Emerita : A Retrospective of Mary Vernon and Debora Hunter

I had the great pleasure of making these two short profile pieces on Mary Vernon and Debora Hunter in promotion of their upcoming joint exhibition: Emerita at the Pollock Gallery at SMU.

Some information on the exhibit from the press release : 

Emerita: a Retrospective of Debora Hunter and Mary Vernon
September 7 - October 20, 2018
Opening Reception: September 7 5-7 p.m.

Hunter taught photography at SMU from 1976 until her retirement in 2017; Vernon taught at SMU from 1967 until her retirement in 2018. This two-person retrospective honors their collective 90-year contribution to the Meadows School, exhibiting work from the 1970s to the present.

The exhibit will feature both color and black and white photos by Hunter. Included are images of Taos, N.M., exploring the relationship between the manmade and the natural, and photos showing care at the beginning of life, featuring babies, and at the end of life, focusing on hospice patients, among other bodies of work. Vernon has taken a painting from 20 years ago, Normandy, and reflected on it to make a new painting, Normandy Again. Her paintings feature her interpretations of landscapes and still lifes, often marked by soft lines and blended colors in media including oil, acrylic and graphite.


About the artists:
Debora Hunter, professor emerita of art, joined the SMU faculty in 1976 after earning a B.A. in English literature from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in photography from Rhode Island School of Design, where she worked with Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and the visiting faculty of Minor White and Lisette Model. In her more than four decades of teaching at SMU she guided the Division of Art in the transition from chemical-based to digital photography. She also taught for over 20 years in SMU-in-Taos. She has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and has participated in group exhibitions at museums throughout the country, including the Hirshhorn Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Dallas Museum of Art and many others. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Houston Museum of Fine Art, Dallas Museum of Art and other notable museums. She was named the Dallas Art Fair Artist Honoree in 2016. For more about the artist, please visit http://www.deborahunter.com/.

Mary Vernon, professor emerita of art in Meadows School of the Arts, joined SMU in 1967 after earning her B.F.A. in art history and M.A. in art and art history from the University of New Mexico. She served as chair of art history from 1979 to 1981 and chair of art from 1987 to 1995. Her drawing, painting and color theory courses fostered the careers of countless successful artists and curators. She was named Meadows Foundation Distinguished Teaching Professor in 1998, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor in 2006 and received the Faculty Career Achievement Award in 2017. She also received a Moss-Chumley North Texas Artist Award, is a Fellow at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and was named the Dallas Art Fair Artist Honoree in 2017. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally in France, Hungary, Chile and Kazakhstan and is included in collections of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, The Belo Foundation, U.S. Department of State and Meadows Museum, as well as in many other corporate and private collections. In 2016, the Meadows School established the Mary Vernon Painting Prize in her honor, an annual award to help outstanding undergraduates launch their art careers. For more about the artist, please visit http://maryvernoncom.siteprotect.net/.

About the Pollock Gallery:
The Pollock Gallery is located on the first floor of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center, 3140 Dyer St. on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday. The gallery is closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is free. For more information, call 214-768-4439 or visit www.smu.edu/Meadows/AreasOfStudy/Art/PollockGallery.
 

 

AIM Court

A video I made highlighting a unique second chance program for nonviolent offenders in Dallas, Texas. The country needs more programs like this. Grateful to have been in a position to have made this video, to witness the work from the staff and the judge, as well as the work put forth by the participants. We owe each other second chances, and the world is a better place when we extend ourselves towards our neighbors. 

 

Running Log #4

2 weeks till the marathon and I’m as ready as i’ll ever be. All there is to do is to eat well and hope that I’ve run enough these past 12 months.

