Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environments.
To me, Lake Huron was the most mysterious of them all. It is one of the least populated areas, as a map shows only undeveloped shoreline and small towns dotting the coast. It also has a long history of rough weather and shipwrecks, so I came to Lake Huron feeling it would be the most haunted as well. Being it has so few cities surrounding it, I was expecting to find few artists and more vacationers. Still, I arrived to the lake looking for craftsmen and preservationists working on historic sites and boating in a variety of ways.
Thessalon – I drove out to the small town of Thessalon, to visit Miranda Bouchard, Acting Artistic Director of Thinking Rock Community Arts. They are working with the North Shore communities to build collaborative projects that respond to local issues. They also provide training and consulting services to the community. I kept finding people that moved up from southern Ontario to live and work in the hopes of being more connected to the region.
Big Basswood Lake – I was planning on swimming in each great lake, but due to the temperature and algae blooms, that opportunity never happened. It wasn’t until I reached Basswood Lake on the north side of Lake Huron, that I found got the opportunity. The lake was spring fed, so I could see straight to the bottom no matter how deep it got.
Big Basswood Lake – While interviewing the Sault Ste Marie Artist, Andrea Pinheiro, she asked about my accommodations in the city. Her response, “Nonsense, you are coming up to Basswood Lake and staying in a cabin.” The generosity of northern Ontario folk is staggering. Not once did they ask for money from me for the housing and meal. Great cabin, lake, meal and conversations that went late into the evening.
Manitoulin Island – It was a gray chilly day when I took a long ferry ride from Manitoulin Island to the Bruce Peninsula. I was sad to be leaving Northern Ontario.
Southampton – The Chantry Island Marine Heritage Society took me out to their lighthouse, which they’ve been working on for years. Without government funding they’ve done the labor and craftsmanship required to repair this lighthouse themselves. All the volunteers are retired citizens of Southampton. Rob Campbell, in the photograph, is a retired dentist.
Southampton – While touring Chantry Island I met a local historian, Mike Sterling. This retired award-winning mathematician has been coming out to the island to help fix up the cottage and lighthouse for years.
Chantry Island –The island is a migratory bird sanctuary. The local heritage society has been visiting for years, restoring it to its original state. The work features traditional carpentry.
Chantry Island – The island has been getting smaller as the lake’s water levels reach record highs. Many of the marinas and infrastructure surrounding the Great Lakes are out of commission with the waters as high as they are. This is greatly affecting summer tourism, which most of the small communities surrounding the lakes rely upon.
Southampton – While on the tour of Chantry Island I hooked up with the local historian, Mike Sterling. After retiring, he started building instruments that rely on geometry and mathematics at the core of their design. Mike built this Bernoulli Involute years ago and has created his own type of script music to accompany the instrument.
Southampton – Since retiring, Mike Sterling has been working in his studio above his family.
My last evening on Lake Huron was spent wandering the streets where I came across the war memorial. A cross fashioned from metallic oil on canvas, the memorial faces the waterfront and the US. It inspired thoughts about the shared history and sacrifices of America and Canada.
Lake Huron was where I got to see both northern and southern Ontario. People around the lake were just as friendly as Lake Superior and were just as interested in my project. I also kept finding people who moved up there from the more populated southern Ontario. The slower pace of the towns reminded me very much of home. You didn’t need more than one job to make ends meet in many of these small towns; one job pays the bills. While on Lake Huron, I also had the chance to get out on the water and visit a few islands. The water was just as choppy as I imagined, though the locals seemed quite comfortable in the waves. For the first time, a camera was turned on me while I was in Southampton. A local newspaper shadowed me for one of my photo shoots with the heritage society. I didn’t realize my project would draw this much interest from anyone outside of my crew of fellow photographers. The project started to feel more meaningful. Not only is this project a collection of images I photographed from my interactions with creatives in these communities, but I was bringing their story to a broader audience back home. To many people I was speaking with, this became important.
A tree-lined driveway led to a private house tucked away in the rural suburbs of Kentucky. Lavish, otherworldly, and remote, artist Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s (b. 1987) home-based studio is evocative of Medici-era patronage. Housed in a friend’s secondary home, Gamez De Francisco uses the private space to focus exclusively on his art practice.
Tree-lined driveway to Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio
Outdoor lounging area of Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio
Reminiscent of 17th century Dutch portraiture, a series of young women adorned in pearls, head dresses, and ruffled collars are posed in a manner that is both austere and elegant. The works are visually and tonally seductive as vibrant hues of red, purple, gold, and white stand stark against a black backdrop. There is a frankness in the women’s demeanor as they stare directly into the camera, implicating the viewer with their gaze. The subjects are not to be reduced as being simply beautiful. Upon closer examination what initially appears as lavish garments are objects, such as: trash bags, kitchen towels, and bedspreads, to name a few. The objects are specific to each model, carefully scoured and chosen from their homes to be recontextualized and reformed into clothing.
work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island.
