Saying it with pictures

Photography exhibit as sociological experiment at 1078 Gallery

IN YER DRAWERS <br>Three examples from Paho Mann’s <i>Junk Drawer </i>show.

Three examples from Paho Mann’s Junk Drawer show.

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Junk Drawer is a collection of photographs that University of North Texas photography professor Paho Mann began taking in 2000, when he was living in Albuquerque, N.M. Mann took pictures of the contents squirreled away in the junk drawers in his friends’ kitchens, looking for a “persistent mark of individuality in a culture that brands, packages and relentlessly promotes conformity,” as he succinctly writes on his Web site.

“I always photographed the one in the kitchen,” the engaging 30-year-old said while talking by phone from his home in Denton, Texas, about his current show at 1078 Gallery, adding, “not in the office or the bedroom. It was always the one that’s right under the counter.”

Mann abandoned a similar project photographing people’s medicine cabinets (a short series titled Medicine Cabinets) that he’d begun shortly before moving into his junk-drawer project because he found that “medicine cabinets had secrets—I’m not really interested in secrets.”

In junk drawers, he pointed out, “no one’s hiding anything too risqué. It’s more like they’re just putting it out of sight.”

Mann’s initial curiosity revolved around how the contents of the ubiquitous junk drawer would reveal “how different we all are.”

“In the end,” he offered, “they actually show how similar we all are. … Everybody has batteries, and miscellaneous cables. Like a telephone cable—everybody seemed to have one of those. … Everyone has tape. And playing cards.”

Mann (whose Hopi-Zuni first name means “prayer stick”) loves to make photographic art from the mundane, even the cast-aside.

For his 2007-08 North Gateway Transfer Station Project, Mann took almost 6,000 photos of recyclable items he had chosen randomly from the tons of recycling being processed at the large Phoenix recycling transfer station, setting each piece off against a black background he’d set up in a makeshift on-site “studio.” Mann then created composite images by overlaying and manipulating photographs of items of a certain color. Combining overlays with individual photos arranged in a grid fashion resulted in art-photographs—with such clear-cut names as “Black Plastic,” “White Plastic” and “Yellow Plastic”—that are visually striking, almost hypnotic in their simple beauty.

For an earlier project, Mann spent most of 2005 photographing every single thing that he and his partner Leigh owned in their apartment.

Mann named that project Sort, and all 3,500 items can be viewed at Viewers can sort items by color, size, material, location, etc., creating a unique piece of online artwork that the viewer can save for others to look at.

Entering the keywords “red” and “bedroom,” for instance, brings up pictures of all 40 red items in the couple‘s bedroom, including a red bra, a red dresser and a red bandana. “Food,” “kitchen” and “occasionally [used]” results in a 73-item display, in which everyday items such as a can of Hershey’s cocoa mix, a partially used bag of Safeway-brand yellow corn meal and three half-empty, blue-plastic, ice cube trays achieve a kind of artistic importance, laid out as they are in a grid-like fashion on a black background.

As with his other work, Mann sets off his junk-drawer photos with a black background, thus drawing the observer’s eye fully to the contents of the drawers. One long, skinny drawer, titled “Junk Drawer, Tempe AZ,” holds Elmer’s glue, packing tape and rubber bands, among its other contents. Another, titled “Junk Drawer, New York NY,” is unusually organized for a junk drawer. Its contents—felt pens, matches, candles and what looks like half of a telephone—are put away neatly in white, rectangular, plastic inserts.

Still another—also a tidy exception to the usual slapdash rule of junk drawers—has its collection of AA batteries lined up neatly along the front, right edge of the drawer.

“It’s generally interesting to people, looking at what other people have compared to what they own,” Mann said, summing up the series’ mildly voyeuristic attraction.