Say the word "click" out loud. It's only one syllable, but its sound has a beginning, middle and end. There's a duration, albeit brief, before its harsh, terminal consonants. Despite that fact, photographs are commonly thought of as moments of frozen time. The camera's click doesn't elapse, it just occurs.
MJ Sharp's clicks, however, last for minutes or hours. A selection of her long-exposure photographs at the Craven Allen Gallery in Durham through Feb. 11 in a show titled Light Cache features meditative images of her home and neighborhood, and nocturnal landscapes both local and distant. But the exhibition is notable for more than just the unconventional beauty and format of the images. Sharp's personal journey through which she arrived at this process offers an alternative to the inherent violence and closed-door thinking of a pervasive point-and-shoot mentality.
That said, many of Sharp's images look like regular photographs. Blurred outlines, light discrepancies or other long-exposure clues are rarely present. In some, odd luminosities and hyperreal details could give the sense that the image isn't in the simple "click" family of exposures, but never demonstrably so. These photos aren't about their process. Instead, they speak to Sharp's curiosity about seeing in a way that the human eye simply can't. And they represent, for Sharp, how time might be experienced similarly.
In "Soaking Beans," a close-up of dried beans rehydrating in a glass bowl in Sharp's kitchen, a crisp line of bubbles rings the surface of the murky water where it touches the bowl's edge. When she rummaged through her envelope of shooting notes—jottings of exposure times on the backs of matchbooks or whatever paper was at hand—Sharp figured the negative saw these beans for 15 seconds. But there's no time-lapse blur. The milky depth of the water is creamy but its grain is sharp, and the beans loom in it like tadpole heads. The beans, too, have an uncanny depth, as if you can see through their softened skin to their awakening interiors.
This is different from simple focus. "If you shoot something like this in normal light, because of the way the film responds, you get your dark shadows and your highlights and your midtones in between," Sharp says. "What happens when you do this perverse 'I'm going to start it when there's barely any light' is that the photons build up on the film and it gives you a much broader range of mid-tones."
Although "Soaking Beans" looks like it was shot on a kitchen counter bathed in bright morning sunlight, it was actually dusk. Sharp knows how light behaves in her kitchen. "It's like any other vocabulary. It's the vocabulary of my dim kitchen," she says with a laugh.
Another interior, "Laundry with Wreath," shows a dim, tousled bed strewn with clothing and a basket, all behind a radiant wreath tossed at the foot of the bed. The image is simultaneously dark and bright, as if one were able to push one's sight into the scene by force of will. It's shot entirely with artificial light, but not with meticulously positioned studio gear. This light-language is architectural.
"I turned off all the lights. I turned on the hallway light but it was way too directional. So I turned that off. And I turned the bathroom light on and pulled the door shut so there was just a crack of light coming into the hallway, and that light bounced into the bedroom. So I just kept cutting, cutting, cutting light. It's a different, interesting vocabulary that only happens not in real time."
Sharp figured the exposure at around two hours, a span determined more by instinct than anything else.
"You really do feel like you're having this secret conversation with these scenes. You know how to tell its story and most people would throw it on the compost heap right away. But it's all about how the film responds when it's staring at the scene for lots of time."
Sharp has earned entry into this realm of emergent, accretive detail. And there's no compost heap in this realm. Throughout the 1990s, she was a staff photographer for the Independent Weekly and a freelancer for regional and national publications. She lived a life of deadlines and sprinting from assignment to assignment. That came to a full stop in 2000, when her mother and grandmother each fell seriously ill. Sharp took a leave of absence to take care of family in her native Tennessee.
After some months nursing her relatives and taking care of their affairs, she tried to return to work but almost immediately realized she couldn't do it anymore. The pace of work and the grabbing of images with her camera reenacted trauma for her. The deadlines felt somehow literal. "I don't know that I was going to pick up a camera again," Sharp remembers.
A few click-free years passed. Then, while talking at a wedding reception, Sharp and writer friend Elizabeth Brownrigg came up with an idea to cover sea turtle hatchlings on the coast. The nighttime shooting worked for her. So did the lack of an end-of-day deadline. Sharp's byline resurfaced with the story, which ran in the Indy in December 2003. She and Brownrigg teamed up again for the Bat Blitz, a survey of the flying mammals in western North Carolina—another nocturnal, open-ended assignment.
On wee-hours walks in her neighborhood back in Durham, she started taking photographs again, with lengthy enough exposures to capture the details she saw in night's different light. Neighbors, coming out to get the morning paper, sometimes found Sharp on her stomach behind a camera in their flowerbed. And that was OK. This sense of acceptance helped her find the momentum she needed.
Now her 4-by-5 inch and 8-by-10 inch cameras accompany her, whether it's to shoot landscapes in Texas and Scotland or to capture local landmarks such as a broken basketball backboard in a vacant field near an apartment complex. "Backboard," which situates the fractured, white goal against a wall of gigantic trees, turns out to be a breakthrough image of sorts for Sharp.
"I've got a million pictures of that sad little backboard," she notes. "I can't tell you how many times I shot it. And I'd just never got it. I couldn't buy a composition. I mean, they were all fine—how could they not be fine? This little broken, crippled backboard against big trees. It's like you can only go so wrong with that, but they just didn't get off the ground."
Sharp capitulated to the image, figuring that the abandoned backboard was already so metaphorical that she couldn't transform it through a photograph. But when she was going through contact sheets for this show with co-curator Frank Konhaus, an image leaped out at them. Sharp had the negative drum-scanned, and the details came together with the composition to form the picture she'd been trying to get, one that contains something of the difficult ground Sharp has covered this past decade.
"It's like you can count the years that have elapsed since this thing had a legitimate life," she muses. "It's cast aside but it's still standing out there like a beacon to something. And now they've painted it blue."