More than just appreciating the arc of history, Andrew Feiler has an eye for connecting past and present.
Feiler is a fifth-generation Georgian, a son of Savannah who left the South for 15 years before returning two decades ago to make Atlanta his home.
His Jewish education came at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, founded in 1733, the third-oldest congregation in the United States. Today, as a member of The Temple, he will help plan the commemoration of that congregation’s 150th anniversary next year.
His parents’ lessons of civic involvement he now applies as an adult.
Even the building he lives in has a special history.
While his vocation is managing the family real estate business and working as a management consultant, Feiler’s avocation is photography, and in that field he is gaining notice.
His book, “Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color: The Past, Present, and Future of One Historically Black College,” bears witness to the abandoned spaces left by the demise of Morris Brown College.
“The images are populated with ghosts. There are no people in these images. In every image you can feel the presence of people,” Feiler said.
Morris Brown, a historically black college established in 1881, lost accreditation in 2003 because of financial mismanagement and saw its student body drop from a couple of thousand to a few dozen. The college has sold property from its campus on Atlanta’s west side, allowing it to emerge from bankruptcy and begin the process of seeking reaccreditation.
Published by the University of Georgia Press in conjunction with the Georgia Humanities Council, “Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color” was a finalist in the specialty book category in the 2016 Georgia Author of the Year Awards presented by the Georgia Writers Association.
The book features 60 photographs Feiler shot over a year with the blessing of the school’s administration, along with 10 archival photographs from the Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library archives, as well as five essays.
Feiler described the images as “an iconography of educational spaces”: the classrooms, hallways, laboratories, locker rooms and other spaces common to schools.
The book is not just a story of historically black colleges and universities, he said. “This is a story of education and the American dream.”
Solo exhibitions of the archival photographs and 25 of Feiler’s shots are scheduled for display at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, opening in September, and the Southeast Center for Photography in Greenville, S.C., next May.
Closer to home, pieces of Feiler’s work will be in group exhibitions in July at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, in August along the Atlanta BeltLine as part of a national project, “The Fence 2016,” and in September at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia.
All of this attention is rewarding for the 54-year-old, who began taking pictures as a 10-year-old with a Kodak Instamatic, with its square format. “Relatively early I started doing things like pointing it straight up, pointing it straight down, taking the square and turning it as a diamond,” he said. “And my parents encouraged that behavior.”
That was eight to 10 cameras ago.
After graduating from Savannah Country Day School in 1980, Feiler received a degree in economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. There he encountered differences, large and small, between Southerners and Northerners.
When it came to American history in high school, Northerners reached the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. “We got to 1945,” said Feiler, who traces his Georgia family back to Joseph Feiler, who arrived from Posen, Germany, in 1855, fought with the Georgia infantry in the Civil War and may have been a peddler. “They spent one week on the Civil War and didn’t know about Reconstruction. We spent three weeks on the Civil War and two weeks on Reconstruction.”
Feiler discovered in the North the concept of hyphenated identification, such as Italian-American, Irish-American and German-American. In the South, he said, identification tended to be along racial lines, white or black.
After Penn, Feiler worked on Capitol Hill in Washington and on Wall Street in New York. He earned a master’s in modern history from Keble College, Oxford, followed by a master of business administration from Stanford University. Feiler joined the Boston Consulting Group in Boston, then opened its Atlanta office in 1995.
The past two decades his lens has had a Southern exposure.
“I had a love-hate relationship with the South. I never thought I would necessarily come back to the South,” Feiler said. “One of the things that brought me back to the South was an appreciation for Southern culture — that the South continues to have a unique history, a unique set of values, unique art, unique food traditions, unique sports, cultural phenomena — and I relish those things that make the South unique.”
As he reconnected with Southern culture, Feiler said, he gravitated to Southern stories and themes such as race, justice and progress. “I think that my voice as a photographer is a Southern voice.”
