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ART 2021 Culture 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train is a Portrait of America

Paul Fusco (1930-2020) was an acclaimed photojournalist who covered some of the most influential figures and seismic political and cultural events of the 20th century, from the activism of Cesar Chavez to the apocalypse at Chernobyl and the ravages of the 1980’s AIDS epidemic. But some of his most indelible images were made on June 8, 1968. That’s when Fusco boarded the “RFK Funeral Train” — a slow-moving engine carrying the assassinated candidate’s body from New York City to its burial place at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Now James Danziger and Peter Fetterman have joined forces to present the first Los Angeles showing of the newly minted master suite of RFK Funeral Train pictures — 22 images once at risk of being lost to history’s dusty archives. The exhibition, perhaps surprisingly, comprises large-scale color prints — surprisingly because we have become so accustomed to thinking of history in terms of black and white pictures. Fusco used Kodachrome film, and the contemporary masters who minted this new master set used all their skills to replicate the stock’s effect and keep its promise for vibrance, depth, and warmth.

Paul Fusco, Untitled from the RFK Train Portfolio, 1968. Signed and numbered by the artist. Archival digital C print

The images each have a unique emotion, almost a personality, and the array of views of the American people and their landscapes feels both intimate and collective. Fusco shot for the entire eight hours it took for the train to make the usually four-hour journey. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the tracks of this train as it made its way, in huge crowds, small groups, and alone. The tracks pass through urban courtyards, suburban lawns, dirt roads, and old fence posts, along bridges and byways and secluded patches of nature, farms, and even boat docks. People gather with signs and cameras and American flags, they wave and stand at attention, they cry and hug one another, they stay stoic and solemn; they’ve walked and biked and driven; they’ve been waiting all day.

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All these differences between visions of America are celebrated and gathered in this selection; it is impossible not to notice the racial make-up of the crowds and think about 1968 on the East Coast. But it is equally impossible to miss how throughout these differences, these people are nevertheless standing united — in grief. And they are not only grieving the loss of one man. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed the same year, and America was in trauma from the violence at home and the war abroad. Fusco’s one-day journey yielded timeless, empathetic, and masterfully composed images which it is profoundly resonant to revisit.

Paul Fusco, Untitled from the RFK Train Portfolio, 1968. Signed and numbered by the artist. Archival digital C print

As it happens, the photographs have taken something of a journey of their own. In 1968, Fusco had been on assignment for LOOK Magazine, but as the publication came out bi-weekly, he got scooped by LIFE, and none of the nearly 2,000 images he captured that day were published. When LOOK folded they donated their overall archive of something like five million photographs to the Library of Congress, which included Fusco’s in an “in there somewhere” kind of way. The artist’s own reserve of 100 pictures were also in danger of being forgotten — until an editor at Magnum showed them to JFK, Jr. who in 1998 published them in his magazine GEORGE.

It’s fitting that these exceptional pictures be rediscovered and shown now, at a time in U.S. history plagued by so many of the same persistent problems — racism, poverty, division, oppression — which RFK was so keen to combat, and at a time when taking a fresh look at history is so urgently required to reshape the future with the power of the truth.   ❖

[Editor’s note: We missed reviewing these photographs when they were shown in New York some years back and so are glad for the opportunity to share them with our readers now. More information and images can be found here: peterfetterman.com ]

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ART 2021 COMICS ARCHIVES Culture 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Freddie Mercury Gets the Superhero Treatment – REDIRECT 2

TEST The universe of comic books and graphic novels expands far past the superhero genre, but the world-changing, life-givingly radiant genius of Freddie Mercury still qualifies. His voice, passion and charisma definitely count as superpowers – and Z2 Comics is about to give Mercury the royal fanfare he deserves, with Freddie Mercury: Lover of Life, Singer of Songs.

From his youth in Zanzibar and India, through his early life in England and his ascension to the rock pantheon, to the demons he faced down toward the end of his life, the book follows the classic hero’s journey narrative arc evocative of mythological origin stories. Its writer, Tres Dean, is careful to present the stories through Mercury’s words and perspective, recently thoroughly explored in both film and nonfiction anthology. With a personality as large as his and an intoxicating flair for fearless poetry and radical living out loud, Mercury’s own words are as rich a primary source as a storyteller could wish for, and the energy he brought to living comes through in an epic way.

Richly and lovingly illustrated by Kyla Smith, Robin Richardson, Safiya Zerrougui, Tammy Wang, and Amy Liu, with a majestic cover painting by David Mack, and a further limited-edition print by Sarah Jones, the artistry takes its flights of fancy seriously. The visuals are grounded in the expressive rendering of salient actions and events but also exuberant in the freedom of interpretation and expression afforded the artists to bring their own visions to inform the fullness of the book’s vision. This is, in its own way, a heartfelt tribute to Mercury, who himself studied visual art and illustration in London before the gods of music found him in 1971 – 50 years ago this year.

Freddie Mercury by Sarah Jones

The book not only paints moving biographical details with honesty and emotion and an eye for effective detail, but is in its own form also flush with Mercury’s own love of all creative expressions, from visual arts to opera, ballet, theater, cinema and fashion. Z2 Comics itself has pioneered the genre of graphic novels enshrining the lives of music legends from Elvis to Beethoven, the Doors to the Dead. Their softcover and hardcover editions are gorgeous and affordable; their deluxe editions include fine art prints and, in this case, a limited vinyl – touching on all the things that gave Mercury, Queen, and their legions of adoring fans such joy in their work.   ❖

Pre-order for November 2021 release at z2comics.com.

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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

David Hammons’ Faxes From The Future

On Monday, May 10, 2021, a small audience entered the central courtyard at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles at around dusk. Folding chairs were arrayed in pairs and singles across the yard, and a fractal drift of plain white sheets of paper peppered the ground. They were all blank. A piano waited flanked by concert screens as the sky slowly darkened and leaned into its few chilly stars. A gentle wind kicked up. This was the setting for a unique collaboration across disciplines, mediums, continents, decades, and even, in a way, the afterlife.

They were filming a live performance orchestrated by the legendary artist David Hammons for a video work which debuted on the gallery’s website, made in collaboration with L.A.’s favorite avant-garde music salon Monday Evening Concerts, in which the artist restaged his iconic performance/installation Global Fax Festival. In 2000, Hammons suspended nine fax machines in the cathedral-like architecture of the Crystal Palace in Madrid, activating the space with faxes with incoming messages from all over the world, which would float down to the ground and accumulate “like soft winter snow” for five months. Toward the end, Hammons and titanic experimental composer and conductor, the late Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris did an improvisational performance on the site — a seminal work in a process Morris called Conduction. The performance has now reached 21 years into the future to be recreated in a technology-assisted homage and reboot that pushes those same interdisciplinary boundaries even further.

Morris died in 2013, but in the new event his music was performed by pianist, composer, professor, and Morris’ one-time bandmate, Myra Melford. The main piece was a version of “Dust to Dust,” a 1990 recording by Morris on New World Records. The three towering screens played Global Fax Festival excerpts from Madrid, in 2000 and reimagined internet footage of Morris at work. It was synced up and improvisational at the same time, and to the evocative near-illusion of on-screen faxes falling to the real ground, was thereby added the near-illusion of Morris conducting Melford from another dimension.

Taking place in the same setting which hosted the wide-ranging Hammons survey in 2019, which was itself dedicated to the music legend Ornette Coleman, the reconfiguration of a major piece for a new cultural landscape made perfect sense. The use of technology was as present in the sense of a spectacle as the assembly of a full orchestra had been in Madrid, but in the uncanny, eccentric way of mediated images and collapsed time-streams. The haunting, adventurous music itself anchored the presence of the audience in a rather liminal space of attention while also being suitably strange and elusive.

Global Fax Festival, a new performance by David Hammons dedicated to Butch Morris in collaboration with Monday Evening Concerts and pianist Myra Melford. Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, May 10, 2021.

