Friday, November 21, 2008

Notes from a Juror

I was invited to Ithaca to be a juror for the Margaret Bourke White award, offered as a prize for an exceptional portfolio of work by a curently-enrolled Cornell student. As I write, I am reminded of my Cornellcentrism. Ithaca, for me is code for Cornell even though I did for a short while live and work in town, and had a life very separte from The Hill after graduating with a BFA in photography in 1981. It is to Cornell that I am returning. In many senses. The other jurors were Shirley Sammuels, Chair of the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, and Andrea Inselmann, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Ary at the Herbert F. Johson Museum of Art. (Shirley, Andrea I hope I have the title correct. This might show up on a google search.)
We formed a group of varied backgrounds but are asessments were pretty closely aligned. The winner of the award was aclear choice to all of us. The work had all we could ask for: profound concept, emotionally subtle and ambiguous, very refines visual language and craft, and clarity of vision. I can't write about the work in case the winner has yet to be notified.

A note about process. In the morning we worked separately to review the work and present our preliminary judging, then broke for lunch, and met as a team to reivew the 17 or 18 or 16 finalists. I was heartened to hear Shirley announce as she turned over the number tag for one body of work, "I hate this." ( Heartened? I am self-conscious of my tendency for being blunt, if not a little harsh with my students, and with my colleagues. For several reasons I often say what I think, before I think to shape my words. It seems so raw. I am afriad of my own directness I feel exposed for days. It's delightful to see it someone else. It becomes Shirley.) She then looked up genially at me and Andrea and invited disent. We nodded. We both deferred and agreed. Things we generally agreed on: craft and printing issue.

I took down a few notes regarding issues that consituted grounds for rejection. My biases:
1) photographs of "exotic" children. Effective image-making (of any sort: photograph, painting, drawing) connects with the viewer. Children, other than the very ill or damaged, are so open and vulnerable. Especially to a stranger with a camera. The child looks inquistively at this intruder, and in a fraction of a second the desire for connection is recorded. I'm not talking about images where children are actively engaged in an activity, or actively engaged with the photographer. It's too easy and (maybe even lazy?) connection. I ask for more of an image and I ask for a little more thought from the photographer. Children are not pretty examples of the innocence of the world, to be collected and displayed.

2) nature. The color, textures, patterns...etc of landscape are alluring and soothing. The light can be any range of colors we think reserved only for irridescent inks. That doesn't mean nature photography can't be moving. I just ask for something more than a proficient ability with one's equipment. Nature and optics do all the work. Again, I ask a lot of the photographer: not just aesthetic sensitivity and intelligence but conceptual maturity as well. William Henry Jackson and his mule pack went to a lot of trouble hauling his darkroom up through Yellowstone. Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston and the f/64 group from Point Reyes created impeccable "things" -photographs - physical objects. 30 years ago when I was an art student here we were exploring how to merge concept-building and complex visual story telling with the process of making photographs. Pretty images are enjoyable. I want the photographer to think, to observe and understand something new and I want her to share that with me.

3) The last category that turned me off was images of the "exotic". Moms in bright saris holding their babies, old men with dark skin and ragged beards, dirty children in the street, rows of brightly colored things in boxes and sacks, unusual practices with food… etc. The tourist with a nice camera can't resist making pretty images of coloring things. As a visitor from Richmond, I was keenly aware of the environment of Ithaca/Cornell on a snowy winter afternoon. Cool blue light filtered through the one north-facing window in the room. The color, the feeling --- something about this was deeply familiar. Like the smell of the old stair well left intact after the renovation of the building after my departure. We'd gone to lunch, all of us in black overcoats. I remembered the familiar dress code: dark, heavy and layered. Dark, by comparison to Richmond. Cornell students travel. Some for research. Some as adventure tourists. Others travel from other continents to study there. I wanted more than something that reminded me of how colorful the clothes and spices are in India. Maybe it's the Cornell foundation in me, where the cold long winters inspire students to stay in and work hard, but I'd like an image to work harder for me. I'd like to see that the one snapping the shutter has something to say beyond, "Look at this!". It's very hard, as a tourist, to go below the surface. Even as Annie Leibovitz said in her recently-aired interview ( the surface can be a rich theme, but then she knows why that is and has thought a lot about this.
Shirley had succinct way of evoking "the gaze". I stay away from referring to this. It's such a huge, never ending idea. I wander off on tangents. I need to write next, before I go to far (and from here I'm off to San Diego for the NCA convention) about my visits with the Cornell photo students.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Election Day

Quick notes. I hope I can return to this. Two weeks late or two weeks later this has lost urgency.

