There's beautiful truth to be found in the men's bathroom trough at Big John's Tavern.
The mainstay dive features prominently in local architect and photographer Robert Epps' latest mixed-media exhibit with Lowcountry lyricist William Baldwin, Past Presence. The show, which is on display at the City Gallery until August 18, features Epps' large-scale photography alongside Baldwin's poetry.
While locations like the Aiken Rhett House, the Charleston Library Society, and Read Brothers — all of which are included in the exhibit — are iconic structures in their own right, Big John's Tavern is in a league of its own. "I'll bet that more Charlestonians have been inside Big John's than out at Fort Sumter," Epps says with a laugh. "I've sat at that bar since high school, when fried shrimp was 50 cents and PBR was a quarter. Now I won't touch the stuff."
Complete with profanity-laced graffiti and the veritable chandelier of brassieres above the bar, Epps' photos of Big John's stand out. "I don't know how many times the Office of Cultural Affairs was asked to take these down when they were displayed in an office hallway," Epps says. "But I'm glad that they made it here. There's a magic in these images."
The stately Charleston spaces like Kerrison's Department Store, Read Brothers fabric, and the Charleston Library Society that also fill the City Gallery's walls bely the raw veracity of the duo's work.
"Growing up in Charleston, Bill and I wanted to show the history that most of us locals experienced," he says. "This is a different type of history than, say, the Battle of Fort Sumter, where you're trusting someone else's view of the past. We lived it."
Epps cites Kerrison's Department Store on King Street, the first floor of which is now the home of Anthropologie. Everyone who was anyone bought their clothing at Kerrison's while Epps was growing up. In 2007, Epps was working with the building's owners on structural issues when he began to take notice of the vibrant details that the department store had left behind on its second and third floors — the primary colors of the children's department, the architectural features of the men's fitting rooms, the Spartan splendor of the accounting office. And so Epps began to spend his weekends, often eight hours a day, photographing Kerrison's.
"My architectural work influences my photography and vice versa," Epps says. "In both fields I am fascinated with the complexities of the simple. I usually avoid the grandiose for the more humble in both areas of work."
Shortly after Epps was finished photographing, Kerrison's walls were stripped in preparation for the swanky lofts to come. "It's all exposed beams and brick now," he says. "What I photographed in 2007 is no longer there."
Epps' photography captures a history of Kerrison's that most of Charleston will never see. "I like to find the extraordinary in the ordinary," he explains. "And I think that's important for my audience as well. We have seen these places hundreds of times, but most likely not in this context."
Using a 4x5 Linhof view camera, Epps documents Charleston with a super-wide and fearless lens. This type of photography requires patience, with lengthy exposure time and a complete reliance on natural light. "Some of my exposures are eight to 10 minutes, but with these images, you're seeing a space like you've never seen it before," Epps explains. Take a photo of an interior room at Drayton Hall — Epps' shot incorporates almost 90 percent of the space in stunning detail, something a conventional digital camera just cannot do.
Baldwin's poetry of Southern loss complements Epps' photography — his writing frames the story of Epps' images. "Bill looked over the photos I was thinking of using and responded to what resonated with him," Epps says. "He provides a strong Southern voice to go along with the photos. This isn't your mama's poetry."
Throughout the exhibit, Baldwin's poems speak directly to the photos in the form of a letter, a dream, or conversation, but always in tune with a lost Southern soul. "The poems are memories, thoughts, stories, and dialogues, easily absorbed by the viewer but borrowed from another time," Epps says.
Viewers will most likely get a glimpse of these buildings that they've never seen before. "Each chosen location, while notably different in its architectural significance, contains a unique sense of truth," Epps says. "Southern culture has survived, ironically, through our relationship to our past. Through these photographs and poems, we explore both the seen and unseen Southern presence."
Charleston's beauty is only as deep as the remains upon which it resides. Our fair city's endurance is born of its decay. Amid the glitterati and the glimmer, there will always be Big John's.