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“Southern Images: Six Contemporary Photographers”

At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to Oct. 11

I came to the Kathleen Ewing Gallery’s “Southern Images: Six Contemporary Photographers” predisposed to like three of the exhibition’s six artists: William Christenberry, Birney Imes, and Maude Schuyler Clay. Seeing “Southern Exposure,” a show mounted last year at the McLean Project for the Arts, had given me an appreciation for Christenberry’s understated evocations of Alabama’s back-roads vernacular architecture; for Imes’ 1994 homage to a run-down Mississippi roadhouse, Whispering Pines; and for Clay’s 1999 book of Mississippi Delta landscapes, Delta Land. Unfortunately, the Ewing show fails all of these artists in one way or another. The other participants in “Southern Images” fare better, but even they are occasionally hampered by odd curatorial choices.

It’s hard to knock Christenberry, the Alabama-born, D.C.-based artist who’s had a productive and widely lauded career in photography, painting, and sculpture—precisely the kind of artist whose work should have been used to add insight and intellectual heft to a show like this. Instead, his contribution seems almost like an afterthought. Three photographs included in “Southern Images”—one showing a vacant barbecue joint, another featuring a fading Coca-Cola wall advertisement, and a third documenting an eccentric paint job on a preacher’s home—were all made before 1989 and have all been exhibited and published widely. Christenberry is an active artist; the selection of these older works hardly lives up to the show’s putative theme of featuring contemporary photography.

More disappointingly, “Southern Images” manages to flub the display of one of Christenberry’s masterpieces, Red Building and Forest, Hale County, Alabama, a work consisting of photographs taken in the same location every year since 1974. When last shown, at Hemphill Fine Arts in 2001, the 4-foot-by-4-foot matrix stood as an eloquent commentary on the slow and inevitable passage of time. Now, the work includes one additional photo, taken in 2002. Though this new image might have added some spark to a work long in progress, it was not mounted on the wall, but placed on an easel next to the rest—where it was as welcome as a fifth wheel. Even grappling with a prime number of images, the show’s organizers could surely have found a more compelling way to arrange Christenberry’s work.

Imes’ Juke Joint series seems equally out of step with any notion of fresh visual insights. Imes, a photographer and newspaper editor based in Columbus, Miss., crisscrossed his home state making full-color images of run-down African-American hangouts in rural areas. Because he often used long exposure times, his human subjects seem like apparitions overwhelmed by their humble and sad surroundings: In The King Club, Glendora (1984), for example, the card players sitting in a corner of the club are little more than blurs. In other pieces, human loneliness is portrayed more literally. The Pink Pony Cafe, Darling (1985) captures a young man staring forlornly from the venue’s back door, dwarfed by a mountain of garbage and disconnected from the shadows of five unseen compatriots cast on a nearby wall. And in Arcola Cafe, Arcola (1985), the human presence is but a memory: some empties of Bud and Coke, a peeling table, a splitting vinyl bench, an off-kilter Colt 45 sign, and a water-stained, red-polka-dotted ceiling.

Imes’ handling of his material is skillful, even memorable. But today there is little surprising about such work. Like Christenberry’s contributions to “Southern Images,” which are but pieces in his decadeslong effort to showcase the region’s Gothic eccentricities, Imes’ images no longer come across as groundbreaking. Part of the problem is that the artist has already repeated himself. Back when Juke Joint was published, in 1990, his photographs offered a rare peek into a world hidden to outsiders. But in 1994, Imes followed up with Whispering Pines, which documents a specific (this time white-owned) roadhouse and its jumble of inhabitants. And now, two decades after Juke Joint’s earliest images were made, the series illustrates a world that has become much more a part of the mainstream than it once was, even if only through such Middle America-slanted simulations as Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club.

