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Bathrooms aren’t generally a creative hotbed for budding artists. When you are a mother of five, however, you’ll take what you can get. And so it was in 2005 that Irene Mamiye stumbled upon her abstract photographic aesthetic by painting the shower door and then using her digital camera to observe the play of light through the room’s window.
Mamiye, 50, had been taking classes for years at the International Center of Photography and The New School while raising her three daughters and two sons. Once her youngest was in school full-time, she decided to follow suit and enrolled in New York University’s Gallatin independent study program. And it was a self-portrait assignment while there that sparked her current body of work.
“I don’t like to take pictures of myself, so I kept finding myself going behind things: I was behind glass and these bars,” explains Mamiye, who now works out of a studio in the attic of her Brooklyn home. “I wanted to abstract myself. It ended up being very revealing.”
Indeed, Mamiye now applies a similar approach to her growing series of photographs. Using playful, often eccentric objects such as colored glass rods, Lucite circles and a tie blanket, she sets up still lifes and then spends hours snapping them, striving to capture a kaleidoscope of light effects.
“I don’t plan anything. I just throw things together and photograph them. I use the camera as a paintbrush,” she says of her time-consuming technique. “Sometimes I don’t even look through the lens.”
The resulting prints are often so impressionistic and brightly hued — sometimes thanks to some Photoshop tweaking — that their original subject matter isn’t immediately obvious. A series entitled “Flutter” features close-up images of dangling pressed butterflies, while “Collisions” represents one of her frequent forays into nature, with the South Jersey Shore providing a gradient of blurred streaks. Most of her photographs are produced on a large scale (a 40-inch-by-60-inch piece might go for $6,800), and since participating in a group show in July she has sold some 80 works.
Mamiye’s own story is as diverse as the materials she uses. Her parents fled Egypt in 1957 as refugees and arrived on French shores, where Mamiye was born. She spent her childhood as one of very few Jews in Marseilles and then moved with her family to Brooklyn at age 13. She met her husband, a children’s wear manufacturer and licensing agent, when she was 19 and married at 20.
And, considering that her images often call to mind, say, a Dries Van Noten print, it comes as no surprise that the artist has been approached by fashion designers to turn her photographs into textiles. Though she would be pleased to see a woman donning a dress with one of her playful, colorful patterns, Mamiye, who chose a black leather jacket and skinny jeans for the interview, won’t be sporting her own art. “Definitely not,” she smiles.