 Currently on my desk,  three separate video projects (films?) await more editing.  Each project lies in the assemblage state - the process of narrowing down the raw-footage into some kind of coherent collage of moments that hopefully convey a sense of what I set out to say. I remain unsure about how much divorcing is needed from the moment for me to be most effective as an editor. If i'm too close to the moment, I end up making something incoherent to someone who was not there at whatever Event it is that is being condensed , but if i'm too far from the moment - I become unable to tap back into what it felt like to experience said Event. And, most painfully, I struggle, as most editors do (I think) with letting go of those perfect moments that simply have no place in the project. I wonder sometimes, if there is a film out there, to be made later down the line , that consists entirely of these abandoned moments. What's refreshing to me, however, is the feeling of a documentary finding its structure in the editing process. There is little  out there that engages me more than a film's form being revealed through editing. Disparate moments meet each other, and you think to yourself : I could not imagine this playing any other way.

As always, I feel radically unqualified for the run and feel as if I could have run a lot more than I did. That being said, I’ve been running 9 miles daily at an 8:30 pace and the miles have been coming easy. Suspiciously easy. We’ll see if those suspicions are warranted come December 10. The days have grown shorter, but the air is strangely warm for November. I’ve enjoyed running deeper into nightfall - and I've enjoyed watching the birds fly in formation across the lake, shadows mirrored against the water in the blue hour.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how angry I was when I ran last year’s race. It was within a month of the election and I was very sour ; I could not help but think that many of the people surrounding me, at the BMW Dallas Marathon, were Trump supporters, and  I could not help but think about how - the act of voting for Trump was a direct vote towards hurting others  - and I could not let my anger go - this anger followed me throughout the race ; which resulted in my best time in these past 5 years. 3:52. This year i’m not sure how I’ll beat this year but damn won’t I try.

 

Running Diary #3

Today I photographed a short-film  for a friend who is a senior at UT Arlington. It’s a dramatic film in the mode of  “Almost Famous” and “Submarine” , about a boy in the throws of teenage hood who has to confront the end of a friendship. We shot it in 16x9 and the shoot was an exercise in my trying to use the entirety of the native frame from my DSLR, rather than shooting with the intention of cropping the image into an non native aspect ratio. Theoretically, and historically, the medium dictates the aspect ratio,  however in these digital times all reason has gone out the window. Shooting digitally widens the sandbox considerably - you could shoot in nearly any aspect ratio you wanted to provided you have enough resolution. This presents more problems than it does solutions, in my experience. It would seem like it would provide the filmmaker more options to make the film better  but in reality it tends to muddle the process and often makes me lazy as an image-maker. Because of the plethora of options available, the decisions made carry less conviction and it’s felt more often than not in the film. I consider this to be a major dilemma for myself personally, but am convinced this applies to many : What are image-makers to do in a world of nearly infinite possibilities? A good problem to have, perhaps? I’m undecided.

 

I’m working more actively these days to make more aesthetic decisions with a sense of conviction, rooted in what the film demands, rather than an of-the-moment aloofness.

 

We shot from 9-5 and I drove home on I-30, for the first time in months, and went straight to the lake to get a run in. I managed 7 miles at a surprisingly speedy pace. It’s becoming easier to run faster as the weather cools down ; although I am still putting off getting in my long-long runs. Soon I will have no choice but to run the prerequisite 18 miler before I can call myself marathon-ready. It was a relatively easy run, I used the time to consider the decisions made during the shoot as I’ve yet to look at the dailies. I used the time to think about what I would have done differently, and to think about all those things i’m still unable to articulate about the filmmaking process ; like how a certain mood is achieved on set amongst the crew and performers, about how split-second decisions get made in favor of the film rather than in hurt; and how to better find the precise place where the camera should be. As in running, there’s always room to try harder.

 

I walked the last mile back to the car covered in dusk and guided by the spooky orange streetlights, the insects were roaring and I drank my cucumber-lime flavored Gatorade in one gulp.

Running Diary #2

Delayed but , written nontheless. Less procastination on the next one, I hope.