The pages, which were blank and clean when audiences arrived, soon became patterned with overlapping footprints, creating a physical, if abstract, record of our gathered presence. At the very cusp of the return of post-pandemic life, this ordinary act of sitting for a performance suddenly seemed an occasion worth chronicling, and an experience worth absorbing in every slight and grand detail. It was also even more poignant within the swirl to consider loved ones, now absent from the world or at least long-absent from our sight, with a heightened sense of time’s passing.

As the performance (repeated twice with slight variations) extended, the energy of communication between the screen and the setting, the past and the present, the meaning and the future grew more and more palpable. In the audiences from 2000 one could observe on-screen, their attendance was understood as forever part of the document of what transpired there; the L.A. audience was acutely aware that their attendance too was part of the staging for today’s cameras. In the intervening weeks since the concert, an original film has been made, chronicling all of this and more besides and beyond it, which we all will witness for the first time together now.   

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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ is an Essential Artist Documentary

Sometimes the circumstances of an artist’s life are as inseparable from their vision as the dancer from the dance. So it is with the remarkable story told in the new film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts. An absolutely unique figure in American art, Traylor’s work is defined by a folkloric style, a confident hand with a gift for almost petroglyphic clarity, narrating a character-driven universe of observation, rural mysticism, biography, memory, and vernacular history. His life story is equally fascinating.

Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 in Alabama and, with a special talent for farming the land, after the Civil War continued to live and work there until 1920; living through Reconstruction and Jim Crow; eventually settling in Montgomery where he died in 1949 — decades before his first real art shows would even happen, much less the acclaim, demand, and scholarship that surrounds his oeuvre now. The new documentary Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts weaves all these stories into one remarkable biography with a seismic impact on art history.

Traylor started to draw and paint to greater public attention when he was already in his 80s, literally on the bustling Montgomery sidewalk, where he was something of a neighborhood celebrity. He sold some work in his lifetime for small sums, and found some local champions even as he continued to work prolifically, developing and strengthening his signature style. Partly because of how he favored ephemeral materials like paper and cardboard, and partly because of some cruel twists of fate, troves of his work have been lost to time — scattered among untraceable buyers, painstakingly located among his extended family of descendants, and at times outright, unknowingly thrown away.

But enough of the 1000 or so works he made between 1939-42 survived to mount the exceptional Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, an exhaustive 2018 retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And it is this paradigm-shifting show which forms much of the basis for the new film. By placing Traylor’s arresting work within both the broader historical and more intimate family contexts, the film begins to decode his exquisite narrative language, identifying characters and specific events to profoundly illuminate the work’s many links between complex personal memories and the symbolism of trauma and empire.

“Untitled: Man in blue and brown”

At the same time, the film — especially its many interviews with scholars, critics, and with artists who have been influenced by Traylor’s legacy — shows how Traylor’s vision not only encapsulated but also transcended the circumstances of his lifetime in America. Traylor’s special gift was for reaching back through Black America’s rich oral and mystical traditions, music and folklore all the way to the African roots of storytelling and conjuration, and across to the formulation of new Southern-seeded, increasingly urban cultures in dance, in literature, and most especially, the Blues.

“Untitled: Dog fight with writing”

With recurring motifs like the old farmhouse, animals like snakes, cats, birds, dogs, and wolves, tools, drinks, and a lot of dancing, Traylor arranged sketches but also staged complex scenes, with intuitively understood narratives, a dramatic sense of movement, increasing confidence and mystical, spellcasting reimaginings of monuments to white supremacy and other power structures.

Traylor’s work is described in the film as “apparitional” and “mysterious” but never as “outsider” because in a very real sense, Traylor had the ultimate insider view of the real America. This is brought home not only by the experts’ commentary, but by extensive juxtapositions with family members recounting the tales of Traylor that circulated among many cousins, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The film has actors reading from contemporaneous accounts and records, as well as salient works by Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes — all of which contribute to getting as much of a sense of the whole person as possible, beyond gaining an essential understanding of the transformative work itself.   ❖

On-demand through local theatrical streaming platforms here: kinomarquee.com.

