Exposing humanity through photography

Charlee Brodsky and Max
Carnegie Mellon University produces some of the world’s finest visual artists. In addition, we house some of the best of the best among our faculty. One such person is renowned photographer, Charlee Brodsky, faculty in Design. Charlee is all about innovation in photography.

This post is part of “The impact of CMU” series, sponsored by Larry Jennings, trustee.

Through her books and exhibits, Charlee’s work has impacted people all over the world. I first encountered her work in the 1990s at an exhibit about breast cancer. Charlee had photographed a friend, Stephanie Byram, who was going through cancer treatment in a series of raw, searing photographs that made me cry at the time. I can still remember the emotions that ran through me as I viewed the photographs on the wall, touching me deeply as I knew that it did others, men and women alike. A book about Stephanie, Knowing Stephanie, was published in 2003. A documentary called Stephanie was made in 2000, for which Charlee (and the video team) won a regional Emmy award. Stephanie died just before the film came out. Her husband was Garth Gibson, of CMU’s School of Computer Science and Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Charlee describes her work as about “social issues and beauty.” One of her most recent books is I Thought I Could Fly… Portraits of Anguish, Compulsion, and Despair, a collection of photos with personal narratives about mental illness. Charlee was designated Artist of the Year in 2012 by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The exhibit features photos of Charlee’s Westie dogs, Max and Sam (co-owned with Charlee’s husband, CMU Provost Mark Kamlet). Charlee is using her new work “to get at the human condition,” she says. “There is seriousness at its core, but there’s a lot of humor, too.” The hand-made books and photographic prints use words from Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Mary Shelley, Samuel Beckett, and John Muir. One book, entitled Monster, juxtaposes Shelley’s words from Frankenstein, with images of Max.

Charlee describes the common thread through all of her work: “Everything I do tells a story.” Most of her work combines images and words, hence her many collaborations with writers, including Street, a book about the urban landscape, which features the poetry of CMU’s Jim Daniels (English).

Charlee came to Pittsburgh more than 30 years ago to teach photography at CMU. Once here, she immersed herself in the Pittsburgh story. Among her regional projects, Brodsky has curated several exhibitions about the history of photography in Western Pennsylvania. This work culminated in “Pittsburgh Revealed,” an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, co-curated with Linda Benedict-Jones. Charlee has extensively photographed the former steel town of Homestead, which resulted in two books and numerous exhibitions. Charlee worked with writers Jane McCafferty (also from CMU’s English Department) and Jim Daniels to create Homestead: From Mill Town to Mall Town. The book contrasts the shopping mall, residential and entertainment complex of the Waterfront with the town of Homestead where it resides. “Homestead, the ultimate town of steel, became a town without steel,” Charlee recounts. She calls her work on this project a kind of “photographic ethnography.” Charlee tells me about her multiple projects on Homestead:

“We were not interested in the steel industry per se, but how the industry affected the people and the community. Steel was a major player in Homestead’s life for over a century and with the mill’s demise, Jim, Jane, and I wanted to comment on how the town was moving on. We wanted to write and show steel’s final chapter in Homestead.”

As part of her teaching at CMU, Charlee and her students work with social service organizations in Pittsburgh, including Lydia’s Place, an agency that helps women and their children during or after the mother’s incarceration, and Sojourner House Moms, whose mission is to provide housing and services to women and their families who have dealt with addiction and mental illness. “In these courses, we see how photography can be used to tell stories and how the camera can be used as a tool to make connections between people,” Charlee says.

Charlee tells me that she was “very visual growing up”.

“My mom is a painter. My dad was always interested in social issues. I guess I combined the two.”

Charlee was the family photographer when: “I always had a camera on me. I had it around my neck on our family trips. I was the little snap-shooter taking funny little shots.” Charlee graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where her professional interest in photography was developed. Eventually, she went on to Yale for an MFA in photography.

While Charlee’s work has changed over the years and will probably continue to change, she embraces a philosophy of life to make us more human. Her journey as an artist strives to represent the human condition in many ways, focused around the impact that images have on the viewer. With visual images, there is no place to hide, no way to not let them in. As an artist, Charlee has dedicated her life to making us aware of the deeply human nature of ourselves.

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