Nov. 5 2014 12:00 AM

Coffee house photo show captures everyday splendor


Coffee shops in the 17th and 18th century were convergences point for great minds. Scholars, scientists and other brainy types would drink coffee, debate and discuss ideas with their peers, and as such they were known as “penny universities,” because coffee only cost a penny. Eventually, the plague came, and society put a pin in the whole coffee shop fad for a while.

The coffee shop of the 21st century is decidedly a more isolated experience. Great minds still gather under the roofs that caffeine built, toiling away at their respective tasks in front of backlit screens. Coffee shop proprietors play their part in keeping the intellectual spirit alive by providing their eponymous liquid mental stimulant as well as adorning their shops in a decor that is conducive to creativity. East Town’s Strange Matter Coffee Co. takes a novel approach to this idea by not only offering a unique take on serving coffee (heaven, thy name is slow pour), but also by having a commercially successful fine art photographer with international exhibits under her belt as curator for all of its art exhibits.

“I take a really simplistic approach,” said Debbie Carlos of her work on display at Strange Matter. “I look at the beauty in everyday life. Things that are lovely or beautiful in a funny or strange way.”

Carlos is an artist who dabbles mainly in fine art photography. Her exhibit on display at Strange Matter, “New Works,” exemplifies her philosophy toward style: An outstretched hand holds an ice cream cone, a huddled figure shoulders a gentle snowfall. Though it could be perceived that it’s a deft eye that staged such visually dynamic moments, Carlos humbly states otherwise.

“When I am walking around, I see something that’s cool and want to take a picture,” she said. “Or a moment happens and I want to recreate it. I let things be the way they are.”

Though the subject matter is simple, there is a wonderful complexity to Carlos’ work that she might never admit to. At times, her pieces playfully contrast the subject and the background or play with borderline surreal and crisp color palettes. Even though these moments are snatched from right in front of our eyes and put to film, she employs just a touch of technological enhancement.

“I take everything into Photoshop or Lightroom for a little retouching,” Carlos said. “But it’s nothing too crazy.”

It’s been a long road from California, where she was born, to being based in Michigan’s capital. She spent time growing up in the Philippines and has been all over the Midwest, including a stint in Illinois where she studied photography at the Art

Institute of Chicago. Despite her change in location, success has had no trouble in finding her. Carlos has exhibited all over the world, including shows in London, France, Spain and most recently Taiwan. Her work has also been featured in publications and purchased for use by the Urban Outfitter clothing stores. It was also used in the 2012 film “What Maisie Knew.”

Carlos’ pieces will be up through the middle of the month at Strange Matter; afterward, an exhibit she is curating called “The Reading Room” will go up. The new exhibit will feature small publications by artists and designers who are talking about zines and art books in novel ways as far as content, narrative and form. The exhibit will be very hands-on, allowing visitors to take pieces with them to their table to view.

With the help of artists like Carlos, the ideas upon which coffee shops were founded seem to have a new definition in the 21st century. The intellectual quality they once had can seep its way into other facets beside the conversation. But if Carlos were to contribute to a roundtable discussion of her trade as in the old days, it’s not hard to imagine that she would contribute the following in her modest fashion:

“Just walk around and notice all the nice things around you.”

“New Works by Debbie Carlos”

reception 6-9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6 FREE Strange Matter Coffee Co. 2001 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing