New Orleans Museum of Art to Present First Major Retrospective of Photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery
Debbie Fleming Caffery: In Light of Everything Features Black-and-White Prints Spanning More Than Five Decades of Caffery’s Work
NEW ORLEANS – Next month, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) opens the first major retrospective of photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery, with black-and-white prints ranging from the 1970s to the present. Debbie Fleming Caffery: In Light of Everything is the first exhibition to include examples representative of her entire body of work, including photographs taken throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, Mexico, and France over six decades. The exhibition includes Caffery’s renowned documentary images of people working in Louisiana’s sugar cane fields, as well as her most recent project creating exquisitely humanized portraits of birds around the world, some of which live in rescue and rehabilitation centers. Caffery is recognized as one of the foremost contemporary photographers from the American South, with a career that both grows from and stretches beyond her work in her native Louisiana. In Light of Everything will be on view at NOMA from October 6 through March 3, 2024.
In Caffery’s own words, the exhibition is “about that moment, in taking a photograph, when everything works…eyes, guts, heart, life experiences, [and] years of paying attention.” In Light of Everything will be installed in multiple galleries throughout the museum, including in the Great Hall where visitors will encounter large, haunting photographs of birds that are best described as avian portraiture. In the A. Charlotte Mann and Joshua Mann Pailet Gallery and Templeman Galleries visitors will see important works from Caffery’s career making photographs in various locales that draw on themes of faith, the dignity of labor, and the environment, among other subjects. The works from these series are presented together in this exhibition for the first time.
“The work of Debbie Fleming Caffery is deeply rooted in her native Louisiana, and at the same time captures human experiences and perceptions that literally and metaphorically transcend geographic boundaries,” said Susan Taylor, The Montine McDaniel Freeman Director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. “Central to NOMA’s mission is organizing and presenting exhibitions that reflect a unique sense of place while sharing ideas and insights that are universally relevant.”
“Debbie Fleming Caffery’s practice engages with a number of traditions in the history of photography—from the legacy of Dorothea Lange and her work for the WPA and FSA, to both landscape and surrealist photography,” said Brian Piper, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, Prints, and Drawings at the New Orleans Museum of Art. “Throughout her career, Caffery has built on that documentary sensibility by building relationships with the people she photographs, resulting in cohesive series with real emotional weight.”
Caffery’s extensive work in the South resonates far beyond its place of origin, with pictures that function as meditations on different aspects of her subject’s lives framed in a way that is at once familiar and eye-opening. Caffery’s work emphasizes the deep emotional relationship between people and place, while raising questions about social and economic structures. In Light of Everything demonstrates how Caffery’s work introduces us to light in the darkness: shared human experiences captured in emotive images that hover between tranquility and unrest.
Debbie Fleming Caffery was born in Louisiana in 1948. Her work ranges from her early photographs of the cyclic seasons of the sugarcane fields, to the devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to life in Mexico with juxtaposed images of religious rituals and daily life in a cantina that also served as an active brothel. Caffery’s work is included in many collections, including the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and other institutions. She has been awarded many grants and fellowships—most notably a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations, George Soros Foundation—and in 2015, she received a commission from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta for their Picturing the South photography initiative. Her work has been the subject of five monographs to date: Carry Me Home (Smithsonian, 1990), The Shadows (Twin Palms Press, 2002), Polly (Twin Palms Press, 2004), The Spirit & The Flesh (Radius Books, 2009), and Alphabet (Fall Line Press, 2015).
An accompanying publication will be released in November by Radius Books featuring 100 plates, an introduction from Brian Piper, and an essay by former NOMA curator Russell Lord.
About NOMA’s Department of Photography
Since 1918, the New Orleans Museum of Art has regularly presented photography exhibitions as part of the overall museum program, making it one of the longest running photography programs in the country. In 1973, the museum began to formally build a permanent collection and today the Department of Photographs cares for and interprets a collection of over 16,000 works, ranging from the 1840s to the present and including examples made on all seven continents. NOMA’s collection is considered to be one of the finest art photography collections in the country with major collections of work by artists such as Ilse Bing, André Kertész, Ishimoto Yasuhiro, and many more. Particularly notable objects in the collection include a rare miniature album of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs, early platinum prints by Imogen Cunningham, and a collection of 19th century portraits of Black Americans that were a gift of Stanley B. Burns, MD in the 1980s. The collection’s greatest strengths overall include twentieth-century photographs by American and European photographers. Recent acquisitions have broadened the collection to include vernacular images, nineteenth-century and contemporary works, and work from other regions of the world or from diverse cultural perspectives within the United States. The museum presents a global story about photography, while also exploring New Orleans’ contributions to, and roles in, the history of the medium.
About NOMA and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden
The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and its Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden are home to innovative exhibitions, installations, educational programs, and research. Exploring human creativity across time, cultures, and disciplines, the global scope of the museum’s initiatives open a vibrant dialogue with the history and culture of New Orleans. The museum stewards a collection of nearly 50,000 works, with exceptional holdings in African art, photography, decorative arts, and Japanese art, as well as strengths in American and French art, and an expanding collection highlighting contemporary artists. The museum’s exhibitions and dynamic learning and engagement offerings serve as a forum for visitors to engage with diverse perspectives, share cultural experiences, and foster a life of learning at all ages. Recent exhibitions include Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club, Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers, The Orléans Collection (an exhibition of forty European masterpieces from the collection of the city’s namesake, Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans), East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth Century America Landscape Photography, Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories (seven contemporary art projects focusing on reimagining stories from the city’s past), and Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art.
NOMA’s 12-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden expands visitors’ experiences of the museum with one of the most notable sculpture gardens in the country. The Besthoff Sculpture Garden, free and open to the public seven days a week, has nearly 100 sculptures and outdoor works of art situated in a unique landscape featuring Spanish moss-laden live oaks and a sinuous lagoon surrounded by an expansive ecosystem of native plants. The works in the garden range from the 19th to the 21st centuries, with pieces by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois, Ida Kohlmeyer, Claes Oldenburg, Sean Scully, Maya Lin, Do Ho Suh, Ugo Rondinone, Wangechi Mutu, Hank Willis Thomas, and many others. The Besthoff Sculpture Garden features contemporary design elements—including a sculpture pavilion, an amphitheater, and an architecturally significant canal link bridge connecting the garden’s original 2003 footprint with a 2019 expansion. Its water management practices support the health and resiliency of New Orleans City Park and the surrounding environment. Throughout the year, NOMA hosts outdoor programs in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden including festivals, performances, wellness classes, tours, and more.
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