When photography first became popular more than a century and a half ago, its widespread appeal was based on its ability to render a likeness quickly and accurately. But soon all sorts of painted backdrops and optical tricks were used to embellish some things and conceal others, so portrait photography has been both a mirror and a masquerade. Interplay, a portrait show at the Contemporary Arts Center, leans toward the latter. For instance, Phyllis Galembo's images of costumed black folk in Haiti and Africa focus on traditional masking rituals. In Les Indians, Haitian boys appear in Carnival-like Indian costumes, but their approach to body painting harks, perhaps unconsciously, to Africa. In Baby Dance Of Etikpe, we see an adult couple peering through eye slits in vivid African fabrics covering them from head to toe, a totally surreal scene that is actually a traditional ritual from the Cross River region of Nigeria. Like Irving Penn before her, Galembo fuses anthropology with a high-fashion aesthetic. A different kind of ritual appears in Sonja Rieger's backstage photos of transsexual beauty pageant contestants. Situated somewhere between portrait and documentary photography, her large and vividly detailed images crackle with a crisp, if campy, Dionysian electricity.
If the claim that "photographs don't lie" was always a stretch, the advent of Photoshop was its coup de grace. What Herman Mhire of Lafayette does with it is radical by any standard, turning portraits of friends into fright masks and transmogrifications like Bob 2 (pictured), a visage demonic enough to give the Notre Dame cathedral gargoyles a run for their money. But reality has many shades of meaning, as we see in Kevin Kline's classic street photos of Bywater folks including men sharing a smoke and couples posing with power tools. Then there's the bedraggled elderly man in a dress and sunbonnet posed in front of Frady's corner store on Piety Street, and what can you say? Sometimes truth is stranger than Photoshop. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Interplay: Alternative Photography by Phyllis Galembo, Kevin Kline, Herman Mhire and Sonja Rieger
Through Oct. 24
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528-3800; www.cacno.org