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Picture Man

Ron Hughes opens a photography gallery in Candler Park

The variations of video-store clerk personality are many: There's the rabbity, amped-up Quentin Tarantino-type, whose body is electrified with cinemania. There are the conspiratorial clerks who bond over a shared affection for Dirk Bogarde or Pasolini and a shared contempt for their "Top 10 Movie" patrons.

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Ron Hughes, who has worked behind the counter at Atlanta's indie-film emporium Movies Worth Seeing for six years, is of the "quiet and intense" school of video-store jockeydom. His silence is not an elitist shock at your ignorance of the oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovsky. Like an earnest grad student, Hughes' laid-back quality is the outward expression of a quiet man in wire-rim spectacles who loves NPR's Sarah Vowell and who writes poetry published "in literary magazines that nobody reads," he shrugs.

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When his day shift at Movies Worth Seeing ends, Hughes assumes his perch behind another desk. But this perch is different. After developing a longtime interest in photography, he's finally taken a leap: Hughes is the proud proprietor of Composition Gallery, a new photography gallery on McLendon Avenue in Candler Park. "It's a little like jumping out of an airplane," he says.

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Hughes laughs at the recollection of the supportive soul who told him that opening a gallery was "a very brave thing."

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"I hadn't been scared," Hughes chuckles.

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Hughes' cinematic taste tends toward documentary film and documentary moments in narrative films. A fan of 1970s Woody Allen and 1980s Wim Wenders flicks, Hughes gets as close to excitement as he's probably capable when he describes moments of exquisite realism in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu or in Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl.

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The same emotionally resonant content that Hughes favors in film makes his heart go pitter-patter about photography, specifically the work of art-photojournalists like Mary Ellen Mark and Richard Avedon, who've crafted portraits of oil field workers, drifters and truckers in In the American West.

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"I like pictures of people, the same way with movies I like documentaries and true narrative," Hughes says. "I like things I recognize myself in."

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In keeping with Hughes' interest in the real, Composition's inaugural exhibition, Caesura, is devoted to the complexity of expression and experience contained in the human face. The gallery's focus is on the portraiture and documentary work that Hughes so admires. This is exemplified by the smooth-skinned pierced and moody hippyish kids in Ray Hardy's color photographs; the troubling images of Somali immigrants adapting to a new life in blue-collar Massachusetts by Bryan Meltz; and in Polish-born Marta Dobrzeniecka's black-and-white images of the soulful, timeworn faces of elderly Polish peasants.

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These are "small stories as opposed to big stories," Hughes says.

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On a recent Tuesday night, the sounds of Leonard Cohen waft through the gallery and a trickle of curious neighbors (a middle-aged man and his dog, plus two teenage girls) wander in to appraise the work and the small selection of books and artsy postcards featuring film and literary giants such as Eudora Welty, Oscar Wilde, Nan Goldin, Joseph Cotten and Audrey Hepburn.

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Hughes offers items to buy at every price point, understanding the desire to incorporate something beautiful and important into people's lives. His work at Composition centers on regional and local artists, creating a more affordable alternative to high-end galleries like Buckhead's Jackson Fine Art, where Hughes says he has never missed a show.

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Never moving from his desk, Hughes offers each customer, young or old, the same low-key welcome. "There's information on the front table there. Thanks, man. Thanks for coming by."

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Hughes has dabbled in taking his own photos, but admits he doesn't have "it." Instead, he dedicates his time to selling something that matters and participating in a world of meaningful images and ideas. He says, "If you can pay the rent by having connection to something vital, that's important."



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