Formally trained as a painter, Gamez De Francisco intentionally references painterly motifs to construct his photographic images. The history of portraiture is fraught with classism as those depicted were often in a position of status and power. Gamez De Francisco utilizes the format of portraitures’ to simultaneously empower the depicted models and dismantle portraitures’ exclusionary history. Regarding portraiture he states, “I think portraiture is the thing that is depicted the most in the history of art, I like to make portraits for that reason. What I wanted was to depict them in a position of power. I want to do the same with people of color and of different backgrounds, in the same position of power.”
The models depicted in the images are what Gamez De Francisco refers to as the “new generation of Cubans.” Born and raised in communist Cuba, Gamez De Francisco emphasized the hardships of growing up in a regime where basic everyday needs were scarce and access to the Internet or cell phones was unavailable. At 21 years old, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his career in the arts. In 2018, Gamez De Francisco traveled back to Cuba to document the new generation of Cubans with his series titled, “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island”. Prior to his project, he put out a call in Cuba for people who would be interested in being photographed; 280 people responded. When asked how he chose from 280 people, Gamez De Francisco emphasized, “I want people of different genders, races, backgrounds, and incomes.”
work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island
Opulent displays of material wealth paired with aristocratic poses that give an aura of nobility are reimagined through people of various economic classes, races, and backgrounds. Issues of diversity are at the forefront of the images. It is through portraiture that Gamez De Francisco gives the subjects a newfound sense of agency. There is a conceptual component to Gamez De Francisco’s photographic process as he goes through each individual model’s home to find various objects that can be transformed into a garment or accessory. The quality of objects can range from jewelry to utilitarian items like trash bags, which through the process of manipulation and recontextualization warps the original meaning of the objects and constructs a more powerful narrative through image-making. Regardless of the model’s background or quality of items represented in the picture, the motif of portraiture aesthetically eradicates unstable power discrepancies through the visual language associated with bourgeois portrait culture.
screen shot of Henrik Kersten’s photographs. Courtesy of Google Images
Unlike the Dutch photographer Henrik Kersten (b. 1956) who also uses repurposed materials like plastic bags and napkins to recreate a formal likeness to Dutch portraiture, Gamez De Francisco subverts the Eurocentric paradigm of portraiture found in the canon of art history. He does this by not only incorporating people of color but by interviewing each subject which allows the depicted to be an active participant in the construction of their image. Personal narrative is imbued into the subject’s personal items which incorporates a level of intimacy and ownership that is not initially apparent but activates the portraits in a way that destabilizes both the colonial and male gaze.
commissioned watercolor portraits and abstract painting in-progress
Interested in further expanding his studio practice, Gamez De Francisco likes to challenge himself by working in different styles and media. He is still working within the style of portraiture, however there is a stylistic transition that is centered on exploring the technical aspects of painting. His solo exhibition at Miller Gallery in Cincinnati this year titled, “Modern Nobility, The Art of Carlos Gamez De Francisco” involved painting in front of a live audience, adding a performative quality to the act of painting. Having formally trained as a painter, breaking free of its technical limitations and challenging the parameters of the medium itself are always a points of consideration.
Apart from the painting-based performance, Gamez De Francisco likes to work with watercolor paint because of its unforgiving and spontaneous characteristics. The paint is hard to handle due to its lack of texture, and the loose translucent quality of the pigment tends to spread rather than hold. It appears less calculated yet takes an instinctual precision to ensure the paint moves and applies as directed. Intention is less mediated, as control is viable only up to a certain point as the medium is unable to be tamed completely. Unlike his photographs which are meticulously staged and executed, his watercolor portraits have a gestural ephemerality. The quality is markedly soft in comparison to the polished finish of his Baroque-like photographs.
mural in-progress at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky
Gamez De Francisco having a conversation in front of mural at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky
The aesthetic composition of his watercolors with loose calligraphic forms and muddled pops of colors are being challenged on a much larger scale as Gamez De Francisco is currently working on a wall mural for the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky. The scope of this project is in direct contrast to the temporal constraints of the watercolor portraits seen in his studio, where works are executed in a much more unrehearsed manner with inevitably shorter time and labor constraints.
The most evident stylistic shift that was seen during the studio visit was Gamez De Francisco’s blatant effort to deviate from pictorial representation. A circular canvas with textured strokes of oil paint in various patches of light blue, white, red, and pink rests unfinished, a work in-progress. For Gamez De Francisco, Abstract Expressionism is new territory that results in a different type of aesthetic experience. With no recognizable meaning the viewer is forced to contemplate and simply experience the work. Like the viewer, the artist is also confronted with the freedom of non-representational ways of painting. The formlessness of abstraction comes with new sets of decision-making that pose challenges of its own.
Although this stylistic transition is conceptually new, Gamez De Francisco has had a penchant for abstract thinking from a young age. He recalls one of his earliest memories of drawing from when he was six years old. His father was in the kitchen explaining how water comes out of the faucet. Fascinated with the faucet’s ability to release water, Gamez De Francisco became enamored with the idea of drawing running water. This was a concern for his mother, as she felt her son’s desire to draw moving water warranted a visit to the local psychiatrist. According to Gamez De Francisco this was a seminal moment for him, “At 6 years old I was determined I wanted to be an artist.”
