Photos by Les Stone/Zuma PressIf in "Vivid VOODOO" at the Ocean Avenue Brewery,Les Stone is aiming for a beautiful melting-pot view of the world and its religions, if he's trying to show us our commonalities with all God's children, if he's attempting, as he says in the accompanying press release, to exhibit the positive and beautiful aspects of the Haitian religion and rectify the fact that after hundreds of years, it's still widely misunderstood around the world, then Stone fails catastrophically (which is apparently different from succeeding catastrophically) and should perhaps consider shooting people so they look a little less like zombies.
For instance? That ancient black lady's eyeballs aren't really white; her rheumy irises are merely reflecting light at the angle at which she's shot. But her eyeballs look white, and you know who has white eyeballs besides Michael Jackson in Thriller? That's right! The Undead!
Stone makes his living shooting for Life and National Geographic and Paris Match. His opening for "Vivid VOODOO" gathered together more than a hundred people, including FOX's Colin Finlay and the man who captured the Napalm Girl—marking the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War—Nick Ut. These are the world's superstar photojournalists, the kinds of guys who get movies starring James Woods made about their lives.
But "VOODOO" badly misses. Some—not all—of the shots are terrific. (Most are messily composed, trying to capture the swirl and energy of the crowds while also forcing a not-necessarily interesting element into the foreground.) The best of the photos are of bodies lying prone in the mud from which they'll slowly rise. Not only are these without the clutter in the background (the only background being a giant field of oily brown), but the bodies are sculptural, too, like bas-reliefs. But you know what else a mud-covered person looks like, eyes wide as he shrieks from a puddle? That's right! A zombie!
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The other best are a few shots of maidens in white; I'll give him a pass that their eyes look white, too, and focus instead on the ululating passion and the crisp white cotton against their gleaming dark skin. There is speaking in tongues and fainting like Howard Beale at the end of a rant, like a bunch of Four Square Baptists. And you have the ladies getting healed with chickens, also like a bunch of Four Square Baptists. It's chicken voodoo for the soul!
Every photo shows otherness. Every photo shows black people being . . . dark. A boy holds a baby goat; the very firm feeling is that something not good will be happening to the littlest billy goat gruff. The people in Stone's photos look primitive. They look tribal. They're making scary faces, like St. Teresa in communion with the lord. For god's sake, they're covered in mud! I believe Stone when he talks about the beauty of the ceremony, but he doesn't manage to convey it. Should he just show serene, smiling people, like a Jamaica tourism ad? No, but if he's aiming for togetherness, he could do better than snapping frames that would vigorously reinforce the worst stereotypes of the ugliest bigots.
In the press release, Stone declares, "Visually, the Voodoo ceremony is incredibly exciting to witness and photograph. It's very positive and beautiful and no more superstitious than many of the practices of the Catholic church, of which Haitian voodoo in particular is tied very closely." If a photographer shot the Catholic Mass through a red lens, right up the nostrils of a monsignor snarling like Zell Miller and the devil, and then said he was showing the beauty of the Catholic faith, you might disagree. I believe there was beauty everywhere during Stone's many journeys to Haiti (I'm pretty P.C. like that). I wish he'd found some of it.
"VIVID VOODOO" AT OCEAN AVENUE BREWERY, 237 OCEAN AVE., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-3381. THROUGH MARCH 31.