Peter Filene wants you to read a photograph like a poem.
“Read it carefully. Take some of the pieces apart. Look between the lines. Sit on your hands if you must. See if you can last three minutes and stare at one photograph.”
These were the instructions Filene, now 74 and retired, gave students who were tempted to flip quickly through a book of photographs during his years teaching American history at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Filene’s interest in photography began when he was a kid carrying an Ansco camera around and learning darkroom skills from his father. He said the turning point for him came when he realized there was photography that one could call fine art. He incorporated photography into his teaching “not just as a window onto history, but as an art form in itself.”
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His own photographs make it easy to follow his instructions. At first glance, you might think the collages are Photoshopped. But his subjects already exist in the world and are simply waiting for him to find, experience, and share them.
The images from his Peeling Posters series, two of which are now hanging in the “Engaging Light” show at FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill, capture multiple points in time, underscoring his interest in history.
Filene found posters, on walls in Paris and Amsterdam, that had been plastered over one another and with time had begun to peel, partially exposing the older layers underneath. In one, Elvis, or an impersonator, gazes out from under curling strips of paper while, on another layer, the word “Live” floats next to his forehead. One viewer found the work so compelling, she said she wished she could reach in and peel back one of the curling edges to see what was hiding beneath.
Fellow FRANK photographer Barbara Tyroler, 63, also creates abstract photos, but uses different methods. Her images are the result of her Rockin’ the Spectrum project sponsored by Chapel Hill’s Public and Cultural Arts Office and the Public Arts Commission. The project paired Tyroler, who has a background in special education, with Chapel Hill’s Adapted Aquatics program that teaches swimming survival skills to children and teens with developmental disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Over a year, Tyroler got to know the participants and their families and got permission to photograph them in the water overcoming their initial fears with the help of volunteer teachers. Tyroler gave the photos, some documentary and some impressionistic abstracts, as gifts to the swimmers.
To create the abstracts, Tyroler used the ambient light in the pool along with the movement of the water and the swimmers and manipulated the camera shutter speed and flash intensity. Some of these now hang on permanent display in the lobby of the Homestead Aquatic Center.
“Doing humanitarian work that builds relationships and addresses areas of public concern has become integral to my art practice,” she said.
Tyroler will discuss how art can build relationships as part of a panel discussion Thursday, Oct. 23, on the larger subject of “Public Art and Advocacy.” The panelists include Deborah Zuver, director, Project STIR at Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities; Holly Riddle, policy adviser at N.C. Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services; Amy Fowler, president of the Orange/Chatham Autism Society; and Jeffrey York, public and cultural arts administrator for Chapel Hill.
“Art is not a frill,” York said. Through the community engagement projects the Public and Cultural Arts Office has sponsored since 2009, he has witnessed the power of art to “go beyond the visual,” “to bring value to issues that don’t get a lot of recognition,” and to provide a means of transformation for both the artist and the community.
Riddle, who met Tyroler in a special education master’s program, believes the arts have always been how humans have communicated with each other at the highest and deepest levels. “It’s through art that we see who we are and that we are all one,” she said. “Our community is not whole until we are all together, in all aspects.”