"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Friday, October 30, 2015

my family home

I recently spent a few days with my 94-year-old father who still lives in the house my family built when I was four.  I like to find something new about this very familiar place each time I inhabit the space. This time, I found myself paying particular attention to the way the sunlight moved in and out of various  places in the house. Here are a few of the pictures I made.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

deborah luster

I love this work and happily revisited it recently. The following is from an NPR article about the series, which is entitled "One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana."

Photographer Deborah Luster was a baby when her mother and father divorced. She lived in Arkansas with her grandparents in the 1950s and communicated with her mother through photographs.

"If I got a new coat, I would have to be photographed. And usually I wouldn't want to be photographed — it would be the back of the coat," Luster says. "From her, I would get posed photographs. ... She would dress up even when she was cooking — designer clothes and high heels. I mean, she'd wear a mink coat to a tractor pull. Red hair, big glamourpuss. But she never put on any airs."

On April 1, 1988, Luster's mother, Jeanne Tovrea, was murdered in her bed by a contract killer who came in through her kitchen window, walked down her hall and shot her five times in the head.

Luster had met the man who years later was convicted of the killing. He had came to her mother's home a short while before she was killed posing as a journalist to interview Tovrea about her ex-husband. Because Luster was the only other person who had seen him, she reasoned that he might be after her as well, she says. For about seven years after her mother's death, Luster says, she was "pretty much a mess."

So she turned to photography.

"My mom had photographed constantly, my grandmother had photographed constantly," she says. "Photography became something that I could think to do to try to dig out of the place I had found myself."

Luster began documenting the impact of poverty on the lives of people living in northeast Louisiana.

"While I was scouting to photograph in northeast Louisiana, I just kept coming across these little prisons," she says. "It was a Sunday afternoon, and I knocked on the prison gate and the warden came out and I asked him if I might photograph some of the inmates there. I photographed there once and realized that it was a project I had been looking for for a long time, something in response to the murder of my mother. It was like it lifted when I went in the gates, it became something else."

Luster was given entrance to the women's prison in St. Gabriel, the minimum security male prison in Transylvania and the Angola maximum security prison. She spent the next 3 1/2 years taking photographs there. Most of the inmates posed themselves.

She started taking very formal, straightforward portraits — sometimes the prisoners would hold something, like a box of valentine candy or a shoe. She photographed in the cotton fields at Angola. Her photos captured the faces of the women at their Mardi Gras celebration in St. Gabriel. She photographed the Halloween haunted house at the women's prison — all these traditional Louisiana costumes and archetypes, like Alligator Girl, Rat Face.

Luster would photograph while her friend and poet, C.D. Wright, interviewed the inmates.

Out of these conversations came the series of poems that accompany Luster's photographs in the book One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. The book peers into the hidden worlds of family, crime and incarceration and also has been created as an exhibition that has traveled to museums and galleries around the country.

"The decision was to photograph the inmates in their whole selves," Wright says. "The perspective was that everyone is a whole person, that they're not just the sum of their worst acts or even their best acts."

At Angola, 90 percent of those imprisoned die there, and the photographing was very sober, very formal. The way the prisoners posed seemed almost like the 19th century. Luster would give the images to the prisoners.

"I returned 25,000 prints to inmates," Luster says. "They made themselves so vulnerable for me, and it's not often that you have an encounter like that. I know a lot of it was that they were actually posing for the people that they loved — their husbands, their wives, their children.

"There was a woman who asked to be photographed. She said, 'I've been here 15 years. I'm down for 99 years. I have 19 children. My children haven't spoken to me since I came to prison. Perhaps if I had some photographs I could send them, it would soften their hearts to me.' A few months later, she said, 'Four of my children came to visit me. The baby came and he's now 19. He was 5 years old when I came to prison.' "

Deborah Luster and C.D. Wright set out to produce an authentic document to ward off forgetting, an opportunity for the inmates to present themselves as they would be seen, bringing what they own or borrow or use: work tools, objects of their making, messages of their choosing, their bodies, themselves.

"The last photograph for many of them is their mug shot," Wright says. "Debbie is working out a long-term relationship to violence. This is a very sympathetic project for someone who is a survivor of such a violent act. America is a theme park of violence. It was important that these photographs were very posed and dignified."

Luster tried to photograph as many inmates as she possibly could, she says, because she wanted to really show the numbers of people who are incarcerated, to try to communicate just how many of our population reside in prisons. It's one photographer's and one poet's collaborative view into this rarely glimpsed world.

"My mother, I think it's the kind of thing she would have done," Luster says. "She had this way of looking right through the veneer, right into people. She could see the bottom in people. She liked to photograph her family, the food on your plate, you brushing your teeth. She photographed what she loved — and that's what she loved."

- from NPR, 2010

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

gowin and nixon

Currently there's a Nicholas Nixon exhibition (Nicholas Nixon: About Forty Years) at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. There's also an Emmet Gowin exhibition in my home town of Kansas City. The men represent two of my most adored photographers.

Nixon was asked by the folks at Fraenkel to talk about an image that has had an impact on him as a photographer. He chose one by Gowin. 

And here are his words:

Emmet Gowin’s picture "Edith & Rennie Booher, Danville, Virginia, 1970" is a modern version of a story told in many languages and mediums all through history. Youth and age and time and death, transience contained within a frame. A cautionary tale. It tells us to live fully while we can.