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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives News 2021

Birds Without Borders: The Audubon Society’s ‘Mapping Migraciones’

There are myriad ways for humanity to experience our connectedness with the natural world, but a new project from the Audubon Society really maps it out. Their new year-long web-based project Mapping Migraciones does something expected — tracing the migration routes of species common to the Americas and offering information, photographs, and audio field recordings on these beautiful feathered creatures. What makes this birding project so special is the profound heart of the idea: overlaying these avian lessons with individual lived experiences of human immigration from those same regions.

Audubon California, the National Audubon Society and Latino Outdoors produced the interactive map that uses migratory bird data and stories from ordinary people to give “a full picture of how birds and people are connected through geography and culture.” In addition to the ever-growing archive (to which all are invited to contribute) panels and discussions throughout the year will accompany the ever-expanding archive.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Here’s how it works: Take for example the adorable Yellow-rumped Warbler (also known as the Butter Butt for its distinctive markings) which hails from Mexico. Audubon being Audubon, you learn key facts, such as, “they have a long narrow tail, a black beak and patches of yellow — especially the famous one on their backside. They are abundant in urban areas such as parks and backyards. In the winter they move south across the United States from California to Florida. They can be found along all coasts of Mexico and some of Central America…” Maps and photographs and recorded sound illustrate this species’ life in more detail.

Ruby Rodriguez, with her mom and her children

Then click on the Read Someone’s Story tab on the site, and you meet a wonderful person, for example, Ruby Rodrigez, whose family too immigrated from Mexico. She tells the story of Guadalupe Pérez González, her maternal great-great-grandmother who was born in Querétaro, Mexico. From her story: “Orphaned at a young age by the loss of her parents during the Mexican Revolution, around 1930, Guadalupe and her two children (Phillip and Mary) journeyed north to a border town called Mexicali, where they would remain for about 20 years. She labored hard over a stone stovetop to produce tamales for sale and eventually purchased a humble home for herself and her children. Mary married Leon Torres Ruiz and gave birth to my grandma Eleanor in 1940. About 10 years later, my great-grandpa Leon moved the entire family to California. From their journey, I have learned that the meaning of “a better life” is often incomplete unless it includes the process of (un)learning, healing, and growing. So much of my cultural heritage was lost to assimilation. While this disconnection is a painful experience for me, nature supports me with feeling connected to myself, my history, and everything around me.”

Swainson’s Hawk
The Palacio-Rezzano Family

Swainson’s Hawks (from Uruguay) mean a great deal to Estefania Palacio, whose mother was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and whose dad was born in Tambores, Uruguay. “My family came to the U.S. in search of their American dream,” she writes. “They worked hard to achieve better opportunities for themselves and their children. My dad has always loved nature. I have many memories of him telling me stories of his childhood as a gaucho — sleeping under the stars, raising wild animals as pets, and riding horses. For him, nature is healing and rejuvenating — it’s where he goes to escape all his troubles. When I’m in nature, I feel the peace he described. I think back on all his stories and try to imagine what nature looks like through his eyes: a place to explore, to grow, and to heal. The biggest lesson my family’s journey has taught me is to take every opportunity you can get and make it your own.”   ❖

For more information visit audubon.org/mapping-migraciones.

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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives News 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES

‘The Longest Shift’ Documents Workers On The Pandemic’s Front Lines

Photographer Sam Comen is known for his narrative portfolios, combining environmental portraits of everyday people as well as leaders, actors, musicians, and artists. For example,The Newest Americans series features intimate, thoughtful, joyous portraits of new U.S. citizens immediately before and after taking the oath, produced in partnership with writer Michael Estrin.

On the anniversary of California’s stay-at-home orders, Comen has partnered with UFCW Local 770, the union representing more than 30,000 retail food, pharmacy, meatpacking and food processing, laboratory, healthcare, and cannabis workers in Southern California, to release a new visual journalism project — The Longest Shift.

The photographs, video portraits, and first-person stories represent lived experience from people employed in a wide range of industries from warehouse workers to healthcare providers to rideshare drivers, caseworkers, and food workers — the real people who kept working in the face of a deadly virus for the last year, so that others could stay home and so that others could live. Their warm crispness and the lowkey magic of the motion effect creates an emotional engagement and a sense of empathy that also radiates from their harrowing, yet doggedly hopeful, stories.