On Monday night Don set the coffee maker up for me to just turn on when I woke up at 4:30 am. My bag was packed with camera, advil, pens, notebook and snacks for a long day. I have not been taking pictures. I haven't wanted to step outside and survey critically the activity around me - Obama headquarters. Canvassing in neighborhoods where I was a visitor, a representative of the Obama campaign. I'm sorry I didn't take pictures but it takes a leap of self to step outside what I'm doing and be an observer. I wanted to be right inside this. But I was still closely to jumping out of my skin. I kept leaping ahead to Wednesday when it would be decided but I wanted to be present in Tuesday, the day when millions of Americans would be casting their votes.

I packed extra chairs in the car with a vision of sitting quietly behind the election officials signing in voters. A large empty gymnasium with a line outside in the hall. I drove around the corner in the pre-dawn drizzle and picked up Marty Gravett, a friend, mentor and fellow musician: today my poll watch partner. We followed the Mapqest directions south down Broad Rock Blvd, looking for the turn to Snead Road and J.L. Francis Elementary School. (The night before Marty and I and the other poll watches squeezed into the already overcrowded back room ---the now-familiar sight of folks talking into cell phones referencing clipboards and laptops sitting anywhere possible. The poll watchers were the ones crowded around Sean, the area coordinator, who was handing out lists of registered voters in each precinct for us to track who had voted and who had not as the day progressed.) We overshot our turn off. Both of us hoping the cold rain wouldn't be scaring off voters. By the time we got to the school, we could see the parking lot was full and the over flow continues down the road for several tenths of a mile. It was the first indication that something very big was happening.

We made our way past the long line that had formed way before the polls were due to open. It was just 5:45. Officials held us back at the door to the cafeteria then let us pass when we presented our letters from the Democratic Party. Marty and I glanced at each other. The chairs were unnecessary. Small cafeteria chairs were stacked against the wall. We unpacked our bags and took our places behind the pairs of poll workers. When Sean handed me our assignment he said, "Oh, you have a good one. It's one of the largest in Richmond." Now I saw the implications of that. Normally there would be two pairs of workers signing in voters. (A-K, L-Z). Here there were four sets: (A-E, F-K, L-R, S-Z) which meant that Marty and I would be trying to listen simultaneously to two pairs at work.

At 6 am, somewhere declared the poll open and the stream began. At first it was difficult to figure out where to station ourselves to hear and see the names of voters as they were checked off and handed tickets to take to the machine. They were supposed to call their name out, but most mumbled or spoke quickly. I was frantically trying to hear a name, peek over a shoulder at a tiny 8' type name on a photo id, at first one table than another. One set, two women were trying hard to help me out. They would look at me and make sure I heard the name, if I looked unsure. The other couple, a pair of men seemed mildly annoyed (and at times plainly so) at my presence. Within minutes of the polls opening, the small cafeteria was packed. Each table had a line snaking around to the doors to the hallways. There was a steady din of conversation and voter intake. The vast majority of the voters were African American. Many dressed for work in blue-collar jobs (many with blue collars). A lot of young men exercising their right to vote. Older couples. Moms and grandmas with kids. Women in high heels. Women in sweats.

If I could only record the varieties of expression: harried, calm and very confident, happy, strong, excited, tired...The man with his wife who when asked if he was going to vote replied with some sadness, "No". The men checking off his wife’s name nodded understandingly, sympathetically. It took me a moment to catch on to what I wasn't privy to and then realized that he very likely was a convicted felon who lost the right to vote. Something very familiar to the families in this community. A small window into a world I can't imagine. One --- only one --- woman complained about the 2-hour wait in line. An overweight white woman maybe in her 40's, in a sweatshirt and sneakers. Hard to speculate about her story. But I did. I would see an elderly conventional-looking white couple (the entire day I saw out of a more than 1,800 voters maybe five or six such couples). "They won't be on my list of canvassed Obama supporters," I would say to myself to protect against the disappointment of a vote for M/P. Several times they were. It seemed like a wonderful victory. The polling numbers showed African Americans were favoring Obama by a huge margin so I made some assumptions about voters even if they weren't on my list. But what excited me was the guy in line who I easily cast as a skinny redneck, whose name was on my list. It was a game and often I was surprised to folks I would have targeted otherwise to be Obama supporters. I made some guesses about the young large white mom pulling at her kids who wasn’t on my list. A Christian homeschooler?

I dearly wish I could have counted the number of times I heard, "I've never voted before." "This is my first time voting". I would look over and try to get a look at a birth date. 1950's. 1940's. One poll worker told me about the 88-year-old African American woman who was voting for the first time in her life. Finally by 11:30 am the lines dissolved into one or two folks, maybe a few more in line. Sometimes nobody at a desk for a few minutes. Mid-day when the cafeteria was filled mainly with poll workers a woman (I soon learned she was in her early 50's) came rushing in. I recall something about boots and skinny jeans and curly hair dyed yellow. An impression of something fancy and flashy. "I couldn't sleep last night," she announced paces away from the table. She was so excited to vote for the first time in her life.

