Two photographers' works share vision in 'Continuum' exhibit
The exhibit “Continuum” at Silver Eye Center for Photography features two bodies of work — Doug DuBois' “My Last Day at Seventeen” and “Aaron Blum's Born and Raised” — that are somewhat similar, at least upon first perusal, and it's not coincidental.
DuBois, an internationally renowned photographer and associate professor at Syracuse University, was Blum's instructor while Blum was a graduate student.
“The idea of bringing together the two bodies of work was really born from the idea of bringing Doug and I back together to speak about our relationship as student and mentor,” says Blum, who now is an adjunct photography instructor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and West Virginia University. “Doug was one of my professors at Syracuse University, and he had a significant role in my growth as an artist/photographer. That idea, in a nutshell, is what the exhibition is about.”
Blum says the exhibit also comments on the similarities and differences between the techniques they employ. “We essentially both shoot with the same cameras, and we share similar opinions of what makes a good image, aesthetically and conceptually.
“Being taught by Doug, in a way, gives me an insight in how to be ‘Doug-esque' when I need to be,” Blum says. “My work has that unsettling edge and a visual beauty that his does, or at least I hope it does. I feel like a lot of the artistic decisions I make are not conscious decisions but just reactions, and that comes from the way I was taught/mentored. From that instruction, I understand that is just the way photography is supposed to be; there is no alternative. Because of that mentality, our work will always be connected in some way.”
This is the first time that “My Last Day at Seventeen” has been exhibited outside of Ireland. The body of work was made over the past four summers in which DuBois traveled to Ireland to photograph kids coming of age in a housing estate in Cobh, County Cork, on the southwest coast.
“I was there in 2009,” DuBois says. “2009 was the beginning of a sharp economic downturn.”
Of the 15 works on display, a real standout is “Lenny,” which is the first image DuBois shot of the series. Shortly after meeting a group of teens, he was introduced to Lenny by Kevin and Eirn, two kids from a group interested in photography that he met with twice a week during an artists residency in Cobh.
“They took me to ‘The Steps,' which at that time was a popular drinking spot for kids, and that's where (I got) the idea to photograph these kids.
“His only option is to get out of Ireland,” DuBois says about Lenny and the moment he took the photograph. “Right now, he's 15 and drunk.”
“Jordon Up the Pole” is an image DuBois took in a housing project called Russell Heights that Kevin and Eirn also took him to. “He could climb that pole in less than a minute, and he climbed it several times so that I could get that shot,” DuBois says.
The photograph “My Last Day at Seventeen” features Eirn, on the eve of her 18th birthday. “She was pregnant when I made this picture, so it really was her last day at 17,” DuBois says. “While I was photographing her, she said, ‘Oh it's my last day at 17,' and it was a gift, she gave me the title.”
Arranged further back in the gallery, Blum's “Born and Raised” features 16 photographs, including portraits of Blum's family and friends as well as landscapes and interior scenes taken in his hometown of New Martinsville, a small rural community in the Appalachian range of West Virginia.
“The Daughter of Morgan Morgan” is a photograph of his wife. It is highly constructed, and not at all what it seems. “It's actually just an air mattress and some fabric she is laying on,” Blum says. “I made the image as a reaction to the beautiful lighting that was in my parents' living room, but it became much more than that as the project progressed.
“To me, this photograph is very significant to how I understand my identity, and comments on the lineage of my existence as an Appalachian,” Blum says. “To give some background, I am an eighth-generation Scots-Irish Appalachian, and my wife is a direct descendant of Morgan Morgan, who is one of the first settlers of West Virginia. My family has been college-educated, both men and women, for over 150 years, many of them being doctors and college professors. It is this unique background that gives me a different context of Appalachia, and I believe it affords me a distinctive vantage point from which to make work.”
“Home Is Where the Heart Is” is a photograph of a very close friend of Blum's.
“He has had that tattoo of the coal burning power plant on his chest for a number of years, and I never really gave it much thought until I started making this series,” Blum says. “I asked him one day what it meant, and why he placed it on his chest? He told me it was because the coal industry is what kept us alive and is what most likely would kill us, either through pollution or directly by working in a mine. Neither of us has ever worked in a mine, so I was a little thrown by the answer, but I felt like he had a point. He also said it was a symbol of home, and he wanted to have that on his chest by his heart as a reminder of where he came from. That was a powerful statement, and I felt I had to make a portrait that incorporated his tattoo. There were many different versions of this image in many different places, but when I made this one, I knew I had finally gotten the right one.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.