Irna Jay was explaining the photographs in her new exhibit when she stopped cold. "This one is crooked," she said, darting back to get a small red level to place over the scene of men playing pool on St. John Street.
The slight list was barely noticeable, but small details mean a lot to Jay. A documentary photographer, Jay uses those details to craft images that illuminate the world beyond her lens.
Now 54 of her photos, focusing on Havre de Grace, are on display at the Chesapeake Gallery at Harford Community College, in a show called Havre de Grace: A Living Portrait.
The photos record Havre de Grace over 10 years, ranging from work from Jay's time studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art to photos taken after she began teaching at the school.
"My instructors there encouraged me to photograph what I knew," said Jay. "And there's an infinite variety of things to photograph in this town."
The show includes black-and-white portraits and architectural images, as well as color photographs of places around the city. Two works were also digitally manipulated to contrast the older character and the new growth in Havre de Grace.
"Some of the places here that I photographed don't exist anymore, and I'm really glad I did that," she said. Many of the portraits tell similar stories, recalling the lives of people who have since died, such as police Sgt. Richard Deaner, photographed by his squad car. The pictures are "like seeing them again," Jay said.
Jay is newer to photography than she is to Harford County. She and her husband, Peter Jay, together published weekly newspapers in Harford from 1974 to 1990, when the company was bought out and Irna Jay retired.
The early retirement gave her the chance to take on a longstanding but previously unexplored interest: photography. Although she had been curious about photography since her childhood, her parents encouraged her to look elsewhere for a career. Jay studied at the University of Wisconsin, earning a degree in English, and went into journalism.
But her newspaper work further fueled her interest in photography. Susquehanna Publishing Co., the Jays' weekly newspaper business, began without a staff photographer. Reporters would often take their own pictures - and Jay would sometimes do so, as well.
So when Jay got the chance to revive her interest, she jumped. "I wanted to learn about it from a fine arts perspective," Jay said, in contrast to the photojournalism she'd seen in her newspaper career. She began taking photos and studying more about the craft, getting a certificate and eventually a master's in fine arts from MICA.
Jay's journalistic training in some ways helped her be a better photographer, said MICA photography professor Jack Wilgus. "She brought a lot to the medium in life experiences from all the different things she's done," Wilgus said. "That background has helped her a lot."
Wilgus added that Jay is "an extremely talented photographer. She's one of the best people we've had go through our program ever."
One reason her work is so strong is because Jay, who lives in Churchville, is so familiar with the people and places she documents, he said. "She really has a feeling for the area," he said. "She really knows her subjects well. I think that's important when you're photographing."
The current show not only gives Jay the chance to share some of the work she's accumulated over the years, it also contributes to the college, said Pamela Potter-Hennessey, an art history teacher at Harford Community College and coordinator of the show.
The documentary nature of the show "makes it useful for a number of students and faculty members," she said. Potter-Hennessey said she plans to bring students to examine the photos and discuss some of the values behind the works, like Jay's take on landscapes.
"I'm hoping people in other departments will use it," she said. "From the teacher's sense, I think it's perfect."
She added that because the show features places and people from nearby, it can also come across as more accessible to visitors, many of whom might not have had much previous exposure to art.
And in addition to being accessible, the photos are also artistically significant, she added. "They're really kind of revealing photos."
Tom Rankin, the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, said he's seen documentary efforts in recent years draw both more artists and more viewers. "I don't think documentary work has ever been more popular, more attracting, more interesting than right now."
Much of that work has centered on long-term local projects such as Jay's examination of Havre de Grace, he said.
"As the world becomes more and more virtual and more and more global, there's a feeling of wanting to be in touch with local places over time," Rankin said. "While photography always used to transport us places we couldn't go, it's often most powerful when it's just focused on what's right immediately around us and what's most ordinary."
For Jay, the show was more than the chance to share her work with others. It also gave her a reason to go back through the work she's accumulated over the years, sorting the prints of people and places from the past decade.
"I'm really glad to see some of them again," Jay said. "To me, the photos are old friends."