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Sweetwater photo exhibit shows images don't have to reflect real life

| Saturday, May 2, 2015, 7:01 p.m.
'Filters' by Sandra Moore
'Filters' by Sandra Moore
A photo from the “Tessellation” project by Nicole Crock
A photo from the “Tessellation” project by Nicole Crock
'Alight' by Paxton Maroney
'Alight' by Paxton Maroney
One photo in 'The Beauty Mask series' by Morgan Ford Willingham
One photo in 'The Beauty Mask series' by Morgan Ford Willingham
'Barn Roof Collage' by Zel Brook
'Barn Roof Collage' by Zel Brook
'Horseshoe Barn Roof Collage' by Zel Brook
'Horseshoe Barn Roof Collage' by Zel Brook

In an age when digital photography is the norm and the use of image-altering programs like Photoshop is widespread, it's no longer possible to accept every photograph as visual evidence of factual reality.

“Shaping New Worlds,” an exhibit of constructed photography on display at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley, embraces this notion.

In this exhibit, 13 artists from across the country look beyond documentation to create imagined realities. By altering and constructing images, they are able to focus on concept or build their own narrative.

In many cases, this involves using a variety of techniques, including handmade montage and collage, alteration or manipulation of real scenes, darkroom or computer manipulation and constructed tableau or dioramas that are then photographed.

The exhibit was juried by Cleveland fine-art photographer Lori Kella, who says that in addition to selecting photographs that challenged the viewer's perspective, “I also looked for photographs that connected the subject to a broader context, either by juxtaposing disparate imagery or using multiples to create engaging, contemplative expanse.”

Surprisingly, there were many works that utilized collage. “Barn Roof Collage” by Zel Brook of Corvallis, Ore., and “Firmament” by Anne Roecklein of North Adams, Mass., use color, line and repetition in a “visually stunning way,” Kella says, “but they also use the technique to present alternative viewpoints.”

In similar fashion, Paxton Maroney, a conceptual fine-art photographer from Arlington, Texas, displays a self-portrait constructed of five images. In it, she can be seen in a long, flowing dress, walking across a snow-covered field.

A self-described “conceptual fine-art photographer,” Maroney says of her work, “I am influenced by many things, including music, nature and scripture. I want the public to take their own meaning of the piece, not forcing them to think one way about it.”

Maroney says her images are always created to stimulate another's interpretation. “I try to artfully construct each shot from my dreams to fit into the ever-complicated digital puzzles I have created.”

Also using collage techniques to construct unique narratives, Pittsburgh native Nicole Crock, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, displays two pieces from her “Tessellation” project, in which she uses vintage imagery that she finds in antique malls and thrift stores, mostly photographs of people and their homes, to construct radial images that have a nostalgic, almost haunting appeal.

“I'm interested in making artwork about home and location, and I pick photographs that I think resonate with unknowable history,” Crock says. “I love to abstract and multiply that curious nostalgia in my artwork.”

Also having a nostalgic feel is the work of Morgan Ford Willingham, who lives in Vincennes, Ind., where she teaches photography at Vincennes University.

Her photograph in the show, “Untitled 4,” is from her current body of work, “The Beauty Mask.” With this series, Willingham says, “I'm exploring how advertising messages manipulate the subconscious and the way in which I, personally, have felt the need to ‘fix' the way I look.”

The piece features her face, shrouded in headlines from fashion and beauty magazine articles. “I'm also interested in how, as a society, many people mask themselves with the products (and clothes) they wear every day, so that who we are and what we look like is veiled,” Willingham says.

More abstract, Sandra Moore of Glenshaw shows two photographs of tidal pools — “Pond” and “Filters” — that are rich in color and texture.

Moore has traveled from Maine to Key West photographing the tidal pools and estuaries along ocean shores. “Things we see every day catch my eye, and I want to take a closer look,” she says.

Though they look like one-of-a-kind images, each is actually a compilation of images.

For example, “Filters” is a compilation of 30 photographs taken in a 5-foot by 5-foot area in the water off a jetty in Key West. “It is a collage of rhythms pulsing and rushing past me as I quietly observe,” she says.

The shooting process Moore has developed is from observations she has made over the years trying to find a balance between “logic, imagination and the ebb and flow of the natural world.

“This photograph took several hours over a few days,” Moore says. “Then, I combined a variety of lighting and imagery later in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to get the final piece.”

Perhaps this piece, above all else, is a perfect example of what to expect of this exhibition — what you see isn't always what you think you see.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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