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Sliver of truth 

Alien view colors perspective in Alias America

Laura Noel's black-and-white photography show Alias America: A Search for American Individuality at Callanwolde often recalls Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy's work. Like Plachy, Noel combines the eye of a photojournalist and the sensibility of a casual shutterbug, favoring a de-centered, snapshot feel.A former newspaper photographer for The Greenville News and The Marietta Daily Journal, Noel certainly continues the traditional photojournalist's impulse to tell a story, but mixed-up with the art photographer's desire to leave narrative strands teasingly dangling, as in "Superman," in which a man in a business suit and a more provocatively dressed woman can be seen through a sliding-glass door talking while above them a cast Superman on a flagpole outside the building prepares to dash into the great beyond.

The "individuality" Noel is game hunting in Alias is a quicksilver, sand-in-the-hourglass kind of prey as easily represented by a dapper old gentleman reflected in a glass window who hunches over to read a newspaper inches from his face, as it is by inanimate objects.

By creating a slight progression in the work, as it moves in early pieces from inanimate objects to people, Alias seems to suggest that a definition of America is as easily located in objects as in its flesh-and-blood representatives. In one such image, "Sphinx," of what looks like an abandoned miniature golf course, Noel documents two weathered statues, one an Easter Island-esque head, the other a grinning, waving man, peeking out over a fence as if looking for a re-introduction to the American scene. Noel's images of Vegas marquees and plumpish girls sauntering in Coney Island's "Mermaid Parade" have an off-the-cuff feel that suggests the photographer sees more chance of enlightenment and compelling storytelling by looking into her metaphorical rearview to catch an accidental sliver of truth, rather than orchestrating careful, perfect compositions.

There is something in Noel's choice of subject matter and off-kilter approach that gives these works a vaguely alien feel, as if Noel were a European tourist surveying the landscape for the first time. She seems keyed-in, in a way many hyper-critical natives are not, to the shabby romance and exoticism of neglect and the retro charms visible at the seams of America's strip malls and housing developments. Noel's image of an early Elvis, bashful, hiding his face in his hand on a TV set in a plain office, or one of a leather-jacketed hipster in "Waiting" seated in a nightclub next to a poodle statue -- whose base is littered by beer bottles, like a religious effigy receiving offerings -- often render the figure as marginal as the tchotchkes and settings that surround them.

There is an element of performance in Noel's figures -- two Weeki Wachee mermaids, an old woman passing before a painted theatrical backdrop, a heavily made-up woman dancing in a depressingly festive costume -- that seems to acknowledge how the camera, in a way, creates them, and also to hint at a certain fraudulence, or manufactured quality to American life.

The best aspect of Alias is the peculiarity of Noel's vantage. Not one of her images plays into a preconceived idea of some totemic America. It is that ambiguity, coupled with Noel's admission in her show's title that her quest is only "a search" rather than a definitive conclusion, that makes for an unexpected show.

Alias America: A Search for American Individuality by Laura Noel runs through Nov. 10 at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, 980 Briarcliff Road. 404-872-5338. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. & Sat. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

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