This level of decisiveness and determination made Gamez De Francisco resort to savvy tactics in his attempt to paint during a period in his life where resources were limited. It was during this time that the United States of America sanctioned an embargo on exports to Cuba that resulted in Cubans having to get creative within their material constraints. Gamez De Francisco would mix watercolors with toothpaste in an attempt to achieve the quality of oil paint, and used found pieces of cardboard as a substitute for canvas. This single-minded resourcefulness has carried into his art practice today.
Gamez De Francisco is disciplined and methodical in his approach to painting. He emphasized his rigorous daily routine that is fueled with an incessant need to make work that is always contingent on improvement. The secluded environment of the Kentucky countryside in which his studio resides allows for no distractions and enables an almost obsessive focus on making work. The grounds are both scenic and isolating, which recall a pre-Modernist model of an art studio.
However, it is not just the environment that won him over. Gamez De Francisco quite deliberately chose to have his art practice based in Louisville. In 2017, he moved to study at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. However, he recently moved back because of Louisville’s art community. He says, “I prefer Louisville because of the people, they love to support art and in an art scene that is not large. There is so many people that love art.” There is a culture of support, inclusivity, and passion that resonates with Gamez De Francisco on a deeper level and one he considers to be pertinent to a creative community.
UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project:
The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that everything you see through that car window is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Sarah Lyon’s show of thirty-two photographs at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives Gallery illustrates a motorcyclian world view: the work uncannily puts the viewer into the pictorial realm, in a relationship to the subject that transcends the vicarious. Travel photographs but in no way a travelogue, Lyon opens her experience to the viewer while ironically remaining very much the creative personality occupying these images. Spanning fourteen years of the artist’s work, Lyon describes the work as a “personal investigation of what happens with artistic process as life evolves and changes, while embracing the inevitable ebb and flow of inspiration and motivation.”
In that pursuit, Lyon subverts normative orthodoxies, revives the rebel ethos of the motorcycle rider, celebrates alternative lifestyles and serves as a road-wise guide, especially to “areas in the American west that draw and intrigue me emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically.”
Sarah Lyon, Consider Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone), 2011
Consider Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone), 2011. An open phone booth is centered in the photograph: below is a band of asphalt and a culvert, and beyond, a band of dirt, the luminescent salt flats, far off mountains, and cumulus clouds above. The phone booth enclosure is a chamber opera of light, shade and reflection: the reflections against the front plate and keypad, the mottled light through the side of the booth enclosure, sunlight falling across the front of the booth, and the curved wire cord to the handset, provide a frontispiece to the vast expanse beyond.
USWEST is the name of the telephone company and the implication is that this is indeed the true American west – vast, desolate, solitary, and silent. Sky takes up half of the 30 by 30 inch image. A series of color and shape rhymes reiterate the sense that human communication by phone is irrelevant or futile in this context: the pavement gray echoes the gray of the distant mountains, the blue of the phone sign is a washed out version of the sky beyond and the reflections on the front plate are pearlescent like the clouds. The shadow of the phone booth is suggestive of a squat phalanx warrior holding a shield, a shape repeated in the irregular concrete and drain on the left.
All are belittled and left defenseless by the scale of the landscape. At first a minimalist composition with its deadpan centering and regular bands of topography dropping back into the distance, Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone) is convincingly not simply a place recorded by Lyon but a complex meditation on the folly of the manmade and mechanical in the face of the grandeur of nature.
Sarah Lyon, First Storm, Minnesota Self-Portrait, 2003
Two self-portraits are comparable in the use of deep perspective to draw the viewer in. First Storm, Minnesota Self-Portrait, 2003 shows Lyon with her back to the camera braving an approaching storm. On the horizon is a farm and distant band of trees. Rowland Barthes described the salient detail in a photograph as the punctum: “a photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me but also bruises me.” A red X at the perspectival endpoint (apparently headlights reflected in wet pavement) is the punctum in this image – as far forward in Lyon’s journey that the photograph records. In effect we are told, “this is the photographer, this is her motorcycle, this is her direction, this is the country she is traversing.”
Sarah Lyon, Salt Evaporation Plan Road, 2017
Salt Evaporation Plan Road, 2017 is comparable in showing the photographer from behind, this time with a cord trailing in the foreground to the unseen camera. Sky, again, is half the image. Lyon is deeper into the foreground than in the Minnesota photograph, suggesting an appropriation of the wide open desert scrub land as part of her consciousness and identity. Lyon juxtaposes herself with the distant end of a gravel road.
