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

Monday, March 30, 2009

helen levitt

I feel so lucky to have been able to meet and spend a little time with the woman who has been a major inspiration for me as a photographer. I wrote about my visit with Helen Levitt here. She died last night. This is the obit a friend sent me here in Mexico. I'm not sure which paper it's from:

Born in 1913 in New York City, Helen Levitt left school to work for a commercial photographer and by 1938 had started her seminal book, In the Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938-1948.

Levitt was considered to be one of the world's greatest street photographers and the last living link with America's golden age of photography in the 1930s. Throughout her life, she worked in the streets of New York taking pictures such as her most famous one, which depicts three children preparing to go trick-or-treating on Halloween in 1939.

Levitt met Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1935 and even followed him when he photographed on the Brooklyn waterfront. She studied with Walker Evans, in 1943, had Edward Steichen curate her first show at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1955, he included some of her images in his landmark Family of Man show and, in 1959 and 1960, she received two Guggenheim Foundation grants to take colour photographs in New York.

Levitt published her first major book, A Way of Seeing, in 1965, but in other respects photobooks were a later development for her. In the Street wasn't published until 1987, and her magnum opus, Crosstown, didn't hit the shelves until 2001. Slide Show, the Colour Photographs of Helen Levitt, which collected together her little-known colour work, was published in 2005.

Last year, Powerhouse Books published her last monograph, which saw Levitt handpick the eclectic mix of iconic and previously unpublished images, making this book her 'greatest hits' collection of personal bests.

Levitt died in her sleep in New York on Sunday.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Thirteen years ago I took a vacation with my kids, sister and niece in a place called Sayulita, Mexico. It was pretty much a dirt road fishing village, very quaint and charming. The beach was beautiful, the townspeople very friendly, the margaritas tasty. I was just beginning to make photographs again after a fifteen-year hiatus. The children of Sayulita were willing and sweet subjects.

Tomorrow morning I am heading back to this place. From what I understand it has undergone tremendous development since 1996. I’m hoping some of the children I photographed will still be around. Well, they won’t exactly be children anymore. My plan is to try and track some of them down.

Packed in among my swimsuit and sunscreen are these old photographs. I plan to give them to their rightful owners. I hope they will let me photograph them again as teens/twenty-somethings. Bet they never thought they’d see me again, much less the picture I took of them!

These pictures, made at a time when I was searching for my stride again as a photographer, are kind of fun to rediscover. I’ll share a couple of them now; if I can find these Sayulita residents this week, I’ll post their “old” and “new” photos in upcoming posts.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

friday night bash

On Friday (tomorrow night), Leopold Gallery will hold a big bash and silent auction from 5 to 10 PM in honor of the gallery’s 15th anniversary. Featured works will be marked down 15 to 25%. A portion of all sales will go to the art programs at Lincoln Prep, Paseo and Sumner Academies in Kansas City.

Two of my large shredded pieces, as well as two of my new Streetcar pictures will be included in the exhibition/auction. If you live in Kansas City, make your way to the Leopold at 324 W. 63rd St. for your Friday night entertainment. It should be a fun evening.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


A Bat and Bar Mitzvah marks an eternal milestone in a young Jewish person’s life—one that happens even without (and perhaps despite…) all the hoopla and fanfare of public celebrations on this special occasion. On this day, every Jewish girl or boy becomes a full-fledged Jewish person. Prior to the Bat/Bar Mitzvah date, the soul of that Jewish young person had not yet reached maturation. Until the Bat/Bar Mitzvah, this child is considered spiritually under qualified and thus not held responsible for her or his actions. With the acquisition of new spiritual credentials comes a new career as a Jewish adult - one of climbing up the ladder of Jewish learning and performing good deeds.

These days, most all of the girls and boys take on Mitzvah projects in conjunction with the ceremony (where they are called to read from the Torah for the first time.) A mitzvah is, of course, a good deed. The kids get to choose for themselves who it is they want to help.

