pho·tog·ra·phy, fə-ˈtä-grə-fē, phōtos graphé, “drawing with light”: But What is it Really?

Ingrid Ma on Ginevra Shay–photographer, curator, and alley-wanderer.

“The thing that I love… is destroying humanity,” she finished, peering from her subtle cat-eye frames with a cheery smile. Coming from the soft-spoken Ginevra Shay, these words are quite the surprise. But in taking a closer look at Shay’s photography, the meaning behind her statement becomes clear.

Shay grew up surrounded by the arts. Both her parents are abstract painters, and she spent much of her childhood accompanying them to openings and warehouse studio spaces. Once in high school, and after toiling with several art mediums, Shay found her element in photography. “I needed something that was pragmatic and structured, something that was very process-driven,” she explained. But her exploration didn’t stop there.

In college at the University of Vermont, she dove into courses in photo history, anthropology, philosophy and science, quickly becoming influenced by the likes of Brecht and Post-Structuralist thinkers like Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari. Initially following a traditional trajectory, Shay reveled in photography’s ability to bridge connections between herself and new people and places: “I saw photography as a social medium, more so than others.” But after a disorienting epiphany, Shay quickly turned her back on portraits, landscapes, and referential materials, disgusted by what her camera had become, by what she suddenly viewed as an aggressive phallic apparatus, an invasive and gun-like tool.

This led to a deconstruction and reevaluation of the very medium she’d fallen for. By definition, photography means “drawing with light.” It’s a vague terminology, but made for a good starting point for Shay to begin her cathartic reversal, her return to the fundamentals of photography. This is what Shay speaks to when she talks about destroying humanity. In seeing the medium devolve at her own hands, Shay found a passion for abstraction, for dissembling narrative.

The artist began building her own crude, picture-taking devices. At one time, she even built a massive 4’ by 3’ pinhole camera that necessitated 45 minutes to take an image, and an indistinct image at that. Shay then completely abandoned the camera and started making photograms, before reaching a point where she started destroying her darkroom images. This was exactly approach she took for Bronzelidded, a project she created last year for a Yale Photobook Exhibition. It’s composed of eleven smelly, unbound, bleached, and chemically altered images. She calls it, endearingly, her “anti-photobook.” In this stage in her career, Shay’s developed a complex relationship with photography, but it’s one she’s come to understand very well.

From Bronzelidded

I was interested to know if any part of Shay’s motivation for working this way comes from disillusionment with recent technological developments in the field. We can all relate to the path photography has taken, in some way or another. For me, it’s crazy to think about how my birth was documented on date and time-stamped negatives and my childhood on Polaroids, whereas my middle and high school days were documented on tiny digital point-and-shoots, and my right now, on smartphones. The shift from film to digital perfectly bisects my life. Talk to any photographer or film director: the competitive struggle between these two forms can be poignantly felt.

To Shay, the rivalry makes perfect sense. After all, she noted, photography has only recently become regarded as an art form. Its historical roots ground it in commercial business and scientific endeavors—not the most fortuitous of beginnings. But Shay maintains a more optimistic outlook: “I’m very opposed to the either/or conversation in photography—digital versus analog, I really hate that. Photography now, more so than ever, is in this really amazing place where every medium within photography is viable—everything from cyanotypes and tintypes and alt-processes, to digital.”

Besides working as an artist, Shay is also a curator. She got her start in curation while at school in Vermont. During a visit to New Orleans, following the aftermath of Katrina, Shay volunteered at a struggling food pantry and was moved to organize a fundraising event once she returned. She asked friends to donate artwork, local bands to play, and several businesses to donate gift certificates. “It was my first time experiencing how curation could really inspire people, move a community, and bring people together,” she said, and she’s continued to curate ever since. Shay currently serves as The Contemporary’s Program Manager. Their current exhibition is located in the KAGRO building in Station North with the much-hyped and well-received Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green. Shay is currently in the process of programming future shows.

Shay currently resides in a Station North warehouse space, along with her husband and six other friends. It’s an artist’s dream—open, affordable, and an ideal fusion ground for work and life minus work, devoid of interruptions and societal pressures. When she needs to get out and think, Shay says she enjoys walking through alleys.

“I think they’re a really underappreciated area and it’s interesting to see almost, the inner workings of the city,” she explains. “When you walk down the street, you have set expectations of what you’re going to see, right, you’re going to see streetlights and front doors and maybe some plants, maybe someone’s hanging out on their stoop, but if you’re walking through the alleys, you have no idea what you’ll come across. You know, maybe you’ll find some weird dog hanging out in the backyard, or maybe you’ll see some cool car, or someone’s secret garden. I think it’s just full of possibilities.”

 Ingrid Ma is a biology geek, film junkie, undisciplined coin-collector and admirer of tiny absurdities.

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