“Vanishing point” in Swedish is “flyktpunkt” – which may carry implications of flight or escape: ominous foreboding, intimations of mortality or future passage of time is implicit in this portrayal, an altogether different kind of punctum. (It may also be pertinent that “vanishing point” is a recurring theme in motorcycle safety courses, indicating the limits of the rider’s knowledge. By focusing on the point where the asphalt meets the horizon, the driver has the maximum time and maximum distance to react to hazards or surprises). The shutter cord is the viewer’s point of entry here as if we were collaborators in the making of the photograph. Again, Sarah Lyon brings us inside the frame.
A third self-portrait is a recreation of Danny Lyons famous 1966 shot of a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, “Crossing the Ohio.” Picturing herself (by collaborating John Nation and Maggie Huber) on the Kennedy Bridge in Louisville is a declaration of affiliation with older norms of bikeriders’ free spirits.
Sarah Lyon, Jessica Dulong, Fireboat Engineer, Hudson River, NYC, 2009.
Lyon may be best known for her series of photographs of women mechanics, a feminist response to the pin-up calendars that still appear in car repair shops. Jessica Dulong, Fireboat Engineer, Hudson River, NYC, 2009 portrays the engineer and author at work in command of the rich complexity of the engine room. If one includes the self-portraits, over a third of the 32 pictures in the exhibition are portraits of people acting in their professional setting: fireboat mechanic, conceptual artist, visual artist and chainsaw mechanic, blacksmith, performance artist , musician, D.J., and motorcycle parts dealer. Lyon works in the tradition of the “portrait d’apparat,” a baroque practice of depicting people exercising their profession.
Early American portraits, such as John Singleton Copley’s 1768 rendering of Paul Revere holding a teapot is notable for showing the artist in his shirtsleeves, his engraving tools in front of him. The silversmith appears with none of the trappings of power and respectability characteristic of 18th Century portraiture. Even more dramatic in its democratic implications is John Neagle’s 1827 full length painting of “Pat Lyon at the Forge.” (No relation to the artist).
A successful businessman and inventor, Pat Lyon began his career as a blacksmith, and commissioned a depiction of himself in that profession, mallet in hand. Lyon insisted that his portrait include a view of the prison in which he was wrongly incarcerated in his youth. Sarah Lyon continues that tradition and evades the voyeurism and class consciousness that sometimes afflicts documentary practice. She does so by either totally evading the formality of the traditional artificiality of posing, or in contrast, heightening it with improbable settings – for example, D. J. ‘Jumbo Shrimp’ in a sailor suit standing in a derelict boat, or performance artist ‘Narcissister’ upside down on a kitchen cabinet disporting masks. Again, borders disappear.
Sarah Lyon, Narcissister.
Sarah Lyon, Traveling with Bill Burke, 2012.
Traveling with Bill Burke, 2012, is a portrait by synecdoche of the veteran photographer and the character of his company on a road trip – lens, wallet, cameras, pistol, magazine, beer bottles, glasses, paper cup, radio and telephone on a motel bedside table, sum up the experience with inventorial aplomb.
Sarah Lyon, Badwater Road, Death Valley, CA, 2017
Motels also feature in a diptych Atomic Inn, Beatty, NV and Badwater Road, Death Valley, CA, 2017. Again Lyon stands in the road and brings the viewer inside the frame. The yellow brown rock formation on the left of a curved road in Death Valley has its color match in the knotty pine paneling and Navaho-Deco headboard in the motel. The distant white jet contrail above the landscape is paralleled by the white of the pillows on the bed. The crepuscular light of sunset has an echo in the twin bedside lamps: the white plug on the left is the punctum, emphasizing the artificiality of the interior illumination.
What is remarkable about Lyon’s work is not what she has seen but how she has shared it. The trip provides the overall narrative. Lyon makes it participatory, providing access to her forceful and independent vision.
Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Drive: Photographs of Sarah Lyon is one of fifty-three exhibits in this year’s Louisville Photo Biennial. Lyon’s work may also be seen as part of Open Studio Weekend, 12 to 6, November 4th and 5th, at Quadrant, 380 Missouri Avenue, Jeffersonville, IN 47130.
Lyon is a member of the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.
Chrysalis House in Lexington, Kentucky is a non-profit organization that “specializes in treating substance dependent expecting mothers, allowing them to keep their newborns and toddlers with them while in treatment.” The organization chose the name, Chrysalis, because it “represents the protected stage of growth the caterpillar must enter before emerging as a butterfly.” This designation, though, goes far beyond metaphor and into the realm of hope because Chrysalis House “provides a safe, nurturing environment where recovering women may reside while undergoing a similar life-changing process” (chrysalishouse.org).
Chrysalis is not a word we hear very often, yet it exemplifies one of nature’s most incredible metamorphoses. Let’s consider the Monarch, which lays its eggs on the underside of a milkweed leaf. Feeding voraciously on the leaf that protected it before it hatched, the caterpillar sheds its skin five times, growing a new and bigger exoskeleton or instar each time. On the fifth turn, it morphs into a chrysalis—a hard jade-like protective shell that virtually disappears as it slowly gives birth to another life form—the butterfly, a magical transmutation and universal symbol of hope.Hope with wings.
