When you head to photographer Meg Jette’s exhibit, Water Is Life, at Santa Barbara Art Studios, be prepared to find beauty and intimacy where you would least expect it. The gallery itself is located on the industrial East Side, occupying the corner space of the same cinder block building as a muffler shop. Outside, oil-spotted concrete gives way to a welcoming, plant-encircled patio. When you walk in the gallery door, you find yourself in a cozy space filled with bright light, clean lines, and jarringly beautiful photographs.
Jette’s exhibition consists of 12 images of Africa’s Tuareg and Wodaabe people. Mesmerizing scenes with the Niger desert as their backdrop are composed with artistry, and close-up portraits capture vivid color and texture in the faces of their subjects. In these works, Jette defines the expression “beauty in simplicity.”
Jette’s talent is exceptional. Her portraits are studies of texture and light. Using the elements the desert gives her-sun-baked clay, windswept dunes, endless plays of light-she shows a remarkable ease with her palette, and she deepens the textural experience by printing the images on hand-stretched canvases ranging in size from 18″ x 28″ to 36″ x 54″. In “Buhari,” she frames the perfect contrast between black night, white flames, and orange firelight cast on her subject’s face. In “Desert Newlyweds,” she presents the stark symmetry and color of her figures against a vast, impressionistic landscape.
These are arresting compositions, but richness and story also rise out of Jette’s observation. “In my experiences traveling through Africa,” she wrote next to one portrait, “I become attached to the people I meet.” Jette’s relationship with her subjects is unmistakable. The expressions she captures are intimate and open. Even in the photographs taken from a distance, this openness draws the viewer into the subject’s life, turning simple things-the color and weight of fabric, the texture of sand, the coolness of shadow-into rich human experiences.
One might not expect to find such intimacy in vastness. That Jette achieves a balance of technical excellence, journalistic record, relationship, and aesthetic while snapping photos of a culture a world away from her own is a measure of the artist’s eloquence.