There must have been a thousand 35mm transparencies packed into the metal slide case I purchased long ago. Once used to illustrate a late 1960s Black History course, it seemed wrong to leave the box sitting outside in the hot flea market sun. I figured I’d find a home for it – maybe in a proper archive. There seemed to never be enough time to assess the entire set, so years passed and it moved around Los Angeles with me to 11 different apartments and houses over the course of 28 years.
When African Americans began to protest police violence all across the country a few years ago, I watched, horrified by the endless stream of police over-reaction killings of black people. A glaring light was shined on the deep, enduring racism I mistakenly hoped had diminished in America. Consequently, I felt the need to make a visual response to the ongoing systemic abuse.
After beginning work on The Republic, I recalled the rusting gray steel box on the shelf in the cellar. Its contents covered vast amounts of time, from slavery in ancient Nubia to segregation in the 1950s. Buried in the collection were many copy slides, all fading into pink, of antique news engravings depicting slavery in the American South. Since the visibility of white supremacy escalated during and since the presidential election, many of these images have been republished in the news, but in the early summer of 2016 these illustrations were unfamiliar to me.
Omitted from our history schoolbooks, the antique engravings reminded me of family china patterns of my youth, only replete with racists and slaves. Merging the illustrations into reconstructed presidential china patterns allowed me to navigate the difficult subject of slaveholding presidents, offering subtext to the supposed civilization and culture set around historic dining tables.
When I learned that President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife Edith Bolling Wilson created The China Room at The White House, a collection displaying all the dinnerware of prior presidencies, my interest peaked. I had recently read that Mrs. Wilson was potentially somewhere on my remote family tree and also that the Ku Klux Klan was particularly emboldened, if not enabled during Mr. Wilson’s time as head of state.
More recent presidencies are represented in this series, with plates depicting controversy or tragedy caused either by their leadership or during their terms. These works incorporate archival photographic imagery and I am indebted to The Library of Congress for use of their incredible collection.
As President Obama was about to leave office in 2016, there was a collective sense of doom felt by Liberals. Many of us worried that this incoming government would reverse the progress made under Mr. Obama’s leadership. My need to honor him resulted in a dinner plate turned backward with only its china label visible.
As we wrestle with corruption and the defiance of Democracy, I found myself bombarded by negative imagery and branched into a series of works based on souvenir flow blue dinnerware reflecting more heroic figures. I am especially including women here, as their exclusion from government and historic record has been profound, yet their contributions to life are vast.
In the spring of 2016 I was invited along on a civic business trip to Washington D.C. Finding myself deeply dismayed by the profoundly unsettling dialogue engulfing the presidential election, I decided to make the trip with the intention of beginning artwork for a possible book project.
My curiosity as an American was coupled with a growing unease as a country built in the most beautiful language and lofty visions was immersed in denigrating the best president of my lifetime. While President Obama led the country out of seemingly insurmountable calamities with a dignity, intellectual vigor, commitment to diplomacy and respect for all the country’s people, the extremists raged. Leading a swath of America backward onto itself to wallow in its lowest traditions of prejudice, ignorance and obstruction, the Republican leadership barely masked a glaring desire for self-enrichment.
I had never been to Washington and given the effort the Obamas invested into increasing access to the government by its people, I couldn’t imagine a better time to visit. Through my invitation I had additional invaluable access: conferences and receptions at the House of Representatives and Senate office buildings; a private Congressional tour led by my Congressman’s staff; a tour of the White House as well as dinners in storied old buildings with people who hold high sway, elected and not, in my city. It was a privilege and I was hooked.
My interest was to explore the vision, architecture, language and idolatry of significant American figures in our early years – the lofty goals of our founders versus the harsh contradictions of slavery, slaughter of indigenous people and profiteering land grabs. I thought a lot about the elegance of thought and language and debate, which furthered the country’s laws and protections for lands and citizenry. I thought a lot about the caustic knee-jerk, childish rhetoric and gang-bang mentality sweeping through contemporary America. I did not expect by year’s end to be dealing with fascism and a thuggish plutocracy, aided and abetted by foreign intervention and a complicit, regressive government. What has ensued in this new regime is a disgrace on all counts.
Concurrent with exploring and making images for The Republic, my family began to delve more deeply into our own history, uncovering a lineage going back to the Mayflower, Jamestown and beyond. It looks as though I may descend from John Rolfe, who set sail in 1609 for America on the Sea Venture, a ship and it’s wreckage near Bermuda that informed Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Having located desirable strains of tobacco while rebuilding a sailable ship, Rolfe is credited with bringing the first commercial tobacco cultivation to Virginia. He is also known primarily for marrying the daughter of the Chief of the Powhatan Indians. Her name was Matoaka, but we know her as Pocahontas.
As intriguing as all that is, it came with the whiplash realization that my forefathers were directly complicit in the birth of the plantation culture in the South. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but when research led to several of my direct ancestors who owned slaves, I felt a shudder of responsibility I’d hoped to never feel. A lifetime of liberal politics and egalitarian beliefs did not prepare me to hit that wall.
In exploring my full ancestral lineage, the trail has led not just to the aforementioned historical figures but also to officers in the Revolutionary War, to soldiers in both the Union Army and the Confederacy, to the struggling and the well-heeled, pioneers, farmers, and women who died of influenza and in child-birth. My family’s evolving story coupled with a fascination kindled from the trip to Washington quickly developed into an obsession with image making, learning and thinking about The Republic.
How does one reconcile a heritage built both by Native Americans and the Colonists? Does one feel pride in the immense struggle it took to create such a complex and elegant governmental system while being mortified at the methodology employed for its success. Patriotism is a complex thing.
Before the election of 2016, I thought I might be at this project for years given the abundance of information I struggled to digest. At the time, I thought the election would go differently and I could focus my work on the founding first few hundred years. I thought I’d be able to stop short of the now, as a full United States history would be an unrealistic undertaking. But ignoring the now and all that went before it would be to turn a blind eye on all the good we’ve done and just as significantly, all the bad.
I realized early on that I needed to employ a variety of working methods to better serve the vast array of subject matter, even if those methods might typically be at odds with one another. Unlike a more common single narrative, The Republic is a massive story requiring a broad range of interpretations. Some work is environmental, some simple landscapes, environments and still life photographs. Other images are conceptual constructions. I began to make props so that I could photograph the objects and ideas that I wanted to see and convey. Those ideas punctuate a timeline threaded by more typical images that serve at least partly as establishing shots.
The Republic is an ongoing project, as much activism and self-education as art and personal historical exploration. As such, some images stand alone more profoundly than others and there are many gaps that I intend to fill over time. As an editor, the content is overwhelming. As a maker, I find the discovery of both information and ways of translating that information creatively, to be immensely challenging and ever intriguing.
My country straddles a morality stuck between what many of us thought was a progressive future and the strong and persistent gravitational pull of an extremist past, intent on continuing to rear its ugly head. In creating works for The Republic I wrestle with all of it – a baptism by fire. We can’t get over it. We must go through it.
I always knew that opening a gallery, especially a contemporary photography gallery in a photo-saturated era, wasn’t necessarily the brightest idea. Making or showing art is not of itself a particularly practical notion, especially for one without deep pockets. Despite the risks, I’ve thrown myself headlong into exhibition projects of some sort or other with as much gusto as I’ve been able. Better to try than not. Yet the concept of “Build it and they will come” is different from build it and they will buy.
Still, Spot Photo Works was a worthy project, offering opportunities for artists to show images in a lovely space in a high-profile city. We were able to offer some challenging work and build a supportive and diverse community, which I am deeply thankful for. As I console myself with closing the gallery, I’ve come to think of it as a really sweet love affair. Beautiful, but without the footing a relationship needs to last.
On Saturday, we wrapped the photographs and pulled the last nail from the wall. Spot Photo Works is no more. I leafed through the guest book this morning and saw the very last comment was “Beautiful work!” What more can one ask?
Personally, I’m sinking myself back into freelance photo editing and writing for artists so if you need another eye and an inquisitive mind; I need a gig. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In closing (literally), I want to thank you for your attendance, conversation and good wishes. It matters and will be remembered.
Kathleen Clark Exposed is now posting as Spot Photo Works: https://spotphotoworkslosangeles.wordpress.com. For exhibition news, please find us there. For individual editing or mentoring clients, please continue to contact me via the about me/contact page (see the tab at the top of the blog page).
Spot Photo Works, the new Los Angeles based, contemporary photography gallery started by myself and Russell Adams, will be occupying most of the corners and curves of my mind in its first year. I’ll still be doing some freelance editing and mentoring, but for the most part my writing is going the way of the gallery and you can find me holding forth to that end on the Spot Photo Works Facebook page and on Spot’s blog.
I’m wrapping up jurying for Critical Mass and I’ll be reviewing portfolios at Photo Lucida in Portland in the Spring. Perhaps I’ll see some of you there. I’m also judging a yet to be announced competition for the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado. I may also get inspired to write here on occasion and if time allows perhaps I’ll be able to pull on the threads of my own art making as well. If so, I’ll keep you posted if anything juicy comes of it.
You have been kind enough to read and look at images here over the last few years and I appreciate it. I just wanted to post a quick update to shine some light on my silence over the last months. I’m embarking upon a new gallery project – a collaboration with my friend, master printer Russell Adams of Schulman Photo Lab in Los Angeles (Hollywood). Together we are opening a contemporary photography gallery called SPOT Photo Works, located right next door to Russell’s lab in the wonderfully vintage Crossroads of the World complex. News will come soon of our inaugural exhibition but in the meantime please feel free to “like” our page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/spotphotogallery and I’ll make sure you hear of upcoming programming. We’ll also have a blog page for more in depth information, so join us if you like: http://spotphotoworkslosangeles.wordpress.com. I haven’t posted much there yet as it’s a bit early, but it won’t be long.
It’s the end of another year. Out with the old, in with the new, etcetera, etcetera. I haven’t written here in a while. I’m not completely sure why but life gets busy. Even so, I kick myself for not adding my two cents to the cacophony of voices. Still, one must have something to say.
Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night with fully formed sentences in mind that seem terribly profound. Just before hosting a Christmas dinner for twelve, I woke up with the language of an entire toast that I was able to deliver somewhat coherently. It went over well enough with good champagne as lubricant and an attentive audience. On the other hand I have not found myself immersed in ideas, photographs or artwork lately that compelled me enough to write about it for public consumption. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen anything I liked, it just means I didn’t really feel it necessary to comment.
I have made a fair amount of work on behalf of others this year – designing and promoting exhibitions and bringing in a couple of new photographers to show in the near future for Leica Gallery LA. I’ve re-shaped portfolios, and re-built a career or two for private clients. I had a photo portfolio of my own environmental portraiture and documentary work on musicians picked up by a magazine. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting for a few hours in a kitchen booth with basketball great Phil Jackson to pour over photographs with him and get clues as to how I should edit the photographic story of his life. He laughed at my jokes. I pet his dog. What more can one ask?
All this brings me to the subject of my personal body of artwork. It too, has kept me lying awake at night, wrestling with ways to manifest an idea. During a shoot last month, photographer Dan Winters asked me what I was up to with my photographs. He’s the exceptional artist that I last wrote about here and the one that always makes me feel like I’ve found my feet after we have a conversation. There’s something about a talk with Dan that just sets me right. He’d seen most of an ongoing series I’ve been working on the last couple years, but I have a new body of work that I’d shown to no one outside the family.
A few days after parting ways I worked up my nerve and sent Dan a link to the work. The fact that he wrote back quickly to say that the new images really affected him both conceptually and technically and he thought it a beautiful series, should have caused me to run a flag up a pole. After all, that kind of meaningful, trusted compliment is so rare. Instead, I just felt encouraged enough to keep working on the series. At times I suffer from my own humble nature. On the other hand I wanted it to be strong enough before I threw it to the wind.
Last night I dreamt some scraps of a phrase Dan said about sharing artwork as being one of his great pleasures. It reminded me of how freely I once engaged as a young artist in the discussion of ideas, of making and sharing imagery and collaboration apart from the obsession with self-promotion that so encompasses contemporary photography. In the spirit of sharing, I’m posting a few of my new series called “Lost Language.” There’s a proper statement about the work at the end of this column, but try to find room for your own interpretations. I know what fuels this for me, but it’s spacious and abstract work and there’s room for whatever it makes you feel. When I made the first image in this column just two days ago, I found myself grinning. So bring to it what you will and have a happy new year.