As I was calling totals in to headquarters Sean responded that they were great numbers. I could only guess what that meant. Maybe, knowing the make-up of this precinct that high numbers were high numbers for Obama. I am pretty sure that the campaign knew just what sorts of projected numbers for turn out in key regions could mean for an Obama win. I think they knew when the vote was close to even between M + O but Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads were still being counted that the scales would tip securely.

Marty and I packed up sometime around 4, although I didn't want to leave. It made no sense to take photos at that point. But I could have. I just could not bring myself to violate this precious event by documenting it for myself. As we said our goodbyes to the poll workers who had been friendly but by training very neutral, several hugged us and thank us and I did the same. One of the women (whose name I forgot) said, as I was packing up to leave, “Tell Sean I said ‘hi’ Tell him I'm the one with all the signs in my yard. I had tears in my eyes to see how close we were to that same feeling of hope and excitement but she hadn't been able to say anything except this all day.

More About Canvassing

A note about canvassing. Back and forth.
Memory and narrative shifts from present to past, ahead and back. I just realized that I needn't care so much about the linear order of this narrative.

We were sent in pairs out into the neighborhoods adjacent to Woodland Heights. If you don't know this neighborhood in Richmond, you should understand that in this small, contained neighborhood bounded by city parks on the east and west, the river on the north, and Semmes Avenue to the south the majority of homes have Obama signs in their yards. The campaign clearly recognizes the voting patterns of this precinct and is not concerned about either voter turn out or allegiance to the democratic ticket. But just 1/2 mile or a mile south, and a mile west the neighborhood is predominantly newly registered working class, and predominantly African American. These neighborhoods were especially critical for gaining voter involvement.
Several times during a route when I engaged a resident who answered the door, I found myself welling up with tears (of relief, of gratitude, for the connection to this other neighbor on the other side of the door or the threshold, in response to the sheer enormity of the prospect and the depth of my hope). My experience of Richmond is of a divided city. I cringe to say this. White and black. I cringe to see how simplistic and damaging this is. Before I continue, how do I change that? Please write me if you have any thoughts. Is it true for them? The folks I was canvassing? Another part of my tears: for that division in my own mind. As I write, I think that may be the thing that triggers the intensity of emotion. The sense of division within myself. The sadness in response to that.

One day my partner (friend and neighbor, Cathy Nelson) and I walked up to a house on our list of voters to canvass, with a woman sitting on the porch on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. A few men were walking out of the house, one with a can of beer. We identified ourselves as with the Obama campaign, making sure that folks knew where to vote and asking them if we could count on their vote. One man laughed and thanked us and then with a very thick slurry speech, called out something like "next a Chinese American, or a Mexican American!" On several occasions, I had been self-conscious about my pronunciation of words. Did I sound like a Northerner (even worse, a New Yorker?)? A very white person? A white, privileged person? A person for whom the right to vote and the security of a good education is assumed?

A note about now, and today. As I write this post, I recognize things about me that surprise and sadden me. My own divisiveness. But recognizing this as my frame of reference at least awards some connection to self. (“Oh, so that’s how it is”.) Facing myself, facing oneself. I am posting from Ithaca, New York where I am a guest critic for the Photography classes. I met with the seniors today and was unnerved by the very dense opacity in their verbal presentations. I heard fragments, and ideas, and references to readings. They talked about irritations and frustrations and attempts and desires but the motivation behind their work escaped them. It is so painfully familiar this stage in the creative process. Of desperately plumbing for some connection to self with very few tools to excavate. I’ll write about this another time, I hope. But the point I wish to make is that revealing parts of the self is so incredibly difficult and laborious. But we all try so hard. How noble.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Late October

I loose entire weeks. There is no consistency from one day to the other. I think about writing. But that's not at all the same as writing. With a family, and work and any spare time for friends... or for the past month on The Campaign. Any time I could find away form work or family, I tried to take a canvassing shift. I felt so deeply that Obama could win and wanted to do anything I could to be a part of making that happen. I brought Henry to vote at city hall (early absentee). He was uncharacteristically patient and even. We waited a half hour, listening to folks describe how they had been in line earlier only to be evacuated by a fire alarm. We were a few minutes away from voting when the alarm went off again. We waited outside for another half hour before a voting officer summoned those of us still waiting around to another municipal building. There we waited another half hour for them to haul the machines over and set up for us. It was almost 5 when I cast my ballot. We'd been in line since 2:30. I let Henry vote for the local offices. Later we went to Obama headquarters. I wanted Henry to be in the midst of it: see the rooms packed with folks on the phone, entering date on laptops, scurrying around, conferring, sharing stories..., and for him to feel the excitement.