The Morris Brown project is an example. After the Civil War, some 120 colleges were established to educate African-Americans, including six in Atlanta. Feiler spoke with admiration of how the remaining 100-plus schools are 3 percent of the colleges in America but account for more than 10 percent of the African-Americans who go to college and more than 25 percent of the African-Americans who earn degrees.
“That stunning statistic replants this story in the midst of this core societal debate we’re having today. How do we create opportunity in America? How do we create an on-ramp to the middle class?” he said.
Morris Brown was unique among HBCUs not only because it was one of the few founded by African-Americans (members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church), but also because it made a college education accessible to students from the lower economic rungs of African-American society.
Feiler knew Samuel Jolley Jr., who was the president of Morris Brown in the mid-1990s and returned in 2004 to help recovery efforts, from their time together in Leadership Atlanta. A series of introductions led to the school’s current president, Stanley J. Pritchett Jr.
At their first meeting, Feiler told Pritchett that he did not know where the project would take him, but he knew it had potential. “This has race. This has history. This has class. It has religion. It has economic opportunity. It has education.”
The book opens with an essay by Robert James, the president of Carver State Bank in Savannah and a family friend. A minister encouraged James, a poor boy from Hattiesburg, Miss., to attend Morris Brown. James went on to earn an M.B.A. from Harvard University. Morris Brown created a path that has earned members of James’ family six degrees from Harvard.
“My interest in these themes clearly is grounded in my Jewish roots, my Jewish heritage. I also think that there are other photographers that could have shot this work,” said Feiler, who added that he got the necessary access because of the trust of Pritchett and of William “Sonny” Walker, the vice chairman of the Morris Brown board, who died June 14. “That comes out of my civic work, and that emanates from my Jewish heritage and from the example my parents set of civic engagement.”
His father, Edwin J. Feiler Jr., served as the president of Leadership Savannah in the 1970s; his mother, Jane, was its first female president in the early 1980s. Husband and wife also served as president of Congregation Mickve Israel, Jane again being the first woman in that role. Andrew is the oldest of their three children, the others being Bruce, the author of several best-selling books, and Cari.
“In the Savannah that I grew up in, if my parents didn’t like something, they would pick up the phone and try to change it,” Feiler said. “They might lose, but they could fight the battle. It’s what I call small-town empowerment. Most big cities don’t function that way, but for various reasons of history and culture Atlanta does. No matter where you’re from, if you want to be engaged in making this community a better place, you can put forth your ideas and energy. That’s one of the key elements of what drew me to Atlanta, and it’s the key to why I’ve been very happy here.”
He said that impulse toward community engagement is rooted in the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world), and his photography comes from the same place.
Twenty-one years after returning to the South, Feiler and his partner, the artist and “reformed lawyer” Laura Adams, live in the former B. Mifflin Hood Brick Co. office, a distinctive brick structure along the BeltLine in Virginia-Highland.
Hood moved from Baltimore after the Civil War and began a brick-making business in Atlanta, where the Chattahoochee Brick Co. profited from the forced labor of African-Americans, including hundreds of wrongly convicted men bought illegally after the Emancipation Proclamation. Hood advertised that his were “non-convict bricks,” and the outcry over this “Slavery by Another Name” (the title of Doug Blackmon’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the period) eventually put the Chattahoochee Brick Co. out of business.
Feiler and Adams plan to open the Brickworks Gallery in a portion of their home.
While he arranges exhibitions of the Morris Brown photographs, now scheduling into 2018, Feiler is engaged in other photographic pursuits, including projects on how nature is reclaiming the site of a former greenhouse behind a historic mansion; a look at the urban core of the city, where the races come into greatest contact; locales where color provides inspiration in the urban environment; and the decay of abandoned railyards.
History has helped Feiler refine his eye and his identification. “Being a Southern Jew, I don’t usually lead with being Jewish. The assimilationist impulse remains strong among Southern Jews. But the more I thought about my voice as a photographer, I realized how rooted that voice was in my Southern roots and my Jewish heritage. That heritage is front and center in how I describe my artistic voice. I found that to leave that out was to leave out something essential.”