Terri Thompson, an ER and Trauma nurse, L.A. County + USC Hospital shares that “There were times when I came home and I cried; there were times when I cried on my way home. There were times where I had to stay over, because my coworkers were sick. This has been the most trying time of my career. I want people to know that we do the best we can with what we have.”

And John Grant, UFCW 770 president, has seen up close how “COVID-19 has fundamentally changed us. We never intended to be on the front lines and essential workers in the middle of a global pandemic and in the eye of the storm. Documenting the strength, power, and emotion of the people who kept working through it all is also essential.”

Participating Organizations: UFCW 770, SEIU 721, SEIU 2015, Teamsters, Teamsters Local 399, United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, Mobile Workers Alliance, Warehouse Worker Resource Center, IATSE, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, United Teachers of Los Angeles, Committee of Interns and Residents, Fight for $15, the National Association of Letter Carriers, TransLatin@ Coalition, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. ❖

More story portraits are being added every few days. Follow along at longestshift.com and with #TheLongestShift across social platforms.

Sam Comen’s The Longest Shift. “I lost my brother in Guatemala to COVID on January 6. I thought about going. I wasn’t able to, because I would have to quarantine myself when I arrived in Guatemala, so why was I even going? And then when I returned, I would have to quarantine again. So, no.” —Amado Montejo, Port of Los Angeles Trucker

 

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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives Uncategorized

A New David Wojnarowicz Documentary Does Not Hold Back

The title of this film, like the romantic and angry painting of the same name which it honors, is meant to shock, provoke curiosity, express deep personal and societal pain, and be impossible to ignore or forget. In that and in countless other ways, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker is not only a thorough biographical documentary, but in its own aesthetic form, a properly rapid-fire homage evoking the seminal artist’s inimitable style.

Its director Chris McKim makes ample and inspired use of the late artist’s own extensive video and audio, photography, ephemera, journals — all of which had been the foundational accumulation of David Wojnarowicz’s practice. An obsessive chronicler of his own life and the state of political media, Wojnarowicz taped his own calls, kept his phone messages, videotaped seemingly every moment of his life, and for good measure, wrote it all down as well — much with the express intention of creating a testament for posterity, an impulse sharpened by his AIDS diagnosis and the encroaching certainty of an early death.

Wojnarowicz was a painter at his core, but absolutely no medium nor process nor technique nor genre was off limits. Really, nothing was off limits. As much a biographical foray, this film chronicles with awe and empathy the absolutely wild world of the lower Manhattan art scene in the late 1980s. As New York City, and especially its queer and bohemian communities, became the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz was radicalized by trauma and confrontations with an uncaring society. He went to war — and it worked.

David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984 © Estate of David Wojnarowicz

He died in 1992 at the age of 37, but not before he changed the world. He was celebrated and embattled, an artistic community organizer, a startling success, and a fascinating emblem of his time and place even as he interrogated it. Was he fearless or plagued by fear? He was angry but so caring, fiery but so clear-eyed, a loner but surrounded by love. Folks interviewed for this film and/or appearing in archival materials include his confidant and frequent collaborator, the photographer Peter Hujar, plus Fran Lebowitz, gallerists Gracie Mansion and Penny Pinkington, critic and historian Carlo McCormick, artist Kiki Smith, a host of downtown luminaries (Karen Finley, Keith Haring, obviously Warhol and Basquiat, etc.) and loads of fancy uptown art world folks, too. He lived long enough to be shown at the Whitney, targeted by Jesse Helms, make a U2 album cover, and be interviewed on the national news by Peter Jennings.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988-89. © Estate of David Wojnarowicz

As for the work itself — Wojnarowicz’s actual art — the film also does a gorgeous job of not only presenting, but explaining in detail the backstory, certain contents, and most especially the context in which the works, especially the many very fine paintings, were made and shown. Wojnarowicz had a very particular way of hybridizing transgressive imagery with a poetic aesthetic in his paintings. For example, in any of a number of works depicting explicit gay sex, offensive homophobic slurs, diaries of suffering and betrayal, religious hypocrisy, and the torments of drug addiction, viewers will also find sweetly rendered figures, emotional even lyrical palettes, high-end cartoon humor, and nods to arte povera’s innovative desperations.

