In a crisp, close-cropped, black and white photo of a young girl playing “Connect Four” with an anonymous opponent represented only by an outstretched arm (photo at near left), the viewer’s eye is continually drawn to the young girl’s eyes. This is slightly remarkable, considering that her face is left of center in the photograph, and her eyes are gazing up and to the right, toward the “action” of the scene, where her own left hand and her opponent’s hand meet, transferring a dark game-piece. One would think that the viewer’s eye would come to rest here, where the arms meet at a strong right angle, where the young girl’s own eyes gaze. But there is something about that very gaze which makes the viewer look back at the girl and realize that the true action of the photograph is all happening right there. The true action of this image is the focus, concentration, and determination behind the seemingly simple transfer of the game-piece.
The young girl pictured in the photograph is Morgan Dunnigan, 6, a patient of John McDonald, directs the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, the only program of its kind. McDonald was the chief neurologist for the late actor, Christopher Reeve at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. According to photographer Joanna Tully, Morgan “had a cancerous tumor growing on her spine. It was removed and she was cured, but left paralyzed. Her family was told she would not use her arms or legs again. She came to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in January only able to move her right pinky finger. She has progressed so well that she is now leaving the program and going to continue therapy at home. She is using her arms, and she is also walking with the help of a walker. This is incredible progress.”
This photograph is part of “Rebound,” an exhibit of Tully’s photographs opening Friday, June 2, with a reception at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. It is on view through July, along with Lois Greenfield’s exhibit, “Airborne.” Tully says, “Lois’s extraordinary photographs capture the exquisite beauty of dancers’ athletic abilities and physical grace, leaving the viewer with a sense of wonder. I aim to juxtapose with them the extraordinary efforts of people who are equally driven by passion and who seek what they have been told is unobtainable: the chance to recover from a paralyzing injury or illness and regain their ability to function unassisted.”
Tully is a full-time photographer who has lived in Princeton Township since 1991. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a bus driver and a bookkeeper. After graduating from Fontbonne Hall Academy in Brooklyn, she attended Hunter College in Manhattan, earning a triple major in English literature, French, and art history in 1983. A few years later, she found hersef in a photography workshop with the famous photographer Eli Reed (with whom she has remained friends), who one day chose her work to discuss with the rest of the class for 40 minutes. This, of course, flattered Tully, and reinforced the belief she had had from the age of 13 or 14, when she had her first camera, that she had an instant connection with the medium, and was readily able to take well-composed photographs. Her photographic career was basically launched in 1991 with her work printed in the City Sun newspaper, an uptown paper in New York that was known for publishing personal photo essays. Later she began shooting for the New York Daily News.
It became clear to Tully that simple composition was not personally satisfying enough. “It’s fine to focus on landscapes and make a striking, well-composed photograph, but I have this talent and I think, ‘how can I help?’ I feel that photography is best when it combines content and composition and can serve as a catalyst to social change.” Tully says she has been profoundly influenced by the photojournalism of Gene Smith, which fueled her interest in real-life struggle and capturing the human essence that perseveres.
Tully came to Princeton “so that I could have my own darkroom, the stars and moon at night, creatures, grass, and privacy,” after living on the Upper West Side and printing photographs out of her bathroom and hall closet. “A long walk between the two made it exhausting to make a print.” After her move she continued to shoot for the Daily News. Today in addition to her documentary work she provides photography for brochures and press kits for outreach programs in New York, as well as book cover art, portraits for book jackets, and some freelance newspaper work.
“More and more I want to work solely as a fine art documentary photography,” she says. “I love to tell a story with strong images that are true and pure and clean. I don’t manipulate any of my images and can never see a time when I will do that in my own personal work.”
In “Rebound,” Tully says, “my mission is two-fold: first, to show the essence of the individual — who is this person apart from the disability? — and two, to unfold the remarkable work being done by John McDonald, who is giving patients back their lives.”
In another of Tully’s photographs (opposite page, center), a woman is walking with the aid of a Lite Gait apparatus and the assistance of two physical therapists. Like the photograph of Morgan Dunnigan, this photograph of Liza Patchel, 23, who has cerebral palsy, is again aesthetically striking, richly toned, and well-composed. And again, though the patient is surrounded by machinery and other people, the viewer’s gaze keeps returning to Liza’s face, for it is there that you see the perseverence and the struggle.
“Photographing the patients, physical therapists, and doctors revealed more than I could ever have imagined. Everyone at KKI operates at 100 percent. Theirs is demanding work, and it is done joyfully and in a totally giving way,” says Tully. “But the most important, pervasive emotion of all is to experience care for one another. This is a feeling that is contagious, and I found myself deeply caring about everyone that I met at KKI. They trusted me, and so I felt a serious obligation to them to portray them in the truest way.
“And I did what I always do on a personal photography project: I allow my subject the right to veto a photograph that I want to use but that the individual might not favor. In this project, there were no objections to any of my photographs.” (An October 12, 2005, U.S.1 story profiled Tully’s previous show at Gallery 14, “Julia: Living Locked In,” chronicling the relationship of Julia Tavalaro, who became mute and paralyzed from the neck down in her early 30s following a series of strokes, and Joe Filipone, who knew Tavalaro from grammar school and reconnected with her when they were both in their 60s.)
“When you would show (the patients) their picture, you would get an instant smile from anybody,” says McDonald. “They would light up like a beacon. The photographs are amazing; they capture what the person is thinking at that time; you can almost see the mind moving.
“Joanna was amazingly passionate. In addition to knowledge, the photographs will give people hope — it will improve the lives of people with disabilities.”
Tully says “one challenge for people with severe disabilities is that others have a hard time seeing the essence of the individual. They see the disability. That was the reason why Christopher Reeve wrote the book, ‘Still Me.’ Because no matter what happens to you as you go through life, the essence of who you are does not change. Many of us have a hard time seeing beyond ‘the disability.’ And that is so unfortunate.”
Opening reception, Joanna Tully and Lois Greenfield, Friday, June 2, 6 to 9 p.m., Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Opening reception for shared show, “Rebound” by Joanna Tully and “Airborne” by Lois Greenfield. On view through July 9. Meet the photographers on Sunday, June 4, 1 to 3 p.m. 609-333-8511.