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Ben Tecumseh DeSoto's Long, Strange, Beautiful Career

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Redbud Gallery is a hopelessly small venue to conduct a retrospective of Ben Tecumseh DeSoto, the longtime Houston photographer whose work has run on the pages of the Houston Chronicle and the walls of the Menil and CAMH. And yet, in its latest show, "ZENtrospective," the space manages to bring together an astonishing range of subject matter and style by the prolific photographer.

It begins with a beautifully composed shot of birds from his "Dreams of Flight," series, moves to scenes of homelessness and drug abuse, leaps to extreme close-ups of cicadas in the act of molting, and returns to birds -- photograms of ducks and baby birds -- over the course of 36 photographs. These leaps can be distractingly scattershot -- not all series are grouped together, and it's not laid out chronologically, as you might expect. But that's a career spanning 25 years for you -- especially one that refuses to take pretty photographs all the time (though there are exceptions).

Case in point -- a selection from his "Understanding Poverty" project. "Barry Lives At Monroe And I-45" (2008) is a portrait of a homeless man with the most striking blue eyes. He takes up half the frame, hunched over like his own mountain, clutching the day's Chronicle while the lights of the street are blurred behind him.

A trio of shots from DeSoto's "Painfully Real" series are especially hard to look at. Shot 20 years before DeSoto found Barry, they're groupings of images from newspaper assignments that were never published, the photographer notes, due to their "provocative nature." The names of two of these four-part reels of film tell you why -- "Smoking Crack" and "Shooting Drugs." Exploitive? Maybe a little. But the images were taken in the intimacy of someone's home, with some of the users demonstrating close up for the camera. These were subjects who wanted to have their pictures taken and have their lives documented, and DeSoto was willing to do that.

Among all this, you'll also find beautiful images of brave little birds ("Birds Endure Winter Rain") and "edgy portraits" of a Ms. Yet -- one focuses on her extravagant back tattoos, the other the pearls around her neck and in the rings piercing her nipples. It's a strange little show for sure, full of images that are at times shocking, other times stunning. But it's always honest.

"Ben Tecumseh DeSoto: ZENtrospective" at Redbud Gallery, 303 East 11th Street, runs now through September 30. For more information, call 713- 862- 2532 or visit www.redbudgallery.com.

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