Silver Eye Center for Photography's Continuum features two photographers that examine humanity's relationship to water and climate | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Silver Eye Center for Photography's Continuum features two photographers that examine humanity's relationship to water and climate

click to enlarge Palm Psalm - ASPEN MAYS
Aspen Mays
Palm Psalm

For its second in a series of exhibits centered around mentorship and collaboration, Silver Eye Center for Photography chose two California-based artists who were once teacher and student but are now friends and peers. Continuum features the work of Aspen Mays and Dionne Lee, who both work in photographic mediums that distort or alter an image once, or twice, or half a dozen times in the process of making a piece. While they didn’t set out on the project with a common theme, both Mays and Lee found themselves gravitating toward the subjects of water and climate, and the shifting human relationship to both. 

Mays, who was a professor to Lee when she was a student at California College of the Arts, continued working on ideas from a previous exhibit about living through Hurricane Hugo as a child in 1989. For Continuum, she created a set of bright, disorienting images that both feature imagery of storms and look as though they've weathered the elements themselves. 

click to enlarge Fleet, one in a series of images of sails - DIONNE LEE
Dionne Lee
Fleet, one in a series of images of sails

“[I was] thinking about the ocean in the sense of storms and thinking about [Hurricane Hugo] and imagining a future where we're gonna be dealing with this on a regular basis,” says Mays.

Her photos are colorful, but not because of the subjects, which include palm trees and boarded-up windows. She adds color to them with fabric dyes, giving them an unnatural saturation inspired by the color coding on a Doppler radar used to indicate the strength of a storm. She also uses a marbling effect to distort the images, and the result looks something like a color-inversion tool gone haywire. “How can I make this thing feel like it's radiating a kind of chaotic visual energy so that you're not totally sure what you're looking at?” says Mays of the technique. 

While Mays describes natural disasters as something that “humans have been dealing with forever,” Lee’s approach dives more into the historical context, specifically her relationship to water and landscapes in America as a Black woman. Her research includes the history of land ownership in America for Black people (or lack thereof), like the myth of “40 acres and a mule,” or the way the Great Migration pushed Black populations into cities and away from “idyllic American natural landscapes.” She also thought about the history of Black people’s relationship to swimming, stemming from a near-drowning experience she had as a child.

“I was looking specifically to understand my relationship to those spaces because as an individual, I enjoy being out in nature and whatnot, but I always felt kind of uneasy,” says Lee. “That led me to further understand history and what forces cause people to have comfort in certain spaces.”

Lee’s process for creating the photos in the exhibit (she also has videos) involves taking an image, scanning it, scanning it again, photocopying, creating a paper negative, and creating a contact print. Lee uses her own photos as well as found images, which in the case of Continuum, came from wilderness survival books. The images, mostly in grayscale, are abstract and reminiscent of a collage. One series features a ship’s sail manipulated in different ways, making it almost unrecognizable. 

“They end up looking kind of ominous and scary and maybe a little unrecognizable right away as sails,” says Lee. “But that's also that push and pull between thinking about exploration and the idea of freedom to even explore and go to another place, versus who those ships carried.”

Mays and Lee didn’t collaborate on their works in the exhibit; they worked separately and checked in every few months. The result is a collection of parallel pieces exploring how forces of nature can affect our lives beyond human control, and how human control can alter natural forces.

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