Artist looks downward to find beauty in a collection of photos on view at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery through March 6

About three years ago, German Village resident Phil Adams began taking long morning walks through South Side neighborhoods a few times a week in the summer, beginning just before sunrise. As he looked around, he noticed the areas around him changing, and he began documenting those changes with his camera.

“I started asking myself lots of questions about the things I was seeing,” Adams said. “It changed my perspective on neighborhoods and how they work and the people who live in them, and this whole process of gentrification.”

Adams also realized that, as someone living with depression, he often looked down at the ground while he walked, and that tendency enabled him to see things that other passersby were overlooking — especially the garbage on the street. “Parsons Avenue, in particular, was astounding, because I would see so much trash everywhere on the ground, sometimes just a foot or two from a trash can,” he said. “I started asking myself questions about why these pieces of trash ended up where they were, and then I started seeing the beauty in the things that I was photographing.”

Those photos are now part of “Things We Throw Away: Redeeming the Refuse,” an exhibition on view through March 6 at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, shown in conjunction with work by Southeast Ohio street photographer Matthew Ashton. The gallery, a project of Southeast Healthcare, exhibits the work of artists affected by mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

“[Photography] gets me a little out of my head,” Adams said. “I don't really think about anything else when I'm shooting, which is a wonderful thing. Everything else disappears.”

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There’s a surprising amount of vibrant color in Adams’ street photos. In one, tiny aphids provide flecks of orange on the outside of a discarded, pillow-like Incredible Hulk fist. In another, red and blue Legos seem at home next to smooth, reflective marbles, the composition resembling a miniature sculpture. In another, a doll’s arm protrudes from a corroded dumpster's rusted seam.

“It’s all about — in a literal sense, and in some cases a personal, metaphorical sense — how we're a throwaway society,” Adams said. “Some of these images, for me, represented things that I'd either gotten rid of, or that I would like to throw away in my life, or that I've noticed people struggling to throw away in their lives.”

Some of the layers of meaning behind the photographs came courtesy of Fresh A.I.R. director Lauren Pond, who curated the show and grouped images in ways that helped Adams make new connections. In one holiday-evoking pair, for instance, a photo of a red and green dog toy is mounted above a print of a green wreath with a red bow.

“These two pieces have the common thread of meeting the demands of other people,” Adams said. “[They evoke] being fed up with all the holiday stuff where you have to put on a happy face and you have to go to parties. And that's related to giving up fetching: ‘No, I'm not going to be at your beck and call and just do everything you say you want me to do.’”

Though Adams, a music educator with a master’s degree in vocal performance, has taken photos recreationally for years, his interest in fine art and street photography came about fairly recently, coinciding with his last solo recital in 2015. “After about 20 years of teaching … my singing ability has drastically diminished,” Adams said. “It's been a natural progression for me to move from making music for myself to having another creative outlet. … I'm so grateful for it.”