The late, great essayist Susan Sontag had a lot to say about photography, much of it incisive, timeless and true. But some of it was conditional, only true in a particular context, depending on the artist and work in question. The remark quoted above falls into the latter category, but in the case of Tina Freeman's photographs at the Academy Gallery, it rings timelessly true.
Many of her images are indeed 'miniatures,' although some are much bigger. Either way, all possess a certain presence that is not about topics or issues so much as ambient or incidental matters, for instance the qualities of light, land and atmosphere that define 'sense of place.' Things of little consequence to the rational mind are often the very things that quicken the senses or awaken the psyche. Yet, her prints are often understated, so you have to look closely.
Some evoked memories of places I had never been. Ozenay 3 reveals a crumbling farm building in rural France, with a black dog and some white geese framed by a tree. The dog gazes at the bushes, ignoring the birds, and nothing is happening here yet the scene is timeless. Rendered 3 by 4 inches in soft, grey-brown Piezo ink on rag paper, the tones are like an old gravure print, recalling a scene from a Sebastian Faulks novel, or Jean Renoir's 1930s film classic, Rules of the Game, despite dating from more recent times.
Usually, Freeman's subjects are more architectural. The walled gateway to an antique formal garden in Italy is imposing, but it is the texture that catches the eye, the way the walls seem to breathe and bear witness to centuries of burning sun. Her views of trees and landscapes are no less architectural, but again there is that animist quality of presence. In Allerton 12, the roots of a tree in Hawaii seem almost writhing, such is their coiled energy. And the impossibly opulent if decadent roses in Britany 32, suggest the flowering of a dream or memory as much as anything real. No great dramas are occurring in these images yet some are windows into a world as clearly defined and luminously fragile as any of Proust's reminiscences.
But Richard Sexton's photos at the Ogden are 'statements about the world' as much as 'pieces of it.' While his photographs are ordinarily no less atmospheric than Freeman's, these signs on highways from Mississippi to Georgia are all about message. Most proclaim the virtues of Jesus, fish bait and cold beer among other things, so a 'Jesus Saves' sign with flames leaping from below appears on a pole by a barren field, while another sign offers 'Custom Killing, Cutting and Curing' at the McClendon Meat Co. Another offers a 'Holy Ghost Tent Revival Nightly,' as yet another demands '$100 Before Having A Grave Dug.' It's Southern Gothic all the way, and about as scary as it is funny.
Herman Leonard is internationally known for his photographs of America's jazz legends, but this Passport show is partly billed as the maestro's unknown photographs, and an interesting array of miscellany it is. For instance, a group of kids playing in Montmartre, 1956, takes us back to the timelessly textured and now vanished Paris of Cartier-Bresson, but another group of kids playing in Sullivan Street Playground, 1948 reveals a less quaint if no less colorful mid-century view of New York City. And Nico, Paris, 1958, captures the sleek beauty that she was. Other oddities include Marilyn Monroe on an elephant with the Ringling Brothers circus in 1953, and scattered among them are some of the truly great and classic jazz photographs that have made the 82-year-old Leonard literally peerless in the genre. A collage cobbled from blow-ups of his old passports graces the entrance, a passport in its own right, to photographic memories of a life richly lived.