In frames around the Orange Coast College Photography Gallery, the images stand out on stark white backgrounds like specimens intended for close scrutiny: a Wendy's chili cup, a colander, a brush tangled with human hair.
Wednesday morning, poet Lorene Delany-Ullman stood in front of the last image and shared her memories of the story behind it. Like each of the Jody Servon photographs in the gallery, the brush features a prose piece by Delany-Ullman below it, and in this case, the author didn't have to rely on an interview with a stranger.
"This is one thing that she kept of his," the Irvine resident said of a longtime friend whose husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack two years ago. "He had a lot of stuff that she really didn't kind of know was stuffed throughout the house, basically. And so she ended up selling a lot of it on eBay, and this was one thing that she really wanted to hold onto — that she still uses, actually."
The hairbrush was an unlikely prized possession of her friend's husband. The summary below tells more of the story: "He'd pull his hair out of the brush, but never washed it. That job was Grace's — she'd dig the caked formula off the plastic tines with her fingernails. She tried to replace Alan's brush with a new one. But he never used it."
Each of the 12 photo-text pairings in "Saved," an exhibit on view through March 3, features a picture of an object owned by a deceased person with a summary of the story behind it. Servon, who lives in North Carolina, conceived the idea for the series after a year when she lost her father and three close friends.
At first, Servon created an installation with pictures of objects her loved ones had left behind, but soon after, she began talking to others about people they had lost. She began borrowing and photographing objects from them as well, and in 2009, in a presentation at the Vermont Studio Center, she told the audience that she would like to record the stories behind the images.
Delany-Ullman, who was at the center for a residency, approached Servon afterward and volunteered for the project. Together, they crafted a list of interview questions to email to the objects' owners' descendants, and the series eventually grew to nearly four dozen entries.
The artists have exhibited "Saved" in whole or part before, although the OCC show is the first on the West Coast. Their next goal is to preserve the images and text in book format.
Although Delany-Ullman knew two of the subjects — the brush's owner and a longtime colleague's son who died in a motorcycle accident — Servon said they were all strangers to her. That disconnect, though, isn't far from the spirit of the show, which invites viewers to ponder what a possession says about the person who left it.
"I started thinking about what happens when you die, the traces that you leave behind — what would be my traces, what would be the things that would be meaningful to people," Servon said. "That's really how I got started."
If You Go
Where: Orange Coast College Photography Gallery, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa
When: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday through March 3
Information: (714) 432-5524 or http://www.occphoto.com
[For the record, 8:42 a.m. Feb 21: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to photographer Jody Servon as Jordy Servon.]