Southern lights frame tradition

At the close of the century, it's somewhat ironic for artists, especially in the photography-saturated '90s, to commit themselves to old-fashioned ideas of truth and reality in their art, but photographers Jay Shoots and Tom Jimison are still exploring traditional areas of portraiture and architectural studies. Both men use large-format cameras to ensure luxurious reproduction of detail, and they exemplify fine-art, black-and-white printmaking. Though the images in "Southern Faces," the current exhibit of their work at Crealdé School of Art, could have been enlarged to wall-sized prints, the artists keep the images intimate.

Jacksonville-based Shoots earns his bread and butter with commissioned portrait photography. Represented by 33 pictures, he has captured the Southern Faces of his parents, daughter and total strangers whom he feels represent the working class. Shoots sets his subjects chiefly in outdoor locations -- waterfronts, residential streets and front yards -- in available light with little or no props.

Positioning his subjects in the image's dead center, the symmetry creates an eerie feeling. Furthermore, in the exhibition's catalog, curator Rick Lang asserts, "Evident in Shoots' images is a high level of trust which reflects the dignity and humanity of his subjects." But working against the symmetry and directness are idiosyncratic, comical details within the pictures, which transform what would otherwise be ho-hum portraits into something more enigmatic.

The pride evident in these people's faces blind them of their peculiarities. For example, a badly concealed Band Aid sticks out on the Salvation Army worker in "Sandra Fewox." In "Pops Honeywood," the dumfounded expression of the elderly black man standing in the middle of a dirt road in a dilapidated neighborhood with his thick glasses, tattered clothes and untied shoes bears an uncanny resemblance to the bemused young boy in "Scooter, Age 3." Are we to snicker at the belly dancer's oversized stomach and laugh at Flag Helmer's name tag, or do we embrace their pictorial naivete as a universal Southern attribute? Shoots' deadpan photographs remain interestingly silent.

The decaying facades of early- to mid-20th-century Southern architecture has caught the eye of Tennessee photographer Tom Jimison. His matter-of-fact depictions suggest emotional detachment, but his intent surely is a preservation-minded nostalgia. In fact, Jimison's vision appears to be almost a reactionary conception of progress. Textures of peeling paint, rusted metal, weathered wood and worn bricks have become photographic clichés, but the artist presses on.

Jimison's crisp images convey a precisely rendered world that appears more real than reality itself. Photographs like "Ice House Revisited" and "Tin Icehouse" detail every rock of gravel and blade of grass surrounding the structures. The advertisements from Coke, Dr. Pepper, Champion spark plugs and Kendall motor oil within the composition of "Willett's Store" and "Hillis Grocery" recall the art of the Depression-era Southern photographer Walker Evans. And despite the barren look of the buildings, many are still in use. "Dickey's Market" still sells pumpkins, melons and homemade canned fruit, but "Station WHO" has long been abandoned.

Jimison's work compares to contemporary artists Bernard and Hilla Becher, who have documented German water towers, as well as French photographer Eugène Atget. Atget's banal photographs of turn-of-the-century Parisian storefronts, hotels and cafes were later praised by admirers for their ominous quality. The same could be said for Jimison's art. Perhaps 50 years from now, like-minded photographers will present our modern-day corner banks, convenience stores and supermarket buildings in similar ways.


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