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Remaining Decomposed

Pamela Zilly’s Decompositions photos expose fundamental elements.

Pamela Zilly is a nature photographer. She has spent hours in a shipyard in Gloucester, Mass., in an abandoned railroad yard in Altoona, PA. More recently, in Kensington, MD., she crept through a chain-link fence into an abandoned concrete-crushing plant. She shot the wall of a decrepit building at a spot where severed wires spiraled and zagged against cement stained pale lemon and taupe. She kept her distance and walked away silently. The homeless men whose voices floated from the building never knew she’d been there, photographing nature at its most ravenous and remorseless, slowly eating acres of steel.

“I love how nature attacks man-made surfaces. There’s a real beauty to decomposing matter that people might not notice,” Zilly explained. “I just find myself drawn to industrial workplaces: machinery, metallic surfaces, bolts and gears.

Zilly claimed that Decompositions, her show of photographs at the Art League Gallery in the Torpedo Factory that runs through Aug. 7, is “totally aesthetic: 100 percent.” This is not the case. In her studio, Zilly can show you pages of flowers. In those photos, tightly-wound progressions of petals and whorled leaves, miraculously delicate, are fixed in a moment of luminous perfection. Zilly’s flowers demonstrate that she’s capable of focused, aesthetic fireworks. But her rust is transcendent. It demonstrates that Zilly is capable of leaving an impact far less fleeting than the recognition of beauty.

“THE ONLY story I tell is basically open your eyes,” Zilly said. “It’s amazing how many people miss their day to day life.”

Zilly learned to see through a camera lens as an art student in Cholula, Mexico. She grew up in Schenectady, New York, and she said she went to Mexico “to get as far away from Schenectady as possible.”

But in Mexico, Schenectady finally caught her. Her grandfather had been the first person to import the illustrious, German-made Rolleiflex camera to the United States. Her parents were amateur photographers and her home had been littered with cameras. She’d had no interest in photography herself until she signed up for photo and darkroom classes at La Universidad de las Americas because her father gave her a camera. The first time she processed film, she watched the image rise to the surface of the paper beneath the rippling fluid. “And that was it,” she said. “It was all over … I discovered the magic of photography.”

Zilly has spent 28 years making a living as a photographer. For 11 years she shot stock images to be sold to advertisers and magazines when they needed a photo of a particular subject. Her company sold the photos as slides, and the each slide had to be compositionally perfect. It was bad for business to tell a client that an image would have to be cropped. “It was a great training tool,” Zilly explained.

She said she does almost all of her composing with her camera. She rarely alters a shot after it has been taken, although in recent years the ease and power of Photoshop to manipulate digital images has become a temptation she occasionally can’t resist.

ZILLY’S PHOTOGRAPHS are frequently compared to paintings. They reveal texture and color so deeply that many people cannot believe they are a one-dimensional register of something else. They are also composed like paintings. “In just about every object, you see can that there’s a graphic simplicity to my work,” Zilly said.

She brings up the Old Masters when she discusses this aspect of her art: the rule of thirds, repetition of shapes. For Decompositions, it was the formal composition, Zilly said, not a desire to portray discreet objects in a particular way, that determined what she carefully aligned within her camera’s aperture. This means that the photos in Decompositions lack scale: a few inches of the doorjamb of a bulldozer, an eight-foot section of a boat’s hull, the ladder on a boxcar, a line of rivets, the corner of a building, the joint of an excavator arm, two round tail-lights – all are presented in high-definition abstraction: chipped paint, distressed metal, rust.

“I’ve always loved close-up photography,” Zilly explained. “I’ve always loved looking very closely at things.” She described her struggle to walk down streets without getting distracted, particularly by things that others might never notice.

“I’ve always looked around,” Zilly said. “I’ve always enjoyed looking.”

When asked, Zilly is hesitant to name the objects portrayed in Decompositions. The photographs on the gallery wall are moments of her long looking, labeling them with their original identities is misleading. What those objects were, whether boats, earthmovers or boxcars, is the least important thing about them. They are not locked behind chainlink fences because of what they were. They are locked away, to be the haunts of the homeless, because they are reminders that what they are (and we are) is really only what they are becoming.