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It’s fitting that photographer Cynthia Connolly’s first solo show in Washington is in a storefront. The façades of rural Alabama shops feature in the Transformer Gallery exhibition, whose title was inspired by signs and handmade posters she encountered in the Southern state. Calling the show “Cynthia Connolly Photogs.,” she explains, is a tribute to the cryptic placards that greeted her in Hale and Perry Counties.
Connolly was surprised that signs advertising local businesses and events, several examples of which are currently mounted on Transformer’s back wall, seldom include such routine information as addresses and phone numbers. “Those posters show that the community knows each other. They all know what everybody else does.”
But they didn’t know Connolly, who spent August 2002 through July 2003 in the area, working on a project at the Rural Studio Program of Auburn University. “It was like being part of a club, and I will never be part of a club,” she says. “I said I was from Virginia, purposefully, so it sounded like I was from the South. But the way I acted, to the people I talked to, I was a Northerner.”
Sometimes, Connolly discovered that people really were keeping secrets. “At the very end, I went to a place that will remain nameless, but they served moonshine. It wasn’t ’til I was leaving that they revealed that they sold liquor that somebody obviously made somewhere around there. That was pretty rare, that I even got to see that.”
Another mystery was the local cuisine, which consisted largely of pork barbecue, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. “I tried to find vegetables,” Connolly recalls, “because there weren’t any. Being a vegetarian was exceptionally hard.”
The veggie dearth ultimately led to Connolly’s main project for the program: building a stand for a local organic farmer. “I couldn’t believe that in a place they call the Black Belt, where the soil was supposed to be so fertile, that there weren’t people growing vegetables. Then I ran into this woman. I was helping her with ideas about how to sell her vegetables. She wanted a vegetable stand, so we designed and built one.”
Some of the photos in the Transformer show (which continues through May 7) are closeups of structural parts and exterior textures, reflecting Connolly’s interest in the construction process. “I really wanted to build something, and I really wanted to just learn about building. So I took photographs of design elements that I thought of as being of the Southern vernacular.”
Other shots apply techniques that the photographer first used in big-sky country. She divides a scene into multiple 35mm images or shoots with an old Japanese half-frame camera, which splits each frame in two. She discovered the latter, which was originally designed to maximize then-expensive color film, in the camera collection of her late uncle.
“I didn’t like panoramic cameras. I didn’t like the distortion, so I was trying to do it with a regular camera,” she says. “Then when I found the half-frame, it was like, This the same thing, but a different way to do it.”
Though this is her maiden show, Connolly is hardly an unknown around the Washington art scene. Now the director of Ballston’s Ellipse Arts Center, Connolly has deep local punk roots, including stints booking downtown venue d.c. space (which closed in 1993) and working for Dischord Records, as well as helping to compile Banned in D.C., a book of photos of the D.C. hardcore scene. She notes that Corcoran Gallery of Art photography curator Paul Roth sees a connection between that book and her Alabama work.
“He talked about how it was a subculture. I’m wondering if that’s what I’m attracted to. The discovery of the subculture. That it makes me happy that it exists. That we’re not all the same. Maybe that’s what I’m always looking for.” —Mark Jenkins