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Cabbagetown meets Sweet 16 at Jackson Fine Arts

Oraien Catledge's photographs of Cabbagetown residents seem as if they were taken a lifetime ago. It's impossible not to wonder what became of all of these weathered families with their broods of kids and barely legal parents, the teenage girls hiding untold secrets behind sexually precocious poses, the little children left to their own devices, roaming the streets in bare feet.

Like Shelby Lee Adams, who has documented the clannish, brutally poor denizens of the rural Kentucky hills, Catledge shines a light on people it's easy to forget. In his Cabbagetown exhibition, people have their babies too young, look haggard before their time and pay a visible price for dwindling economic options, precipitated by the shuttering of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in 1974. But in his black-and-white photographs, Catledge embraces them regardless, reflecting his subjects' humanity in all of its often frightening and poignant dimension.

According to Catledge, known in the village as "Picture Man," the death knell for the vibrant, communal way of life in "old" Cabbagetown (circa mid-'80s) was not just gentrification and the mill's closing, but the embrace of air conditioning, which keeps families locked behind closed doors in climate-controlled rooms. Catledge's photographs capture a long-gone sense of free-range sociability fueled by a collective effort to escape the heat with fans, open windows and front porches. As a result, almost all of Catledge's images are taken of people either on the street or haloed by open doorways and windows, which serve as dramatic frames. Mystery enshrouds Catledge's subjects, who brood with the sphinxlike qualities of the Mona Lisa. Even tiny children, like the window-framed baby wearing a disarmingly thoughtful expression, suggest a precocious preparation of defenses for the world. It almost hurts to look at the dark-haired girl with the bad haircut, a cut across the bridge of her nose and hard expression. Catledge's photographs demonstrate how poverty strips faces of softness and innocence early in life. The only people who manage to look carefree are too young or too drunk to know better.

Catledge's exquisitely heartbreaking portraits are in glaring contrast to middle-class portraiture of the Olan Mills variety, all about smoothing over the rough spots and hiding indications of unpleasantness. Catledge's images reveal their seams, like the faltering mix of assurance and fear that clings to his images of teenagers, many of whom assume an aggressive, "just dare me" sensuality that suggests a too-early understanding of the sexual economy of the world.

Catledge's portraits of teenagers are a shocking contrast to the middle-class kids seen in Angela West's work. West specializes in portraiture, too. But the differences between their images illustrate the various ways social status can be demonstrated in the body language and expressions of their subjects.

In place of Catledge's peeling paint shacks and junked cars, West's backdrops are vintage wallpapers decorated with roses and gardenias. West uses the flowers to ironic effect, offering a sharp visual riposte to the romantic associations between young women and the blossoming of delicate, voiceless femininity.

West's portraits tread a line between painful, humorous and poignant. Dressed in grown-up gowns and wearing fragile gold jewelry, the teenagers in her Sweet 16 exhibition are all on the borderline between girl and woman. Some are just more convincing than others at masking their discomfort with that transition. The hunched shoulders, arms crossed defensively across bodies and exposed, vulnerable expressions convincingly convey the excruciating self-consciousness of adolescence. But for every frightened rabbit gaze there are the self-possessed beauties who have made peace with their sexuality.

Both Catledge and West turn portraiture on its head, showing the give-and-take between subjects trying to present one image to the world and photographers who have the good sense and skill to show what additional truths lie beneath their skin.




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