 

It started like any other run, up the hill. Typically, I begin at the bottom of a steep incline, with the intention of making the latter portion of the run easier. Just thinking about the steep decline as “the end”  eases the struggle of the last few miles. Around mile two I entered a densely treed area of the running path, where people cook out on the weekends in patches of grass. I spotted a family, of two adults and three children under 8 years old, crowded around a SUV. They were talking to somebody inside the car. As I got closer I saw a small face in the driver’s window and understood what was happening : a baby had locked themselves in the vehicle along with the keys. Certainly a scenario that qualifies as a nightmare. The panic was evident in the voice of the parents, who were desperately trying to persuade their too-young-to-understand child to unlock the doors. A crowd of passerbys gathered, each disrupting whatever they were doing to lend witness or a hand of help. A few men began trying to smash one of the car windows with a rock, to no avail. The men took turns striking the window with great intensity but the surreal strength of the glass resisted shattering, it simply wobbled  inward and out - as if it were mocking the men. Cars stopped along the path and the level of panic in the air became tangible, it had been 5 minutes and it was 90 degrees outside. The mother brought the husband a large tree branch and he was able to break in the back window. Relief came as the father climbed in the car and retrieved the child and delivered him to his mother. The crowd, scattered back to from where they came and I continued my run. Needless to say, the miles came easy.

Running Diary Entry #1

With Autumn’s arrival comes the need to get focused on the marathon in Dallas which is held every December. I spent the Spring and Summer running without much focus or attention to pace and distance -but now things have become more regimented due to my desire to best my personal record of 3 hours and 52 minutes. I’m not yet confident in my ability to do this. Right now i’m averaging at 8:30 minute miles, but i’m unsure of my ability to sustain that pace across 26.2 miles.  I primarily run at White Rock Lake towards sundown and will be using this space to log each run until the marathon, which is ten weeks away from now.

Fall has not yet settled in fully,  and many of the trees are still clinging to their foliage -  but soon they’ll fade , the temperatures will dip, and the days will get dramatically shorter.  

Today I ran 13.1 miles, a practice half-marathon. It’s been 8 months since I’ve run that long, and it was a good wake up call.

Favorite Photos from 2016

The other night I lifted my laptop from my desk and the red 2 terabyte hard drive that holds nearly half the work I’ve made this year toppled towards the ground. I reconnected the drive and it went unrecognized by the computer. I tried to play it cool. I strolled the hallway, sat in a chair, read half of a page in a book, and checked Twitter. The thought that all of the work was simply lost became unbearable. I snapped out of it and thought “none of this is 'cool'  this is my work!”. With nervous hands, I re-housed the drive and the data was resurrected.  In response to that moment, I reviewed all of the photographs I took this year, across four hard drives, with hopes of finding the ones that could be considered ‘representative’ of my photographic endeavors in 2016.

 

As I looked through the photos it occurred to me that the details of the non-abstract mental negotiations ( not to mention the super abstract moods that flavored them) leading to their captures were vague and only getting vaguer. The “function” of the photographs became something separate from representation, divorced (liberated?) from their origins. After the review, I think of the images as much as distortions as they are inventories of space and light, I think of them as what John Berger (RIP) would call "arranged interiors"

 

Although none of these photographs have been printed they are still objects that demand preservation. This digital world is deceptive in its guarantees of forever, with its infinite promises and endless streams. I don’t know what makes a photograph worthwhile but I do know that when I look at these I see documents of my preoccupations, which are bound to change throughout this new year.

 

Beacon in the Swamp

This essay originally appeared in the program booklet for the 29th Dallas VideoFest.

For the month of December, all work by Kartemquin Films is free to stream : https://www.kartemquin.com/news/watch-every-kartemquin-film-for-free-all-december-stream-them-all-for-1-year-for-50

Cinema began as documentary : Muybridge’s horse, Edison’s sneeze, The Lumiere Brothers’ train. They all transcribed mundane phenomena onto celluloid via radical technologies, introducing a new kind of wonder to the world. Nearly a century and a half later, the cinema is in a delicate state. Although it could also be said that the cinema perpetually exists in delicacy, as echoed by Louis Lumiere’s declaration in 1895 : “the cinema is an invention without a future”.

