James Luckett captures ‘The View Behind the Café’ at Dutoit Gallery

Photo: ‘Tuesday, March 8, 12:13pm, 68 Degrees’ by James Luckett

By Morgan Laurens

There must be a word, in German, maybe, or Japanese, that conveys what it feels like to wind up in the same dream twice. I’m not talking about the prickly French fingers of déjà vu, or the goose-pimple chill you get when a person walks over your future grave; this is more like dropping into a familiar room from a portal on the ceiling or entering through an invisible door. Call it a shift in perspective or a momentary loss of equilibrium.

Whatever the word is, photographer James Luckett is probably intimately acquainted with it. His “The View Behind the Café” series, on display at the Dutoit Gallery through June, has a disorienting familiarity to it, the result of repetitive micro shifts in perspective. There’s something not quite real about any of it—as if after looking over 20 of his photographs, you might wake, your head on a pile of books at your desk, and find yourself alone in a darkening room.

What he’s shooting day in and day out is faithful, literally, to the title of his show. Luckett works as a cook in a small café tucked into the corner of a Xenia bookstore, and much of his work revolves around photographing what’s inside the café—edible creations that are as enticing as his work from behind the café is disorienting.

Over eggs one morning at a nearby breakfast spot, Luckett describes to me a hollow space behind the café, created by the surrounding buildings.

“It’s a city parking lot,” he says, taking a break from his eggs and pushing up the sleeves of his oversized gray sweater. “There are more stores across from the café, houses on one side, and an open space on the fourth side. You see the unattractive side, the part people don’t dress up.”

It’s in this hollow city space, common in even moderately populated areas, that Luckett finds objects to memorialize: a dead bird pressed into the oily pavement by a foot or a tire; a leather glove, hardened by alternating spells of sun and rain; someone’s plastic Barbie doll, crushed beyond recognition. These are mundane moments, the kind of small, insignificant events that most people would pass by without a second glance. Some of it (the dead bird comes to mind) looks like the sort of thing that would attract a goth high schooler who managed to get their mitts on an SLR camera.

Seeing one photograph out of a collection that numbers in the hundreds is something Luckett never intended, though. His show shares Dutoit with another artist, and space for hanging would be limited even if he had full run of the gallery. To get around the problem, Luckett created a 12-by-12 inch book that houses every photograph from the “Behind the Café” series for visitors to flip through.

“Some of the power is just in the number of photographs,” he says, pointing out that the familiar feeling his work instills only becomes apparent when breadth and scope is taken into consideration—only then does the microcosm of the parking lot come rushing into view. “It’s not until you take a photograph that there’s an allegory or a metaphor. It’s only interesting when you have the camera, when it’s intentional.”

Seeing the entire “Behind the Café” series all at once—approximately 200 photographs—is not only impressive, it’s eerily similar to accessing someone’s Instagram, minus the platform’s bells and whistles. Sorry, there’s no heart button beneath framed photos in the gallery. Not yet, anyway.

Like many artists, Luckett is an advocate of Instagram, believing it has changed the art world largely for the better. He even logs every photo with a social media-friendly title: “Thursday, May 5, 8:03 am, 41 degrees,” reads one; “Saturday, April 16, 7:39 am, 49 degrees,” reads another; “Monday, October 24, 2:34 pm, 60 degrees,” and so on.

Such diligent logging, worthy of an Instagram superstar (or a ship’s captain), helps viewers navigate a digital landscape where time is flattened by the immediacy of information.

“Instagram has changed the way that time adds value to photographs,” Luckett says. “You get photos back, and you might hate them because you look bad, but you look back one day and you remember them fondly.”

“Instagram is for right now,” he adds. “People get bits and pieces of things in real time now. You can’t control how people are going to experience your work.”

As for Luckett’s “Behind the Café” series, viewers will still get a sense of the changing seasons—a blossoming bush signals spring, bare branches, winter—but seeing those changes all at once, so carefully dated, is like going into a time tailspin: What month is it really? What temperature?

“It’s a Flat World After All,” reads the headline of a 2005 New York Times article. The author was referring to the spread of information in the digital age, but he might as well have been writing about James Luckett’s photographs. Like time in the digital world—or in a dream—Luckett’s photographs will get you lost in a slightly familiar place. Let’s hope he threw in a road map for us somewhere.

‘The View Behind the Café’ is on display June 2-30 at the Dutoit Gallery, 234 S. Dutoit St. in Dayton. The opening reception is Friday, June 2 from 6-9 p.m. and admission is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit Consumptive.org or


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Reach DCP freelance writer Morgan Laurens at MorganLaurens@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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