To say that the Monarch’s stages of development, patterns of migration, survival instincts, and self-destructive reproduction propensities are mysterious and perplexing is an understatement. The above photo is one of 18 images that comprise photographer John Stephen Hockensmith’s The Chrysalis Project,a magnanimous undertaking that artistically depicts the remarkable phenomena of the Monarch butterfly’s life cycle and the ramifications it has for us in the modern world, both social and natural.
Hockensmith’s project was born in September, 2016 when a client gifted him a chrysalis in a small terrarium and asked him to watch the miracle that was about to happen. While he did not actually witness the emergence of the butterfly, it inspired him to pursue and document the wonders of this transformation as an art project. He started by going to an arborist who had a garden in his backyard that served as a way station for Monarchs.There he obtained some milkweed and an additional caterpillar to add to his terrarium.He closely observed the caterpillar as it munched on the milkweed, growing quite large in a relatively short amount of time.It then found a twig, formed a silk connection and went into the hooking stage and molded itself into a chrysalis, the emerald green casing you see on the left—Chrysalis 013. This is when Hockensmith pulled his camera out of the bag and went to work.In its own good time, the chrysalis turned to gossamer as a Monarch butterfly wiggled its way into existence and posed with its ancestor, the caterpillar, in the image on the right—Chrysalis 016.
As he began photographing this transformation in his studio, Hockensmith employed a digital-imaging technique known as photo stacking where multiple images are taken at varying focal lengths at very close range. Then using special software, these images are compilated into a single photograph that results in a particular desired depth of field. In Chrysalis 013, for example, all the key elements—the milkweed leaves, the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the floating silver strands from the milkweed seed—are in sharp focus despite the distance between them. And Chrysalis016 exhibits the same compilated depth-of-field qualities as well. These are extraordinary works of art not just for the miracle of nature they so exquisitely portray, but because of the experience, knowledge, and technical skills required to create them.
You may not know that it takes a village to create a work of art, particularly a body of work such as The Chrysalis Project, but it does. On discovering that some Girl Scout groups had created five Monarch gardens in Georgetown within the vicinity of his studio, Hockensmith was able to obtain more caterpillars, harvest more milkweed, and build a larger terrarium so that by the end of the season he had witnessed ten caterpillars become butterflies. He was then inspired to take his camera into these gardens and those at Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary near Frankfort to observe and capture Monarchs in various stages of flight, landing on milkweed, and interacting with each other and other insects. He said, “It was an alien world that emerged in front of me that was magical, mystical, and scientific as well as undefinable, really.”
As you gaze on Chrysalis 002 and 003, the brilliant ethereal glow and translucent fluidity of these images make you think these dainty nectarines could easily flit out of sight at the blink of an eye. Seizing moments like this is more than just a matter of determination. It requires instinct and passion, a lot of patience, and a willingness to explore and seek out the feeding and breeding grounds of these transitory spirits of nature.
It’s always advantageous to be in the right place at the right time, but that’s not the whole of it.Hockensmith used the latest mirrorless technology and long, light-weight lenses in learning to track and capture the butterfly and other insects in flight. The photographer’s intuition and ability to anticipate motion, however, are elemental factors that cannot be mathematically or logically determined. It’s a matter of prescience. In Chrysalis 017, the Monarch has landed on a Zinnia and waits its turn to partake of the sweet nectar. This is obviously a stop-action shot, but the essence of what you see continues long after the shutter has been released.These co-existing partners of pollination commune, feed, and then move on to continue to fulfill the purpose of their short lives.
When the Monarchs in his terrarium matured, Hockensmith released them one by one out the back door of his studio saying to each as it took flight, “I’ll see you in Mexico.”His experimentation and intense interest in these delicate-winged creatures led him to study their migration habits from the Northeastern United States and Canada to eight different sanctuaries in the Sierra Madre Mountain Range of Central Mexico where they gather in ornamental fir trees, the oyamel, on the top of these mountains.He chose the sanctuary of Cerro Pelon in Mancheros and planned his own migration southward for mid-January. He could not be fully prepared for what lay ahead of him and he could only dream that one of these bronze angels had once inhabited his studio.
After his arrival in Cerro Pelon, Hockensmith rode up into one of the sanctuaries on a small Spanish Mustang known for its sure-footedness on the mountainside. Waiting for him at the top of the mountain was the third generation of Monarchs that had completed the relay of the migration north the year before.They dangled in the fir trees in such great numbers that the limbs sagged downward with their weight. Pretty amazing when you consider that the average adult Monarch weighs only half a gram. These trees are critical to their survival, sheltering them from inclement weather and sudden drops in temperatures.The ability of the Monarchs to even move is slowed down considerably at 55 degrees or below.But as the temperature rises, they too rise like small kites that have been freed from entanglement and begin their migration northward for another season.