Change the Truth has been the lucky recipient of JJ’s and Sarah’s Mitzvah projects over the past year. Now, we have Sara, who has asked her friends and family to donate money in honor of her Bat Mitzvah to help the children at St. Mary Kevin Orphanage. I asked Sara to introduce herself and explain the process:

“Hi, my name is Sara Lessem and I am in 7th grade at Elm Place Middle School in Highland Park, Illinois. I am very busy with schoolwork, horseback riding and dance. In April of 2009 I will become a Bat Mitzvah and will read from the Torah. For my Bat Mitzvah I wanted to choose a Mitzvah Project that I knew about and was interested in. Then I e-mailed Gloria and told her about me and how I wanted to choose her organization for my project. Of course, Gloria said yes. I was excited and asked her many questions about Change the Truth. After I had read more and more about CTT I decided that it was definitely right for me. I set a goal for my project, which was $1,000 and was determined to reach it. A few months ago, I started to e-mail different people and tell them about CTT to try and get them interested in it. I ended up raising 1,200 dollars and still counting! I was so happy when I had reached my goal. I was proud of myself, my community, and my family. This shows that if you have something set in your mind, it is possible. I think of the children at Saint Mary Kevin Orphanage in Uganda and hope this makes a change in their lives.”

It will definitely make a change in their lives. Sara has raised enough money to send four orphaned children to secondary school for a year. Going to school in Uganda means obtaining the tools necessary for digging out of the rut of poverty. Sara should indeed feel proud: she’s just handed four kids her age a shovel.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

stills for film

When Lynne and I began working together on the Change the Truth films, we knew right away that we made a good team. We’re very good friends, we compliment each other’s styles and we are respectful of one another’s creative flow and work habits. Most of all, we simply enjoy being and working together!

We are presently hammering out our second project for Kansas City’s Operation Breakthrough. It’s a video that will be shown at the annual fundraiser in April to 800 people. Lynne is the filmmaker; I am the photographer. The film will tell the stories of several of the children who go to the center – through their own eyes and in their own voices.

Last night we had to shoot some “B roll” material – at night in the urban core. I was pleased with a few of the pictures I made. Most important, Lynne and I both feel good about the shape the piece is taking and the opportunity we both have been given to make it happen.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

susan maasch gallery

Sales at art galleries are down. Dealers are searching for ways to keep the bottom from falling out. Several have devised an interesting solution for now: offering smaller works at smaller prices.

A couple of months ago I was invited to show my work in such an exhibition at Wall Space gallery in Seattle. Now, on the other side of the country, 5” x 5” prints of mine are included in a show in Portland, Maine.

The images selected for the show at the Susan Maasch Gallery in Portland are from the series entitled "The Space Between” which is about identical twins. I was surprised how much I loved the intimacy and beauty of the small prints once I made them. Perhaps a trend away from the mega prints of the last couple of decades will begin – all because of the economy.

Atticus and Alexander

Tanya and Tenaya

Susan said she is showing the pieces in a glass case, which can only increase the sense of preciousness. They may even seem like little treasures, which could result in a collector feeling as if he/she has uncovered a great find. We’ll see!

Friday, March 20, 2009

rosemary and vincent: part 2

I thought you might find it interesting to see the correspondence from Mama Rosemary at the orphanage regarding the two children we are now trying to place there:

"The two orphans from Rakai (Southern Uganda) are welcome, as long as Gloria has given her assurance that Change the Truth will support them at St Mary Kevin.

Please provide the child case details, as follows:

- Names of parents & indicate if one or both are dead (dates when they died are useful)
- Names of current guardians and their contacts – by phone, post office box, email if available, and physical address [in case of serious eventualities, like death]
- Ages of the children
- Languages spoken
- Last class attended at school plus the name of the school & its location, and the original of the last school academic report for each child
- For each child state known diseases and infections & current treatment, and HIV status if known
- Indicate if there are any traumatising experiences in the lives of the children that require therapy, and indicate whether each child has an inward or outward going personality
- State positive points for each child – for example a good netballer or chess player

The children deserve our best efforts, as it is not their fault that they are disadvantaged.

Thanks & Regards
God Bless

Once we get them there, little Rosemary and Vincent will be in good hands.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

be inspired

You’ve probably seen this good-looking guy, Peter Alexander, on NBC news. He and his family are dear friends of my brother’s family. Peter and my nephew are life-long best buddies; I remember a 13 year old Peter wowing everyone on the dance floor at my nephew Sam’s Bar Mitzvah! He had a magnetic personality (and great moves) very early on.