Clay’s images of the Delta are less widely known than Christenberry’s or Imes’, and they were made more recently. So their shortcomings are slightly different. To its credit, “Southern Images” features Clay’s Delta landscapes in the form of large, exquisitely clear sepia prints—a tangible improvement even over her impressively reproduced book. At Ewing, viewers can pore over the dazzlingly detailed fields of grass and brambles of Sarah’s Bottom (2000), admire the split-second liftoff of a flock of birds in Snow Geese, for Richard Ford (1997), and enjoy the geometrical simplicity of a lightly wooded flood plain in Three Trees (2000). But roughly half of the works the gallery selected come off as too Southern-stereotyped, while the other half come across as not distinctly Southern at all. The whitewashed structure of Two-Spired Church (1998), for instance, is channeled straight from Walker Evans’ darkroom. And cynical viewers need not know much more about Cotton Field Church (1998) than its title. At the same time, Three Trees, Snow Geese, and Four Trees and Water Tower (1994) look as if they could have been taken in almost any rural corner of America.

This is unfortunate, because other images in Clay’s book are more successful. Visitors to Ewing can get a feel for her best work by paying close attention to the subtly impressive Pool (1997). The image offers not just a jarring juxtaposition—an opulent-looking swimming pool in the middle of a rural backwater—but also uses its subject’s inky black water, weedy surroundings, and hints of a now-missing diving board to communicate a looming pathos missing from many of the artists’ other images on display.

Though Victoria Ryan’s subject matter is not obviously Southern—her images of plants and aquatic settings could also have been taken almost anywhere—she demonstrates flashes of real visual inspiration. Such photographs as Classic Cactus, (1998/2002) call to mind the botanical close-ups of Imogen Cunningham and the early fauna photographs of Edward Weston. But Ryan separates herself from her predecessors by capturing unexpectedly expressive surfaces. Starting with small-scale black-and-white images, she layers on oils to heighten the shininess of her darkest tones. Entangled Leaves (2001/2002), for instance, looks like a bunch of kale that has been slathered by a masseuse. It’s too bad that it conjures no particular sense of place.

Debbie Fleming Caffery’s large-scale images also succeed through dark, glossy tones, but they encompass more varied subject matter. Her high-contrast black-and-white compositions are so compelling that one is tempted to forgive the gallery for choosing five images made in Mexico and only three shot in the American South. In the dreamy Louisiana Burning Cane Fields (2001), she captures a plume of white flame rising from the dark landscape and casting indirect light on rows of nearby plantings. Another Louisiana image, Unchanging Hands (1994), features the hands of a robed African-American clergyman; under low light and a protracted exposure, the subject’s long fingers, resting on a copy of the Bible, seem to blend into the text as if they were partially transparent.

Unchanging Hands, which crops out the subject’s head and legs to focus on the unity of flesh and religion, is one of several photographs in which Caffery demonstrates a mastery of suggestion. In David (1995), she photographs a pair of chicken feet hanging from the belt of an unidentifiable subject; we can’t quite tell if it’s adult or child, male or female, but the bizarre detail communicates an unmistakable edge. Similarly, Franklin (1998) offers a close-up of an African-American man’s hands cradling dominoes—a gentle image whose mystique would have been shattered had its subject’s face been made explicit.

As impressive as some of Ryan’s photographs are, they lack the cumulative impact of the series by Deborah Luster called One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. Between 1998 and 2002, the artist visited the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Inside, she made perhaps 1,000 frames within a couple of days’ time, working with only natural light.

Luster asked her sitters—male and female, black and white, old and young—to pose as they wished. She then produced sepia-toned prints on 5-by-4-inch black aluminum slabs and gave each inmate wallet-sized reproductions of the images they made together. Her technique, which produces a finely detailed, reflective image recalling the daguerreotypes and tintypes of yesteryear, is unusual enough. But what’s especially noteworthy are the images themselves.

Some feature familiar prison motifs: sexually explicit tattoos, sorrowful faces, a white inmate backed by a Confederate battle flag. But in others, inmates wear Halloween costumes or pose dressed up for Mardi Gras. Still others are shown as rodeo cowboys or chefs in training—two of the few activities they are permitted. The inmates’ crimes, it should be noted, are not indicated—which helps Luster’s portrayals come across as nonjudgmental and humanizing. Devoid of cell bars or other features that could identify the setting, her images are the simplest of revelations: a bunch of men and women in toques, cowboy gear, and silly costumes who seem vaguely, unsettlingly out of place. Though these pieces look neither particularly contemporary nor particularly Southern, for once, the organizers of “Southern Images” were absolutely right to include them. CP