His own visual, video, and audio collages were themselves comprehensive and chaotic, with surreal wit and an intense density that prefigured post-internet information overload and communicated the essential volatility of human existence. The narrative of his work and intentions was unapologetically activist and in that way specific to a realm of experiences — but his profound understanding of the untamed forces that buffet a human life and sometimes bully us out of existence was and remains all too universal. In its embrace of that energy, the film is a lesson, but it is also an experience.  ❖

For more information visit kinolorber.com.

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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The ‘Truth In Photography’ Project is Asking Big Questions

“Truth in photography is a myth. Photography is a fictive medium.” This is the opening salvo at TruthInPhotography.org, a written message from Chris Boot the Executive Director of the landmark Aperture Foundation, and a principal at the new web-based narrative photo archive.

“Photography’s power surely rests,” he continues, not on an aspirational standard of objectivity, but rather, in “how it triggers our imaginations, and shapes our perceptions and points of view.” From the quest for “perfect” tourist shots, family portraits designed to serve the happy-home brand, or photojournalism — which, while not necessarily interested in idealization, may instead be aimed at poignant storytelling or evocation of the horrors of war and famine — photography exists in the context of subjective decisions. Where the photographer chooses to physically be, where within the scene to stand, and in what direction to cast their gaze and their lens; which details to focus on or what to crop out of an image and why (even aesthetic choices have narrative consequences); which frames from a roll to print and share; and even whether to work in color in service of realism and emotion or in black and white per conventions of reportage and conventional ideas of gravitas — all of these are choices made by the photographer, and these are just some of the ways in which “truth” can be both manipulated and amplified.

Honduran migrants taking part in a caravan heading to the US, get a ride on a truck near Pijijiapan, southern Mexico on October 26, 2018

Of course, stark images of actual events — from Lewis Hine’s haunting pictures of child laborers, to Nick Ut’s singular “napalm girl” photo that is largely credited with turning public opinion against the Vietnam War, to the video of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 — do obviously carry the gravitational pull of reality. What the thoughtful editorial text and powerful portfolio selections on the site — both their foundational exemplars and the quarterly themed releases — makes clear is that it’s not so much that photography is unreliable, but rather that perhaps ideas about truth and lies are not even the right questions to be asking. Let us assume, as they posit, that if it is all fiction to varying degrees, the right question is instead, how well does this image serve to communicate the truth, truthfully, including not only the factual events but the photographer’s skills at directing the narrative.

In the flat of Ludmilla Alexandrovna. Sister Natalia Georgivna comes to look after her three times a week for 48 hours. Moscow, Russia, April 24, 2020.

An interactive project committed to presenting multiple points of view and encouraging a wider discourse, the Truth In Photography project features diverse and eclectic contributions of curators, photographers, critics, and historians, as well as vernacular photography, photojournalism, and fine art. Undertaken in collaboration with Magnum Photos, Aperture Foundation, and International Center of Photography, the launch also marks the 35th year of Documentary Arts, a non-profit organization founded in 1985 to broaden public knowledge and appreciation of the arts of diverse cultures in all media.

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Truth in Photography will be updated quarterly, beginning with the new Winter 2021 which comes in three themed sections. “Looking for Truth in a Digital Age” includes photo essays on the U.S.-Mexico border, including historical, contemporary, professional, and flickr-sourced content; “The Ethics of Truth” starts with renowned photographer Susan Meiselas speaking broadly about the moral responsibilities of documenting and engaging with history, the 1863 Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner which raise difficult ethical questions when soldiers’ bodies were moved to better encapsulate the violence, a look at lynching postcards from 1908, and more contemporary photographs of homelessness and Covid deaths; and finally, “Community and Cultural Identity,” which features photographs from the Texas African American Photography Archive, Clarence Elie Rivera highlighting the effects of gentrification on Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and further series portraying immigrant and indigenous enclaves, as well as impressive portfolios by previous Documentary Arts fellowship recipients.

