When you look at the photographs in Joel Mundy‘s “Harbors” exhibit, opening Friday at the Rookery, at first you’re not sure what you’re seeing. They look almost like paintings, too richly layered to be photos. The effect is achieved through a technique called high dynamic range photography or HDR, and it involves merging multiple exposures of the same frame into one image. Some of the layers are over exposed, to let in as much light as possible, and some are underexposed, to capture the darker shadows. The resulting range of light and shadow in the final, combined image is what gives the photos their depth and slightly surreal aspect.
But the darkest places in these photographs are visible only to Mundy himself. In these images, he can see the lingering shadows of some of the worst moments of his life. He can trace the past four years through the frames like a map of where things went wrong — and then right.
One of the images shows the spot where he stumbled off the dock, homeless and intoxicated, and hit his head on a boat propeller, barely making it back out of the water alive.
Close by is the place where he hid in a ditch after breaking into DeHart’s Auke Bay Store in the middle of the night to steal cigarettes, and then got Tasered by police when he tried to run.
Not far from there is where he stood when he got out of prison, looking longingly at the boats and fantasizing about escaping to Mexico.
And here is where he is continually drawn to make his art.
For Mundy, as in his photos, Auke Bay holds dark and light aspects of his life at once; the “Harbors” exhibit traces his journey from one to the other.
Mundy said it wasn’t until he got his show together that he realized the exhibit — his first — was in many ways a psychological journey as well as an artistic statement.
“I don’t think I saw how it was all connected until I looked at the whole thing at once,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much of my story, what has happened to me, centered around the harbor. It’s kind of weird. I didn’t realize that I was going back and making pictures of the same places where everything went wrong.“
A passion for photography was one of the lifelines that pulled Mundy up and out of the hole he’d dug for himself over many years of substance abuse and self-destruction. He went after mastering his craft like a man obsessed.
“Many, many times when I felt like I was going to just lose it, I would just throw myself into (photography) for a few hours and just be lost in it,” he said. “It kept me hanging on.“
But Mundy’s path back to health did not unfold in a straight line. More trouble was to come.
Mundy broke into DeHart’s in July 2008, a few weeks after falling into the harbor and hitting his head, nearly drowning. He is careful not to blame his erratic behavior the night of the DeHart’s incident on his injury — part of a larger effort to avoid blame and take responsibility for his actions — but says the head injury on top of the drugs certainly didn’t help. At that time he was living in the woods off the John Muir Cabin trail, sleeping on couches when they were offered. He has few memories of the incident.
“I was gone. I was lost. I basically picked the door apart with my hands.”
According to an article in the Empire, he was Tasered by police after trying to run away.
He came to in jail and was sentenced to 80 days in Lemon Creek Correctional Center, an experience he describes simply as “terrible.”
“I think in some ways I’m still healing from it, psychologically,” he said. “It changes you, it really does. You have to worry about your safety 24 hours a day.”
After his release he was even more depressed than before, and soon fell back into old habits, sometimes drawing on new contacts he’d made at Lemon Creek. Getting out of town was a persistent fantasy, one he could not indulge due to the conditions of his release. He’d head to Auke Bay and dream of sailing away on a boat, escaping to Mexico.
As he cast about for something to ground him, he discovered, only steps away, the photography program at UAS.
“I found the university and I started going to classes and in the end that’s probably what saved me,” he said.
He’d dabbled in photography before but never been serious about it and now it attacked with the full force of his “slightly obsessive” nature.
He took all of Dave Gelotte’s classes at UAS, then took them again, and when Fairbanks photographer Ben Huff arrived to offer more classes, Mundy devoured them.
And yet the shadowy side of his life continued, hidden under a facade of good grades and a steady job.
“I was having these periods of doing well, I was getting good grades but I was still using and I was hiding it,” he said.
Then, in March 2010, he was arrested for drunk driving, a felony charge because it was his third offense, he said. Facing a mandatory sentence of at least a year, he was filled with dread at the prospect of going back to jail.
Then his second lifeline came in: Juneau Therapeutic Court. The program, geared toward alcoholic misdemeanor and felony DUI defendants, offers an alternative to jail – but it is not easy to get into. The 18-month program includes intensive substance abuse treatment and drug testing, as well as regular meetings with a judge. Mundy said it came just at the right time for him,
“It forced me to stay sober for a certain amount of time and I think I finally got enough time where I could have perspective to make the decision on my own. And I didn’t have that (before). The time I was high was always way longer than the time I was sober... It forced me to get to a place where sober was normal. Then you have perspective where you can actually make decisions for your own benefit that aren’t destructive.”
Around this same time, a third lifeline came to him: he found out his partner was pregnant. He was going to be a dad. The motivation to get better became stronger.
“It was a super good way of having something that was more important than me,” he said.
Help also arrived from other sources: a boss at UAS who’d fired him gave him a second chance, his family threw their support behind him, friends wrote letters of support that helped him get into the JTC system.
Slowly, Mundy was able to make the shift in perspective that made all the difference.
Through it all he kept working on his art, a healing activity, pouring his energy into creating the images that make up the “Harbors” exhibit. Most of the pieces in the show were taken in 2010, right at the time the tides were turning.
Mundy worked tirelessly to master HDR photography, a technique he’d long wanted to learn. One of the challenges is that subjects tend to shift slightly in the time it takes for the multiple exposures to be taken. In Mundy’s case, the wind would move the riggings of the boats, and clouds would drift slightly across the sky before he had a chance to shoot the next frame. He spent more hours than he could count fixing the ghosting that resulted from these time lapse issues, but they were hours well spent.
“In some ways I feel like I’ve transferred my obsessive nature — but at least its something productive,” he said.
At one point it occurred to him he had mastered enough technical knowledge and amassed a body work he was proud of, and started thinking about a show. He approached Huff about the idea, and his support and belief in him was invaluable, Mundy said.
“I started to say ‘I have this thing I want to do,’ and he said, ‘Whatever it is, I’m in,’ before I even told him what it was,” Mundy said. “That’s just the way he is.”
With Huff as his mentor he secured a $2,000 Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity award to help fund the project.
The show opens at the Rookery on First Friday, almost four years to the day of Mundy’s 2008 arrest on July 1.
Mundy is now working toward two different degrees at UAS and holds a full time job with the university. His son recently celebrated his first birthday. He has been clean for two years.
Putting the show together, and sharing his story along with it, has all been part of the journey, he said. Up until this point, very few people have known the whole story, he said, though many on campus know parts. Facing down the demons of public opinion was another challenge he wanted to get past.
“That’s been part of this process, (that) I’m going to come out and say ‘Hey, look at me, I have these photographs,’ and there’s this voice in my head that people’ll say ‘Oh yeah, that’s that guy who punched out the window of De Hart’s,’ you know? I think it’s cathartic for me to just put everything out there and say. there it is. For whatever it is, there it is.”
Mundy’s work will be on display at the Rookery for the month of July.