Durham News: Community

Durham photographer MJ Sharp embraces the undertainty

“Age and Power,” is a photo MJ Sharp’s niece and father.
“Age and Power,” is a photo MJ Sharp’s niece and father. MJ SHARP

Preparing for a lecture at the Durham County Library gave photographer MJ Sharp a chance to look back at decades of her work and see themes that appear throughout.

The result is “Getting Personal with the Patriarchy,” an illustrated lecture that Sharp will present at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5.

Sharp, who is a lesbian, sees it as “one person’s journey through our patriarchal culture.”

The talk will feature early photographs of her father and niece, which she later recognized were “emotional self portraits.”

She will also feature her chronicling of the women’s martial arts movement of the 1980s.

For the last 10 years, though, Sharp, who worked as a staff photographer for The Independent during the 1990s, has turned away from photojournalism.

She has exclusively used 4” by 5” and 8” by 10” cameras – the old-fashioned kind with which the photographer covers herself with a cloak.

She often shoots at night now, using long exposures to create images of both exteriors and interiors.

Sharp, 54, has been interested in photography since she was a little girl. She expanded her interest working on the yearbook in high school in Knoxville, Tenn.

When first came to Durham to attend Duke, she expected to major in chemistry, but she found herself distracted by art history. She ended up majoring in psychology and taking a lot of art history classes.

After college she lived in Boston for a while, and she was struck by how the light in New England had a crisper feel than in the South.

“Suddenly I was aware of light as an entity with a personality,” Sharp said.

When she moved back to Durham after a couple years, she worked at a camera store for a while, reconnecting with her interest in photography.

She worked at The Independent for nine years, long enough to get sick of working on a deadline.

That and family illnesses back in Tennessee took her away from photography for a while. She didn’t touch a camera for a year.

She was drawn back in when she wanted to take a picture of her girlfriend. She turned to the larger, older cameras and long exposures, not wanting to be in a situation anymore where she had to come up with an image on short notice.

She did a series on endangered night sea creatures, especially turtles. The work had more of a documentary feel.

“What happened with the big cameras, there was not certainty it would come out,” Sharp said.

She embraced that uncertainty and how it removed her from photojournalism.

Sharp also teaches undergraduates at Duke.

“I kind of want to make sure these young adults don’t have to fight the same fights,” she said.

Durham photography collector Frank Konhaus has bought eight pieces of Sharp’s work.

“They don’t really exist in real time,” he said of her recent photos. “It’s sort of an alternative reality.”