CNN Photos

Joint exhibit reveals a shared vision

It is no coincidence that Doug DuBois’ portraits of Irish teens and Aaron Blum’s portraits of family, friends and the countryside of West Virginia share a quiet, intimate quality.

DuBois was Blum’s professor and mentor at Syracuse University during Blum’s years as a graduate student.

The pair’s photographs from their projects are now on exhibit at the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh.

When DuBois took the position of artist in residence at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Ireland, in 2009, he did not anticipate returning to the port town every summer for the next four years.

The picturesque town has a long history in maritime, being the final port of call for the Titanic and “plays it up for tourists,” but “it was all too nostalgic and Irish,” DuBois says.

He said he was not interested in taking quaint pictures of an Irish port town. But he began documenting the remains of Ireland’s economic bubble, which had burst in 2008 after decades of boom.

Construction sites became his focus, but DuBois was routinely met with opposition, and was even escorted off properties by police.

As part of his residency, DuBois worked with at-risk youths in the community who had dropped out of school.

After a couple weeks, he asked a young couple in the group to show him their neighborhood, Russell Heights, also known as “the steps.”

What he discovered were “very, very drunk” 15- to 16-year-old kids, and his project was born that late summer evening.

“It’s not dangerous, but the neighborhood is very insular and not a place you wander into unless you live there or know someone,” DuBois said.

Eirn Mackessy is from the neighborhood with a “bad reputation” and became a key character in his project.

“In the same way I wanted to avoid the picturesque and quaint, I also felt queasy making clichéd photographs of underage Irish kids drinking and carousing,” DuBois said.

He photographed MacKessy the night before her 18th birthday, which she dubbed “my last day at 17.”

DuBois knew she had given him a great title that summed up “the central metaphor for the project concerning the loss of childhood.”

Photographer Aaron Blum, a native of the northern panhandle of West Virginia, had similar concerns about avoiding stereotypes in his work. He says over time he found not many people knew too much about the region or its people.

“I would get very innocent, but very strange questions,” he said.

When he moved to Syracuse University for graduate school he was jokingly asked why he was wearing shoes, or why he had all of his teeth.

It was strange to him that people would ask these questions, even in jest, because it was not the West Virginia he knew.

With these impressions in mind, Blum set out to show what West Virginia meant to him.

Though he went into the project with a particular vision of how to portray the region, he says the vision evolved as he worked.

One example was a dead crow strung up in a tree by its leg.

“I didn’t understand what it was,” Blum said. “I thought it was some horrible, sinister act.”

After researching, Blum discovered that this act was an “old world” practice of warding off crows from cornfields.

“That kind of switched the whole project for me,” Blum said.

Even as an “insider” to the region, he was learning new things about his home.

Though Blum and DuBois photographed very different regions, each strove to leave behind clichés to reveal aspects of their subject that may otherwise be missed.

- Clint Alwahab, CNN

The "Continuum" exhibit is on display at the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh through July 20.