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Mondo Exotica 

It was absolutely fascinating to me, like being in the darkest Africa, with alligators, palmettos and Spanish moss. I tell you, it really grabbed a hold of me. It was pure adventure and I loved it."

That was Fonville Winans' description of how Louisiana affected him when he first came here as a young man. Born in Missouri and raised in Texas, he moved here with his family as a teenager and went on to eventually become one of this state's most important photographers. Best known for his Baton Rouge portrait studio in later years, it was his youthful, 1930s documentary work that stands out today, for reasons that have everything to do with time. People and scenes, once commonplace, appear much more colorful, even magical, after decades or centuries have passed, and Winans had a flair for seizing the drama of the moment, producing work on par with the best WPA-era documentary photographers of the age.

It was a role he obviously relished; he switched to portraiture only after he got married in 1941 and needed a more predictable income. For Winans, 1930s Louisiana was like a movie set in an exotic foreign country. This was especially true of his images of Acadiana before it became a colony of Big Oil, as we see in Ten Cents a Dozen, 1939, a view of some Cajun gents sitting around a rustic counter, eating oysters on the half shell. With their swarthy visages, pencil-thin moustaches and gustatory bonhomie, they might have stepped out of a Jean Renoir film in the years before the Vichy regime. Call it Fishermen, Marseilles, 1939, and hardly anyone would be the wiser. Similarly, Cajun Fare, 1938, features a Cajun family sitting around the table at their fishing camp, telling jokes, eating crabs and knocking back beers against a backdrop of shelves sagging under the weight of canned beans and posters of the Virgin Mary. While Louisiania natives should recognize the scene, the faces are so French provincial that you have to look twice to realize that it's America. And his Dixie Belles photo of two young black women in dazzling white gowns and straw hats is like a scene from a Eudora Welty story, or maybe one of Chinua Achebe's African vignettes. While his landscapes reflect a childlike delight in novelties such as the massive pillars of salt supporting the ceiling of a subterranean salt mine, or ice floes clogging the Mississippi at Baton Rouge across from Huey Long's gleaming new high-rise state capital building, it is his dramatic empathy with his human subjects that puts Winans among the truly outstanding photographic artists of his place and time.

Although they were separated in age by only nine years, it is highly doubtful that Winans ever met the great German-born fashion photographer, Helmut Newton. In fact, this is truly a pairing of opposites. Winans excelled at capturing the unspoiled folkloric richness that was Louisiana before urbanization and industrialization, while Newton dealt with the side effects of those very forces, the surreal decadence that was part and parcel of the fashion industry and its leggy denizens during his heyday at the Paris Vogue from the 1960s through the 1980s. There, he was known for his photos of tall, Aryan blonds arranged in covertly incendiary poses, his own visual equivalent of shock and awe.

Study on Voyeurism II, Los Angeles, 1989, features one of his Aryan uber-women in a black, filmy jersey, open at the front, as a man's arm reaching from beyond the frame arranges the fabric. Bits of crystal chandelier and classical busts appear in the background, while off to the side are stacks of Kodacolor Gold and T-Max 400 film boxes. The blond is very cool -- an object of the Male Gaze, yes, but a power object who both attracts and intimidates. His closely cropped portraits of Paloma Picasso and Debra Winger reveal similarly steely visages, while In Robert's Garden features another disrobed Aryan Amazon in a provocative crouch. Is she a victim -- or a she-cat about to pounce? Newton typically leaves the question open in his personal work, in photographs that amount to his own version of La Dolce Vita populated with Amazons and Valkyries in a limbo somewhere between celebration and satire.

click to enlarge Fonville Winans' Ten Cents a Dozen harks to - Acadiana in the 1930s, a time when much of Louisiana - still seemed like a foreign country.
  • Fonville Winans' Ten Cents a Dozen harks to Acadiana in the 1930s, a time when much of Louisiana still seemed like a foreign country.
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Speaking of Through September, PORTRAITS, LANDSCAPES AND HISTORY: Photographs By Helmut Newton And Fonville Winans

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