Lost Language: “Words fail me.” “I’m speechless.” “She’s at a loss for words.” Such expressions are considered a normal gap in one’s abilities to find suitable language in certain stressful or overwhelmingly emotional times. At the beginning of life, there is a rapid gathering of verbal elements – a snowball gaining speed and building to a phenomenally grand toolbox of linguistic pieces. Letters and punctuation accumulate and our verbal thoughts and words are like a tide constantly ebbing and flowing. With loss of memory, a gradual disintegration of language happens. Words stick together, but are isolated from others. Some words are lost altogether creating a language that makes accommodations for the parts that are missing. As witnesses to memory loss, we make excuses and sense of what’s left. “He had a beautiful woolen jacket” becomes “he had one.” We struggle to piece together the intended meaning and make do with what’s left until words become fragments and fragments turn to silence.
As a photography editor, I’ve met many photographers I enjoyed or learned from and many who are still my friends today. In the evolution of my working relationship with Dan Winters, the underlying quality was a sense of old connection, like we’d known each other forever. With each project we worked on together, there was a deepening awareness of substance, humanity and mutual trust.
A lot of people love working with Dan Winters, so in that I’m not unique. He is one of the foremost editorial photographers of our time for good reason. For me, there was always something about him that made me feel at home, a shared origin rooted in art, orchards, the West and the understated. It had nothing to do with magazines or the politics of publication so I often felt that we “got away with” making art in a context that’s not always accepting of art. When an artful being raises from the drought that publishing plus commerce creates, it’s a thrill. It is especially so when that artist has the tools, aesthetic, and craftsmanship to convince editors of their gifts, allowing art to thrive and excel even when sandwiched between the aspirational ads for jewelry and furnishings.
When I call Dan Winters a friend, I should explain that I never shared dinner with him or his wife and manager Catherine, though with both we shared enough thoughtful conversations to place them in a respected place in my world. We spent time together as he photographed beloved vintage robots and science fiction movie props at a collectors cluttered house in North Hollywood and I watched in admiration at the comfortable way he photographed Anthony Hopkins in a hotel room turned studio in Santa Monica. He skillfully executed my concept of still life top hat and cane for a classic Hollywood feature in a way that was fascinating to observe and stunningly beautiful.
A few years ago when I was in Austin, Texas for SXSW, I had plans to visit Dan and Catherine at the studio where he made so many of the still life photographs that we spent our phone conversations working through. I wanted to see for myself the studio where I’d shipped him orange trees and crates of a range of citrus fruit for the California Citrus series that now sits on my mantle – the studio he said smelled absolutely amazing. Ultimately my schedule didn’t end up allowing the visit so when I found Dan by chance sitting across from me in the airport as we both were leaving town, it felt like kismet.
All this is to say that it’s probably impossible for me to critique Dan Winter’s work objectively, so I won’t even try. I will urge you to go see his exhibition Last Launch at Fahey Klein Gallery in Los Angeles through August 31. Winters received close-range access from NASA to photograph the last launches of the space shuttles Discovery (February 24, 2011), Atlantis (May 17, 2011), and Endeavour (May 11, 2011). With multiple automatically controlled cameras, bolted into place for stability, Dan Winters records the dramatic launches of the last flight of these shuttles as they were sent hurtling into space. The resulting launch photographs are breathtaking, whether one has an interest in space travel or not.
The exhibition depicts far more than the launches alone however, and large-scale “portraits’ of the shuttles, lunar rovers and elite fighter planes, cockpits and mission control panels remind those familiar with Dan Winters’ work just how good he is at photographing gadgets, machines and all things science. My personal favorites were the detail shots of the astronaut’s gloves, as well as the full-length flight suits. Neil Armstrong’s Lunar Glove is much more than just a discarded piece of a uniform. In Winters’ hands, the glove appears to be fully inhabited. In my mind it is filled with all the dreams of everyone who once huddled around a television set to see Armstrong’s fuzzy apparition, as he was the first to put a boot down on the surface of the moon. Last Launch is as close as many of us will get to experiencing the historical space program and a rare opportunity to see work by the gifted Dan Winters.
Fahey/Klein Gallery is located at 148 North La Brea Avenue, between First Street and Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. The gallery is open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday, 323 934 2250.