A huddle gathers in the middle of Studio San Giuseppe. It is sunny outside.

Mount St. Joseph University gallery exhibition black and white photograph

Volleyballers yell nearby. Discussions about placement of photos arise. Pieces line the floor and lean against the walls. Was there tape outlining where the pieces ought to be? A plane flies deafeningly overhead. There’s plastic under them, I think. Velma Dailey motions for me to wait as she finishes speaking.

Artist-slash-photographers Deborah Orloff and Ruth Adams are deciding where and how their art is to be hung and ordered in the studio. I peruse their art as I wait. The people and settings in the images feel oddly familiar, and I experience a nostalgia that doesn’t belong to me. The monochrome photography, the black-and-white color scheme—and maybe sepia? —represent the grayness and ambiguity of memory.

This style is predominant in Orloff’s exhibit “Elusive Memory,” which was inspired by her eulogy for her father. “It occurred to me that all of my memories were tied to specific photographs and I started wondering if I really remembered all of those things or if I just remembered the photographs and I realized I couldn’t separate them.”

Seeking to explore the connection between memory and photography, Orloff was able to realize this relationship creatively when her father’s house was being sold and family photos damaged by heat, water, and time were found in the basement. With parts of the photos missing, including faces and other information, Orloff could showcase what she calls the “fallibility and illusion of memory.”

I continue studying some of the pieces awaiting positioning. Various landscapes and artifacts serve as the centerpiece for many of the photographs. One depicts fragments of a gravestone that have been attempted to be pieced back together as much as possible. A part of Adams’s exhibit, entitled “Per Noi: Conversations with the Ancestors,” the brokenness stands emphatic at the forefront.

“The cultures in Italy and Germany went through a really difficult time in World War II,” says Adams, “and everybody has started to recover from all of that trauma…by remembering their past and by dealing with their past and by understanding what happened.”

Having photographed Catholic cemeteries in Italy and Jewish ones in Germany, Adams sensed in each of them an invitation to commune with deceased ancestors. This is common in Jewish tradition, visitors to ancestral graves leaving stones as an indication of their time spent with the deceased.

“It’s a marker of ‘I was here, I remember, I remember you, I remember what you went through, I remember my ancestry,’” Adams notes.

Both of these bodies of work on the nature of memorial erosion were noticed by retired Mount professor  John Griffith, who saw their work at a conference and identified the connection. Without knowing Adams and Orloff were already acquainted, he suggested they combine their exhibits into one called “Eroded Histories.”

That erosion—that damage and fragmentedness—develops into a feeling. Something perceptible on the inside.

Someone walks by, surveying all of the pieces. I remain glued to another photo of an empty chair—an invitation. It is only by listening and learning about our past that mistakes are not repeated and compassion begins to heal national and international turmoil, Adams maintains.

Orloff’s newest chapter in her exhibit includes passports and identification photos, correlating with that theme of globalism. Arising out of the realization that her family’s history is sparse because her ancestors had fled Russia, now Ukraine, in the 1800s because of political violence, this new chapter has “come full circle with what’s going on in Ukraine now,” says Orloff.

“This idea of remembering what happened and learning from history and from the past I think is really important in both of our projects,” she continues, “and I’m now thinking much more about that immigration or that forced immigration experience.”

Many of the photos are out of focus, which signifies what we can’t see, which are the lost histories. When a people flee an area for any reason, houses, possessions, and physical things are lost, but so too are cultures and legacies, which cannot be replaced.

This is where the exhibits begin to cohere because while “visually they look very different there is this idea of cultural, historical trauma and that idea of what’s lost and trying to remember,” Orloff notes.

There is a Jewish cemetery in downtown Berlin pictured in Adams’s exhibit that is completely destroyed, so much so that the gravestones are completely gone. However, there are still stone markers there, meaning people are determined to remember.

By reconnecting with the past, healing begins to take place, and resurrection becomes a possibility. As Velma Dailey introduces me to Deborah Orloff and Ruth Adams, I am confronted with the notion that remembrance is key to mending what’s broken and what’s lost.

Filling in the missing pieces and the quest to remember reveals the problem of digital photos. While they are not as easily lost, they usually aren’t used for remembering occasions. The physicality of photographs makes them susceptible to damage, but that only gives them greater value.

“Because I’m denying the viewer a lot of that visual information that identifies who the people are,” says Orloff, “it could be your family…so on a certain level, there’s that universal quality that the viewer can impose…and I think that that’s one of the powerful things art can do is that people can relate; they can connect to it in some way.”

Damage encourages connection, and therefore conversely immortalizes that which is damaged. As I introduce myself to Orloff and Adams, I am finally made aware of that truth, suddenly recalling that the latter’s pieces are printed on platinum palladium, a metal resistant to corrosion.

“One of the reasons I did that,” Adams says, “was to speak to this idea of the importance of the photograph, the importance of the memory…those images will be here way longer than we will…So I’m purposely taking a stand and saying, ‘I’m making this image to last…because it’s actually made out of a precious metal.’”

With a recognition of what has been shattered, utterly destroyed, forgotten, and misplaced, and a solution laid bare, I am renewed with hope meeting the photographers—the protectors of the past.

And so we exited the building, where the volleyballers yelled and the planes flew, and began the interview.