WILKES-BARRE — Bringing out both the serene and the solemn of her subjects, Lydia Panas’ photography showcases raw and honest beauty and vulnerability in human form.
A collection of Panas’ portraits is on display in an exhibition titled Lydia Panas: After Sargent until March 3 at Wilkes University’s Sordoni Art Gallery.
The models Panas chose vary in age, gender and cultural background and are captured against simple backgrounds both in-studio and outdoors.
Panas asks her models three questions: What do you long for? What do you regret? What are you afraid of?
And she prompts them with nothing else, eliciting a spectrum of expressions that can be read as anything from inquisitive and at-peace to intense and defensive.
“What motivates me is my desire to be close to people, my need to get close and have a certain kind of understanding that’s real, that’s not about masks,” Panas said. “It’s about trying to get past the masks.”
The exhibition is inspired by the painting “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent alluding to it thematically in its ambiguity of expression and visually in its muted color palette.
Panas, whose parents moved between Greece and the U.S. three times by the time she was 5, said a constant feeling of being an outsider taught her to read people so she could fit in wherever she went.
“When I put people in front of me, we both drop everything and I can read a lot about them,” Panas said. “The work is like a Venn diagram. It’s where their fears, hope and vulnerabilities intersect with mine.”
Panas has taught photography at various institutions including Muhlenberg, Moravian and Lafayette Colleges and Kutztown University, in the same borough where she is based.
Most of her subjects, she said, are friends, children of friends or students. Panas invites her models to her family farm where, she said, she’s bringing them into her context.
Some of Panas’ photographs portray individuals like Tia Angela in her flowing red dress, juxtaposed against a natural cool-green backdrop.
“I really only took a few of her in the dress, but they ended up being the good ones,” Panas said. “It happens by chance. I don’t dictate too much.”
Other portraits depict pairs and larger groups of people. Fraternal twin sisters Maria and Corrine appear protective of both themselves and each other. Their individual personalities shine as apparently as their undeniable connection.
As a child of immigrants, Panas said, she was imbued with the importance of family and became fascinated by relationships.
“What I’ve been photographing since 2005 is connections,” Panas said. “That’s ultimately trust, longing, love and all of that starts from home.”
Panas said she’s interested by the ambiguities that happen between people in relationships.
“It’s more than how they engage with us,” Panas said. “It’s how they engage with each other. I’m interested in how people can be very close to each other but also very alone.”
Panas said, ultimately, the work becomes about getting to know a person on a level that allows for an intimacy and shared sentiment.
“The more I stand there and watch them, and the more comfortable they get, the more I can understand them,” Panas said.