When photographer William Greiner visited Augusta, Georgia, in 2012 for a showing of some of his work at the Morris Museum of Art, he didn’t realize that he was already preparing for his next showcase there. “Even when I travel, I still photograph,” he says, likening himself to a painter with a sketchbook, who records “impressions of a place and time.” Two years later, the photographs from that visit are on display in a new exhibition that recently opened at the Morris entitled, “Oh! Augusta!”
“I’m accustomed to [doing] work in familiar places,” says Greiner, a lifelong Louisianian. When in Augusta, he was viewing the city with fresh eyes and documenting what may have been hard for locals to see. “Augusta was just trying to reinvent itself after some hard economic times,” he says. “It did look like a place that had been vibrant at one point in time,” he adds of a city where derelict structures are not uncommon, “but it’s sort of struggling.”
“A lot of Augustans feel sad, I think, when they walk around and see their beautiful city with abandoned buildings,” says curator Michelle Schulte. In helping to put together the exhibition, she adds, she felt it important to convey with honesty a city that has experienced ups and downs.
The photographer focused his lens on downtown Augusta, where the population had declined by more than 16 percent from 1990 to 2000, until younger and more affluent people recently started moving to the area. Schulte says that there have been efforts to revitalize the area and that at least one of the abandoned buildings in his Greiner’s work, shown in the photo Blue Door, is now occupied.
Margaret Woodward, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, is optimistic. "It's just been an explosion downtown," she says of the people and businesses moving to the area. "We can't build housing inventory fast enough." Woodward says that resurgence is new. In the two years since Greiner took his photos, plans for 30 construction projects have gotten underway, including for big condo buildings.
The Morris Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, holds 32 Greiner photographs in its permanent collections and selected 20 of those to include in “Oh! Augusta!” Eschewing digital, Greiner used a 35mm film camera and a half-a-century-old lens. Schulte says that Greiner took so many photos during his 2012 visit that he had to ask museum staff to run out and buy him more film.
The photos depict quirky storefront displays, a bar during off-hours, graffiti on blue tiles that says, “DON’T BELIEVE THE LIE.” There’s an abandoned building and a peeling mural. Shop signs – “WATCH YOUR STEP,” “WE $AY YE$,” “WELCOME HOME TROOPS” – act as dialogue bubbles in compositions devoid of people.
A standout image in the exhibition, Greiner says, is one depicting a toy spider stapled to a tree. Entitled Plastic Spider on a Tree, Greiner says he spotted the scene on a quiet side street. “I thought it was surreal, interesting, telling,” he says. It’s those intimate and overlooked details, like a tiny toy in an unexpected place, that fascinate Greiner. And if those things convey larger ideas about people and cities, so be it. “I never really dealt in any kinds of big major themes,” he says. “My projects are about small ideas, small things, small places.”
“Oh! Augusta!” is on view at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, through November 2, 2014. Admission to the museum is free on Museum Day, September 27. Tickets are available here. Smithsonian Media's Museum Day Live! offers free admission to more than 1,000 museums across the country. Smithsonian Affiliations is a national outreach program that develops long-term, collaborative partnerships with museums, educational and cultural organizations to enrich communities with Smithsonian resources.