Exhibition Pick: Malcolm Lightner

Brooke Schueller visits an exhibition that documents the swamp-buggy subculture of South Florida.

Malcolm Lightner, Final Lap, 2003. Courtesy the artist.

Malcolm Lightner
New Orleans Photo Alliance
1111 St. Mary Street
March 5–May 29, 2016

If ever you’ve wished for a portal to whisk you away from the doldrums of your daily life, Malcolm Lightner’s vivid photographs are for you. His bewitching view into southern Florida’s swamp-buggy culture invites viewers into a scene otherwise inaccessible to the uninitiated.

Though the Naples native didn’t remain in his hometown long enough to actively participate in his subject matter, he returned to document the ritual referred to as the “bastard child of NASCAR.” Muddy waters and wild forest provide the backdrop to a thrice-yearly celebration, where tricked-out vehicles on monster tires race around a submerged track. The photographs depict swamp-buggy queens in tiaras, Confederate flags, shirtless boys with Florida-pride tattoos, and bloated, decapitated gators. In one picture, a girl watches the races with a t-shirt emblazoned with the words REBEL BITCH, as buggies with names like the Sidewinder, the Rapture, and the Bar Gator queue up for glory.

Lightner’s “Mile O’ Mud” succeeds as photojournalism: His images show, but do not comment on, a culture that would be easy to judge. At the same time, they formally illustrate the unexpected range of hues in a mud pit and car paint, in blonde highlights and white skin. They dive deeply into an idiosyncratic facet of what we frequently homogenize as “the South.” But most of all, they allow us to wade through a world that we might never see otherwise.