In these times, moving-images bombard an eye within its first few morning blinks. Cinema attendance is on a seemingly irreversible decline, as the consumption of movies has evolved in ways inconceivable generations prior, away from the movie houses. There is no need to seek an image, the image will come to you. Young eyes are often ill-equipped to critically evaluate moving-images that dazzle before them in ultra high definition, to discern reality from a construction of reality. These days, people make their own films, about their own lives, in real time, that beam directly to the phones of friends and strangers, films that often disappear within twenty four hours and leave no (visible) record of having ever existed, as is their intent.

News industries have been forced to adjust to the rapid evolution of consumption, or else risk extinction. Inbetween the most esteemed newspaper columns, sponsored content known as ‘native advertisements’ live. They are intended to be consumed as journalism, to blend into the platform seamlessly,  resulting in a massive flood of images whose immediate goal is to sell, or sway, under the guise of news and documentary. In this swamp of content, how do we, as a viewership, declare what’s worth watching and what isn’t?  

Today, all images exist on an even plane. This even plane is essential for the full, still distant, democratization of filmmaking but for now acts like a forest fire beyond control, which begs the question : Whose role is it to shape the wildfire and chart the fresh ash?

Kartemquin Films was founded in 1966 by Chicagoan college filmmakers amidst national unrest. Emerging a generation after the pioneering work of Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, and the Maysles brothers, a primary goal of the filmmaking collective is to confront social maladies through documentary cinema.  By “reflecting life back at itself”, their aim is to motivate social change through the stories of everyday people, told with an approach that illuminates dimensions of the issues often buried by traditional news media. For an individual to see slivers of themselves in the jovial face of a nun, in a boy navigating his basketball dreams, or in the trek of a twenty first century immigrant, is to essentially expand the definition of what it means to be human. The work of Kartemquin Films enables viewers to sit with the paradoxes, ambiguities, and disorientations that constitute the core of sociopolitical problems. By framing national issues within the lives of ordinary individuals a deeper consideration is felt by viewers for other people far away from their own experience. Empathy drives the work at Kartemquin Films, whose work is made with a level of integrity and transparency absent from most media. Good documentaries invite accountability, scrutiny, and engagement, they ask viewers to accompany filmmakers as they engage with complex problems that hold no clear answers. For fifty years, Kartemquin Films has made documentaries that paint a portrait of America as seen by artists who care deeply for their subjects and follow the story wherever it goes.

The wonder born from moving-images is as present as ever, but is easily corrupted by those that seek not to engage, but to sell, or contain, under the costume of convention. Corporate news giants have deemed irrelevant the evanescent moments of life that shape our experiences. Make no mistake, these practices and willful omissions are not benign,  they encourage division and have real impact on the direction of communities and on the direction of nations. There are not enough incentives for students of today to aspire to make films outside of this system, which is precisely why Kartemquin Films, and organizations alike, are crucial for the continuation of nonfiction filmmaking, the acceleration of social change , and for the assurance that the Lumiere locomotive will roll towards new centuries. Kartemquin Films is a beacon in the swamp.

Short Report from the 80th Anniversary of the Centennial Exposition at Fair Park

If you close your eyes in front of Fair Park’s gates you will hear the soft roar of Interstate 30 off in the distance. Stick around long enough and the DART train will come howling. The momentum of sound builds on itself until it dissipates, without a dramatic conclusion, and splatters of footsteps come forth. I imagine this aural sequence is similar to a time-machine’s.

In June 2016, Fair Park celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Centennial Fair, Texas’ celebration of the 100th year of independence from Mexico. The Centennial, held in 1936, was a wild success, bringing in seven million people (Including President Roosevelt), and was often remarked as the introduction of Texas to the United States. Today, Fair Park is in a delicate state. There are a slew of directions proposed for Fair Park to go towards, with boards, panels, and task forces having already been employed. The consensus, if there is one, is that there’s something fundamentally out of step with a place called Fair Park if it only operates fully for three weeks out of every year, the space should do more for the surrounding community.

