Picturing the past

Ellie Lee Weems captured telling details in vintage photographs

Like a Southern version of famed Harlem portraitist James VanDerZee, Ellie Lee Weems documented the diversity of African-American life for five decades beginning in the 1920s.

The images in Birth, Death and Life in Between at the Barbara Archer Gallery are black-and-white portraits shot against studio backdrops, and they profit from the unique thrill they elicit in the viewer by providing a glimpse into private lives. New brides, bosomy women with gloriously old-school names like "Flossie Jackson," babies wearing scalloped bonnets that frame their gumdrop faces like petals, two stern-faced women posed with their hideously mangy cat, church congregations and amateur talent shows — the McDonough-born Tuskegee-educated Weems apparently shot them all.

The utilitarian nature of this portraiture is mesmerizing because it says so much about the vision of oneself that the subject wants to convey. Sometimes the strived-for effect is achieved — as in the cheerful joie de vivre captured in the portrait of the dapper "Willie Chisolm" (1942). Wearing a stubby tie and a straw boater, he looks like the kind of fella who probably enjoyed playing practical jokes and kept a deck of cards with pictures of naked ladies in his desk drawer. Other images capture the awkward gestures — a solemn expression, a hand thrust into a pocket, a gripped handkerchief — of regular people in special-occasion clothes who are unaccustomed to being the center of attention. And still other portraits are simply sublime and unaccountably moving, such as the one of "Henrietta Cohn," which does not hide the telltale sign of her handicap.

Some of the most arresting elements in these portraits are the images they contain of another, very different age. For instance, ladies pose clutching shiny, patent leather pocketbooks or handkerchiefs, as if they just stepped off the bus. And many of Weems' subjects are captured in full-body shots that defy the modern portraiture convention of head-and-shoulders shots, as if a successful shot meant getting the shoes in.

Some portraits capture poignant imperfections like "Ruth Gannon" (1942) dressed in a frilly gown that has the sheen of cheap fabric and fits badly in places. Other images of women dressed-to-the-nines but with work-mangled hands and bulging ankles that hang over their dress shoes give an indication of the workaday reality behind the special-occasion smile. An inordinate number of the women and girls, no matter how advanced their age, pose in virginal white, and it's hard to miss the strived-for state of ethereal purity and the girl's-eye vision of romance (even when that "girl" is well into middle age). These signs of vulnerable, fragile humanity are what make Weems' photos uniquely intimate.

The images in Birth, Death give one the insatiable feeling of finishing a great book and wanting to know what happened next. The images speak of complicated life paths and inspire nagging questions. What about that cat, and why did they pose with it like a favored child? What became of the two impossibly gorgeous children performing a dance number in "Untitled/1942"? And just who was "Viola Brown," the saucy gal in a satin, leg-revealing dancer's costume with a copious bosom and friendly smile?

Weems may have captured his sitters' souls — if you believe photographs can do such a thing. Or he may have just allowed us to see the life experience worn in their solemn or aim-to-please expressions, in the cut of a dress or the cock of a hat. Some of these babies are now old women, many of these people are long gone. And that reality, of a great chasm of time that has passed between then and now, makes these photographs glow with an almost mystical dimension.

Ellie Weems: Birth, Death and Life In Between runs through July 31 at Barbara Archer Gallery, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 27. Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment. 404-815-1545.??

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