Peter has a sister named Becky. She has suffered for many years with a gradual diminishment of her ability to see and hear. She was first diagnosed, at age 12, with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder where the cells in the retinas slowly degenerate. She was told she would eventually lose her eyesight. Then her hearing started to decline; by high school she got her first hearing aids. In college she was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, type III, a disease that affects about 16,000 people in the U.S. It causes its victims to go both blind and deaf. This will likely be the case for her in the next ten years.

Becky (she goes by Rebecca now) is truly an amazing young woman.

Peter is doing a story on the NBC News Today Show about Rebecca on Friday. It is supposed to air between 8:00 a.m. and 8:15 a.m., though the time (and even the date) could change if it turns out to be a big news day.

The story is about Rebecca's courage facing her disabilities while living in New York City. The piece was inspired by the article that New York Magazine did on her in February. In the story, Peter will be interviewing his sister. Afterwards, the two siblings will be live on the Today Show set and will be interviewed by one of the program's anchors. Rebecca’s story originally piqued the curiosity of Today Show anchor Matt Lauer when he read the New York Magazine article.

If you want to truly be inspired, I suggest you watch the Today show on Friday morning or check out the website later in the day.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

rosemary and vincent

No, this is not a picture of mine, though I wish it were! This photograph of a little girl named Rosemary was made by my friend Anna Boyiazis, who I met on my first trip to Uganda. We were fellow students in the NGO photography workshop taught by Thatcher Cook. During that workshop, each of us spent a few days with our “own” family in a small village in the Rakai district, documenting lives in a part of the world that has been devastated by HIV/AIDS. (Rakai actually has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the “birthplace” of AIDS.)

Anna recently returned to Rakai and spent two months immersing herself in the life of the village. Her photographs and her stories about the experience are amazing. She sent me this email upon her reentry to the U.S.:


When I was in Rakai, I was introduced to two little children, Rosemary + Vincent. Their dad died of AIDS; their mom cut. The kiddoes were taking care of their ill grandmother. Nobody was taking care of them. They were sleeping on shreds of torn clothes and were lucky to get a meal once every couple days.

I suggested the children be placed in an orphanage and suggested St Mary Kevin’s. The village spent more than a month warming up to the idea.

My biggest desire is to make this the least traumatic that it can be for these children. They have already been through so much in their short lives; I can only imagine what it would be like to be taken from their home and grandmother. The grandmother has an ideal situation (from her perspective) -- she has two little ones to fetch her water and tend the gardens. I had to explain repeatedly that these children deserve consistent meals and an education... that the current situation was not in the best interest of the children, but of the grandmother. The challenge was convincing the village that THEY should care for the grandmother.

Francis, the children's next-door neighbor, is willing to transport the children to the orphanage. He is in his mid-twenties and is torn up about the situation. He wants to open an orphanage in Rakai. I have encouraged him to get to know Rosemary... that perhaps she could end up being a powerful mentor for the young lad. He has a degree in social work and cannot find a job. He loves these children and is totally trustworthy.

I will not feel at peace until these children are in Mama Rosemary's loving hands. One of my friends in California has offered to provide funds for the transport of these children to the orphanage.

xo Anna”

Anna was actually able to send someone she knew was in Kampala to make the trek to SMK and was able to then make contact with Mama Rosemary on the phone; she has agreed to take the children in. Anna and I are now working on the logistics of making it happen.

I’ll be sure to update this story here on the blog. It’s a story that will hopefully have a happy ending. Kudos to Anna for bringing it this far! Perhaps on my next visit to SMK, I'll be able to put my arms around little Rosemary and Vincent, and will see first hand how their lives have changed for the better.

Anna is just one person, but she making a very big difference.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

baker gallery, bloch museum, abbie, crewdson...

When I opened my gallery in 1981, there wasn’t a lot of photography action going on in Kansas City and its environs. Collectors here were just beginning to understand the important historical significance of vintage work and the excitement of discovering contemporary images by emerging and mid-career photographers. Hallmark had been actively assembling its major photo collection since the 60’s, but that work was only occasionally seen by the public. Hard core fans had to travel to Chicago, New York or LA if they wanted to see the good stuff on a regular basis.

