Angel with an Edge: Debbie Fleming Caffer

by April Rapier

After years of honing her art, Debbie Fleming Caffery's photography took off like a storm across the desert, tweaking the vision of everyone in her path. Her popularity is easy to understand; she is a dark-hearted Puck trapped in seraph's flesh— narrator, diviner, interpreter (but never judge), visionary. She is mystical in the same way Arbus was, believing in things others can't see or won't acknowl­edge or are too embarrassed or intimidat­ed by to try and understand. A graciouslyaccommodating loner, she seems to thrive in both emotional and physical isolation, occasionally venturing out to source stim­ulation and feed inspiration. Staying put until jettisoned by an unquenchable need to see firsthand provides her with the solitude, energy and focus necessary to observe and participate in the uncomfort­able realm of unknown and indecipher­able. Such comfortable between home, hell and all things in between feeds her clarity as well as dispassionate and instant­ly connected observing and filtering skills, allowing her to process the visual world she seeks as respite and sustenance, then to offer it back embraced, enhanced and intensified ten-fold.

At first glance, she appears to perceive a physical realm beyond her subjects. It is almost as though she enters their psy­ches and merges with their souls, work­ing inside the physical boundaries of the images she conjures, becoming and know­ing the players for the time it takes to represent them honestly and fully. What some might call the dark side could be defined as integrity or at least peace of mind, even when meandering off-base in sentimental territory. Thus is the workcompletely devoid of the terminally dull psychosubliminal miscue of self-conscious­ness. Seeing from the inside out places a lot of responsibility on the viewer, but we seem to be ready enough and certainly prepared, having been fed appropriate responses throughout a fairly dull decade of image-making.

She often assigns herself to extraordi­nary subject matter and delivers it to neu­tral ground, doing it divine justice. But the ordinary is her true calling, and it is transformed because she chooses to honor it with a keen eye and hypnotic concen­tration, admiring it for what it is, never attempting to cast it in a false but more dramatic light. She neither sensationalizes nor trivializes. Yet in the same breath she and her subjects form a covenant, an in­stantaneous mutual understanding of allthe hopes and dreams and desires ever thought or whispered, and they spill dis­tilled into the heart of a single picture, awish in time.

Dark and blurry and shadowy and am­biguous, her technique leads the viewer to believe that the moment is far moreimportant than the medium. Darkness obscures the obvious, and softness takes on sharpedges. She uses it to great advan­tage, printing big, bold and contrasty. Back­grounds are generally neutral, banal, yet subtly suggestive and referential, highly effective sleight-of-hand. Similarly, dark­ness and shadow define, adjust, and color perception, emotion and initial response. The embodiment of all she brings to a situation, both physically and spiritually, lives within the pictures in a thousand dif­ferent ways and interpretations. Raised up solidly Catholic in the heart of Louisiana (where physical distance is incalculable and irrelevant), she nods and winks at the ethereal plane where sacred and profane cohabit, references sublimated to objectiv­ity. An example of this is a dark-skinned man holding a white goose, wings unfold­ed to make an angel of them both. Both heads are bowed and eyes lowered, as if to acknowledge impending doom. Searching the image for clues, the hazy, nondescript background transforms itself into a cruci­fix shape. The man is hot, his hair wet against his forehead, touchingly erotic but meaningless to context. A small slip of white tee-shirt appears at his neck where the top of the bird's wing rests, grounding the viewer, pitting improbable against highly likely, and removing all traces of artifice.

A kindred image shows a young girl from behind, her smile radiant and barely visible. She is dancing with a powerful, more or less obsolete symbol of respect and submission (since Vatican II, removed from the whitewashed and demystified services that modern churches offer), the once ubiquitous head covering mantilla as icon and artifact. As she shakes fromits intricate lace the ghosts that gather around religion and ritual, the gesture speaks to the joy, spontaneity and fresh­ness of youthful devotion. Behind her, white clouds boil toward a dark patch of sky, another endless horizon withholding information as it beckons. A similar devo­tional conflict permeates the image of a little girl being held by her mother, who watches her with overwhelming tender­ness and hopefulness. The girl is in cos­tume, light bouncing off shiny white satin and tin foil crucifix tiara and wings. She struggles against the sleep that will over­take her rapt determination to observe,participate, remember. One can clearly see the magic through her eyes, and the damage being done.

Fire figures prominently in Caffery's pictures, sourceless, unquenchable, self- sustaining, seemingly harmless — a ges­ture or grace note rather than a threat. It is used, for example, in an effort to ex­plain loss, demonstrated in a Dia de los Muertos image of a woman kneeling beside a grave, a candle holding its own against the overbearing darkness. Her need to be understood, her sorrow experi­enced, is palpable (an emotion seen just as clearly in the portrait of a forlorn womanthrusting a star-patterned balloon at the camera, an absurdist offering to ward off what she cannot understand about herlife). That she is wearing a mask and rest­ing a hand palm up on the soil separating her from the essence and inevitability of death is both unfathomable and perfectly logical. Both fire and darkness are por­trayed as comforting, like the wind or a cooling spray off the ocean, but this is to be expected. Caffery's fearlessness is her ticket in, her fight-or-flight instincts oper­ating in reverse. Satan in the flesh couldn't scare this home-girl — one sideways glance would send him fleeing with forked tail tucked. Perhaps the invitation to par­ticipate at the insider level is all that mat­ters, the afterimage (whether in memory or the print itself) a mere map to the next off-limits destination. The experience is far more important than the proof or the trophy, which is why, more often than not, she is witness to that which should be utterly private, off limits. As for the photographic evidence, she is neither acknowledged by nor visible to those she moves alongside.

Caffery observes the mundane and then flash-freezes it, eliciting the same shame a voyeur might experience during an evening stroll when something inside the safe comfort and supposed privacy of a house along the way is framed by an undrawn curtain, catching you up and stopping you cold. Those who populate the everyday are caught mid-act, like dio­ramas in a Pompeii museum, and so the most normal acts are elevated to absurdist levels, performed with feverish intensity, never to be performed again. In one such picture, a young boy bends down from the waist in an utterly male gesture, observing his tricycle for signs of — well — any­thing that might need his attention, while a torso (female, arms folded mom-like) stands planted, watching from the side­lines. A car frames the right side of the image, door wide open, an inviting por­tent of the next likely chapter to occupy his energy and obsession. Caffery is bearing witness to an important ritual, one equal in developmental magnitude to those formalized by religion or institution — a universal moment of history and truth. Despite the power of the moment and the temptation to intervene or edito­rialize, she allows both sides of the story to fend for themselves. Because she is able to stop a moment cold, the viewer is granted the power of breathing life back in, imagination determining outcome.

Whether immersed in Halloween cos­tumes, ancient religious ceremonies or adolescent and romantic rites of passage, her translations and transformations take at least one turn through terror before landing or concluding. One can imagine her bedtime stories having scared the sweet bejesus out of her kids, inherent sweetness the antidote to their fear. She is so good at throwing the viewer off bal­ance only because she sees to it that there is safe and common ground on which to land. She creates from a positive, pro­ductive and powerful position, but un­derstands intuitively to embrace the requisite obstacles that lead her there. Caffery is the great equalizer, acknowl­edging horror in beauty, panic in calm, poverty and need in abundance, evil in good, guilt in grace, anger and pain in peacefulness, and all the aforementioned in glaring, contradictory and glorious mirror image. •

April Rapier is an artist and writer living in Houston.