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Tropical Brigadoon: A Photographic Mystery Tour

A photography exhibition currently on view at Bloomington's Monroe Bank Art Gallery offers black-and-white prints of the variety one used to see in National Geographic. The pictures depict a coastal society, where people are engaged in fishing, weaving palm fronds, and frying plantains. Unlike the photos in National Geographic, though, these tropical scenes don't have explanatory captions.

Lost Now Found, A Mystery Photographic Exhibition tweaks the usual photojournalistic equation.

There Is No There There

Normally, when we're looking at documentary-style pictures, we make a leap of faith. Maybe not consciously, but at some point, automatically, most of us make the assumption that these pictures refer to some place out there.

But Lost Now Found's co-curator admits that he's not exactly sure where that place is.

"If you know that, you win the grand prize," jokes Dave Derkacy. The part about the prize, though, was no joke. At the opening reception for the show, visitors could guess the identity of the photos' locale to win a prize.

At the moment their reference point becomes hazy, these photos become illustrations of a fabled, ethereal land. As if the agrarian seaside village they reveal, with its ox-drawn carts, cabañas on stilts and grinning kids holding fish and turtles, is some tropical Brigadoon.

Lost Then Found Then Lost And Found Again

A photographer and documentary filmmaker, Derkacy is also a longtime photo instructor at Indiana University. In 1991, the AV lab in Mitchell Hall, where he was teaching, was slated for demolition.

In clearing the place out, Derkacy found a set of negative strips containing about 500 shots. He took the negatives home and stashed them for almost twenty years.

Nothing would have come of the find if Derkacy hadn't mentioned them in a class he was teaching in 2010. Hoping to get in some darkroom time, Sarah McAleer jumped at the opportunity to develop the negatives her instructor had always hoped to do something with.

McAleer took the negatives home, placed them on a lightbox and studied them with a loop. "Within minutes," she recalls, "I was blown away."

Encountering the beautifully composed images of a coastal community where people seemed to exist in harmony with one another and with nature captivated McAleer. And the narratives they started were compelling. "These photos just really made me want more," she says.

Religious Visions

A man proudly displays a 40-pound crocodile by the tail while keeping his horse reined in with the other hand. An ox-cart pulls a mobile radio station along a rural road. And Mother Theresa processes down the aisle of a massive church.

The Mother Theresa?

Indeed, as if her curiosity weren't already piqued, McAleer soon discovered on a strip of found negatives of an unidentified place by an anonymous photographer-six shots of one of the 20th century's most iconic figures. In her trademark headscarf and cardigan sweater.

It was an important piece of information in the identification process. In trying to piece together the clues afforded by the photos-the area's topography, ethnicities, native plants and animals, signs of commerce, language, and livelihoodDerkacy and McAleer suddenly came to a simple, but significant realization.

Maybe it's not just one village.

It's an important consideration that manages to shift our intrigue from the identity of this tropical Brigadoon to that of the photographer-or photographers.

Just Whose Pictures Are These, Anyway?

"It's an extremely intimate portrait of this place," Derkacy speculates, "so we suspect that the photographer either lived there or knew people there or were from around there."

One of IU's many international students, taking a photography course, may have taken the photos on a trip back home, with a few stops along the way, ultimately returning to IU to process the film and abandoning the negatives in the AV lab in Mitchell Hall.

Because of the pictures' ambition, in combination with their sense of familiarity with the subject, Derkacy and McAleer conjecture that the photos were produced to fulfill an assignment for a photojournalism course, perhaps. The curators also believe they've narrowed down the identity of the photographer to one of two different people who recur throughout the negatives.

"I was hoping when we put these up," McAleer confided, "that someone would say, ‘Oh I know her!'"

A Sympathetic View, Artfully Expressed

It was one of McAleer's goals in mounting the exhibition to recognize the vision of the anonymous photographer who managed to produce a sympathetic portrait of a non-Western, largely pre-industrial place through a series of monumental images-take for example, the perfectly balanced picture of two boys and a man in a skiff on the sea, facing the viewer, silhouetted against a big sky.

Of course, some postmodern critics might argue that aestheticising the non-Western is a standard imperialistic strategy. Which is why it seems critical to note the photographer's intimate relationship with his or her subject.

And, incidentally, that any proceeds from the sale of prints Sarah and Dave are making available from the found negatives, will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club.

More information about the exhibition's curators, and a gallery of photos, is available here.

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