THE PHOTOGRAPHY of Debbie Fleming Caffery, on view at the National Museum of American History, is carelessly described as "Faulknerian." That's unfair to both a great old writer and a promising young photographer.

While the work of both artists is brooding and suggestive, they're as different as day and night. Faulkner used his mastery of light and shadow to limn the land and people of the Mississippi back country. Caffery uses shadow relieved only by darkness in her efforts to evoke the people and land of the Louisiana sugarcane country.

Fiction and photography are equally excellent tools for regional portraiture, but the difference between Faulkner and Caffery is that when you get to Faulkner Country, you recognize it. Although Caffery was born, raised and still lives in the southern Louisiana cane country, her photographs could be from anywhere in the South or Midwest where poor, proud people labor on the land.

Caffery neither documents the region -- which is so vivid and distinctive that anyone who has ever spent any time there can ever forget it -- nor creates a convincing personal vision of it. As shown in these 40 photographs, her images have always been dark and are growing darker. But her shadows are not so much a contrast with light as an absence of it; less mysterious than murky. The people she shows us lack particularity and seem manipulated, even when the subjects are old friends or her own children.

What Caffery's pictures mainly suggest is that there's considerable power within her, and that she's talented, bold and uncompromising enough to find it, someday.

CARRY ME HOME: Photographs by Debbie Fleming Caffery -- Through Dec. 31 at the National Museum of American History, 14th and Constitution NW. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: Federal Triangle.