For photography fans in New Orleans, Christmas comes a few weeks early every December in the form of PhotoNOLA.
Now in its 10th year, the event includes dozens of associated programs in museums and galleries all over town and features exhibitions along with gallery talks, panels and film screenings.
Curated this time around by Alexa Dilworth, of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and showcasing work by 13 members of the New Orleans Photo Alliance from both New Orleans and outside the city, this year’s iteration of “Currents” is one of the strongest and widest-ranging to date.
“This is the fifth year the Ogden Museum has hosted the ‘Currents’ exhibition,” Ogden photographer curator Richard McCabe said. “It’s grown from a very local and organic exhibition to national and international one that showcases some of the most exciting and innovative photography being produced today.”
Indeed, some of the strongest and most interesting works in “Currents 2015” don’t immediately register as photographs at all.
Foremost among them is Alia Ali’s remarkable “Cast No Evil” series, in which the heads and faces of subjects are swathed in patterned fabrics and photographed against brightly colored backgrounds. The results are compelling images that feel almost closer to semi-abstract paintings than photographs, and which seem to comment upon the invisibility of the “other” in contemporary society.
Other highlights include Qian Zhao’s surreal slices of Americana and enigmatic landscapes and Matt Eich’s lushly colored visual poems, each one comprised of equal parts transporting beauty and quiet dread. And Jennifer McClure’s mystery-laden vignettes — a face floating serenely in a lake, a woman in a shadowy domestic interior loosely bound with heavy rope, a phone receiver laying on a floor — read like fragments from a short story or half-remembered dream.
But not all of the work in “Currents” seeks to push boundaries. JT Blatty’s photographs of fishing life in southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast are direct and accessible, if somewhat familiar. Richard Max Gavrich’s black-and-white views of New Orleans focus on telling details in the urban landscape. Benjamin Dimmitt’s images of Florida wetlands are technically precise and instantly familiar, even if they don’t exactly break new artistic ground.
And Donna Pinckley’s portraits of multiracial couples and families, captioned with examples of the bigoted remarks directed at the subjects themselves, elevate the simple compositions into the realm of social commentary.
The show is bookended by two multipart pieces that reference the earliest beginnings and latest developments in photography.
Heather Oelkhaus’s piece at the beginning of the exhibition comprises 78 individual photographs of Colorado’s Garden of the Gods made from a large format pinhole camera and arranged into a giant mosaic, giving this most antique of photographic techniques a remarkably contemporary look and feel. On the other end of the show, Aline Smithson’s colorfully (and delightfully) crass “Counting to Ten in French” is an of-the-moment melange of digital imagery.
Those pieces — along with all the ones one between — give “Currents” the feel of not just a comprehensive survey of the what’s happening in the New Orleans photography scene, but a look at the current state of the medium in general. It’s an apt name for an engaging show.