Breathing Pictures: Exhibition at Gallery 1401

Lake, Summer Palace, Beijing (3 Breaths), 2010/2011. One of the pictures from Sean's collection at Gallery 1401.

In Gallery 1401 at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Art & Art Education instructor and doctoral candidate Sean Justice is presenting his latest photography exhibition, Breathing Pictures. Located on Broad Street, Philadelphia, his pictures – each one a composite montage of several photographs taken from one vantage point – will be on display until March 14th.

Sean was invited to exhibit his work at Gallery 1401 last fall, by his friend and colleague Harris Fogel. “He’s pretty active around the country looking at photographers and seeking out what people are doing,” Sean remarks in describing Fogel, the Gallery’s director. “He’s pretty knowledgeable about various threads in photography and he’s also really committed to the program at the University of the Arts. He’s always looking for things that his students may be interested in.”

Bikes, Shanghai (3 Breaths) 2006/2011. One of the Chinese vistas which first inspired Sean's Breathing Pictures concept.

Though this is the first time that his Breathing Pictures collection has been on exhibit, the project inadvertently started several years ago. “I work pretty slowly,” Sean says in describing his progress on the collection. “The first one I made was in 2006. I’ve only made 20-25 pictures, so I’m not doing this on a regular basis.”

That first photograph was taken in Shanghai in 2006, when Sean noticed the disparity between his authentic experience with Chinese culture and the way the country was being portrayed in the Western world. “There’s something about the experience of a relationship, but also the relational existence of moving through space and being here in this space at this time,” Sean says about his experience abroad. “That sort of began for me when I was in this landscape in China. . . . I was very much involved in the culture of China and that became very present to me.”

Park, Brooklyn (3 Breaths), 2008/2014.

“All of these things were very cliche and romanticized,” Sean comments on the pictures of China which then saturated North America and Western Europe. “They didn’t bring China into presence. There was nothing about the experience of China that could survive that reduction. So I found the possibility of making photographs in China to be nearly impossible. I found it very frustrating, also invigorating.”

“The actual pictures happened long before the title. When I’m in that frame of mind where I’m trying to think of a picture, what I do is I’m looking for a landscape or a cityscape or whatever is happening. I’m thinking of the way that time passes and I’m thinking about the way that I’m moving through a space and other people, animals, the wind, the water.”

“If something really resonates for me, . . . I think about the design of the frame and the way things are laying out in front of me. But then, when I take the picture I don’t just take one picture. I take a lot of pictures, but I keep breathing as I’m taking the pictures.”

The title of Sean’s exhibition stems from his photography process itself. He snaps the camera shutter continuously while breathing in and out, each breathe slightly altering the orientation of his physical position.

“It really was the breathing and the movement. The movement of my body and the movement of the world in those five seconds or ten seconds. That’s what the name means.”

After taking pictures of a landscape or moment in time, Sean then works on a computer to create a composite photo of each individual image.

“I put all the pictures together, just one on top of another, and I set them up so that they line up in the frame with something that didn’t move. . . . There might be 10 frames of 15 frames, or fewer than that too. When they all line up on that one thing, then the edges sort of become out of alignment.”

The focal point around which the individual frames are aligned, or registered, can be anything static from a radio tower to a woman’s face. “Everything that’s moving when I’m photographing will look like it’s multiple,” Sean says, describing his picture of Chinese cyclists in particular. “Every picture is a big surprise to me because I don’t really know what’s gonna happen.”

“What was motivating me was the idea to just slow down and see and feel and pay attention to what’s going on in a moment.”

Contributed by Alyssa Foster

A&H Staff Writer