Pastor Guillermo Navarrete of the Methodist Church of Mexico at the border fence during the weekly meeting of the Border Church in Friendship Park, at the juncture of San Diego and Tijuana, 2020

“Photographs are inherently subjective in the ways in which they are made and perceived,” says curator Alan Govenar. “There is no absolute truth in the photographic image. Photographers frame the reality that they see whether the process is spontaneous or planned.” Unconscious bias, aesthetic style, narrative clarity, editorial direction given, personal affinity or more intimate familiarity with a subject, a particular love of telling details, a knack for in-camera effects — all of this and more infiltrates the image. This is not inherently problematic per se, but it is, as Truth in Photography ably conveys, urgently in need of interrogation and acknowledgement in the discourse.

To that end, if you’ve something to add to the conversation about truth, especially in the present moment of questioning reality, the destructiveness of terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” and the increasing imperative toward more equity and agency in storytelling about history and the present, there’s also a submissions section for public contributions, called, perfectly, Share Your Truth.   ❖

Read more and view full portfolios at truthinphotography.org.

NAACP Picket, Dallas, Texas, 1965
Bhutanese Nepali Americans in Austin celebrate the Rishi Panchami festival, September 1, 2011
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ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Ken Quattro’s ‘Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books’

In the introduction to his essential new title, Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books, author Ken Quattro writes in part, “My goal with each person profiled in this book is to provide context for their lives, the environment that formed them. There is a tendency to reduce a life to what a person does for money. One of the first questions asked when meeting a stranger is, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ as if the entirety of a person’s hopes and dreams, tragedies and triumphs, beliefs and experience, is contained in their answer.”

Quattro is correct of course, this convention afflicts social discourse at every level — but when it comes to the life and work of the 18 Black men whose biographies, challenges, and accomplishments in the postwar American comics industry, making those distinctions and contexts clear is even more salient. In almost every case, these artists worked all but unsung, separate from their white colleagues and editors. Hired almost begrudgingly because of economic pressures and the need for cheap but talented labor, they created at the boundaries of representation – not only in terms of who was depicted in what race-based idioms within the comics themselves, but also in terms of who was tasked with creating them.

L: Voodah, 1945, Matt Baker. R: March on Washington, 1963 by Alvin Carl Hollingsworth

In almost every case, these artists by day executed the visions of perfect white heroics, sexy Caucasian women as objects of desire, and villains and dupes whose caricatures landed on a spectrum from cringe-worthy to outright racist. On their own time, they created inclusive characters and storylines casting Black folks as heroes reaching back to elevate the mythologies of glory from the African continent, and looking to their present-day surroundings to highlight the stories of contemporary public figures and neighborhood people of color. They were also frequently accomplished fine artists and graphic designers who created some of the most impactful and memorable visual depictions of activism from the Jim Crow-era civil rights movement.

The idea for Invisible Men started nearly two decades ago when Quattro – a towering figure in comics lore and history, whose Comics Detective moniker and website is foundational to the genre – was writing an article about Matt Baker, the Black artist who in 1945 created Voodah, a character that is considered the first Black hero in a comic book aimed at white audiences.

L: Ace Harlem, by John H. Terrell. R: Cover of Invisible Men.

In his Herculean research, Quattro read through what he describes as thousands of past issues of publications written by and for African Americans. “There was nothing in the white media, in newspapers or magazines at all, about Black comic book artists,” he has said. And that’s where the “detective” part came into play.

Black artists created heroes like Speed Jaxon, a character whom artist Jay Paul Jackson imagined visiting the hidden city of Lostoni, a kind of proto-Wakanda. Jackson also created Home Folks, an exuberant chronicle of daily life in the Black community set in places like the neighborhood record store. But then, there was Blond Garth, a sort of Tarzan joint where a white kid who is shipwrecked on a remote island is treated as a god by the locals.

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Elton Clay Fax drew up NAACP posters, and at work, attended to U.S. military-inspired anti-Asian propaganda comics. Later, he worked on a George Dewey Lipscomb-penned series called Tales from the Land of Simba about “a boy whose courage and skill earned him the title Lion Master.” The book is filled with such stories of artists whose careers were bifurcated in this way, and aside from the excitement of discovering their stories at all, it is perhaps these juxtapositions that make the fraught parameters of their careers so clear.

