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Paul Won, 'Bipolar,' Atholton High School, 12th-grade
Paul Won, 'Bipolar,' Atholton High School, 12th-grade (Courtesy photo)

If you want to know how high school students see the world, the current exhibit at the Columbia Art Center gives a sense of their creative insights. "Developing Understanding: The Photographer's Eye" has eye-opening photographs by Howard County Public School students.

The student photographers all have written statements next to their photos, which explain their general thoughts about this medium. They live in a world in which seemingly everybody is snapping photos on a daily basis. A number of them make the observation that taking photos for such an exhibit is considerably different, because there is more deliberation and patience involved in achieving just the right image. Some of them also comment upon how photography is a means of documenting the social environment around them, and that it's not just a matter of spontaneously showing what's going around them today. Consequently, many of the exhibited photos use the venerable medium of photography to consider subjects that record personal and societal histories. Indeed, a surprising number of these photographers shoot in black-and-white, as if overtly acknowledging its enduring historical and aesthetic worth within a media culture that generally prefers to see things in color.

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Esther Weiss, a 12th-grader at Glenelg, has a black-and-white photo, “Antique Revival,” that depicts a woman standing in a suitably cluttered antique store. The quirky collection of old objects includes a portrait of George Washington that definitely takes us back in time.

Weiss writes in her accompanying statement: "Photography allows me to see into the past in a way that I can't through my imagination. I can better understand what life was like during a different decade and culture by documenting the remnants from subjects and scenes that have remained at a standstill. This helps to explain how the past shapes what our society is today and how we value pieces of the past."

Taylor Johnson, an 11th-grader at Hammond, uses the medium to document the present moment in a way that implicitly asserts that photographs capture a moment for all time. Johnson’s photo “Autumn Leaves” depicts a young woman posing within a natural setting. As a portrait, it captures the appearance and personality of its subject. Photos are more than just documents, however, and Johnson had to make creative decisions in terms of how the human subject would have tree branches and leaves in close proximity. Moreover, there is a balance of sun and shade that plays out quite beautifully in the photo.

Johnson’s artist statement includes her mentioning that she had to pay attention to such formal issues as composition and detail as she took the photo: “This particular photo was taken on a walking trail near my house, a place I before considered to be very boring. Once I was there, I noticed all of the shadows and patterns that the leaves and branches created on my friend’s face and clothes. Now I know that it is essential to pay close attention to my surroundings, so even when I am close to home I can produce an interesting photograph.”

Quite a few of the other photographers in the show also have shot portraits in which they likewise have to think about how best to present human subjects. Renee Paulraj, an 11th-grader at Marriotts Ridge, has a photographic portrait, “Fearful of the Future,” in which a young girl is seated alone on a car seat. This black-and-white photo has an austere quality, and it also has an apprehensive quality owing to the worried look on the girl’s face.

Other photographers do not have human subjects, but instead offer photographic studies that amount to being contemplative still-life studies. Neelam Zala, a 12th-grader at Long Reach, has a photo titled “Eleven” that depicts a stack of pancakes topped with butter and with maple syrup running down the sides. This is such a close-up view that it has a humorously monumental quality. Where contemplation is concerned, the viewer might start contemplating what to have for breakfast the next morning.

Photographers have so many different potential subjects, styles and approaches that this sort of group exhibit provides examples of some of the technical challenges they face.

There are some photos shot at night, for instance, in which working with low light levels obviously is a concern. Zach Wallace, an 11th-grader at Atholton, visited Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to take a photo titled “Sugar” that depicts the iconic Domino Sugars sign casting an orange glow against the pitch-black water.

Another photo taken at night is by Jackson Ames, a 12th-grader at Atholton. “Galactic Neighbor” is aimed at the stars in the night sky, and they are shown as sharp points of light.

Most of the photographers have imagery that can be described in terms of stillness. People pose for photos, and landscapes, of course, basically also pose for a picture. A few of the photographers overtly call your attention to very still and unpopulated scenes. This is especially the case for Peyton Gomes, an 11th-grader at Oakland Mills, whose black-and-white “Empty Metro” presents a DC Metro car in which all of the seats are unoccupied. That empty feeling is reinforced in this photo by the way in which the empty seats are reflected in the train car’s windows.

By contrast to all that stillness, capturing action is absolutely the creative agenda for Michael McGraw, an 11th-grader at Hammond. His “Snap-Flip-Stick” eatures a skateboarder who is airborne above a concrete ramp. Of course, that movement has been captured at just the right moment and now amounts to frozen movement.

If most of the above-mentioned photographers are making creative decisions about documenting the people and places in their lives, there are some photographers who have a high degree of what might be termed stage management. In other words, they rearrange things and create a new reality. Ariana Angradi, an 11th-grader at River Hill, has a black-and-white photo titled “In Touch with Nature.” It's so tightly cropped that all you see are five arms extending into the photographic frame and collectively resting on a potted fern. The closed shutters in the background make it clear that this is an indoors scene, but otherwise there is no visual information to give you clues as to these persons’ identities or purpose. However, the picture does suggest that this is a scene in which nature has been so domesticated that these people do not even need to go outside.

And there are photographers who experiment with materials and tactics to make images that depart from the norm of a single photographic image. There are a good number of photographers who are interested in assembling photographic collages, for instance. Lilly Dunbar, an 11th-grader at Wilde Lake, has several overlapping, vertically arranged photos in “Grandparents Backyard.” The photos are so carefully arranged that there is a visually continuous and expansive view of a yard, house and overhead trees. This isn’t just a technical exercise, of course, because Dunbar is creatively documenting her grandparents’ house.

“Developing Understanding: The Photographer's Eye” runs through Jan. 30 at the Columbia Art Center, 6100 Foreland Garth in Long Reach Village Center in Columbia. Call 410-730-0075 or go to ColumbiaArtCenter.org

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