“Door 8” by Joe Mays

This weekend, photographer Joe Mays makes his contribution to the Louisville Photo Biennial when he opens “Terms of Isolation.”

The exhibition is a series of nude portraits in which men and women struggle or interact with objects, inside a black room, often just in front of a wooden door. It’s emotional and evocative work that is as intriguing in its composition as its emotional heft.

Joe Mays | Photo by Rachel Petty

Insider got a preview of the show, which opens Friday at Art Sanctuary, and talked with Mays about his process.

Mays came to this series through a lengthy process, one that began with a single image.

He is a frequent collaborator with the Va Va Vixens, as well as with other burlesque and circus acts around town. It was in a photo session with the Vixens that Mays started to imagine this series.

“This piece started actually with one photo I was taking for a Vixens calendar,” says Mays. “I realized I really wanted there to be a door in the back of the image, and I didn’t completely know why this was.”

In these moments, he doesn’t ask questions, he follows his instincts. So he went and got a door, and put it in the frame.

“It wasn’t until I was processing the photos that I thought: ‘Why did I want a door there? What does it mean when you put a door in the back of an image?’ And I will say I think I’ve formed a conclusion,” says Mays.

The pieces he works on often begin this way, with a question he actively explores, both through taking photographs and through conversations with his subjects. For this series, Mays slowly came to realize that the door instantly placed his subjects in a room, alone, changing the way viewers would understand that vision of the person in the picture.

“Door 11” by Joe Mays

After this realization, he started asking his models questions: What do you think about what’s outside the door? What does that mean to you? What sort of things do you think about when you’re alone?

“Once you start talking about the significance of them being alone, it goes to a different place for everyone,” says Mays.

Some of the photos are humorous and playful, but many of them are dark, complex images. The photos include a variety physical objects, and these objects have palpable energy, in part because they are all achieved with practical objects.

“Door 18” by Joe Mays

In one eye-catching portrait, the model is holding lit dynamite.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t you just Photoshop a burning fuse, you could do that.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I could do that, but that would be lame,’” he says.

Don’t worry: The dynamite is fake, and the fuse has several safety measures in place to keep the model from being harmed. After all, these aren’t professional models he hired.

“These are all just friends, people I talk to,” says Mays.

That distaste for Photoshop is especially pronounced when it comes to the models.

“Like I said, these are all people I know, and I like them the way they are,” he adds. “I don’t think they need to be changed.”

Those friendships help him create these images, deep with meaning and backstory.

One picture shows a blindfolded woman playing chess. This image comes from a difficult time in the model’s life that left behind scars. For several years, she was married to a bipolar alcoholic.

“After they broke up — dealing with the after effects — you feel like you’re stuck in a relationship, and you’re playing a game, and you don’t know what the rules are, you don’t know what the victory conditions are, and you’re just asking yourself, ‘Did I do the right thing?,” explained Mays.

“Door 1” by Joe Mays

But he doesn’t think you need to know every story to appreciate the photos.

“Some of these people, we’ll talk and they’ll say, ‘Do you think people will get my exact story?’ No. Well, they might, but here’s the thing: It’s important that there be a story, that it be real,” said Mays. “Other people will come to it, and if it’s authentic, they will sense the authenticity.”

“Terms of Isolation” opens Friday, Oct. 6, from 6-9 p.m., at Art Sanctuary. Local music will be provided by Brigid Kaelin, Kelly Newton and Tristen Brooke. Admission is free, and the exhibit continues through Oct. 29.

Art Sanctuary is located at 1433 S. Shelby St.