Mazmanian Gallery features faculty photography
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
By Ryan O’Connell
Arts & Features Editor
By Kate Norrish
he Mazmanian Gallery held a reception debuting the exhibition of three faculty members' photography collections Nov. 15.
The gallery included chosen work from the faculty’s larger projects, and featured subjects such as middle-class American homes, warped tree trunks, and a professor’s daughters.
Robert Alter, an art professor, exhibited a series of photos titled “Houses Series.” The collection included photographs of “ordinary houses” from all over the United States, which he captured while traveling across the country.
He said people's houses represent their identity, and the plain appearances of the homes he encountered across America inspired the series.
“They’re just ordinary houses, but they kind of have personality. They kind of express something about people, and how people live,” he said.
He said he began the series several years ago, and he’s “always thought that architecture speaks about the human condition.” He said houses specifically, however, always interested him.
Alter said about five years ago, he spent time photographing skyscrapers across the world, but eventually felt he needed a new subject. He said he decided to pursue his interest in houses next, even though he admitted the subject was “kind of boring.” He added, “The houses just kept calling out to me.”
He said when he began the project, he was worried people would find regular houses dull. He said he thought nobody would be interested in them until his friends convinced him to continue the series.
“I think the thing about them is you have to look at them closely. You have to look at the details, because there’s all these little things that are going on in the images that are interesting,” he said.
Alter said his favorite house he photographed in the collection is one with a green door and shutters. He said he photographed it in Laramie, Wyoming, where he grew up.
“It’s so poignant. It’s like it’s really trying to be middle class,” he said. He added he felt “the people in there are really trying to hang onto their dream - the American dream.”
Alter added he settled with the word “striving” when describing the imaginary occupants of the houses. He said the people inside are trying to live a good life - one in line with the American dream - and end up expressing that through their homes.
“They’re striving, they’re struggling, they’re trying to make it, and they’re trying to live the life that they’re ‘supposed to’ - in quotes - live,” he said.
Alter added he saw a lot of houses which were worse off than the subjects in the “Houses Series,” but didn’t want the collection to focus on people who weren’t achieving the American dream. “It’s failing them, rather than them failing it,” he said.
Ashley McDowell, a professor who teaches in the Art and Music department and the Communication, Media, and Performance department, contributed an untitled project documenting the impact chronic illness has had on her family.
McDowell said the collection is in part a way of coping and processing with the impact her daughter’s illness has had on her and her sister, as well as a recognition of the struggles and difficulties which have resulted from it.
She added the series also comments on the future of her family. She said since becoming a mother she’s thought about her own childhood a lot, and wonders how her children will think of their own when they are grown up.
“Fears about their future, my daughter who has the medical issue - her future, some of those things that come up as a mom are some of the things that I’ve been thinking about and exploring,” she said.
McDowell said the collection also represents the connection between her and her daughters. “It’s like me seeing myself in them, or vice versa,” she said. “It’s our story, you know? Our narrative.”
She said she’s been taking photos of her children since they were born, but the collection shown in the gallery was started within the last year. She added the collection has become more “focused and poignant” over time, but is still ongoing.
McDowell said the subjects she chooses to photograph for the collection mostly depend on their importance to her family’s story.
“For example, my daughter gets infusion treatments for ulcerative colitis, and that is obviously a part of our personal journey with her illness. So my thought is ‘OK, that’s an important part of the story to share,’” she said.
She said she chooses to photograph obsessions in their lives, first explaining how she would communicate the impact of the infusions her daughter needs by photographing the process or the mark left behind, and then sharing the significance of the toilet seen in one of the photos.
“The toilet is something that, because of her disease, we’ve obsessed about,” she said. “And that caused a lot of stress. The title of that one of course is ‘Is there Blood in the Potty?’”
Leslie Starobin, a professor emeritus of photography, created “Out on a Limb,” a collection of close-up photographs of tree branches and trunks from across the globe.
Starobin said since retiring she’s had more time to work on projects such as “Out on a Limb,” but the project isn’t something she sets out to do every day.
“If I go somewhere I bring my camera, or if I see something that I want to photograph, I’ll go look for it. A lot of those [photos in the collection] were not taken in the United States, so I took them when I was traveling for another reason,” she said.
Starobin said she’s working on another collection based on her experience taking a roots trip to Poland in 2019 with her husband, adult children, and in-laws, which tracked their lives around the continent.
She said this was the first time she’d shown the tree collection, aside from sharing one or two of the photographs individually in years past.
Starobin added she had left “Out on a Limb” a few years ago, but returned to it after finding some related photos in her archives. She said she enjoys trying to find the right “parents” for the trees, and groups them by aesthetics rather than species or location.
“They are, in lots of ways, anthropomorphic. They’re like people,” she said.
She said she has heard people tie the collection to climate change, but she didn’t go into the project thinking about the environment. “I didn’t do that at all. I was just attracted visually to these trees, and how they look like something else,” she said.
Starobin said she was fascinated by the age of trees, some being hundreds of years old and still alive, as well as the way trees which weren’t native to an area stood out against the landscape.
Starobin said the “Out on a Limb” collection has grown to about 30 or 40 photographs since its inception several years ago.
The three faculty members’ photography collections will be displayed in the Mazmanian Gallery until Dec. 9.