Inspiration Found in Dime Booth Portraits

by Ryan Filchak ~

Maxine Payne’s projects strive to affirm her own sense of place by documenting the experiences of others through photography. Now with two shows open simultaneously, one at Transylvania University’s Morlan Gallery, and the other at Institute 193, Payne splits her inter-continental portrait series from the dime store photo booth portraits that inspire her work.

“My work is a way for me, to understand where I come from, a way to honor it, to be critical of it,” Payne writes. While the Morlan Gallery exhibits Payne’s portraits of the rural women that connect her to a global community, her exhibit at the Institute 193 features the found amateur photographs from a dust-bowl era Arkansas that connect the artist directly to home and family.

This expansion and contraction of identity through the vehicle of place carries throughout both exhibitions despite their separate approaches to the subject. In either series of portraits, whether staged in a mobile trailer or in the subject’s home as most often is the case with Payne’s rural women, the portrait subjects give an archival image of themselves while limited in their ability to tell their full story. The black and white portraits taken by Payne do have matching texts that reveal the subject’s voice, but again the quick shifts between personal identity and abstraction prevail. This element of the work speaks more to the limitations of portraiture than the goals of the Rural Women project Payne and her friend, colleague and anthropologist Dr. Anne Goldberg have set for themselves.

Since 2006, Payne has teamed with Goldberg to work on a project known as The Rural Women and Globalization Project. The exhibition currently on view at the Morlan gallery, Rural Women: Photographs by Maxine Payne is the culminating work of this ever-expanding project of activist portraiture. In the show, Payne’s portraits feature women from four distinct regions, including San Luis, Costa Rica, Bagamayo, Tanzania, Vinh Linh, Vietnam, and the U.S./Mexico Border. Each location features five raw, earnest portraits of the women while the subject’s own words express the particular hardships of their daily lives.

Beginning in San Luis, Costa Rica, upon a request to finish the work of fellow anthropologist Ilse Leitinger, Payne and Goldberg worked with the women of the community, asking “questions designed to be gentle in order to illicit their stories about themselves and the places they know best.” These interviews would build trust and connection with the women to increase the authenticity of the portraits while never “romanticizing or eroticizing.”

The strength of these 20 unaltered prints do not come directly from the stories that these women tell, but instead from the full confidence and trust the subject’s share through Payne’s portraits. Each photograph expresses the solidarity Payne and Goldberg have achieved with their subjects and the subjects’ permission to the artist to have their stories told.

It is not that the stories lack substance but instead the opposite. Goldberg and Payne’s ability to connect with women of the global community in such a meaningful way provides the audience with an overwhelming breadth of material. The 20 portraits featured in the exhibition discuss deeply personal subjects including the HIV/AIDS crisis, Post Vietnam War U.S. relations, domestic abuse, marriage, motherhood, and sex education. Each woman has her own cross to bear ranging from hard labor to abject tragedy and yet the common denominators of strength, resilience and place inevitably rise from each personal account.

These same attributes appear again with the Massengill family photographs on display at the Institute 193. Made inside a mobile photo booth trailer during the 30s and 40s, the Massengill family traveled from town-to-town selling portraits “three for a dime.” Payne would later inherit over 700 of these photo-booth portraits made by Jim and Mancy Massengill, the grandparents of family friend Sondra Massengill Mckelvey, during a trip home for a funeral in Arkansas. “[The] photographs can be playful, serious, strange, and at times haunting. Originally created as precious souvenirs, these photographs recorded moments experienced by the very young, the very old and everyone in between,” writes Institute 193 founder Philip March Jones.

For ten years now, these portraits born from the resourcefulness and entrepreneurial work ethic of an Arkansas family have inspired Maxine Payne to exhibit these visual records of place from which she deeply connects.

Co-published by Dust-to-Digital and Institute 193, the accompanying publication for Making Pictures: Three for a Dime represents the culmination of this ongoing project of Payne’s – previously she had kept the photographs in handmade 2’ x 1’5’’ albums. This outsider approach to publishing foreshadows the larger installation pieces she would later use with her Rural Women series.

For the Morlan Gallery installation Payne uses three large format collage prints to evoke a more visceral connection to the hands on work preformed by her rural subjects. Evocative of the outsider art that the Three for a Dime Portraits represent, these roughly handled prints are tied together by string, accented by meat packing tape and stained by walnut dye. These rough build techniques emphasize the passion for past and place that Payne cites as inspiration for all of her work.

Payne’s work, although placed on a linear timeline continues to expand in scope, and fortunately we can all witness the grand connections that she makes with history in order to build a powerful monument of personal identity .

Making Pictures: Three for a Dime at the Institute 193 will remain open until Dec. 1, while Rural Women at the Morlan Gallery exhibit will run until Dec. 2. The Morlan Gallery opens on weekdays noon – 5 p.m. and by special appointment. The Institute opens Wednesday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and by appointment. Both galleries will be open for the Lexington Gallery Hop on Nov. 21 from 5 – 8 p.m.

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