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Seeing the world in a different light
MJ Sharp '83
Now hear this: clockwise from back left, Eric Hölljes, Ian Hölljes, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Brittany Hölljes
Sharp photographed during Highland Games in Virginia
Beth Ann Koelsch

Many in the Duke community associate the Allen Building’s second floor with the university’s senior administration. But for several months this past fall, its corridors served as exhibition space for a collection of haunting nighttime photographs. “Waiting in the Dark: Photographs by MJ Sharp” featured eighteen color prints taken with a large-format, extended-exposure camera.

The resulting images are otherworldly: A water-tower dome, framed through the tops of trees, looks like an alien pod or an oversized egg. Sheep clustered in a field assume a spooky vibe as their glowing eyes are illuminated by the moon. An unidentifiable celestial streak above an outbuilding on a lonely stretch of highway hints at intergalactic activity.

In the show’s introduction, Sharp wrote that shooting at night changes the visual vocabulary of what is in the frame. “Rather than loudly proclaiming its contents, as a daytime composition would be tempted to do, the nighttime version speaks sotto voce, only whispering its impression of what was there.”

Like most artists, Sharp’s current work is an outgrowth of what came before. For years she was a staff photographer at Durham’s Independent Weekly newspaper. But when an illness in her family called her back home to Tennessee, she realized that the pace of working for a weekly had taken its toll. “It felt as though I had constantly been in the breaking surf. I knew I needed to step away from that pace.” For several years, she abandoned photography.

Path to the Sea
As Time Goes By:
Path to the Sea, an hours-long exposure taken on the Firth of Forth in Scotland
MJ Sharp

As she helped her family grapple with the effects of illness and convalescence, Sharp says she began to long for solitude and calm. One night, she noticed a splash of purple coneflowers growing in her neighbor’s yard. The stillness of night and the way the ambient light transformed the natural world struck a chord. She picked up a camera again and pursued documentary photography with a newfound sense of purpose. She went back to school, earning an M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then taught photography classes at UNC, UNC-Greensboro, and Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. And she kept photographing night scenes, from oddly anthropomorphic patio furniture bound in plastic tarps for the winter to the predawn hint of blue on a Lady Banks rose.

In February 2010, Sharp embarked on a photographic expedition to the Scottish Highlands, funded through a patronage model inspired by community-supported agriculture initiatives. Rather than have an individual or family buy shares of a farmer’s forthcoming harvest, Sharp invited past collectors of her work and their friends to invest in the trip. People bought shares that corresponded to print sizes, and by paying in advance, they got a discount from Sharp’s normal print prices.

“It’s really a win-win arrangement,” says Sharp. “As an artist you get your funding up-front, and the patron can select from my new work or from something I’ve already done. And I loved the idea of crossing the ocean like an explorer, with my supporters waiting to see what I brought back.”

View more of Sharp's work.