My place, the Baker Gallery, helped fill in the gaps as much as a small art gallery could do in those early days. Over the years, though, more and galleries began to show photography, and museums ramped up their photo show schedules. The Society for Contemporary Photography (now defunct) was born in a Kansas City collector’s basement in the late-80’s and went on to become a nationally recognized organization. The Kansas City Art Institute continued to build its strong photography program, and more and more talented graduates began renting studio and loft spaces in the area, contributing to a plethora of fascinating exhibitions. Kansas City was truly ready for what took place in 2006 when The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art acquired the Hallmark Photographic Collection. The collection spans the entire history of photography, from the birth of the medium in 1839 to the present. At the time of its acquisition, it included more than 6,500 works by 900 artists, with superb examples by virtually all the key American photographers in history. The collection is housed in the Bloch Building, which triumphantly opened in 2007 to resounding applause from the architectural community worldwide. With the acquisition and the move into this spectacular building, the Nelson-Atkins took its place as one of the premier museums in the world for photography. A great coup for Kansas City and its photography lovers!

I have been privileged to witness and be part of the exciting growth of, acceptance of and enthusiasm for the medium in this great Midwestern city. We’ve definitely come a long way. This past Thursday night, I joined other photo enthusiasts in a packed auditorium at the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Bloch Building to hear a conversation between April Watson (associate curator) and the wildly popular photographer Gregory Crewdson. The Crewdson presentation was made possible by the museum’s Photo Society. I looked around and saw people I’ve known for a long time, people who used to park themselves in chairs at my gallery on Saturday afternoons to talk about photography, to browse through books, to explore the flat files and to hang out with other photo-lovers.

Thursday night I found myself marveling at how our patience and persistence has paid off; we now have the world famous Bloch Building with its world famous collection and its world class curatorial staff right here in our own back yard! Between Keith F. Davis, April Watson and Jane Aspinwall, the collection could not be in better hands.

(Just so you know how full circle this whole thing is for me, I am posting this photo of my daughter Abbie.

She was three years old and was hard at work helping me get the Baker Gallery spruced up for the grand opening of its new location on State Line Road back in 1983. And that wildly popular photographer who spoke Thursday night and then came to my home for a reception in his honor? Abbie’s advisor/professor when she obtained her photo degree from Yale in 2003.)

If you live in the Kansas City area, get ye to the museum. If you don’t, plan a trip to do just that.

Friday, March 13, 2009

book work

The collaborative process of making a new book has begun.

The photographs have been selected with the help of curator Keith Davis. Photographer and teacher Thatcher Cook, and Ann Thomas, therapist, are writing essays; Sam Brandao is editing them. Lindsay Laricks is busy with the design of the book. And Meridian Press is gearing up for the printing of it.

And I have been spending glorious days in my digital darkroom making reference prints and hammering out an essay of my own. Blissful activities for this lucky girl.

The book, still unnamed at this point, has a long way to go before it makes its way to the east coast for printing and binding. It is interesting and gratifying to watch it all come together, as all these talented people - located in different parts of the country - help weave together the finished product.

Included in the book will be my black and white work made in Uganda in 2006 and 2007, as well as the color dream pictures made on the most recent trip in 2008. We may even include some of the artwork made by the children at the orphanage.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

save the date

When you have four and a half minutes of quiet time today, please give it to us at Change the Truth.

When you do, you can watch the latest creation by Change the Truth board member, volunteer Team Member and filmmaker Lynne Melcher. It was made in collaboration with award winning Austin filmmaker Layton Blaylock.

It is a request that you mark your calendar for the second annual CTT Friendraiser/Fundraiser. It is also a thoughtful and powerful short film that helps explain the work that is being done in Uganda because of generous supporters like you.

(To view it properly, you’ll want to click on the HD button that is in the lower right corner of the You Tube screen. You Tube isn’t perfect; sometimes the film chokes. Please bear with it.)

And please pass this link on. Change the Truth has grown from just a handful of people to over 300 active supporters. This is simply because people like you have spread the word to family and friends.