I spent four evenings photographing Fair Park during the 80th Anniversary of the Centennial. What’s changed in 80 years? What hasn’t? What never will? These questions followed me through the late spring nights, the flags of yore wiggling in the breeze ;  the forces of all of them ever present on these grounds. There are multitudes of stories buried in the architecture and on the faces of the people. In the air, collective memories linger, from times when the trees were shorter.  

 

 

 

Time to Call the Exterminator

 

Often I’ll be working and the slightest sensation of movement along the sidewall of my finger snatches my attention, the weight not enough to confirm something’s there but just enough to know something’s not right, like a ghost’s graze.  A second later, an ant travels across my finger as if it were a collapsible bridge. I reel in my knuckle and flick the insect away, elsewhere. A small crack in the wall, an orange peel left out, a piece of candy abandoned. A combination of life enabling events has occurred without my knowing , giving rise to a thriving ant colony beneath my desk. I’ll be watching a video and spot a tiny black speck traveling across some mountainous vista on the screen, the effect is disorienting and humorous. Luckily these ants do not bite, which has removed the urgency for extermination that would normally accompany such a problem.

***

The scene seemed normal. I surveyed the crowd, took inventory of faces never before seen, measured the actual dimensions of the people against the fuzzy mental construction of the person I’d briefly communicated with through an anonymous email exchange, facilitated by Craigslist. Arrangements were made in terse lines: He would be holding the box and I would be carrying an envelope with the cash. Partaking in the ritual of a Craigslist transaction is like entering a detective story, unsure whether you’re the detective or the suspect on the run. All I knew is that I was looking for a man named James and he for me.

        ***

INCONCEIVABLY INTERESTING,UNDOUBTEDLY ORIGINAL and HUMOROUS. A VALUABLE NATURAL HISTORY DEMONSTRATION.

-1912 newspaper description of an F. Percy Smith film

 

F. Percy Smith began making films in a bathroom-turned-studio inside his parents home in London at the start of the 20th century. Smith constructed massive camera contraptions to capture the tiniest encounters : flies lifting barbells, spiders weaving webs then “flying” out of frame, the trek a hop root takes until it becomes beer. “Birth of a Flower” , a first film, compressed months of blooming into three minutes of accelerated growth, a cinematic revelation. “The Balancing Bluebottle”, which depicts a fly lying on its back rotating another fly, had its premiere at the Palace Theater to the filmmaker’s great dismay. The film was received with great enthusiasm but hardly anyone believed in the authenticity of what was shown. To counter this response, Smith took his film to screen at the Royal Photographic Society alongside a lecture. The new venue and social context provided a scientific seriousness but only deepened the skepticism and curiosity regarding the film’s production. Smith wanted to walk the line between the entertainment world, who were dazzled, and the scientific world, who found fault with the concept of anthropomorphizing an insect. Despite criticisms, his films took Britain by storm and soon Smith landed a post at British Instructional Film where he would go on to make over fifty nature films. He was quoted as saying his aims were “to administer the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment”. His services would be enlisted by the British Navy at the start of the first world war.

***

I placed half an apple on a plane of glass as a call for ants. An hour later, my crew was ready. While looking through the viewfinder, in this new scale, the ants became more than ants. They took on new dimensions of personality, some were quick to scurry away and some seemed like they were naturally gifted at posing, appearing pregnant with thought and overflowing with expression. I wondered what I looked like to the ant : an enormous creature with a machine in his hands, wielding a a sphere of glass in which a distorted reflection of the world can be seen, like a crystal ball. When photographing a subject so close to the lens it’s as if the eye has traveled backward towards primordial times, where a centimeter is vast and nothing makes sense. The perspective is unreal and the plane of focus so shallow that the moment of capture must be in accordance with the rhythm of breath, the shutter should click at the moment when all the air has left the chest.