Hockensmith commented that “It appeared as a fantasy to be there with a camera and to be able to record this phenomenal event.It made me want to incorporate it somehow into the seasons of my own life, to photograph and punctuate the existence of the Monarch in its Kentucky environment, to create my own butterfly gardens, and to have my own communion with these kings and queens of the insect world.” The citizens of the region celebrate the annual return of the Monarchs on “The Day of the Dead” and make offerings to the souls of their departed ancestors who have come back to commune with them.This is oneness with nature at its best.
Each generation of Monarchs that migrates back to North America and Canada in the spring lives only a couple of months at most. Once the female lays her eggs on the milkweed leaf, she dies and her offspring continue the journey. The third generation, however, that returns to Mexico in the fall may live as long as seven to eight months, providing they survive the 2,000 to 3,000-mile flight in order to begin the cycle all over again.
Monarchs have few natural enemies other than the elements.Their biggest threat is humankind.Although the sanctuaries in Mexico are protected by the government, illegal logging is quickly destroying large portions of their habitat.Also, the use of herbicides, such as Roundup, is decimating milkweed, the only plant on which the Monarch lays its eggs and on which the caterpillars feed.Then there is climate change.The Natural History Wanderings blog site recently posted (February 10, 2017) a release from The Center for Biological Diversity declaring that the Monarch population has dropped off by one-third in 2016 alone, and decreased by 80 percent over the last few decades (naturalhistorywanderings.com). It’s probably safe to say the Monarch butterfly is an endangered species.
The prophetic words of the Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, written over 200 years ago still ring true:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
So what Hockensmith demonstrates through his art and his first-hand experience is that we can perhaps regain our hearts—that the story of the Monarch’s migration is indeed one of beauty, wonder, endurance, and, yes, sadness. But above all, it is one of hope—the same hope that Chrysalis House has for the disenfranchised mothers and children who are in its care.In the spirit of rebirth and renewal, Hockensmith has made a commitment to donate a portion of the proceeds from The Chrysalis Project to Chrysalis House. He stated that the integral philanthropic component of his project “metaphorically illustrates the transformational nature of how humans can escape some of the difficult positions we find ourselves in as life changes and insists that we become something other than what we are.”
John Stephen Hockensmith – Fine Art Editions Gallery and Press – Georgetown, Kentucky
Although the venues are yet to be determined, The Chrysalis Project will be travelling beyond the gallery walls to foster awareness throughout the state regarding the important role these cross pollinators (butterflies and honeybees) play in our lives.The official launch party is on April 6th from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Fine Art Editions, 146 East Main Street in Georgetown, Kentucky.
May the great spirit of the Monarch move you to come see this astonishing art work while indulging yourself in some wine and light hors d’oeuvres. And trouble yourself to memorize this line from another great Romantic poet, John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever!” After seeing this show, which runs through June, you are not likely to forget it.
The museum-quality, limited edition prints of the 18 images included in this exhibit are available framed (31 x 41½ inches) or unframed (19½ x 30 inches), and you can sneak a peek at finearteditions.net.
If you’ve been to live music shows in the area over the last two or three years chances are you have seen Andrew Brinkhorst, trusty Fuji camera in hand, angling for the best photo shot. Over the course of the past few years, Brinkhorst has taken over 17,000 photographs documenting the burgeoning Lexington and regional music scene. A selection of about 40 images of live music shows and festivals are featured in the Lexington Art League show, This Is The Thing, which opens on April 22.
An avid music-goer with “a very understanding wife”, Brinkhorst’s documentary project was sparked during his first visit in 2013 to the NoLiCDC Night Market, the monthly music, food, art, and social street fair mashup on Lexington’s reenergized Northside. The vibe was dynamic, friendly, and community-minded. Brinkhorst was inspired to document what he calls the “collective effervescence” of that moment and the scene.
Brinkhorst’s approach to his subject matter is not intended to be encyclopedic. He did not attempt to shoot all musical genres, performers, or venues. His concern was to capture some of the immediacy, essence, and immersion of live music, its performers, and audiences. Shooting with a fixed focus 50mm lens rather than a telephoto lens, Brinkhorst takes his photographs close to the action which lends the desired sense of immediacy to his images. He sees himself primarily as a street and documentary photographer, influenced by some of the greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bruce Davidson.
An acknowledged “bad drummer”, Brinkhorst has been around and involved in music since his youth in Parkersburg, West Virginia. His favorite bands included Foreigner, Boston, The Doobie Brothers, and even Aerosmith! He has also been a devoted photographer for many years and views photography as both a technical and creative craft. Employed as an IT security specialist and product manager, Brinkhorst is fortunate in having significant control over his schedule which gives him the freedom to frequently prowl around the night music scene.
The work featured in This Is The Thing is the first phase of a larger documentary project intending to document the enlivened Lexington and regional art scene and also the small business sector. He acknowledges that his approach to these next two areas will probably require more of a documentary storytelling approach than was required for shooting the music scene. His hope for This Is The Thing is that the show inspires others to go out and attend live music performances and appreciate the amazing musical talent and diversity that we have here in the Bluegrass.
This Is The Thing opens at the Lexington Art League on Friday, April 22. The show runs until May 29.
All images copyrighted by Andrew Brinkhorst and used with his permission.
(Illustration: Venice multi exposure by Stephen Wilkes)
With apologies to the written word, there may be no more powerfully influential medium of communication concerning global affairs than photojournalism. “Seeing is believing,” right? But what happens when we can no longer completely trust the veracity of the image before us?
“Just as there’s a time to stop talking about girls and boys and to talk instead about women and men so it is with photography; something has changed so radically that we need to talk about it differently, think of it differently and use it differently. Failure to recognize the huge changes underway is to risk isolating ourselves in an historical backwater of communication, using an interesting but quaint visual language removed from the cultural mainstream.”
– “The Next Revolution in Photography is Coming”by Stephen Mayes. Please read on.
First and foremost, there is the work. The photographs of Vivian Maier on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum are immediately arresting, thanks to her eye for formal composition. They are compelling, because of the crazy quilt mix of people depicted in the 1950s U.S. metropolis. And they are charming, owing to an arch sense of humor and an abiding affection for women and children. Seeing this small but insightful show leads one to a greater appreciation for the unconventional and ultimately unknowable woman we see peering out at us from deep inside her own obsession.
But the afterimages that linger beyond the viewing are as much about the backstory, or the Vivian Maier Mystery (as a BBC documentary calls it), as they are about the images. If you spend a couple of hours on the internet in Vivian Maier Land, it’s easy to see there’s trouble ahead and trouble behind. Nanny Strangest! cries a Wall Street Journal headline. The Greatest Street Photographer You Never Heard Of, says Mother Jones. Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, reports the NY Times. In the six years since her death, there have been two films made about her, and five books of her photographs have been published, all thanks to a few collectors and dealers who found her work in dispersal sales and have been promoting it ever since. There are, of course, lawyers arguing over who should get the proceeds, competing genealogical researchers have identified different French heirs, and late word has it that a long lost brother, Charles, has turned up and been awarded the rights to the photographs by the Cook County (IL) Probate Court, which wants its own cut of the action.
Vivian Maier, Untitled, gelatin silver print, 1956. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, Untitled, gelatin silver print, 1956. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, Untitled, gelatin silver print, 1954. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, Untitled, gelatin silver print, 1954. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, Armenian Woman Fighting, Lower East Side, NY, gelatin silver print 1956. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, Armenian Woman Fighting, Lower East Side, NY, gelatin silver print 1956. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, 108th St. East, New York, NY, gelatin silver print, 1959. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Vivian Maier, 108th St. East, New York, NY, gelatin silver print, 1959. Image courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
Meanwhile, Vivian Maier’s life has been scrutinized and called into question. Because she made 150,000 negatives over four decades, showing them to no one, stashing them in storage units, only to lose them when she couldn’t pay the rent, she is now assumed to have been “a private, unhappy person” who left us with “the riddle of her sad life” (WSJ). It is reported that she wore men’s clothes and boots, and that some of the kids she nannied nicknamed her “Bird Lady.” Some of them loved her, to the point of taking care of her late in life, and others say she was cruel and abusive and speculated that perhaps she had been abused as a child. One person who knew her says she might have been in the autistic spectrum. The fact that she hoarded newspapers and other items along with her negatives, and that she became more temperamental with age led one writer to surmise that Maier’s behavior was symptomatic of “a haunted, morbid psychology.” But a piece in The New Yorker cautions that neither was she a Mary Poppins, nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. “To suggest her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain.” Poor woman–she didn’t ask for this dissection of her psyche. She has been made into a public figure, without her permission.
Vivian Maier was a spy in the house of love. With her French accent and German camera, she was a kind of foreign correspondent, disguised as an au pair, who amassed a voluminous dossier on urban American life, and then filed it away, her obsession satisfied with the acquisition and collection of images—and not with the dissemination of them. Perhaps she found her joy in seeing the world through the camera and making the exposure. When an image comes into focus on the ground glass, the world is seen anew. To look through a cameral is an adventure, and a form of play. When the shutter is tripped, a photographer feels that anything can happen. Vivian Maier’s twin-lens Rolleiflex was her passport into other peoples’ lives. It gave her the access she craved, but at the same time kept her at some remove—the strategy of a consummate observer.
Among the things she took pleasure in observing were reflections of herself. One of the self-portraits in this exhibit reveals a rare glimpse of her enjoying the chase. In it a worker lifts a mirror out of a truck, seemingly unaware that there is a woman in the mirror taking a picture. For 125th of a second, a smile plays across her face. That’s the woman that three of her former charges spoke of when they wrote this death notice for the Chicago Tribune: Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for 50 years, died peacefully on Monday [April 23, 2009]. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all that knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.
