photo by Seth Grant

Sarah Jane Kennelly | Artist

Photography as a Larger Time, a Larger Place

A ZEST Feature for The Peel Literature and Arts Review

After some time living in Boone, one begins to notice the abundance of interesting housing. The buildings themselves are not necessarily more interesting or varied than any other place, but the way in which the houses nest into the land is unique and reorienting in many cases. Houses on mountainsides, up winding roads, below dense forests--small domestic bulwarks laid against impassable walls of earth and early autumn.

Sarah Jayne Kennelly, often known as SJ, lives in such a house. Its dark brown log-cabin walls, blue door, and gravel driveway promise a bastion of hot drinks and warm bread goods. Perhaps this is an unjustified claim, but it seems one must feel the weight of goodwill when they drive up the mountain road to this small, lovely home laid in the waning greenery of Boone in October.

Similar to that comic trope in film, where the dog and their owner share an undeniable likeness--a soul split between human and canine--SJ emerged from the house into the bright sun as if she had never belonged anywhere else. Something in their aesthetic and demeanor echoes each other, signaling amenability and warmth. A friend and fellow photographer pointed out what specifies not only her work, but her image as a photographer in Boone: “She’s somehow both not new on the scene here--a photographer many in the community know, but also doing something new and exciting with her work.”

Sitting on a burnt orange couch in her naturally lit living room, idly watching her roommate’s cats roll around (in an extremely dog-like fashion), SJ articulated a history at contrast with her befitting life here.

“Since I’ve moved sixteen times, being in a place and understanding home is really hard for me because it’s been so temporary most of my life. So I've been trying to document spaces.”

As a photographer, capturing moments and the physicality that different spaces encompass fascinate her. She believes photography allows a vision other than our normative experience of objects as processes. Things don’t simply come into being in a moment without context, and continue unaffected. They evolve, they have history. She sees an ability in photography to isolate, to abstract, that she can “focus on space and place and activity. I think there is something really profound about how a photograph does not express a series of moments, but a specific part of an interaction between myself and a space or myself and people I am connected to.” Her work allows her to isolate the subject so that she might peer into them, that she might register them in a way not possible in actual time.

“It’s more about creating the essence about what is ... there is time in a photograph but it’s more of its own experience.”

Perhaps it is this control of time and place which prodded her into her latest interest: death, or more specifically, memory as a way to deal with death.

“Recently I’ve been interested in how our culture talks about death and represents death, and how we utilize our spaces to recognize others. I’ve been studying the Day of the Dead, how different cultures create a whole part of their space to be devoted to recognizing others and the lives they lost. In our culture, it’s really suppressed.”

With death comes an immeasurable loss of time and physicality, in that the life now gone seems to have undone itself: there, but not there, a real experience no longer available--something like the presence of an absence.

“Photographing friends that have a strong connection to past relatives and friends that have died and even my grandma. She lives with me, and how she represents others in her own space because her room is all photographs and items of people who are dead because she's ninety-four. Creating those images, I've started to think more about my relationship with my mom and grandma. I want to start focusing on that relationship and photographing that as well, so my themes begin to connect with one another.”

She spoke of her grandmother’s act of remembering, through images on the wall, while herself surrounded by the great work of painters on the walls of her living room, as if through her art she resurrects them in much the same way. Uniting others through place and time, through images which capture and expose, she hopes to “be able to story tell through photography, not because other people can’t tell their own stories, but because it is a tool to create images that are an artistic experience for the viewer. To be able to better learn about others and create community in that way.”

Whether on the road or in her grandmother’s room, SJ finds a way to allow the viewer to experience the space as multifaceted, yet whole, as isolated, but isolated in its entirety. She includes the duplicity of an outside and an inside. One of her photos in the series “These Spaces Between” fills the frame with a window. It is focused on the trees and sky reflected in that window, yet in the dark space created by the trees’ reflection one can see a young woman on the inside, looking out, out of focus. By focusing on the trees, the thing not actually in front of the lens, and blurring the subject, the person actually present, she interrogates immediacy, pressing the realness of “now.” Through her glass the viewer rethinks the realness of something: its presence and absence, what is here and what is gone.

By Logan Frazier