***

The way our eyes reached out to each other, with hopes of recognition, made me think I’d identified James but I wasn’t sure so I got in line for coffee. While in line I kept my eyes steady on the man who could be James , he was wearing an orange polo and was easily into his late seventies. He had a leather case with him out of which he pulled the box I recognized from the pixelated thumbnail. I sat down, with a banana and a coffee, retrieved the envelope from my pocket, and he counted the bills. After confirming they were all there, he told me he was selling all of his camera equipment and proceeded to show me another lens, an old manual Leica he bought when he was in his thirties that I admired but couldn’t afford. He understood but said he just wanted to show me the lens, just so I could see it. He threw in two attachment tubes that allow a lens to focus extremely close to the subject, for free. I didn’t want to ask him why he was relinquishing all of his equipment. I was afraid I already knew the reason and didn’t want to hear him cover it up with words, for some stranger.

***

Films from the war arrived by train, the anticipation of the screenings was palpable mostly among children. Smith’s films brought minds into worlds previously unseen, rather, they brought attention and fascination to what was already there. During wartime, Smith’s films depicted maps that outlined where battles took place and chronicled the path of war. The difference between macro and aerial filmmaking is surprisingly not great, If there’s one thing the cinema excels at , it’s eliminating distance. The war films gave assurance to a perspective of the world. A world in limbo, stabilized by images. The nature films captured the phenomenal in the mundane. Smith’s work partook in the creation of new myths and the expansion of dreams, and by definition the expansion of nightmares.

 

 

 

Lake Outtakes

 

                        photos were taken on my Iphone 6+ during runs in Summer 2015

     For the past four years I’ve run regularly at White Rock Lake, a man-made lake in East Dallas that covers some 1200 acres and is approximately 9.73 miles round. The goal of the runs is to simply endure distance. At my worst, every mile is a struggle. At my best, I fall into a hypnotic state where my stride rhymes and I entrust my movement to the meandering path as I revolve around the shore. The first mile is usually the hardest and is accompanied by regret regarding the nutritional quality of recent meals. Soon enough, though, thoughts settle into a realm of nothingness, and I try to focus on the ever-shifting quality of light , the way it wraps around the clouds and how, minute by minute, the hue of the sky shifts from a brilliant cerulean blue into a deep dark cobalt.

     After rough storms the paved trail becomes littered with washed up dirt, fallen branches, and trash. Generally a week is needed for clean up crews to do their magic. The work is done in two waves. Men in neon vests collect the mess into massive piles that sit like sculptures until fleets of construction machines arrive to scoop the sculptures into dumpster trucks. After these efforts the area becomes eerily clean and the accumulation process begins again.

     The lake is many places to many people. A woman sits on a bench taking in the last light , amongst the ducks and birds, with a blank gaze fixated on the point across the water where the sun says goodbye. At dusk a hired-man comes to spread a twenty pound sack of corn feed across the ground. The ducks and birds honk and flap excitedly toward the foreshore for dinner. Children explode with laughter after stomping their feet, causing the birds to burst off the ground up into the trees as a barrage of cyclists,  in skintight corporate logo-laden suits, zoom by shouting “ON YOUR LEFT!” with an arrogance I can only describe as remarkable. Along Garland road, the path gets uncomfortably close to the roadway. A shrine of flowers rests behind the iron fencing, in honor of a man who was killed by a car in May 2014. There was a period when every Sunday eve I’d run past loved ones of the dead, actively mourning. They do not come as frequently now. Fishermen stand guard behind their staked poles, eyes fixated on the tension of the lines, waiting for the big one.

     A red band of light lingers on the horizon line and darkness does its dirty work, rendering the land unrecognizable from the hour prior. It’s then I know I ought to get back to the car. When it gets too dark I stick to the far right side of the path and make sure to keep my phone awake, so that I’m seen. I know this place more than most places, although I must confess: I’ve never touched the water.