Sunday, February 12, 2017

Jeanine Michna-Bales at New Orleans Photo Alliance; Debra Howell at LeMieux

In 19th century America, secret trails dubbed “the Underground Railroad” spanned this continent's vast spaces as runaway slaves migrated north toward freedom in the dead on night. Assisted by sympathizers who sheltered them in churches, homes and barns called “depots,” it was a journey that has spanned time in words and images. Jeanine Michna-Bales's photographs explore that legacy in nocturnal landscapes like Decision to Leave, above, a dimly visible plantation cabin that exudes something deeply primordial while evoking the emotionally fraught nature of the quest. Even more primordial is a Southern Pine Forest view of the dense, inky tangles of a moonlit glade typical of the migrants' obscure trails and shrouded paths where the sight of a glowing lamp in a farmhouse window, above right, could signify either shelter or shattered dreams. The preternatural darkness of the images harks to the perilous migrations that have forever 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 surreal photographs focus on our turbulent relationship with  nature expressed in dreamlike images that convey our experience with climate change as a watery  apocalypse. Acipenser, above, is emblematic, a flood-ravaged home where salvaged objects are ritualistically arranged on a muddy floor. The view through the window reveals a distant river bank studded with industrial relics, as well as a water line below which a sturgeon (genus: Acipenser) is faintly visible in the murk beyond the window panes. Beyond postdeluvian Creole cottage interiors, others include antique stereoscopes stranded on mud flats in Stereoscope 2: Yangtze, above left, with glowing dual 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 be losing patience with us. ~Bookhardt / Through Darkness to Light: Photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales, Through March 19, New Orleans Photo Alliance, 1111 St. Mary Street, 513-8030; Adaptations: Photographs by Debra Howell, Through Feb. 24, LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522.5988.