The Church Hosts Annual Pierson High School Student Photography Exhibit

Patrons check out the artwork during the opening reception of the fifth Sag Harbor in Focus exhibition of photography by Pierson High School students at The Church on Friday afternoon. MICHAEL HELLER

Making sense of the last year has been a challenge for high school students across the country, many of whom have struggled to adapt to the many ways their normal lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Expressing themselves and the way they see the world through art has been particularly crucial for many teens, and for photography students at Pierson High School, the chance to put that work on display, in person, in a stunning new location was presented to them last weekend.

The Church in Sag Harbor — an arts exhibition center owned by Eric Fischl and April Gornik that was formerly a Methodist Church — hosted the “Sag Harbor In Focus” show, an annual exhibition of works of photography by Pierson High School students. While the show is in its fifth year, it marked the first time that pieces were exhibited in the newly renovated art space located on Madison Street in Sag Harbor Village. Previous shows had been hosted by the Whaling Museum. The pieces will be on exhibit through May 31.

This year, the juried show was curated by Mary Ellen Bartley, a professional artist and photographer who was charged with choosing the pieces from a large number of submissions, and determining which photos she thought were most effective in several different categories, including virtual learning, portraiture, still life, home, the outside world and more.

Pierson High School art teacher Peter Solow, who helped put the show together and worked with students to choose photos to submit, said they faced many challenges this year in putting the show together because of COVID, with many students not having access to digital 35mm or SLR cameras, and many without access to Photoshop because of remote learning, but he said the work was stellar in spite of those obstacles. He added that it was a landmark moment for the students in other ways as well.

“This was a remarkable show in the sense that it was the first time they’ve had an opportunity in real life to exhibit their work,” he said, adding that over the past year, exhibits have been online only. He also pointed out that the exhibit was the first official opening for The Church, which recently completed a long renovation project.

The purpose of the show over the past few years has been to show the students that they don’t need to travel to far flung or exotic locations to take compelling, impactful photos.

“There’s a lot of stuff in town worth looking at or seeing,” Mr. Solow said. “These kids are capable of really terrific work, but it’s equally important that they have a particular perspective that may be different from others in the community. Over the years, these shows have had a variety of different work, but with the theme of Sag Harbor and the East End being central to it.”

For Ms. Bartley, some of the most resonant and compelling photos dealt with subjects that might be considered mundane. She said she was struck by one photo in particular that depicted a laptop on an empty bed, with the bedroom windows surrounding the scene.

“It had this feeling of absence and presence and isolate, both inside and outside,” she said. “It really felt like the times.”

Ms. Bartley referenced another photo that stood out to her, of the outdoor kiosk at Havens Beach, layered with signage related to COVID rules and regulations. It included the beach attendant, wearing a mask and gloves.

“It looked like a Bernice Abbott photo of old New York,” she said. “She took ephemeral photos of things that now seem so rich, but at the time, people maybe thought, ‘Why did you do that?’”

It was one of many photos that Ms. Bartley felt did a good job of capturing the specificity of the pandemic times the students have been living through.

Iaiela Saldivar, an 18-year-old senior who has taken advanced photography classes at the school for two years, had several photos on display in the exhibit. She drew a lot of praise for one piece in particular, which she called The Thanksgiving. She had been assigned to take a photo over the Thanksgiving holiday, and was inspired to take the shot after finishing up the meal she shared with her foster family. The photo depicts the table in its post-dinner, pre-cleanup mode, showing just the table and mostly empty plates, glasses, and food serving dishes.

“What I was thinking about was after Thanksgiving dinner, how does it look when everyone is done,” Ms. Saldivar said, adding she didn’t expect the photo to draw the praise and attention that it received.

Earning accolades for her work was just part of what made the weekend special for Ms. Saldivar and the students who participated. The chance to showcase their work in such a new and vibrant art center that figures to be a big part of the local art community was a thrill, she said, and added that coming together in person was a powerful experience as well. Ms. Saldivar expressed gratitude for having the chance to meet with The Church’s owners, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik, ahead of time, and said she was excited to hear about their plans to make the space available to young artists in the town as a place to come and expand on their passions.

“Being a part of it was so wonderful,” Ms. Saldivar said. “It was the first time going into the church since it’s been rebuilt, and it was really lovely. It was a beautiful atmosphere.”

Mr. Solow said he was thrilled that the school district was supportive of allowing the students to have an in-person exhibit.

“I’ve known some of these kids for awhile, and some of them I hadn’t seen in real life in more than a year,” he said.

It was such a momentous experience for Ms. Saldivar that she said she’s since made some alterations to her plans for when she graduates next month. Ms. Saldivar is planning on attending community college in New York City, and previously had not planned on pursuing photography as a course of study, but after her experience participating in the exhibit, she said she’s reconsidering that choice now.

“When I was talking to all the artists and photographers I met at the event, it really did change my mind about what I wanted to do,” she said. “I feel like I still want to have a part of me doing photography. I still want to have art with me.”

Ms. Bartley says that kind of feeling can be credited both to the access to the artistic community that The Church provides and the influence of Mr. Solow.

“Peter is such a fantastic teacher and friend to the kids,” she said. “And The Church having the work exhibited there had to have been inspiring to them. It looks really special.”