Two exhibits that opened this month at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts are tailor-made for the curious, the inquisitive and anyone willing to confront the darker recesses in his mind.
The photographers are both Southern women of the baby-boom generation, who, through their evocative black-and-white images, take viewers on separate but challenging journeys.
Debbie Fleming Caffery’s exhibit, “Bayou Memoirs,” is a shadowy excursion into the rural South, where she specializes in capturing the raw, unvarnished way of life still lived by today’s Louisiana sugar cane workers.
In “Family Pictures: A work in Progress,” Sally Mann cruises the psyches of parents and children, probing the tears, fears, tribulations and joys of growing up and rearing children.
Both artists seem to enjoy using light and shadow as compositional elements to focus attention on their subjects. Caffery makes maximum use of darkness the same way Clint Eastwood used night and shadow to set a mood for “Bird,” last year’s film about jazzman Charlie Parker.
Caffery captures the cutting pre-dawn December chill of the sugar cane workers, who stand huddled around the flames of a burning tire in a cut field. The field is dotted with fires after sundown as the waste cane is burned, filling the fading, streaky sky with smoke.
In “Bayou Memoirs,” Caffery’s technique is not the straightforward documentation of a Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans. Nor is it the sugarcoated Southern juke joint photography of her contemporary, Bernie Imes. She is more of an Expressionist outraged by these conditions, yet in love with her subjects.
She mirrors the oppressive, unforgiving existence of these workers--both black and white--with a pervasive gloominess, an encroaching darkness. Her full and partial silhouettes--a face with stubbly chin seen through a window screen or a tall, backlighted man with arms raised as if in fond greeting for a young child--tend to distance and even depersonalize her subjects.
Not all is dark. One of Caffery’s photographs in the show that was organized by museum director Arthur Ollman looks at first like an abstract Jackson Pollock painting. But a man’s bare arm and the mirror and door handle fittings identify the image as that of a pickup truck’s door, crosshatched with spattered mud.
Caffery loads another truck photograph with myriad detail. Focusing her lens through the windshield, she somehow captures the heat and lassitude of an early-August morning as the sun slants through the rear window. The bespectacled driver, turning his head, is in shadow. His dog sits hunched outside the rear window waiting for work, its silhouette outlined in the window’s layer of summer dust.
Other shots suggest the poverty of these field hands. Wrinkled and torn curtains mute and filter the light that pours into a darkened room. A pair of lizards lazily soak up the November sun on a door’s torn screen.
A worn-out sock rests on a rough
wooden floor next to a steel washer and a pair of shoes. In the gloom, we can barely see the woman’s legs that rise out of the shoes.
Directly or indirectly, it is the people of Southern Louisiana whom Caffery wants us to know. Despite the grind and oppression of their lives, they persist. Her picture of a diapered child, laughing with a dim ray of light on its soft neck, belies the peasant life that lies in this tyke’s future.
Caffery’s portraits of these men and women reveal not only weathered and chapped hands and faces, but also the spiritual tenacity that transcends their lifelong fatigue.
Sally Mann’s “Family Pictures” exhibit makes up an often surrealistic journey through the unconscious. It is filled with photographs that are often troubling. The museum has even posted signs advising visitors to use discretion.
Mann, who was born and lives today in Virginia, has embarked on a continuing project of photographing her three children as they grow up. What distinguishes her work from most family albums, aside from the fact that she is a professional photographer of rare gifts, is the approach.
Mann is just as willing to shoot her kids at their worst behavior as at their best. The contradictory nature of children--both angel and devil--is grist for her mill. More than that, she chooses to delve into the land of taboos, the nightmares parents have for their children: injury, death, physical and sexual abuse.
In “Tobacco Spit,” a sweaty chunk of a man in coveralls holds a fragile, blond little girl in his strong arms. Mann arranged the picture so that the two are in dark shadow, with the midday sun striking only the girl, at once enhancing her vulnerability and giving the man a more sinister appearance. The girl’s intense expression implies that she is more than a bit anxious over the situation.
Mann posed many of these scenes, but caught others as they occurred using a large-format 8-by-10-inch camera.
In “The Disputed Banana,” a naked, pint-size child clutches a peeled banana in her hands and seems to dare Mom to take the forbidden fruit. A spatula on the floor hints at events that may have preceded this confrontation.
One of the many arresting images in this exhibit is of Mann’s son Emmett standing waist-deep in a river. The water is absolutely glassy except for where the fingertips of Emmett’s hand touch the surface and where the water swirls out from his waist.
The patch of water where Emmett stands reflects the light sky. He is framed by dark jagged reflections of the woods that seem to be pressing in on him. The intensity of his expression mirrors the tension of the moment in the picture, title, “Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude.”
In “Jessie at Five,” Mann captures the essence of precociousness. Although the two girls that flank Jessie look like kids, the shirtless Jessie, her blond hair in a bob, wearing fake pearl necklace, rhinestone earrings and lipstick, looks as sophisticated as any 30-year-old.
The images Mann has made in this exhibit--from children sitting uncomfortably at the hospital bed of their dying grandfather or posing decorously in a tutu with a freshly shot deer--capture the often incongruous process of growing up. But, more than that, Mann has accomplished an amazing feat of revealing the darker thoughts that parents almost never articulate.