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A New Photography Zine Explores Concepts of Home


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Mary Zompetti's new book, 45 Degrees North - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Mary Zompetti's new book, 45 Degrees North

Artists' books, true to their makers and the genre, come in myriad sizes and formats and with their own truths. Some are handmade in limited editions, signed and numbered by the artist. Others are commercially oriented, mass-produced endeavors.

Photographer Mary Zompetti's new publication, 45 Degrees North, straddles the line between those extremes: It's both precious and commercial. Only 75 copies of the fall issue were made, and each is signed and numbered by the artist. But, produced by Villanti Printers in Milton, the book has a clean, professional look.

45 Degrees North is petite, just 6.5 by 7 inches, with 24 pages featuring mostly color photographs: of cedar trees, dry grass stalks in barren fall fields, faded fences. Multiple-exposure images combine shots of the lake or clouds with terrestrial elements. The subject is Zompetti's home in Grand Isle, or, more accurately, "the physical and psychic landscapes of home and place," she writes in an artist statement.

This is Zompetti's first book, partially funded by a grant from the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation. She plans to publish an installment quarterly for an indefinite period, with each new issue coming out at the end of a season. If the form is new to her, the work is familiar in its extrasensory explorations.

Zompetti, 38, earned her MFA in visual arts at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University; she is currently the photography program director and a teaching artist at Burlington City Arts. Her eye tends to find intangible, emotive elements within natural and human environments or to create such elements through experimental techniques. Past projects that succinctly demonstrated that vibe include Zompetti's eerie documentation of the now-closed Memorial Auditorium in downtown Burlington, and a haunting installation with Overnight Projects in the former St. Joseph's Orphanage on North Avenue.

In 45 Degrees North, a reference to the approximate latitude of Zompetti's house, the photographer manipulates her negatives in a variety of ways. She uses food coloring and sandpaper on them, and even microwaves them, embracing imperfection and transformation in the process.

"Through this work," Zompetti writes in her statement, "I seek to explore the fluid boundaries of past and present, the tensions between domestic comfort and unease, and the energetic imprints that emotional experience can leave behind in the ever-changing physical and psychic terrain of the home."

45 Degrees North, Issue 1, Fall 2017, is available at maryzompetti.com. $25.

The results certainly create a sense of tension in the viewer. Rather than stemming from a particular object depicted, that tension is a poetic effect created by Zompetti's habit of excerpting or enlarging pieces of one image to craft a new photo. The technique invites the viewer to compare the new image and the original, trying to place the detail and understand its context, as well as why Zompetti has asked us to focus on it.

That quandary is evident in a rare image of her house in the book's centerfold. (Most of the photos depict the landscape; with this placement, Zompetti may be stressing the importance of the house to, or its absence from, the rest of the publication.) The image shows a red farmhouse beyond an overgrown field. A cluster of red-ringed black dots, an effect of some unknown process, obscures most of the structure.

The preceding spread features two excerpts from that image. One shows blurred, bare branches against a blue sky. In the other, four images bring our visual field successively closer to the dots, until they fill the frame.

Viewers can only speculate on the significance of those excerpts, toggling between pages in search of source material and possible clues. The effort is engaging, puzzle-like. This is not a book you "read" from front to back, or just once; Zompetti's methods encourage sustained attention.

So does her subject matter. The artist's focus on the natural landscape, with brief glimpses of her home's exterior, invites the viewer to question the meaning of house and home. That quest is aided by a quote in Zompetti's opening essay, from Yi-Fu Tuan's 1975 book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience: "Place is security, space is freedom. We are attached to the one, and long for the other."

The images in 45 Degrees North exist outside the "place" or the home in that they depict the natural landscape. This terrain appears in a wild, overgrown state that is simultaneously barren and exciting. But these images are not free from the home, any more than is Tuan's concept of space. They depend on it and call to it, as when the house appears at a distance through trees or more closely in the center spread.

45 Degrees North evokes the feelings we may have about where we live, the reasons we stay and what it might be like to test the boundaries.

Zompetti is currently working on the winter issue, "which will be quiet, dark and reflective," she says. "Last week, I shot a roll of film layering exposures of the winter sky, the frozen lake and the waxing moon. It is currently sitting, unprocessed, in a jar of snow outside my studio."

Even the weather inspires Zompetti to experiment. "I am curious to see the environmental impact of melting, freezing and refreezing, [and what they] do to the emulsion of the film before it's processed," she explains.

"Looking ahead, I imagine the summer issue to be a riot of color, light and life, a very different experience," Zompetti continues. "I am thinking about 'planting' some negatives in the garden in the spring, just to see how the soil and wetness damage the emulsion of the film."


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