In this film, you will see that the helping hand we have extended has touched the children at St. Mary Kevin Orphanage in a very warm and wonderful way.

Got some time? Here's the link.

Monday, March 09, 2009

news from the orphanage

I just received this greeting for all supporters of CTT from Rosemary at St. Mary Kevin Orphanage:

“Thanks for the efforts for the orphans.
When they are happy, I am also happy.
They are our children –
Their future is determined by our actions.”

I recently sent a package full of letters and pictures for the children. Here is Rosemary’s take on the frenzied mail-call that must have taken place:

“The orphans almost ran me down because of your photos & letters.
They were all over me – which was good, but tiring.
I shall try to forward their replies as soon as possible.”

Finally, Judy, a CTT supporter from New York visited the orphanage a couple of weeks ago, before she headed off on a gorilla trek. Here is her report:

“I just returned from Africa on Saturday and am slowly re-entering my life. My journey was extraordinary and my time at SMK was amazing. Rosemary. Joan, all the teachers, staff and children were very welcoming. I spent the day with them and left with many greetings for you. What a blessing you and your organization are to St. Mary Kevin as they are striving to improve their conditions. The garden is in the process of providing flavors to their meals, and they are enjoying the new tastes a lot. Thank you for making my visit possible.”

Next up: the amazing and powerful four-minute film made by Lynne to be used as the viral “Save the Date” for the CTT Friendraiser/Fundraiser. Stay tuned – you don’t want to miss seeing this beautiful piece she has been working on since our return from Uganda.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

a picture can be worth lots of words

There is a blog called Every Photo Tells a Story. Each day a new image is posted, and readers are encouraged to write something based on that visual prompt. The creator of the blog writes, “If you want inspiration to write or create, or if you enjoy beautiful photography and art, then you've found the right place!” She contacted me recently to get permission to use one of my photographs as a tool to inspire her readers/writers. I was really moved by the poems submitted. The image she chose was “Solitary Confinement Room, Auschwitz” a picture from my series, “Among the Ashes.” Here are three poems written by her readers.

GHOSTS by James Parker

A vile and bitter darkness

Dwells within these walls.

A vestige of past evils

That shocks us and appalls.

Auschwitz now stands silent,
Its cells like empty wombs.

The ghost of horror and despair

And shame it now entombs

Cries of utter hopelessness,

Born of mortal fears

Arose to a crescendo,

But fell on deafened ears

A blinded world stood idly by,

Midst the suffering and pain

A haunting question taunts us now,

Is it happening again?


by Therese L. Broderick

three times

the priest


an Auschwitz


three iron bars

Untitled by MIchael

You've been out there?

You've seen out there?

You've smelled the waste? The fear?

Racks of bones are made to toil,

Digging roots from frozen soil.
Sleepless nights in louse-filled bunks.

Scraps of food in cold grey lumps.

Endless coughing through the night.
Every sound is cause for fright.

They think that it's a punishment in here...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

world water day exhibition

Opening March 7th at the White Sturgeon Art Gallery of the Water Resources Education Center in Vancouver, Washington will be an exhibition of my Uganda photographs. The curator, Maya Jones, chose to show my work in honor of World Water Day 2009. She appropriately selected this image to use on the exhibition notices. I made this picture on my first trip to Uganda in 2006, when I took a workshop from Thatcher Cook. I had walked with some of the children who live in the small village of Buyingi to their water hole. After this little girl had finished filling her jerry can, I asked her to place her hand on the surface of the water.

The exhibit will run through April 25th.

Monday, March 02, 2009

more artwork by the children from st. mary kevin

The planning committee meeting for the second annual CTT Friendraiser/Fundraiser took place yesterday. It's going to be another exciting and thought provoking event. There is an excellent group of men and women who have volunteered their time to guarantee that! Most are returnees from last year; we do have a few new faces, though, which is wonderful. There will be a couple of surprises this year, but you can definitely count on being able to bid in a silent auction on the amazing drawings and painting made by the children at the orphanage. Here are a few more examples.

In my last post, I mentioned the fire at Owino Market in Kampala. Rosemary wrote to say that some of the orphans' guardians were among those who lost everything in the blaze.