As for the industry that has grown up around her work, it has endowed a Vivian Maier Scholarship to allow emerging female photographers to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute. And without those collectors and gallerists—in the case of this exhibit, John Maloof and the Daniel Greenberg Gallery–no one would have ever heard of Vivian Maier in the first place. Are we to canonize her and place her in the pantheon of photographic heroines of the 20th century? Lord knows she may have suffered enough. Imagine what she went through when her archive was sold out from under her. But is she to be mentioned in the same breath with Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Wolcott, Imogene Cunningham, Bernice Abbott, Laura Gilpin, Evon Streetman, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Ellen Mark, Linda Connor, Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Donna Ferrato, Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Sally Mann? Perhaps. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prints from Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives. Hundreds of rolls remain undeveloped. When the legal wrangling is all said and done, we can expect that more of her work will be brought to light.
Other Streets: Photographs from the Collection
Speaking of wanting to see more, the UK Art Museum has put up an excellent selection of street photography from its collection to help place Maier’s work in a broader context. As you leave the thoughtfully-sequenced Maier exhibit, take a right and you will find prints by Magnum great Bruce Davidson. Take a second right down the next hallway and you’ll see images by Lexington Camera Club members Van Deren Coke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May—early documentary work from the 1950s. Several of Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” photographs are on the opposite wall.
Together, the two exhibits remind us of the important role the UK Art Museum has played in the regional photographic community, especially over the past 18 years, since Bob May’s bequest begat the excellent lecture series that bears his name, and funds were earmarked for exhibits and the purchase of prints. The museum has expanded its collection and made photography a point of emphasis in its programming. We can thank Bob, and the museum staff for that.
Six years after their public introduction, Vivian Maier’s photographs still exude mystery and prompt intrigue. Working as a nanny in Chicago during the fifties and sixties, Maier documented her surroundings — and often herself — but ironically we know little about her life. Vivian Maier: On the Street at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky presents a monographic exhibition of thirty black and white photographs, including abstract self portraits and intimate glimpses into the lives of both Chicago’s working class and elite aristocrats.The scope of the exhibition provides a perspective of Maier’s surroundings, while at the same time offering viewers a deeper connection with the photographer and her Rolleiflex camera.
However socially and aesthetically infatuating, the legal underpinnings of Maier’s photographs remain overarching. In 2007, two years before her death, her negatives were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of her storage unit as the result of nonpayment. Since then, her work has been reproduced, edited, and resold to private galleries and collectors. An onslaught of intellectual property debates and ethical questions still permeate Chicago courtrooms. In sum, Maier’s oeuvre has been posthumously constructed and aggrandized by those with a market share in her life and work.
While this aspect of Maier’s entrance into the mainstream is a basis for contention (but not entirely unique — this happens all too frequently in the art world), I think there is more at play in our vehement attraction to her photographs than just market controversy. Perhaps this is why On The Street resists a dialogue about ethics and legalities. Although the entrance wall text states that the selected photographs are pulled from the John Maloof Collection (Maloof is just one of the original purchasers of Maier’s defunct storage unit), no details are provided about the legalities of his purchase. Instead, the viewer is presented with another concern: the entrance of unknown “artists of consequence” into the canon of art history.
The works chosen for display for On the Street provide viewers with a multi-faceted view of city life through the lens of Maier’s camera. Each image seems at once familiar and uncanny — we can recognize the ebb and flow of city life, but only though Maier’s abstract angles and intense shadows. While some of Maier’s subjects are aware of their subjectiveness, others are oblivious — they are presented as anonymous, fragmented bodies. Ubiquitous shadows seem to be subjects themselves: Maier frequently makes them the focus of her self portraits. Indeed, there is something dream-like about Maier’s use of light and line, shadow and shape — her Surrealist predecessors applied many of the same techniques to their own photography.
Although the exhibition of thirty photographs seems small in comparison to the number of negatives available from the Maloof Collection, the time required to absorb Maier’s work is proportionate. Each photograph is remarkably detailed — and one journey through On the Street is not enough to fully immerse oneself in Maier’s world. The exhibition is comprised of single images and groupings of two and four photographs: children, city streets, women, transportation, and leisure, to name a few. Contextualizing these selected photographs provides a comprehensive survey of her subject matter, allowing viewers to connect her daily activities with the people and places she chose to capture on film.
On the Street is located in the back corner of the museum, which seems an odd fit for Maier’s work — the exhibition almost suffocates in its compact space. The intensity of Maier’s photography needs a precise “breathability,” something the back gallery ultimately lacks. Perhaps in attempt to mediate the small space, each photograph is surrounded with a large white mat and delicate silver frame. While this gesture helps aerate the body of work, the lack of space remains a dominant issue.
An observer of the everyday, Maier was able to capture the humanism and humor of daily life. This is evident through On the Street, which treats her work as both a time capsule and an autobiography. It succeeds by presenting her photographs as documents of a time passed, but also through examining the photographer’s importance and artistic resonance. While viewers are asked to question Maier’s undoubtable skill in relation to formally trained photographers of her time, I wish to offer a thematic addendum: should we ignore the fact she may not have wanted her life and work displayed publicly? Who truly owns Maier’s work — and should we be content with others profiting from her anonymity?