Scott Opirhory’s Photography Project ‘Fair Lawn’ Is an Intimate Homage to Caregiving and Aging

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It’s a subtle and quiet idea: photograph one place for a long while. Fair Lawn, Scott Opirhory’s book of photography and accompanying show at Full Circle Fine Art Services’ Gallery entitled Bring-Forth, are about seeing a single place, year after year, taking in the accrual of time, dust, pain, human presence, and aging.

The show consists of seven 3-by-3-foot archival inkjet images printed on cellulose and cotton paper, representing exterior and interior spaces of Opirhory’s grandmother’s home, which she inhabited for over 60 years. In an oblique way, the work documents the artist’s aging grandmother and his mother taking care of her as well as the in-between spaces of quiet, emptiness, light, and a yard with untamable shrubs.

Tacked to a wall, the decision not to frame the works makes each of the large photographs seem almost vulnerable. Each is imbued with a sense of how memory, pain, and beauty coalesce in aging bodies and the spaces we inhabit; the work feels both autobiographical and distant. Some of the photographs that look across the sparse rooms of the home fixate on delicate light coming through a window or across part of a body. They feel as though another figure is looking over Opirhory’s shoulder.

Scott Opirhory, untitled, digital photo (2016)

Opirhory grew up close to Fair Lawn, New Jersey, where his grandmother lived. He and his family would visit the house for the holidays, and while he was in college, in the summer of 1996, his mother moved back home to take care of his aging grandmother. “I was thinking about spaces and identity in college,” Opirhory says. “The town I grew up in experienced an influx of wealth, which made it hard to stay in one place for long. I thought about that a lot—the lack of security in moving around a lot.” While there was a lot of moving around, he says, “the house in Fair Lawn was always there to return to and the project was probably informed by being grateful to have that privilege… and the fear of losing it.”

The gallery show and publication of the book mark the end of an eight-year project, but Opirhory’s interest in these themes started earlier when he was an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design. For a photography course, he documented the towns his family lived in around Northern New Jersey. The way New Jersey’s suburbs are constantly in flux due to economic growth, immigration, and the daily movement of people to and from New York City mirrors some of the changes that affected Opirhory’s family. From that college project of 35mm black-and-white photographs, a single image—the exterior of the home on a dim winter day—became the cover of Fair Lawn. There’s something that feels a bit circular about that fact: the project’s narrow lens and documentation of three generations. 

It wasn’t until Opirhory shot an image from New Mexico (“Evening: October 11, 2011”; all the images in the back of the book are indexed by time of day and date)—the back of a woman’s hair, set ablaze in the evening New Mexico sun—that the project began to take shape. The image reminded him of his mother’s and grandmother’s hair. And the richness of the color recalled the work of William Eggleston, the seminal color photographer who often privileged objects over people, reminding us that things, rooms, and landscapes contain the drama and presence of people whether they are in the frame or have departed. 

Scott Opirhory, untitled, digital photo (2015-16)

Opirhory’s book, a small, hardback square, is intimate in my hands. Some images stretch across the binding, asking us to observe their four corners and enter. Others are much smaller and require turning the book to see them upright. Though the project feels so intimate, making the photographs in Fair Lawn involved the artist navigating the boundaries of the two women central to the project. Opirhory’s grandmother was very guarded and private about images being made of her; his mother was hesitant despite the fact that he wanted to honor his mother’s work, the nobility of caretaking, and the toll it exacts on people. That distance, though, allowed him to wander, to explore the house and develop his own relationship with it. 

A meditation on home, how it can both wound and protect you, the work also serves as an homage to light, color, and seasons that sweep across a part of New Jersey that can feel just as much like a non-place as a place. And it asks what happens to the geographic and emotional space across generations: children move away and return; what happens upon that return? 

The index at the back of the book cataloguing each image and its location was for Opirhory “a way to connect it to the larger world. It felt dark; and I wanted to make sure it felt less insular. This project is my way of making sense of things.” The work, for him, is a type of fiction. “It’s my way of transmuting this darkness and making a story out of it that honors the work my mom was doing without negating any of the personal challenges I’ve had with my mom.” 

The work is a reminder that memories have many subjective versions and facets. There’s a quote on the back cover of Fair Lawn by Bill Callahan, a musician whose lyrics and writing have the ability to form connective tissue for images that lack words: “The curtains rose and burned in the morning sun.” Callahan’s words stretch backwards across the page as though they’re being reflected in a mirror—an invocation to recall our own memories of the structures we inhabit and the people who have passed through them. I think my favorite image from the project is a blurry image of Opirhory’s mother outside the home. The artist appears in the image indirectly: his body, arms, and hands are what cause this movement in the long exposure. And in the blurriness of his mother’s form is the past and present—a sense of her mother’s passing and the moment the image was made.

Scott Opirhory, untitled, medium-format film (2015-16)

Bring-Forth is on view at Full Circle Fine Art Services’ Gallery through January 4. There will be an artist talk that day from 2–3 p.m. You can purchase a book from Opirhory directly and at the gallery. 

Featured image: Scott Opirhory, untitled, digital photo (2011). Photos courtesy of the artist.

Jonna McKone is a filmmaker, producer, artist, and educator based in Baltimore. With a sense of place and historical research, her work seeks to unravel and meditate on the interconnectedness of land, power, labor and memory. Her work has screened and exhibited at galleries and museums around the US—recently at the Zimmerli Art Museum and Black Rock Center for the Arts. She has reported public radio stories and developed podcasts for places like WNYC Studios, NPR’s All Things Considered, the New Yorker Radio Hour, the BBC, Gimlet, Dwell Magazine and many others.

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