Mexico is a misunderstood land steeped in paradoxes. The depth of culture and richness of family and landscape is lost under a cloak of poverty and modern economic distress, breeding misunderstandings and stereotypes that are rarely questioned.
For several years during the mid-1990s, Debbie Fleming Caffery spent time photographing in a small village in northeastern Mexico, living on the grounds of the local Catholic church, and using a tortilla shack as her studio. In Mexico, the church is the center of village life, and she became accustomed to the flow of life surrounding it, replete with celebrations of religious feasts and the mysteries and secrets of community life.
One day she stumbled upon a cantina near the church that served occasionally as a brothel. The environment of the smoke-filled tortilla hut and the unpredictable happenings at the cantina became a central focus of her work. Of this period she has said, “I felt incredibly comfortable in a culture rich in celebrations of religious feasts, with strong, independent, highly emotional people, much like the people I grew up with in southwest Louisiana. Symbols of heaven and hell were dominant, both in the church environment as well as the cantina. The brothel brought new elements into my work: secrets, sensual needs, desire, and often unexpected love.”
The Spirit & The Flesh balances the themes of grace and redemption, sin and forgiveness that Caffery encountered in Mexico and that held her in their sway. Her black-and-white photographs are themselves rich in contrast and unabashedly sensuous, deftly documenting the turbulent emotional landscape. Her wholehearted visual acuity suffuses the work, and represents an engagement with both the subject matter as well as a range of human emotion rarely seen in contemporary work.
About the Artist
Debbie Fleming Caffery has been making photographs of the people and culture of her native Louisiana for over thirty years. Past projects include documentation of sugarcane field and mill workers, alligator hunting, and family portraits in Louisiana, as well as photographs of rural Mexico and Portugal. Caffery’s work has been included in solo exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Gitterman Gallery, New York.
She has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship (2005) for the work in this book; the first Lou Stoumen Prize (1996), and the Louisiana Governor’s Art Award (1990). Her work is included in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Caffery has published several highly praised books, including Polly, The Shadows, and Carry Me Home.
About the Writers
Carrie Springer is Senior Curatorial Assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is the critically acclaimed author of eleven books including Across the Wire, and By the Lake of Sleeping Children, both of which document life along the Mexican-American border. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois/Chicago.