Much has changed, in both photography and America, since Susan Lipper captured the inhabitants of Grapevine Branch, W.Va., on black-and-white film. To make the photographs in “Grapevine” at Higher Pictures, Ms. Lipper embedded herself during the late ’80s and early ’90s in a rural community, following in the footsteps of documentary-style photographers and filmmakers like Walker Evans or Barbara Kopple.
The photographs here show working-class white people drinking Budweiser or fooling with guns, or a freshly killed deer hanging from a basketball hoop. Homoeroticism and violence ripple through several images: One man blows smoke into another’s mouth; a dirty shirt is raised to show a nasty-looking scar. The most charged image depicts a figure under a Klan robe and hood.
Ms. Lipper’s photographs suggest the “no judgment” attitude of the artist playing neutral observer, but we as viewers are baited. Dare we judge the people who laid themselves bare before her camera lens? Or are we even seeing the truth? Ms. Lipper created these images at a moment when photography was being questioned as a purveyor of truth; the subjects here might be caricaturing their own stereotypes, which have often been accepted without challenge in the art world. (Think of Cady Noland’s sculptures with empty Budweiser cans.)
Exhibiting them now, of course, raises a whole new set of concerns. But if art exists to ask uncomfortable questions, Ms. Lipper’s photographs, though taken in a different era, accomplish this task.