For an Otherworldly Experience, Just Head to the HCP

Today, any Joe Schmoe with a decent camera and ability to download Photoshop can manipulate photographs to some eye-catching results. Still, having the right tools doesn't necessarily mean the skill or creativity is there (for an example, see Exhibit A). It's the difference between a photo that catches your attention for a few seconds and one that you, well, hang on a wall.

The photos in "Magical Realism in Photography," which opened last night at the Houston Center for Photography, are of the latter persuasion. It's admittedly a small show taking on a big topic -- and doesn't pretend to be anything more than that, either -- but one that's completely manageable and not overwhelming, which most group shows can easily become.

The seven photographers all employ different techniques and styles that make them stand out from each other, with some manipulating their photographs and others not, but all result in vivid, surreal, engaging imagery. They're the types of works where left is right and up is down.

Setting the scene is Maggie Taylor's "Cloud Sisters," a surreal portrait of two young girls, posing nonchalantly as if it's any studio portrait -- except in this one they're surrounded by clouds. White puffy clouds that cover their faces and bodies as if erasing them. There's this similar feel of normalcy in the most abnormal of circumstances in most of Taylor's photographs, from the floating trees in "Three Trees, Two Rabbits" to the raining umbrella in "Small Storm."

Similarly, Joel Lederer's "Circular Rainbow" is just that -- a rainbow in the sky that, instead of simply arching from one pot of gold to the other, goes in an eternal circle. There's such a casual realness to it, though, that you almost expect that somewhere, rainbows do this. Other lingering works included Sharon Harper's disorienting moon studies and Beth Moon's photographs of strange, otherworldly nature formations.

On the larger scale, Jean-François Rauzier has some standouts. There was a constant crowd around "Versailles," his hypnotic representation of the French palace that stretches out towards the horizon for one giant, endless maison. There's so much to see, one kid helped himself to a magnifying glass to better take it all in. It wasn't a bad idea. Rauzier's other inclusion -- "Coquelicots" -- had a similarly engulfing feel. His subject -- wild corn poppies -- is inherently photogenic enough, thanks to the visual of the repeated, popping red, but not anyone can capture the sense of mystery, isolation and vastness that he does.

Meghan Boody's series, "The Lighthouse Project," brings some requisite creepiness to the selections. Her staged photographs of schoolgirls are unsettling, with ghosts in doorways, unnatural stances and missing reflections. Things are just off. Even the frames are just strange, thanks to an eyeball staring back at you at the top of each one.

The mood doesn't stop at just the paintings. Scattered throughout the exhibition are images of white clouds against a pale blue sky -- it's like walking through a Magritte painting -- as well as quotes by Magical Realism writers including Leonora Carrington and Gabriel García Márquez written on the walls. There's even a serene spot to sit and read their books among the paintings, complete with flowers and a rug that looks like grass for an indoor garden. And though it would have been impossible to hear during the bustling opening night, there's also audio -- the sound of birds and crickets -- accompanying you as you stroll through the space.

These thoughtful touches are courtesy of curator Libbie J. Masterson.

"I'm an artist. A lot of the work I do involves installation and stage design," said Masterson. "I wanted a full sensory experience."

In addition, Masterson picked works that would create a certain atmosphere.

"All lend to an ethereal, otherworldly experience," she said.

Suffice it to say, mission accomplished.

"Magical Realism in Photography" at the Houston Center for Photography, 1441 West Alabama, now through January 14. For information, call 713-529-4755 or visit www.hcponline.org.

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