Through a Lens, Darkly

Etherton shows photos of dreams and nightmares.

What could be more seasonal than two fat little angels, all shiny wings and crosses, lighting up winter's darkness?

The angelic "Rosa and Guadalupe, Mexico, March, 1997," a black-and-white photo by Debbie Fleming Caffery, is a winsome highlight of The Scenery of Distillation, a four-person photography exhibition at Etherton downtown. Its two round-faced little girls, posed in white cotton dresses against a dark background, peek shyly at the viewer. In their innocence and loveliness, they're beacons of light in the shadows.

But if the picture's heavenly subject matter is explicitly Christmassy, Fleming Caffery's other works, decidedly non-holiday-like, engage the same themes. Mostly shot in Mexico and Louisiana, the whole suite of dreamy photos is about light and darkness. (A number of them are included in the Fleming Caffery book The Shadows.) The photographer deftly conjures up lighted candles in a Mexican shrine by night, dappled sunlight in a southern country house, a street lamp beaming through a tunnel, sugar cane afire. All her pictures beautifully use photography's mysterious chemical ability to allow light to emerge poetically from the shadows.

The photographer deploys a variety of filtering devices, from porch screens to translucent fabric, to make her pictures dreamlike. In "Micaela, Mexico, March, 1977," the material is mosquito netting, rendered ethereal. A young girl reclines on a bed sumptuously draped in sheets, her white nightdress falling into a cascade of folds as luscious as those in a Renaissance painting. The luminous mosquito netting envelops her like a halo.

Window screens do the filtering job in the Louisiana pictures. Evoking archetypal memories of childhood summers, the photos are set in a dilapidated country house by the water. Translucent and porous, these pictures are lit like a summer day and inhabited by half-naked children free of the rule of law, or even the rule of mom. A pair of naked toddlers conducts a frontal assault up the precipice of marble-topped dresser ("Joshua and Ruth, Franklin, Louisiana, 1978") and elementary-age kids scramble up a tree overlooking the river ("May Van's Camp, Louisiana, September 5, 1987"). More often than not, these pictures are seen through a screen dimly: a half-naked toddler stands on the other side of the porch door; a lizard clings for life to the mesh.

Screened and filtered, these images feel as elusive as memories: They could vanish in an instant. And yet they're solidly structured. The picture of May Van's camp is a typically complicated geometry of shapes. The screened porch windows frame the tripartite view: Kids frolic on the grass at the bottom, a river glimmers in the middle of the photo, and the tree's leaf-laden boughs bend down beneath a strip of sky. Likewise, an undated "Mexico" shot is an intricate exercise in alternating planes. A shiny crucifix glitters in the left foreground, while a curving arch to the left opens up a view of street light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Most of the time Fleming Caffery deliberately blurs her pictures, for atmospheric effect, but sometimes she focuses them so sharply they become hyper-real. "Bernardo, Mexico, September, 1999," for instance, is a portrait of a young boy, his naked chest improbably crisscrossed with a bandolier in lace. So close-in is the camera that we can see the tears glistening in his large dark eyes, and the beads of sweat glittering on his skin.

Fleming Caffery's work was last seen in Tucson during the Indivisible show at the Center for Creative Photography in summer 2001. She'd been commissioned to document a rural North Carolina community, and her lyrical pictures of a farmer's weathered hands and of a flag billowing on a hillside remain vividly in memory a year and a half later. One entry in the Etherton show looks like a runaway from Indivisible. "July 4th, 1999, North Carolina, 1999," this show's one laugh-out-loud piece, is a sharply focused horse head in profile. The animal's head is draped in an American flag, and a cowboy is glimpsed in the triangle created by the neck.

Staring down Fleming Caffery's works across the gallery are the black-and-white photos of Rocky Schenck, an L.A. photographer by way of Texas. His photos are beautifully printed toned gelatin silver prints, graced by painterly blacks, charcoals and whites. Where Fleming Caffery's pictures are dreamy, Schenck's are nightmarish. His photos summon up discomfiting architectural spaces, especially the inhuman spaces between modernist buildings gone bad. But he also photographs disheveled hotel rooms ("London Hotel Room"); the empty chairs eerily lined up in an ecclesiastical "Forgiveness Room"; the slightly spooky "Fountain" rising up over passersby pictured in silhouette.

These refugee images from bad dreams remind me of de Chirico, painter of alienation. "Monastery, Guanajuato," despite its traditional-sounding name, is a bleak composition combining a curving building and an empty plaza. A lone--and lonely--figure trudges along, dwarfed by the architecture. Similarly, the solitary man in "Atlanta" is all alone in an abstract geometry of architectural desolation.

Also in the show are Annie Waters' mixed-media color copies and inkjet prints of dark palm trees with colored skies, and Sant Khalsa's intriguing gelatin silver transparencies of seeds and trees, embedded into slabs of wood.

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