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Exhibit brings new life to old photos

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A sample of Madeleine Terry's photographic art.

By KATHRYN FLAGG

MIDDLEBURY — Madeleine Terry makes her art in a room with no windows, where her canvases are the unadorned white walls of a bedroom in downtown Middlebury.

The Middlebury College senior’s unusual, heartbreaking photographs — on display next week in the college’s Johnson Art Building in an exhibit titled “Self-Exposure/Full Disclosure” — were all shot in this windowless room, using a tripod, a projector, and a collection of old family Kodachrome slides from a long-ago family vacation to France.

In these slides, the artist is just five years old, her younger sister, two. But in her contemporary portraits, which Terry took by posing over the projections of these old family snapshots, Terry is a thin and solemn 23-year-old. Pressed against her bedroom wall, she said, she tried to fit herself into a family that has fallen apart.

Terry’s father, she explained, abruptly left her mother when she was 19, following her first semester at college.

“It was a a psychological trauma for everyone involved in our family,” Terry said. “It changed my relationships with all of them, and it sort of eradicated any idea I had of family.”

That’s where her art comes in.

“It’s paying homage to a family that doesn’t exist anymore — trying to interact with a family that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “A lot of it’s about a family dying … and how to visually articulate that.”

But the slides themselves paint an idyllic portrait of a young family. Terry appears at least once in every portrait, photographed over projections of those Kodachrome slides. In one photograph, she eyes a younger version of her mother; in another, she folds herself around an image of her mother in a bathtub with Terry and her younger sister. In a third, her profile obscures a view of a family — Terry’s own — in the vibrant aquamarine of a swimming pool.

“I wanted to find a way to attempt access to something that’s sort of barred from my life now,” Terry said. For her, that meant not just working with old photographs, but entering them as well.

Terry, who will graduate at the end of the month in the college’s mid-year ski down celebration, has spent the last year on this project — but when she started her independent work, she had no idea that the final product would take this form.

She began her work as a photographer for the first time in the spring of 2007, while studying art for a semester at Columbia University in New York City. She bought her first film camera, and she was hooked.

“I just photographed all the time, everywhere,” Terry said.

When, last winter, she began working on her independent senior work, she knew immediately that she wanted to engage old family photographs. Her family has a rich tradition of portraiture: her grandfather took lovely photographs, and Terry said her own father took pictures of the family obsessively when Terry and her sister were younger.

So, on a trip home to her mother’s house in West Concord, Mass., Terry began sifting through old family photo albums. That’s when she stumbled across a box filled with those Kodachrome slides from France.

“I remember moments pretty vividly,” said Terry of that trip. “I remember it as a really magical, almost mythical time now.”

But Terry said that she also doubts memories like this — and that one of the reasons she was drawn to a year of independent work dealing with old family photographs was that she wanted to test the strength of these memories.

“It seems almost impossible that a lot of the events in these photographs could have ever happened, given the circumstances of my life now,” she said. “I’m struggling with whether this was real or not, even though there’s photographic proof.”

The project was less about editing her photographs, Terry said, than it was about the process of advancing those slides in her own private bedroom-cum-studio. She spent a great deal of time studying the progression of these old photographs, thinking about the ways in which she could interact with them.

Then, she began fitting herself into the images, trying to get as close as possible, she said, to the old photographs. First, she used a self-timer on a film camera, and later she set up a remote-operated digital camera.

She experimented with projecting the slides at as large a scale as possible, and prefers that her photos, when printed, be as large, or larger, than life. She gradually made the transition from black and white film photography to color digital prints, in part to give the old Kodachrome slides their full due.

Terry’s process is simple, said Middlebury College Professor of Studio Art John Huddleston, Terry’s advisor, and lacks the trickery that heavy digital editing would have entailed. That, he said, just wouldn’t have achieved the same effect.

“I think this work is remarkably honest and straightforward,” said Huddleston.

That idea of honesty cropped up when Terry explained her decision to pose nude in several of the shots. It wasn’t about being risqué, she explained, so much as about sincerity and simplicity of form. It also adds to the content of the photographs, she said.

“Almost all of my art that I’ve ever made is somehow about my mom,” Terry said. “A lot of these images are about femininity and the female form and motherhood and regeneration. To deny the viewer access to the human form would undermine the composition and also the content.”

While Terry acknowledged that these photographs have particular depth of meaning for her family, and for those who know about her family’s struggles, the underlying themes in these photographs — nostalgia, loneliness, and deep-seated sadness — resonate more broadly.

These photographs also drive at the complicated relationship between families. Terry’s form is isolated by time and space — and yet the process of projection casts the images of her family members on her own skin. The way those images warp and change, given Terry’s inclusion in the frame, is what Huddleston called the real key to the understanding the way memory works.

Still, Terry admitted that her work didn’t provide any easy answers to the questions she set out to ask.

“I think I had this sort of mission with this project, that I want to answer all these questions I had about my family,” Terry said. “I’m not sure I have. I’m not sure they’re answerable. But this was a deeply cathartic process.”

In that sense, she said, the series of photographs mimics the progression of stages of grieving — denial, bargaining, and eventual acceptance. She hopes that viewers will see a sort of healing at the end of her show.

This is heart-wrenching, expressive work — but Terry is as pragmatic an artist as you might ever meet. When she’s not holed up in her studio — a spare, simple space, where a few stray photographs were strewn across the concrete floor and stacked against the walls — she conducts research in the psychology department.

It turns out that this is a useful pairing, this love of psychology and photography — particularly in a project devoted to understanding loss and picking apart the complexities of a family’s demise.

Terry’s training in psychology also brings a level of coolness and a touch of distance to work that otherwise might veer into the realm of sentimentality.

“A drawing with light, that’s what a photograph is,” said Terry, a bit of that psychologist’s common sense creeping into her voice.

Memory, she argues, belongs to some other realm — the space between a physical image on the paper and the psychological workings of one’s brain.

And for Terry, memory exists in the space between a projector and a bare bedroom wall, between an image of the past and a portrait — sad and lovely — of the present.

Terry’s exhibit “Self-Exposure/Full Disclosure” opens Friday, Jan. 23, at the Johnson Art Building with an artists’ reception at 5 p.m. Culled from hundreds of photographs taken over the past year, it features 13 large-format color prints, along with a collage of smaller images and a projection display. The show will be on display until Feb. 1.

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