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.
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 demonstratively so. They 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 picture of dried beans reconstituting 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.
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 laughs.
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.
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.
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 Independent in Dec. 2003. She and Brownrigg teamed up again for a 2005 feature on the Bat Blitz—a survey of the flying mammals in western North Carolina. And 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 okay. This sense of acceptance helped her find the momentum she needed.
“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, going through contact sheets for this show with co-curator Frank Konhaus, an image leapt 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’s 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.”