If much of America has gone digital, much of the world is still focused on film, and two current shows about town offer clear evidence why, when certain qualities are desired, black-and-white films and papers are still without peer. True, digital is improving and can do lovely things with color, yet there remains an elusive something about the best black-and-white silver prints that digital can't match, at least, not yet. Some classic examples of this are on view at The Darkroom -- New Orleans Center for the Photographic Arts, a new space for photo printing, complete with rental darkrooms and digital facilities.
Most local photo aficionados are familiar with Kerri McCaffety's documentary views of New Orleans barrooms, St. Joseph's Day altars and other cultural icons, and this selection of her work reflects her glossily colorful take on some of this city's oldest architectural marvels. More subtle and less slick are Jack Leigh's black-and-white views of maritime and domestic scenes in and around Savannah, his home base, mostly in the 1980s. Utterly understated, Leigh's images reveal none of the effusive romanticism of much recent Southern photography, but appear inspired by the classical simplicity that has been a subcurrent through much of the history of the medium.
Best known for his photo on the cover of the best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Leigh is a documentarian with the outlook of a poet. In Nets and Doors, all we see are the triangular ends of shrimp trawler nets emerging from placid waters. Clusters of gulls soar above as a murky sky melds with the misty horizon in the distance, and the view is really almost empty but for the stark, timeless lines of nets and gulls, icons of eternity no less than the sharp, salty smell of the sea.
In Tybee Island Bedroom, a white cane chair, a white porcelain sink and a white iron bed with a white bedspread are all set off by the shimmering light from windows reflected in a pair of mirrors on the whitewashed wooden wall. It's a study in white on white and, of course, silver -- the silver of the mirrors and the quicksilver luminosity that seems to shimmer from within a finely crafted black-and-white print. It's all very subtle, as much about light as the subjects themselves, but that's why black-and-white photography continues to fascinate.
More classical black-and-white images appear in New Orleans photographer David Halliday's new work at Bassetti. Halliday is a darkroom perfectionist known for his romantic portraits and fussy baroque still lifes, and here the latter are well represented. But there are also some new landscapes, and curious specimens they are.
Images such as Magnolia Trunk and Archway feature a magnolia and a spindly arched vine, respectively, bounded by a surfeit of flora, an arcadian anarchy rendered in high key tonalities that convey a sense of staring into a dazzling nothingness, a kind of arboreal void, such is their absence of defining formalities. Yet, this surrender to nature's nihilism also makes for a nice counterpoint to the precious, witty and meticulous still lifes that we expect from this artist, and here he is true to form. Watermelon and Blackberries -- some blackberries and a slice of melon on an old glass display pedestal -- is a classic Halliday. The Rembrandt lighting and the contrast of the smooth glass and the rough wood beneath it convey a distinct Dutch baroque sensibility, but Halliday gets playful in works such as Mirlitons and Cherry Tomatoes, which looks like it sounds, only here the mirlitons are being attacked by snails. And Cruet and Eye is alchemical, a collection of glass implements and objects, including a glass eye resting on a flask and magnified behind a circular lens, like an early example of medieval surrealism. Halliday's prints are, as always, splendiferous, but his willingness to experiment suggests that he has no intention of resting on his laurels anytime soon.