Debbie Fleming Caffery

at Catherine Edelman Gallery, through April 22

Every corner of Debbie Fleming Caffery’s photographs seems alive. In Oaxaca, Mexico, 1994 it’s as if the speed of the girl running has somehow affected the background–as if her racing spirit were also in the land. Photographers often show a sharply focused runner against a blurred background to convey the sense of speed, and sometimes blurred runners are contrasted with stable landscapes. But here both girl and background are a bit soft, as if the camera had moved with the runner but not quite quickly enough. The gray and white pattern of the girl’s shirt is echoed by the landscape behind, further blurring the distinction between runner and land.

Caffery’s first images, done in the early 70s, were in-focus portraits of subjects in rural settings that emphasized character through poses and expressions. The earliest photo in this show of 31 images, now on view at Catherine Edelman Gallery, Praying, 1976, shows a subject Caffery photographed often: Polly, an elderly African American woman. Here she stands in a field facing us, looking a bit downward and to the side, her hands raised beside her head. Her vivid features seem almost chiseled; the slightly tilted horizon line combined with her pose creates a dynamic composition. Her dramatically uplifted fingers and deflected gaze suggest the powerful inner intensity of a woman whose thoughts are elsewhere.

Raised in the southern Louisiana sugarcane country where she still lives, Caffery was educated in Catholic schools until college. Yet her images are less concerned with specific religious doctrines than with giving things a power and a presence that transcend the visible and tangible–a kind of spirit. Asked about religion, she recalls that some of the nuns were “great storytellers. I always loved the stories…their great emotion and spirit.” There were also other influences: Anne Wilkes Tucker has pointed out that in addition to the south’s traditional Christian denominations there were “Charismatics, palm readers…Louisiana voodoo.”

For Caffery, shadows and figures inhabit the same world. Olinala, Guerrero, Mexico, 1994 has a particular magic: one senses it as a continuous whole. The shadow of a man drinking falls on a mottled wall, a blurred figure in a T-shirt stands facing him, and dim graffiti on the old wall add a third kind of human presence: shadows, figures, and human markings seem to communicate with one another.

Caffery’s intentionally long exposures reveal movement, adding life to the animal and plant worlds as well. Polly, Chicken in Front of Screen, 1986 shows a blurred Polly holding a chicken also fuzzy with movement, captured in several superimposed outlines. The bulbous shapes of trees outside, made fuzzy by the window’s screen, are themselves a bit like the chicken’s vibrating form.

Caffery’s first photos were of sugarcane workers in activities familiar to her from childhood: planting, harvesting, refining. But in some images the workers seem to be engaged in magic rituals. Two men stand near a tractor in Sunrise Fire, 1988/92; a circle of fire on the ground is made by a tire they’re burning for warmth. The smoke in the air is filled with early-morning light coming from behind the men; slivers of light brighter than any on them glimmer on a tractor tire. Landscape, men, fire, smoke, and tractor all seem living presences, enacting some secret drama together.

One way of understanding Caffery’s almost pantheistic vision is to see it as the fusion of a child’s imagination, which gives things multiple uses and meanings, and belief systems in which candles and masks can speak to or stand for unseen spirits. Four photos of children at play show each frozen in a contortion that seems perfectly expressive of the moment. To a child there are no “correct” body positions; anything is possible. In Summer, 1985 a boy crouches inside a large inner tube, his taut body almost circular as the tube rolls toward the bayou in a game Caffery played herself as a child; the goal is to splash into the water. These children’s poses, like Polly’s hands, express not only their life but their reason to be alive. After the Snake Bite, 1983 shows Caffery’s son almost glowering at the camera, having painted his body in ritualistic response to being bitten by a nonpoisonous snake.

Religion, seen as a mixture of make-believe and magic, also animates other images. In Mexico, 1994 four children wearing Day of the Dead masks are shown at night standing in front of the Mexico City cathedral. The church is out of focus and brightly lit, almost white: in this time exposure, the kids and the cathedral are both a bit fuzzy. The architecture also echoes the figures: behind each child’s head is a tower or small protrusion in the church roof. It seems everything’s alive in this image that combines a religious festival and children’s playful dressing up. Caffery says that one thing she loves about Mexico is the way emotions and religion are always close to the surface. She remembers her childhood observances of All Souls’ Day as very sad, while in Mexico “they celebrate it…welcoming the spirits of people who died.”

Many of Caffery’s strongest images are hard to read at first. In Tlacahahuaya, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1993 we see what seem to be the shadows of a butterfly and of two arms holding it up against a ruined old wall full of cracks and holes. Caffery told me that two little girls were holding the cloth wings of a child’s costume, but it’s almost better to leave the image unexplained. The shadow, which has all the life of a real butterfly, brings the weathered wall to life too; its irregularities appear organic, almost ready to move.

Some of the power of Polly’s House, Baby Shoes, 1988/90 comes from the intensely tactile tattered curtain that takes up most of the image. Full of holes of every size and shape and lined with irregular cracks like the wrinkles and veins of an older person’s skin, this curtain has all the living presence of a human face. Silhouetted on a shelf below are two baby shoes and a small figurine with a broken-off arm. A poor woman, Polly (who recently died) was a continual collector and arranger of objects, creating little domestic decorations we might call “installation art.” But what does the figurine have to do with the shoes? We don’t know, but these silhouettes appear to gesture to, even communicate with, each other. It seems Caffery finds a parallel to her own transformative vision in Polly, as these spirit-shadows assert their mysterious presence before the variegated light that fills the curtain behind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debbie Fleming Caffrey.