Rejecting journalistic photography while investigating the uncharted neighborhood of the unconscious, three artists turn reality-based images into weird worlds full of symbols and suggestion at Mackey Gallery this month. Although the exhibit's photographs are in black-and-white, they all display dark-hued psychological effects.

Phoenix artist Linda Ingraham starts with grainy photographs of very simple objects: teacups, clouds, nudes. Boxy, beautiful handmade frames transform these two-dimensional works, making them more like sculptures. The frames, constructed from either mahogany and ebony-toned wood or hammered lead, echo and amplify the moods and subject matter of the photographs; some are shaped like houses, while others are arched, like cases for religious icons. All have a ghostly air about them, as if they were tiny coffins rather than picture frames.

Ingraham's spare but well-packed compositions fill these sculptural containers with poetic visions. One triptych, "Hope Has Feathered Wings," presents three arched cases with arch-cut photographs inside and Plexiglas covers neatly nailed in place. The central photo shows a taxidermist's specimen of folded bird wings, with moody views of turbulent skies on either side. Gorgeous and sentimental at first glance, this balanced work grows melancholy and emotive with time, the severed wings more symbolic of loss than liberation.

The universality of Ingraham's subjects speaks in a primal language. In "Metamorphosis," one half of a hinged box holds a photo of a nude in a tightly held fetal position; in the other is a butterfly with wings unfurled. Ingraham raises this often-repeated theme above the ordinary through the preciousness of its small, elegant presentation. Her three-part series, "Confined/Restricted/Constricted," traps curled-up nudes in cramped poses that reflect the titles; the feeling of pressure is enhanced by lead sheeting that enshrouds the photographs.

Like Ingraham, Kit Hedman encases his grouping of altered photographic prints in handsome, glass-fronted shadow boxes. But here the meticulous frames function mainly as sleek counterpoints to the rough-edged constructions inside. In order to produce each piece, Hedman puts several images from completely separate shoots through two different enlargers, a technique that slightly skews proportions. He then slashes at his prints or drips paint or chemicals on the surfaces, giving the completed works an aged, destroyed look.

The visionary sights within these realistic illusions provoke unsettling emotions. "Keep Your Angels" features a beautiful nude rising out of a spark-spewing cauldron of molten steel. "Who Steers?" meditates on the illusion of an Indian shaman kneeling in a cave while dream horses canter by. And "Marriage," the title shot of the series, shows a young girl in a cheap bridal outfit, seated for her wedding portrait in an ancient building that appears to be crumbling away at her feet.

Opting for intellectual engagement over raw emotion, Allen Birnbach poses the female models for his untitled nude photographs against such a strong backlight that all the details of their bodies are erased, leaving thin, gray, wraithlike impressions of figures that are near-abstract portrayals. The dance postures and gestures captured in the photos communicate volumes about the grace and energy of the female form. But the overall impression of these works metaphorically reduces females to ciphers, mysterious shadows without substance.

Photography by Linda Ingraham, Kit Hedman and Allen Birnbach, through October 29 at Mackey Gallery, 2914 West 25th Avenue, 455-1157.


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