December used to be a sleepy time in the local art world, typically a month of group shows featuring affordable works suitable for Christmas presents. But that was before the tsunami known as PHOTONola appeared with dozens of photography exhibits and countless photography-related activities in a kind of imagistic frenzy attended by artists and collectors from all over. The first wave hit Saturday, Dec. 12, and there is indeed a lot to see, with additional expos cascading along. Since PHOTONola is the handiwork of the New Orleans Photo Alliance, it seems fair to start with its gallery, where Sarah Wilson's Blind Prom is in full swing. As the name implies, this documentary series focuses on a high school prom at the Texas School for the Blind in Austin, for which Wilson has served as the official photographer since 2005.
As a visual experience, it is both reassuring and disturbing. Perhaps because of the way photographers such as Diane Arbus have conditioned us to observe impaired or unusual people from a coolly detached perspective, the first thing we notice in these teens is their differences. Beyond their blindness, some seem impaired in other ways, perhaps from Down syndrome, and many exhibit the unselfconscious expressions of those who have never clearly seen their reflection in a mirror. Viewed online, the images may evoke the ghost of Arbus, but in the gallery setting, their unvarnished warmth and honesty is apparent as a unique collective presence. This is a show that makes us come to terms with the humanity of people who do not fit neatly into the self-image of middle-class American life.
Other recommendations include Susan Burstein's poetic visions made with archaic Chinese cameras at Canary Gallery, Jonathan Traviesa's portraits at the Ogden Museum, and Michele Varisco's work at Heriard-Cimino, but if you go to www.photonola.org/photo-nola-2009 and click the "Exhibitions" link, it's hard to go wrong. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Blind Prom: Photographs by Sarah Wilson
New Orleans Photo Alliance, 1111 St. Mary St., 975-4002; www.neworleansphotoalliance.org