Living in New Orleans it's easy to forget how different this city is from not just the rest of America, but also from the rest of the South. This Ogden Museum show, featuring three ascendant photographers from that curiously alien region known as the Southeast, highlights those differences. Atlantan Laura Noel's Smoke Break series focuses on the persecuted minority known as cigarette smokers — those harried souls who, once glamorized in movies and pop culture, now find themselves ghettoized into the increasingly rare gulags where they can indulge their habit without censure. Perhaps because Atlanta is such a relatively hustling, or even mechanistic place, many indeed seem furtive, but with an occasional thread of whimsy. The languidly apprehensive young woman in Whitney Behind the Restaurant Where She Works (pictured), suggests a service industry functionary with an old-time cinematic inner life, and a sense of the cigarette's use as a magic wand for creating a veil of mystery. Some of the other subjects look lost in stolen moments of dream time, while some just exhibit the haunted look of transgressors wary of being seen — a far cry from the devil-may-care, Tom Waitsian insouciance of New Orleans street life.
Tennessee-based Joshua Dudley Greer focuses on the landscape, including the human landscape, but his eye is no less ironic. Here the sylvan contours of serene Appalachian foothills can't conceal modern updates of old-time hillbilly squalor, or quaint hillside communities dwarfed by massive industrial high-tension lines, or bustling truck stops where drivers take time out to barbecue ribs. Ah, the New South!
But the most poetic works here are by Virginian Susan Worsham, whose portraits excel at conveying an elusive quality of presence, that epiphanous mix of mystery and psychic complexity missed by so many social documentary photographers. Her overall output is edgier and more psychological than most of the images seen here suggest, but the poetic subtlety of her vision is refreshing nonetheless. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT