine ever closing.”
However, a confluence of life events for both Laney and Beasley led to the decision in 2007 to close the gallery for good.
“All signs pointed to closing the gallery. And right after we did, the economy went into the toilet,” Laney recalls.
“So in a way we were lucky. We were able to go out with a champagne reception and celebration. We didn’t have to go through that struggle that so many galleries later had to go through, struggling just to stay afloat.”
Leigh’s papers now reside at the University of Georgia Archives.
“When we went up to the archives, I was able to spend time with stuff I’d never spent time with before,” remembers Laney.
“Letters Jack had written to people who were integral to him getting through doorways, like special places on the Ogeechee, gaining access to places at the Georgia ports where you’re usually not allowed. I was struck by how beautiful they were, and written from his soul and his heart,” she says.
“Going through his letters brought me back into that place of feeling very close with who he was. He was such an inspired man, and he liked to share his inspirations.”