And yet.

Edith is so present in the moment that we are stunned by her force.

What she is offering is her whole strong self, meeting Emmet and the viewer with a loving fierceness, her physical body a testament to this time, this place, this light. Her regard is at once electric and kind.

The bed behind is sagging, covered with a striped sheet and clothes to be tended to.  The picture on the dresser of a man and woman (Edith’s parents? The old lady’s children?) confers continuity, approval. These are the familiar artifacts of ordinary life.

That her grandmother seems to be already passing out of the world makes the story ancient, heartbreaking, and wise. Rennie is as ephemeral as Edith is present. The frame of Gowin’s photograph has unified their being in the same moment in time.

The grandmother has already lost her identity as she moves, well loved we assume, off the stage. Edith is here, now beautiful, sexual, and strong, and at the same time we see her as a timeless player of a drama that most of us play throughout our lives.

Until it’s over.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

sports fan

I grew up in Kentucky and was a Cincinnati Red Legs superfan

A lot of people are surprised when they find out how much I love baseball, football and basketball. "Where did that come from?" they want to know.

My parents.

My two older brothers.

And the fact that I was a "tomboy" extraordinaire.

Everyone in Kansas City is a Royals fan these days, especially now that we're on the edge of being in the World Series again. It's a glorious time to be a sports fan in the City of Fountains. And I'm loving every minute of it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

matt black

Matt Black's work has been popping up all over the place lately. Deservedly so. This is some of the strongest documentary photography I've seen in a long time. I have used the word slay, as in this work slays me. I had a hard time selecting images to share here, as I basically like all of the pictures he's made. He just recently won the W. Eugene Smith Award.

Here's the bio from his website:

Matt Black is a photographer from California’s Central Valley. His work has explored themes of migration, farming, poverty and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico. Recent photo essays have been published in The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and Vice Magazines.
He was named Time Magazine's Instagram photographer of the year in 2014 and is a contributor to the @everydayusa photographers’ collective. He has produced short films and multimedia pieces for msnbc.com, Orion Magazine, and The New Yorker, and has taught photography with the Foundry Photojournalism Workshops and the Los Angeles Center of Photography. Anastasia Photo gallery in New York represents his fine prints. He is a nominee to Magnum Photos.

His work has been profiled by National Geographic, The New York Times, National Public Radio, Time and Slate, and has been honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, World Press Photo, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Pictures of the Year International, the Alexia Foundation, and the Center for Cultural Innovation, among others. He lives in Exeter, a small town in California’s Central Valley.

Friday, October 16, 2015

aline smithson

Many years ago while attending a Santa Fe portfolio review, a lovely fellow participant noticed my name tag and said hello. She had seen my work in Shots Magazine and really liked it. We shared our portfolios with one another, had drinks and dinner and quickly became friends.

My friendship with Aline Smithson has deepened over time. She, practically unknown as a photographer that year in Santa Fe, has blossomed into quite the photo super star! You may know her blog, Lenscratch (if you don't, you should) and you've probably seen work from one or more of her series in various photo publications. Maybe you've shown her your work at a portfolio review (she sits on both sides of the review table these days), heard her lecture or taken a class from her. Recently, perhaps you've seen her book. Aline is a busy and talented woman. She's also incredibly supportive, generous and kind.

We traded prints early on in our friendship. I selected one from her series called "Arrangement in Green and Black: Portrait of the Photographer's Mother," her ode to Whistler's famous painting. I love this body of work, and it was the one that really defined Aline's arrival as a photographer (in her past life she was both painter and fashion editor.) Her mother, well into her 80's when she agreed to pose for this series, was in poor health but maintained a great sense of humor about it. Sadly, she didn't live long enough to see the completed set of images, but Aline has always said she's "up there enjoying her success."

Aline's "Spring Fever" series is another of my favorites. In it she photographed seven-year-old girls wearing hats from the 1950's (she loves a good garage sale). In Aline's own words:

"Juxtaposing hats traditionally worn by women half a century older with the visual of a child on the threshold of knowledge and sophistication allows us a glimpse into the future, and possibly a reflection of a face that wore a head full of flowers long ago.

Some believe that articles of clothing hold the essence of the original owner. It is my hope that we are not only looking at a contemporary face, but an echo of a person that once wore a hat covered in flowers and worn during a church service or a garden luncheon, when once upon a time, we celebrated Spring with fanfare and a hat."

In spite of the fact that Aline has so much on her plate these days, she continues to be a prolific art-maker. And now, 20 years worth of her work as a photographer has been compiled in a gorgeous book called "For Self & Others: Portraits as Autobiography." With a thoughtful introduction by Karen Sinsheimer (of blessed memory), essays by Aline and just over 100 beautifully reproduced images, the book is a welcome tribute to a smart, engaged, curious, witty, sensitive and poetic photographer. Among the 18 bodies of work represented, I still love her older black and white work (Aline remains a film devotee) that includes, among other things, images of her family and her environs.

Aline considers all her portraits a reflection of who she is and has created a visual narrative that defines exactly that. I think it's ultimately what most of us are trying to achieve in one way or another; she has succeeded with style and grace, and I congratulate her heartily. I'm glad she came up and said hello in Santa Fe; I truly value our friendship that has spanned these many years.