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Review: photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales and Debra Howell 

The legacy of the Underground Railroad and dreamlike visions of nature

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In antebellum America, secret trails dubbed the Underground Railroad spanned the continent's vast spaces as runaway slaves fled north toward freedom in the dead of night. Assisted by sympathizers who sheltered them in churches, homes and barns called "depots," it was a migration that has spanned time in words and pictures. Jeanine Michna-Bales's photographs explore that legacy in nocturnal landscapes such as Decision to Leave, where a dimly visible plantation cabin exudes something primordial while evoking the emotionally fraught nature of the quest. More primordial is Southern Pine Forest, a view of the dense, inky tangles of a moonlit glade typical of the migrants' obscure trails and shrouded pathways, where the sight of a glowing lamp in a farmhouse window could signify either shelter or shattered dreams. The preternatural darkness of the images harks to the perilous journeys that have defined humanity's eternal quest for a better life, an aspiration eloquently affirmed in America's foundational promise of "liberty and justice for all."

  Debra Howell's subtly surreal photographs focus on our turbulent relationship with nature, a sensibility expressed in dreamlike images that convey our experiences with hurricanes and climate change as a watery slow-motion apocalypse. Acipenser (pictured) is emblematic: a view of the flood-ravaged interior of a home where salvaged objects are arranged ritualistically on a muddy floor. Through the window, there is a distant riverbank studded with heavy industry, as well as a waterline below which a sturgeon (genus Acipenser) is faintly visible in the murk beyond the window panes.

  Beyond postdiluvian Creole cottage interiors, other views include antique stereoscopes stranded on mud flats with lenses miraculously glowing with images of idyllic landscapes. Water and dreams are united in their fluidity, and Howell invokes notions of home and vintage technology to frame broader questions about how we adapt, or not, to a natural world that seems to be losing patience with us.


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