Diop said she wants her art to challenge typical ideas of beauty and to make her audience stop and think. 

Using her Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV mirrorless camera and a scanner, Corinne Diop, art professor and associate director in the School of Art, Design and Art History (SADAH), creates unique images using nontraditional photography practices. Particularly, she manipulates photos to make them look like something different — like a painting or fabric — and forces the viewer to question what they’re seeing. 

“Ever since grad school, I’ve been photographing flat surfaces like the ground or fabrics,” Diop said. “I’m interested in the idealization of nature, like in patterns that are made in wallpaper or something from nature that is repeated.” 

This fascination has been with Diop (’84) since she was getting her Bachelor of Science in art at JMU. She said JMU’s art program requires students to take a class in almost every type of media, no matter their major. This allowed her to learn different types of techniques, which she now incorporates into her photography. 

Diop said teaching influences her art just as much as her art influences her teaching. When she first started working at JMU in 1989, digital photography was just starting to pick up speed. She started with color film photos and learned new techniques as they came out. It was a big learning curve, Diop said, but it’s greatly changed the way she takes photos. 

“In undergrad, I would take pictures of friends doing wacky things, but it was very staged,” Diop said. “Now, I do more objects I’ve found. It’s still staged, but it’s about the importance of the object.”

Diop’s process involves creating something different out of an image. She said she likes to challenge the typical opinion of what’s aesthetically pleasing and what’s beautiful. Many of her photos are distressed, left outside, painted on or put together to create a pattern to make something that doesn’t look like a photograph. 

Diop’s “Pandemic Harvest,” which features this process, is displayed in the annual SADAH faculty show, which will remain open until Oct. 9. The work deals with large-scale prints on top of a large piece of metal with old items like paint cans and lamps over the prints. Diop left the piece outside so that anything not covered by an object would be washed away by rain and wind. 

“Pandemic Harvest” also incorporates the ability to change over time, as it’s never really finished — Diop said part of it may fall onto the gallery floor during the exhibit. 

“The piece relates to the pandemic through isolation,” Diop said. “Everything felt so abandoned as I went outside, much like life during the pandemic. When I photographed [the piece], there were no people there. So, the way I don’t have control over my photos when they’re out in the weather is similar to how we know the processes [of COVID-19], but we can’t really do anything about them.”

To Diop, seeing the dilapidated pictures is a symbol for those affected by COVID-19. 

“So many people are dying, and there’s so much illness,” Diop said. “There’s a sort of sadness in … this print that was perfect and was supposed to last all these years is now all deteriorated and is now stuck to a big piece of trash metal.”

Diop learns new techniques for her students so she can show them real life examples. She said she spent one summer traveling and learning how to use a bigger camera so she’d be better equipped to teach her students.

A former student of Diop’s and current SADAH adjunct faculty member, Sarah Phillips, said Diop would always encourage her to go outside of her comfort zone.

“She would let you fail up in a lot of ways,” Phillips said. “If you really bombed an assignment, she would be like, ‘OK, cool, but what if you poured water on it or let your cat sit on it?’ She was always about how far you could push the image.”

As much as her students motivate her, Diop’s colleagues say working with her is “inspiring” because of how open she is with sharing her insights and processes. Beth Hinderliter, director of the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art, said being able to see Diop’s vision is “wonderful.” 

“It’s been greatly appreciated over the years, all of the energy and dynamic programs she’s brought to campus,” Hinderliter said. “She’s brought artists from across the country, and it has made an incredible and transformative impact on campus.”

Phillips said it’s been gratifying to see her relationship with Diop change from one of student and teacher to one of colleagues. Diop is like a “mom to her,” Phillips said, and she’s always supportive of her. She said she can count on Diop when she needs her — like when she wasn’t feeling well, and Diop showed up in about 10 minutes with a footlong sub because “that’s just the type of person she is.” 

“She’s always let me grow,” Phillips said. “I could always ask her about the most ridiculous problems, and now I can talk to her about more grown-up issues. She also never holds your old self against you.”

Seeing Diop and her other colleagues work in the faculty shows is “super fun,” Phillips said. She said that since she was Diop’s student, she’s seen Diop’s work become more mature and, especially during the pandemic, seen her focus on her own art more and spend more time in her studio. 

“Everyone had to basically shut down for a year,” Phillips said. “Everyone was discarding stuff that they didn’t need, and [Diop] saw this as an opportunity.”

Although the pandemic has put much of the art world on hold, Diop said she’s regularly trying new things and growing as an artist. Currently, she said, she’s working on a set of abstract distressed prints. Diop said she finds everyday items on the street like cracks on the sidewalk, rocks or flowers, blows them up and makes changes to make the images appear more unusual. 

Diop said this project is a relatively normal photography process, but it’s been a long time since she’s done something like it — and she’s excited to take these abstract prints and document them. 

“I’m asking people to be challenged by what they’re seeing,” Diop said. “I would expect people to look closer and longer at a photo and maybe figure something out about it. I’m interested in the poetic aspect — like [in] a poem, you don’t always know exactly [the meaning], but you get a feeling.” 

Contact Morgan Vuknic at vuknicma@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.