I visited Louisiana and Mississippi in 2001, partly inspired by the Coen brothers’ great film Oh Brother, Where Art Though. I was also intrigued by the weird tourist subculture built around the glamorization and glorification of the South’s very brutal plantation system, which exploited blacks as slaves and left nearly everyone else out the political system, except very rich, very powerful, and as we later saw in the Civil War, very violent aristocracy. There is a very good book on the economic system that flourished around cotton, North-South trade on the Mississippi River, and slave labor called River of Dark Dreams, by Harvard Professor Walter Johnson. It was in his book where I first learned about a little-known book called 12 Years a Slave, about six months before it burst on the global scene as a movie that won best picture at the 2014 Academy Awards. I figured it was more important to show these pictures of Laura Plantation than fret about their quality (these are now 13-year-old pictures, not well scanned I admit).
I took these pictures of my, yes, mom 10 years ago. As I was going through my catalogue of prints and converting them to digital images to make into a photo book for her, I decided I liked these a lot. Because these are digital images taken of analog prints, they are not 100 percent crisp. I still like the moment with mom.
In 2003 I worked on a documentary photography project on Community Supported Agriculture in Seattle. This work culminated in a show I exhibited in Portland, Ore., which highlighted gardens and gardening at two different mixed-income communities. These gardeners were all public housing residents, including immigrant families. I also showed these two photos in a show I did in Anchorage in 2006 at the Snow City Cafe called Being Themselves.
I just learned about Vivian Maier, an amazing street photographer and student of the human condition, in all its rich, strange, sometimes unfair and cruel glory. She was born in 1926 and died in 2009 and spent much of her life in New York and Chicago, where she did her voluminous work. More than 100,000 of her negatives and undeveloped rolls of film and 8mm and 16mm film were discovered posthumously. Suddenly an unknown photographic storyteller burst on the scene in the last five years through the power of social media and more importantly because of the volume and quality of her highly personal work.
Her self-portraits, including the use of a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera, are wildly off-kilter. In the era of the self-absorbed, narcissistic cell-phone selfie, these make that practice seem like a pale shadow. As for her portraits of ordinary people she met, you cannot take photos like this without deep empathy and respect–something that is not common. It links her to photographers like Sebastião Salgado.
Look at the cameras she used; some appear to be Leicas. She also used one of my favorite twin-lens reflex cameras, the gorgeous Rolleiflex. When she snapped her street and people pictures, she was right in her subjects’ private, most intimate space. There is now a documentary film that came out in 2013 called Finding Vivian Maier, and it is gaining buzz too. Oh, she made “a living” as a nanny, if that matters. It makes one wonder about who is an “artist” and what hidden potential people who may be dismissed can possess. Catch a glimpse of the film via the trailer on Youtube below.
In May 2007, I visited Nauvoo, Ill., a former historic Mormon community of nearly 25,000 residents in the 1840s. The Latter Day Saints’ purported prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother, Hyrum, lived there prior to their arrest and then mob killing in Carthage, Ill., in 1844. The LDS were violently attacked and persecuted in Illinois, culminating in the burning of the Nauvoo Temple in 1848, which was further destroyed by a tornado in 1850. Much of the Mormon community headed west to Utah from here.
Nauvoo Temple, which I as a non-believer can never enter, was rebuilt in 2002. The historic area, on a bluff and bend on the Mississippi River, is a remarkably beautiful place, and tens of thousands of LDS faithful travel from around the country visit and pose for pictures in front of the rebuilt temple and statues of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The historic site also has a visitors center that doubles, in my opinion, as a proselytizing facility for the Church of Jesus Christ the Latter Day Saints. (The dioramas inside are similar to those in Salt Lake City.) As someone who remains eternally curious about how groups express their faith, naturally I enjoyed my short visit on a lovely spring day.
I love Turkey. I traveled widely throughout the country in 2001. Having seen dozens of cities, countless town squares, universities, museums, and public spaces, I was struck by how pervasive the mostly Islamic republic venerates its modern, secular founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The cult of Atatürk is alive and well in Turkey, and it remains a bitter legacy to some Armenians and Greeks. Through statues, posters, and mass media, he is more ubiquitous in imagery than Abraham Lincoln is in the United States. See more of my Turkey pictures on my Turkey gallery on my web site.
I visited Kotzebue, Alaska, just north of the Arctic Circle, in 2008. It was a fabulous trip to the largest city in northwest Alaska. I ate beluga whale and was treated with great hospitality by residents. This was a work trip, and one of my most memorable visits to Bush Alaska during my six years living and working in the Great Land. Other photos from the 49th state can be found in my web site’s Alaska gallery.
Dogs bring out our best, even when we sometimes do not do our best. And they do not seem to judge, even when we may deserve judgment. And if you hug a dog, guaranteed you will feel better.
In July 2010, I took a fabulous and sometimes soggy kayaking trip to Blackstone Bay, in Prince William Sound, one of the most amazingly beautiful landscapes in the world. I went with my former neighbors, J & D, and benefited from their years of wisdom gained paddling as a team. There are few better ways to cut yourself off from technology, enjoy life’s precious moments, and feel humbled by natural beauty. (All of these were taken with a small hand-held Canon, converted to B&W using Lightroom.)
In 2007, I attended the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Barrow, which brought together the different Inuit groups, spanning the circumpolar north from Russia, to Alaska, to Canada, to Nunavut, to Greenland. The Inuit are distinct culturally, linguistically, and historically. Having traveled widely in Greenland and Alaska, this was abundantly clear in many of the ways these cultures express their identity and relation to the sea. Here are two perspectives on how closely linked Inuit culture is to its traditional hunting lifestyle, in this case hunting, killing, eating, and utilizing whales. You can also find other photos I have taken of Greenland and Alaska on my web site (www.rudyowens.com).