‘Learning to See With My Eyes Closed’
Tom Young image Tom Young’s exhibit, “Timeline: Learning to See with My Eyes Closed,” is on view at Greenfield Community College’s South Gallery now through April 5. Contact: art.gcc.mass.edu or call Joan O’Beirne at (413) 775-1898. The book can be purchased at the GCC bookstore or World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. www.tomyoungphoto.com
Walk into Greenfield Community College’s South Gallery and you will come upon a selection of work from photographer and longtime GCC photography instructor Tom Young’s new book, “Timeline: Learning to See with My Eyes Closed.” The exhibit, on view through April 5, draws from work created throughout a span of roughly five years and showcases some of the first work in which Young has included images of his family.
Young thinks of the work as “assemblages,” a word that brings solidity to these images that bear, at first, a resemblance to large contact sheets. Like a contact sheet, each assemblage is made of multiple images collected within a grid. But the pieces are roughly 3 by 4 feet, the size of some windows, and it’s tempting to see them that way: to view the openings within the grid as separate panes in one window.
But step closer and the varying size of the openings and the diverse content and scale of the images within them work against this. A large hand lies next to the interior of an old factory building; cracks in a window spread, spidery, into the branches of trees in a forest below. Windows create grids within the grid. It’s hard to know where you are, what you are looking at, or how to make sense of it all.
Young’s assemblages demand that we hold near and far, familiar and strange, inside and out in our sight, and therefore in our minds, at the same time. The images seem brought together not to settle into an order but to create movement and flux, to interact.
Young says, “I think of this as poetry, in that what’s not being said is dramatically important. And it’s edited down to a distillation.”
To distill something means to purify it by evaporation and condensation; to get at its essence by removing everything extraneous. Yet, moments removed from a narrative are just as much a part of the story as those that remain. The words we didn’t say are often more important than the words we did. And we can sense them the same way we can sense the charged space between two magnets held wrong-end to one another.
Poet John Ashbery speaks in one of his poems of: “The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind/ Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate …”
That’s the feeling you get when you stand in front of one of Young’s assemblages. It’s almost a physical description of some of them.
In “Surgery,” the interior of what appears to be a hospital shares the frame with a long view into the woods, a woman with her eyes closed holding one hand over her breast, a cavern, part of an obscured window.
“That’s my wife, below, after surgery,” Young says. “And the big picture in the middle is actually made in an abandoned hotel, although it reminded me of those hospital curtains they pull. And then the gaze into that space —” he points to the windows at the back of the rooms. “It’s a photographer’s nightmare right? To look into the light.”
Many of the images in Young’s work include intensely bright windows or light emanating from the sky.
“When I was 10 I had surgery on my eyes, as it seems like the whole world knows now,” Young says, “and I was in bandages for weeks.”
During that time of temporary but terrifying blindness, Young remembers trying to imagine what things looked like based on how they felt or smelled, or to visualize places he’d been. “It made me realize how the visual world worked. How seeing was hooked into my notions of trust, into believing.”
“But probably most important in that experience as it relates to these pictures was when my mother took me to the doctor’s office to take off the bandages,” Young said. “I have this distinct memory of the doctor pulling the Venetian blinds — which I can hear — and then unraveling this bandage around my eyes and with every stroke, it became more and more painful as my eyes were being hit by more and more light.”
Finally the doctor told Young he could open his eyes.
“I opened my eyes for a split second and it was one of the most painful memories I have …When those bandages came off that light was blinding.” Young remembers closing his eyes and telling his mother that he never wanted to open them again.
Dark and light. Seeing and not seeing. Struggling to see. All of these are pulses in Young’s work.
The largest image in “Health Report” is a window cracked and mottled with splotches. Above and below it are a young woman being embraced by a man barely in the frame; an even younger girl dressed in pink, blurring as she dances; a tangle of vines. You trust that the images are related because they have been given to you together. You put aside the need to translate and trust the stirrings that begin to occur: uncertainty; an intimate knowledge of sorrow; both mature and innocent joy.
Though the images within each assemblage might be gleaned from photographs taken years apart, Young sees each piece as a narrative. He is interested in, “A kind of storytelling that is nonlinear but narrative,” and described the book as a whole as being similar to a novel, which made it hard for him to extract only a few to exhibit.
How the pieces go together within the assemblages is important in building what Young describes, despite the lack of words in his work, as the “literature” of the pieces.
“But the other part of it that is so huge is that when I’m out in the world, I’m attracted to certain kinds of places, and they’re usually places where something of meaning has once happened and there is a reverb or a presence that I experience.”
In abandoned factories or hotels, neglected clearings in the woods, Young experiences a blending of past and present that leads him to question and explore time. As an example, Young says that he has two daughters: one 25, the other 9.
“And I have photographs of them when they were both 5 years old. And I get confused. And out of that confusion, in some way, I get interested in that time lag. What would happen if I build a construct of a photograph that uses images of Rosey and Sarah in the same work at the same age, to play with that notion of being lost in time?”
“There’s something very fundamental and iconographic about the images I’m building,” Young says. “They are in some way so rooted in traditional photography, because that’s my background.”
Though he is building his assemblages in the computer now, Young began photographing with a view camera and made his earlier works in the darkroom, altering his images by bleaching negatives and drawing on them, or printing multiple exposures. For 35 years, Young was a full-time faculty member at GCC and still teaches one day a week, alternating GCC media classes one semester with higher level Massachusetts College of Art and Design classes at the GCC campus the next. Young speaks highly of the GCC art department’s students, who he says go on to transfer to some of the top art schools in the country.
Students at GCC now begin with digital photography, Young says, and return to the darkroom in a higher-level class.
“Photography is in the midst of great, great change,” he said. “And I don’t just mean technically. I mean visually, intellectually. Now you can go out and spend $300 and buy a digital camera and without knowing anything make a fairly well-crafted image.”
But while digital photography can be freeing and “more democratic,” Young said he likes to talk with his students about slowing down and looking.
Slowing down and looking is something his own work requires the viewer to do. Not just because of the sheer number of images within one frame but because of all of the possible reverberations between them.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org