E.C. Stoner, a descendant of one of George Washington’s slaves, was a fine artist of the Harlem Renaissance. His work included an illustrated biography of Rev. Ben Richardson — a beloved activist in the Black community who Stoner depicts literally getting beaten in the head by cops — alongside The Blue Beetle, the story of a white rookie cop who beats back alien invaders.

L: Tales from the Land of Simba, November 1947, Elton Clay Fax. R: Cover of Invisible Men

All-Negro Comics was a collective of about half a dozen of these men, which launched in 1947 and was a literal game-changer, though even with demonstrably robust sales, they still had trouble getting shelf space in some places. Not monolithic, this imprint published a combination of both wholesome and egregiously unjust scenes from modern American Black life, as well as something both more nostalgic and futuristic regarding the diasporic community — creating an alternate universe in more ways than one, as only the great comic books can.

Check out more about Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books at IDW Publishing and when you buy your copy, consider doing so at EsoWon.  ❖

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives Uncategorized

A New Film Presents M.C. Escher In His Own Words

M.C. Escher — he of never-ending stairwells, fish morphing into flowers, hands drawing one another, expert use of glass globes, and math-minded imagineer of infinite nesting universes — is an iconic image-maker who is almost universally recognized outside the art world, criminally unrepresented in the art world canon, and, it turns out, not at all the sort of person one might suppose him to be.

His art is on every sort of merch, psychedelic poster and album art, millions of tattoos, has inspired films from Labyrinth to Inception, and graced every college dorm room wall — but it was decades after his death in 1972 before the world finally started getting proper museum shows dedicated to his career. In the new documentary film from Robin Lutz, we find out just how he felt about that — and about a great deal more besides.

L: “Hand with Mirror” / R: “Waterfall”

Journey to Infinity’s imagery is an inventive combination of works and animations of them, spliced with vintage photographs and modern-day artistic interpretations of his most iconic compositions. The narration is almost entirely down to Escher himself — or rather, to his own words, voiced by beloved British actor Stephen Fry. The script is composed from his extensive diaries, excerpts from lofty lectures and personal, frequently caustic correspondence, and lightly punctuated with interviews with his adult children. It deals with subjects ranging from his eternal desire to “visualize infinity,” to his consternation at the popularity of his images among drug-addled hippies, to his suspicion that his estrangement from the art community was because whereas, “Other artists pursue beauty, I pursue wonder.”

The elaborate, gorgeous choreography of the schisms and interlocutions between art and mathematics is the most recurrent theme throughout the film (other than his hatred of hippies). To hear in Escher’s own words the step-by-step evolution of his vision and the range of his own studies is a marvelous treat. Enchanted by architecture, maths, and the natural sciences, Escher was at heart a printmaker whose impossibly elaborate and finely detailed works are somehow both futurist and baroque, the results of a mastery of analog craft and abstract thought.

“Day and Night”

It may come as a surprise to those who grew up loving Escher’s work that the originals are neither paintings nor drawings, but rather block prints. It may also be a bit shocking to confront his curmudgeonly disposition, however gamely the incomparable Mr. Fry performs his words with an infusion of wry humanism. There’s a love story, and grown children who appreciate the impact of his legacy. If the viewer is already an Escher person, this will be a fascinating, intimate session full of gems.

At the same time, the film does not function as a useful introduction to Escher from a conventional documentary point of view. Its premise works only for those who already know the art, and the absence of the expected art historians, curators, avid collectors, and publishers who show up to outline the artist’s legacy is a noticeable one. That said, the absence of those voices leaves all the more room for Escher’s own to ring through. And while there may be a lack of canonical presentations on a suitable scale in our institutions, every bookstore, tote bag design shop, and internet browser in the world is well stocked. At heart, this quirky, inventive hybrid of documentary and monologue is dedicated to the exploration of what we don’t know about one of the best-known artists in the world. ❖

For more information, visit M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity.