Miami Photographer Finds Beauty in the Mundane

Peggy Levison Nolan's path from the projects to her first solo show at an art gallery went something like this: marriage, seven kids, dreams of becoming a photographer, shoplifting a lot of film.

From there, the Miami local taught herself to shoot and print pictures, stole more film, moved out of the projects and returned to college, got divorced, got pierced up, graduated from Florida International University, and stole some more film.

Today, the kids have grown up and left home. Through it all, Nolan has never stopped shooting pictures. The result is a staggeringly impressive photography exhibit, "People, Places and Things," showing at the Dina Mitrani Gallery in Wynwood.

The exhibition is a compilation of many years of seeing and capturing everyday things in a manner that leaves an indelible impact on the senses. Nolan's overarching strength is to remind us how easy it can be to coast through everyday life blinkered. Her images vibrate with energy beyond their stillness.

And lest some folks get the notion Nolan, a photography instructor at FIU, has been laboring in obscurity, her work is included in collections such as MoMA in New York, SF MoMA, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

"She's been photographing for 45 years," gallery owner Dina Mitrani says. "She told me that originally her father gave her a camera so she could send him pictures of the grandkids. But she's a truly gifted talent I have been promising a show since I first envisioned opening my own space ten years ago."

The artist's color-saturated pictures transport viewers to a state of innocence from where immediacy and authenticity flow undiluted. It's as if Nolan has a divining rod for ferreting out beauty from moments others might not even notice.

At the Dina Mitrani gallery, Nolan has decked the walls with images of the nooks and crannies of her own home as well as the people she's encountered where "the secrets of life are lodged in ordinariness," as she puts it.

Her pictures range from a wildly disarrayed child's room, to the back of President Clinton's dome while he's being cheered by a throng, to a blank-faced baby floating in milky bathwater.

Nolan has snapped the more than two dozen untitled photos over the course of her career. But they reveal the soulful inner world of an artist whose lucid approach eschews conventions with ease and assurance.

Mitrani believes Nolan was hesitant to exhibit her work more frequently (the photographer has been involved in only a handful of group shows over the past decade) because she is a purist who did not promote herself and was wary of the commercial aspects of the art world.

In her unusual photograph of Clinton, Nolan captures him from behind, but he is still recognizable.

"I was walking along the streets of New York when I saw all these limos and people and went over to see what was going on," Nolan says. "Clinton had been exercising with these yoga women who each paid $2,500 for a Hillary fundraiser."

After Clinton finished creaking through his yoga poses, he exited the studio to greet well-wishers gathered on the sidewalk with cell-phone cameras in hand.

"I didn't know if I'd get anything good," she says. But the result conveys Nolan's approach to her craft.

"I'm not interested in the slam dunk, but I defy anyone to shoot a ball of hair on the ground better than I can," she laughs.

Nolan explains that although she often attends "theory night" gatherings at local museums, she considers herself "more grounded in populist thought."

She says she feels more comfortable capturing hearth and home than something staged in a studio. "For me, there is a direct personal agenda in the work. I'm deeply rooted in my family — that's pretty heavy for me."

Her grandkids are often subjects, as are the corners of her kitchen or even the kitchen sink.

"One of the reasons I finally decided to do this solo show was to speak up in the community," she says. "These days, photography is a lot about an intimidating orchestration of reality. That's OK, but I wanted to be a cheerleader for something else."

One of the most delightful images on display is a photo of Nolan's granddaughter, Alice, floating on her back in a tub. Plastic letters and bath toys accidentally arrange like a halo or a speech bubble around the toddler's head, conveying a sense that the girl has something vital to say. The image is at once thought-provoking and endearing.

In a picture of a friend's tyke, Nolan captures the kid's bottom as the child disappears into her unmade bunk bed. The child appears to have been caught fleeing a parent into a bedroom that's a riotous jumble of colorful laundry and toys.

In an intriguing portrait of her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter, Nolan captures the family lazily reading a newspaper in bed on a Sunday morning. The adults' faces are obscured by the pages while the baby sits quietly between them, appearing transfixed by the bright geometric patterns on the bedspread.

Nolan's work is best in images such as the one of her kitchen sink, in which a dishrag flies full banner from the sink's aluminum spigot while a sponge rests nearby. Sunlight filtering through a window casts a half-empty dishwashing liquid bottle in a warm amber glow. Next to it, in a black-and-white picture, a howling baby crops up, adding a hint of comic relief.

Nolan mentions that at one time, she photographed weddings to support herself rather than venture into the dog-eat-dog gallery scene.

"I would tell my clients that I was an artist shooting a wedding and was a real hard-ass about it," she chuckles. "What made me stop was that I felt I was losing my edge. I finally decided it was time for me to speak up."

Nolan pauses to mention that last June, she was run over by a truck while riding her bike and lost a kidney because of the accident. "It gave me perspective about how fragile life is, and I felt it was time to do this."

Her debut at the Dina Mitrani Gallery is not only long overdue but also a full-throated roar that Nolan's talent is way too loud and mighty to ignore.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus