Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.
Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.
The Lexington Camera Club was different.
From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.
By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.
James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.
“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”
Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.
When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.
The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.
The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).
Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.
The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.
Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.
Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.
Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.
Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.
“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”
Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.
Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.
In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”
Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.
“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”
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An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening. The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled. Photo by Frank Doering
Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.
Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.
Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.
Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.
Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.
Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.
They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.
Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.
The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.
“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”
The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.
When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.
Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.
The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.
Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.
“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”
But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.
Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”
Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.
There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.
“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.
One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.
Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.
Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.
“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”
If you go
- What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
- Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
- When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
- More information: Institute193.org, Coalscapes.com, Doeringphoto.com
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SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.
A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.
But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.
What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.
That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.
“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”
The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to Collectingkentucky.com).
Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.
In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.
“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”
Ten major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.
Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.
The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.
Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.
“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”
The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.
Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.
Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.
The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.
Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.
The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.
Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.
“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”
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I went to the annual “I Love Mountains” march and rally at the State Capitol today to gather material for my Sunday column — and to take photos. Here are a few of them:
Kentucky author Silas House, center, led the annual “I Love Mountains Day” march down Capitol Avenue to the State Capitol. The event was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in opposition to mountaintop-removal and other destructive forms of coal mining. Several hundred people attended. Many marchers this year were advocating for two pieces of proposed legislation: one would limit coal mine waste dumped into streams; the other would require more use of renewable energy by utilities in Kentucky.
Many children brought homemade signs.
Eric Sutherland of Lexington, center, was among those cheering the rally’s speakers.
Writer Silas House, on the steps of the State Capitol, urged citizens to “clean this house” of politicians who do the bidding of the coal industry at the expense of Appalachia’s people and communities.
Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, shares a laugh with disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who spoke at the rally.
Ella Corder, a student at Meece Middle School in Somerset, waited for applause to die down so she could read the essay that won her a contest sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Kentucky writers Bobbie Ann Mason, left, and Ed McClanahan were among hundreds who participated.
Daniel Mullins, 10, of Berea, makes his feelings known.
A Valentine’s Day reminder
Don Ament’s photo of a dogwood tree in his front yard was enlarged to 42 feet wide by 11 feet tall to cover a folding wall that separates an employee cafe from a meeting room at TempurPedic’s new corporate headquarters building in Lexington. Photo by Don Ament
Representatives from Tempur-Pedic met Ament last March at Kentucky Crafted: The Market. Then they saw an image on his website of dogwood blossoms in sunlight. The website has images Ament made all over the world, but this one was shot in his yard in Lexington.
The company was furnishing its new headquarters building near Coldstream Park, and executives thought Ament’s photo would be perfect for a folding wall that separates the employee café from a meeting room.
This commission was challenging because it literally was big. The image, taken on a 2.25-inch square piece of film, needed to be enlarged and printed 11 feet tall by 42 feet wide.
Ament scanned the film to create a high-resolution digital file, then, with help from friend and fellow photographer Frank Döring, manipulated the image to sharpen edges and preserve color vibrancy. A company in Maine printed the photo in sections, and last week it was installed like wallpaper. The result is stunning.
“They could go anywhere for art,” Ament said of Tempur-Pedic. “But they seem really dedicated to local.”
Indeed, as Tempur-Pedic settles into its new 128,000-square-foot space, much more local art will be purchased, said Patrice Varni, a senior vice president.
The only other pieces now are two Italian glass and stone mosaics designed by Guy Kemper, a Woodford County glass artist who has done installations all over the world, some as big as airport terminal walls.
Kemper’s mosaics for Tempur-Pedic are abstract evocations, roughly 10 feet square, for the fourth-floor executive area.
One is called After the Storm. “It recalls the feeling of a Kentucky forest after a summer storm, when a steamy sun comes out and everything is dripping wet,” Kemper said.
The other mosaic, called Daybreak, is “a shot of color to energize the work environment and promote creativity,” he said. “A reference that you’ve had a good night’s sleep.” (On a Tempur-Pedic mattress, no doubt.)
Kemper said Tempur-Pedic executives and their interior designer, Gary Volz of Champlin Architecture in Cincinnati, approached him after seeing two mosaics he did for elevator lobbies at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the pieces by Don and Guy,” Varni said. “I’ve really been struck by the positive response from employees.
“There was a steady stream of people stopping by to watch the installations.”
Tempur-Pedic built its new headquarters, which has large windows and expansive views of the Bluegrass landscape, to replace a former warehouse that had evolved into offices and become overcrowded as the company grew.
“This building was designed with a particular focus on collaboration and integrating the various work groups, and engendering creativity and innovative thinking,” Varni said. “Art is a big part of that, that is meant to showcase and inspire creativity and innovation.”
Varni said the company has budgeted purchases of more art during the next few years, as its 360 employees settle into the building, figure out what would complement the space and learn more about the work of local artists.
“We feel very much a part of the community, because the company was founded here,” Varni said. “In our support for the arts, we felt first and foremost we should support local artists.”
Varni said the Kentucky Arts Council has suggested several local artists whose work might be a good fit.
“Art is such a subjective, personal taste kind of thing,” she said. “We like things that have some sense of nature and that run the range from more literal to more abstract. And we’re interested in a different range of mediums.”
As part of its mission to help Kentucky artists be able to earn a living from their art, the council sponsors Kentucky Crafted: The Market, which returns to Lexington Center from March 1 through 3.
Kemper and Ament hope more Kentucky companies will follow Tempur-Pedic’s example because the arts flourishes only in places where artists find good patrons. Plus, when that investment is made in the community, it help’s Kentucky’s economy.
“You don’t have to run to New York or Chicago to look for something great,” Ament said. “There’s more good work being done here all the time.”
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Michele Carlisle, a Georgetown portrait photographer who volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, took this photo of Amy Buckingham holding the hand of her infant son, Myles.
Amy and Tim Buckingham are the first to say that, at the time, it seemed awkward, even a little weird.
Their twin sons, Hagan and Myles, were born premature and spent nearly a month in the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit. Hagan finally grew strong enough to go home to be with his 3-year-old sister, Joleigh. But Myles just got worse.
“When a doctor tells you the strategy is hope, wait and pray, it doesn’t look good,” Tim said.
Myles’ lungs had not developed properly, and he could not survive off a ventilator. He died on Feb. 4, 2011 after 28 days of life. Only when he died did someone think to tell the Buckinghams about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit organization that provides free professional portrait photography to the parents of infants who will never get the chance to grow up.
Within four hours of a nurse calling the organization, Georgetown photographer Michele Carlisle was at the hospital. Myles was cleaned and dressed, and his parents held him as Carlisle made photographs that have become some of the Buckinghams’ most cherished possessions.
“This was the only opportunity we had to photograph him without tubes and wires,” Tim said. “We felt kind of weird about it, but it gave us some closure.” “It was awkward, but it’s what felt right as a parent,” Amy added. “I can’t imagine not having those photographs.”
The Buckinghams asked to share their story because they want more people to know about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the comfort it can provide to families in situations such as theirs.
Colorado-based Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was created in 2005, soon after Maddux Haggard was born with a condition that prevented him from breathing or swallowing. Before he was taken off life support at 6 days old, his parents asked photographer Sandy Puc´ to come to the hospital.
Cheryl Haggard and Puc´ realized that such photographs could be comforting to other families, so they started the non-profit organization they named for the children’s bedtime prayer. The organization says it now has more than 11,000 professional photographers in the United States, Canada and 38 other countries who volunteer their time and services to families that are losing or have lost an infant.
Photographers typically donate a CD of 30-35 black-and-white photos, along with a DVD slide show of the images. Carlisle, who photographed the Buckinghams, is one of three Lexington-area photographers who volunteer. She also is the organization’s area coordinator.
Before she opened her Georgetown photography studio seven years ago, Carlisle said she worked as a hospital X-ray technician, so she had some understanding of what these families were going through. Over the past six years, she said she has photographed several hundred families for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
“I know these images are powerful,” Carlisle said. “I know they can help when so little in that moment can.”
Usually, when Carlisle arrives at a hospital to take photographs, all but the parents and infant will leave the room. For some parents, it is the first time they have gotten to hold their child.
“It’s hard for everybody, and very emotional; just walking into that room and knowing what to say,” she said. “But if I can create that safe place for them to have that moment, it often can mean as much as the pictures.”
Although the organization provides training and support for volunteer photographers, the emotional nature of the work makes recruiting hard, Carlisle said. Still, it is such a rewarding form of service that she wishes more professional photographers would apply to volunteer (Nowilaymedowntosleep.org).
With two active children and busy careers, the Buckinghams have a full life. Amy is a pediatric dental hygienist, and Tim is a staff member for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and an active volunteer at Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. Still, Tim said, “Sometimes the grief just creeps up out of nowhere.”
That is when they pull out Carlisle’s photographs, look through them and remember Myles.
“Although it was the hardest moment of our lives,” Tim said, “it has also been captured as one of the most beautiful and peaceful moments that we will remember forever.”
I touched a nerve in many readers when I wrote a column last month offering to give my 600 or so National Geographic magazines to anyone who wrote in with a good reason for wanting them.
It isn’t that I don’t love my National Geographics. It’s just that there is no good place in my new house to store 17 linear feet of them. There is also no real reason to store them, because their well-researched articles and stunning photographs are now easily accessible in digital format.
But I just couldn’t bear to throw out National Geographics. Neither, it seems, can anyone else.
Perhaps three dozen readers wrote, called or stopped me around town to talk about that column. Some told me they could still recall a long-ago National Geographic that sparked a lifelong interest in some aspect of science, history, culture or travel. Some commented on the historic role the magazine’s photographs of scantily clad natives in warm climates has played in the anatomy education of American boys. (Several women said that, as girls, they found the magazine just as educational.)
More than anything, though, readers told me that they shared my dilemma.
The first email I received was from a colleague, who attached a photo of his own “yellow wall” — shelf after shelf of National Geographics dating to 1957.
“I’ve moved this collection five times,” reporter Greg Kocher wrote, “and I don’t think I could do it again.”
Bob Calhoun wrote me to speculate that if the world does end this year, as some people think the ancient Maya calendar predicts, it will be because the weight of stored National Geographics in North America throws the Earth off its axis.
“The only reason I am safe from a ceiling collapse,” Joyce Hahn wrote, “is that I have my National Geographic magazines stored in my basement.”
Unlike many antiques and collectibles, National Geographics have little resale value because they all still exist — somewhere. It also isn’t easy to give them away.
Zachary Davis, a senior at the University of Kentucky, wrote that he once had a huge National Geographic collection dating to 1918. The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, wrote an article a couple of years ago about his desire to give away the magazines, but he had no takers until a classmate finally agreed to take them off his hands.
Later, Davis said, a man from Pakistan emailed wanting his National Geographics. The cost of shipping, however, was out of the question.
Several readers asked for names of people who wanted my National Geographics so they could give them theirs.
“My husband will not get rid of close to 40 years of National Geographics,” Doris Stilwell wrote. “I’d be willing to give mine to the second runner-up.”
In fact, only three people wrote wanting my magazines. They all had good reasons, so I plan to pack them into enough boxes that I won’t throw my back out and make three deliveries.
Whitney Withington collects National Geographics so she can cut out pictures of women from around the world. She hand-embroiders those pictures onto paper she uses to make covers for blank books, which she gives to friends.
Through her art, Withington said, “I want to show what women go through around the world.”
Stacey Kindred, a teacher at Estill Springs Elementary School in Irvine, wanted my National Geographics as material for reading folders she makes for the school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes.
“The students are required to take the article home and read it with a parent, then return it to school and choose another one,” Kindred said. Each student must keep a log of articles they read and answer questions about each one.
The rest of my National Geographics will go to the Family Care Center, an alternative high school for teen mothers that is run by the city and Fayette County Public Schools.
“They would be a wonderful resource for our students,” teacher Laura Zimmerman wrote, “and we have space in the library to house them.”
When I called to follow up, Zimmerman sealed the deal with this offer: “You’re welcome to come by any time and peruse them if you miss them too much.”
Moving from one house to another comes with many challenges and anxieties, but one I had not expected was the Yellow Wall.
This was the wall of bookcases in my basement. They were filled with several hundred National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s.
Every American knows it is a sin to throw away a National Geographic. If you are a journalist who comes from a family of librarians, it is a mortal sin.
But here’s the thing: I do not have a good place to put them in my new house. I rarely go back and read them. And, back at the dawn of the digital age, I bought a set of CD-ROMs containing every issue of National Geographic from 1888 to 1995, plus a two-volume index. This digital archive is no bigger than a bread box.
I have no good reason for keeping almost six decades worth of National Geographic magazines in all of their heavy-coated paper, perfect bound bulk. So why do I hesitate to pitch them? It’s complicated.
Like many boys, I first became aware of National Geographic in elementary school. A friend discovered that the magazine contained photographs of women wearing much less clothing than we were accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t pornography; it was anthropology.
But I didn’t fully appreciate National Geographic until a friend of my father gave me a box of them. He was moving and, well, just couldn’t pitch them. During the many hours I spent thumbing through those magazines, looking for anthropology, I found so much more.
Before cable TV and the Internet, National Geographic literally opened the world to a young mind. Each magazine was filled with fascinating reports about history, science and culture. As an adult, I have traveled to many exotic places that I first saw in the pages of National Geographic.
One well-thumbed issue was August 1965. It included a tribute to Sir Winston Churchill and coverage of his elaborate funeral. There also was some cutting-edge technology: a thin, plastic phonograph record I could tear out of the magazine and put on my record player to hear excerpts of Churchill’s speeches. I wore it out.
That issue also contained a classic example of National Geographic photojournalism: William Albert Allard’s picture essay about Pennsylvania’s “Amish Folk.” It is one reason I have always been awed by the power of documentary photography.
National Geographic has always set a standard for journalistic excellence, despite some now-laughable culture and class bias. The magazine has suffered from cost-cutting in recent years, as most publications have, but it continues to do work that no other magazine does.
National Geographic has a longer shelf life than most magazines; many of its stories are timeless. Still, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, even the best print journalism becomes clutter.
Back issues of the magazine have little value as collectibles, probably because nobody ever throws them away. Wherever you find a flea market, downscale antique shop, used bookstore or charity book sale, you will find stacks of National Geographics.
Some people leave their old copies in barber shops and doctors’ offices. Others give them to schools so children too young to know any better can cut them up for classroom projects. The rest of us just keep accumulating them, despite our best intentions. We cancel our subscription, then buy a box of old copies at a neighbor’s estate sale.
One of these days, I fully expect to see this newspaper headline: “Couple killed in bedroom ceiling collapse; police blame National Geographics in attic.”
In the weeks before we moved, I agonized over the Yellow Wall. Becky would ask for a logical reason why we should keep so many old magazines. I had none.
Faced with a decision, I ducked it. I filled six big boxes with enough National Geographics to make my muscular movers groan. They stacked those boxes upstairs, where they have sat for a month and a half.
But now is the time to act. I will save the Churchill issue and a few others, but the rest of my National Geographics must go. Here is my plan: I will give them away to the reader who emails me by April 1 with the best reason why he or she wants them.
The recipient just can’t blame me the next time he or she moves.
Impromptu memorials to traffic crash victims have become a common, if rogue, element of the American landscape. They linger for years, often well tended, in the no-man’s land between highways and private property.
Most people speed past them, paying little attention. Mowing crews take care to go around them. Vandals and thieves rarely bother them, as if acknowledging the spot’s special significance to loved ones of the departed.
For the past six years, Phillip March Jones has been stopping, looking closely at each memorial, taking a Polaroid photograph and recording the location’s GPS coordinates. He has done this from New York to California, and, because he lives in Lexington, all over Kentucky.
Jones has collected 139 of these photographs in a book, Points of Departure (Jargon Society, $40). He’ll sign the book Saturday at The Morris Book Shop.
“I had always been interested in roadside memorials on several levels,” said Jones, an artist, writer and curator who started Institute 193, a non-profit contemporary art space at 193 North Limestone, and who is director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, which promotes appreciation for vernacular visual arts of the black South. “These memorials speak to a basic human need to create in response to death.”
Jones said he has always been interested in art created by people who might not consider themselves artists. Jones doesn’t consider himself a photographer, either.
“I wasn’t trying to study them as art objects,” he said, or even to make great photographs of them. Jones said he just wanted to document and catalog the memorials in a way that readers, who might otherwise speed by them at 60 mph, could slow down and take a look.
Jones chose to use Polaroid film, a pre- digital technology for creating “instant” pictures. It seemed appropriate because police once used Polaroids to create unalterable images at accident scenes as evidence.
Points of Departure is the 114th book published by the Jargon Society, a press started by two poets, Thomas Meyer and the late Jonathan Williams. Over the years, the North Carolina-based press has specialized in avant-garde works of literature and photography, although its most famous title was the 1986 best-seller White Trash Cooking.
Meyer wrote an introductory essay, but other than GPS coordinates showing where each photograph was taken (except for one, left out by mistake), there is little more explanation. Jones said he wrote an essay about the project, then decided not to include it.
“I wanted the images to speak for themselves; I was never trying to inject meaning into them,” Jones said. “It’s in the spirit of Jargon. There’s a bit of poetry in it all.”
IF YOU GO
Phillip March Jones signs ‘Points of Departure’
When: 2-4 p.m. Feb. 25
Where: Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.
I wasn’t in the paper Sunday or Monday because I was volunteering last week as a writing coach at the Mountain Workshops.
This was my 14th time since 1995 to help out with the annual documentary photojournalism workshops, which Western Kentucky University has sponsored for 36 years. As always, it was an amazing, exhausting experience.
Here’s how the workshops work: About 60 students from WKU and other universities from across the country, as well as working professionals who want to broaden their skills, assemble for a week each fall in a different small town in Kentucky or Tennessee. This year, it was in Somerset, Ky.
Workshop organizers from WKU’s photojournalism program bring together an amazing group of more than 100 professionals to be the participants’ coaches and support staff. The faculty and staff always includes some of the nation’s best visual journalists. This year’s coaches included several Pulitzer Prize winners and other top professionals who work, or have worked, at places such as Time, National Geographic, MediaStorm, NPR, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Over the course of five days, the coaches and support staff help students find stories in the community to tell through still images, video and words. It is an intense educational process that requires a lot of creativity, hard work and the ability to get by on little sleep. The results are always amazing.
To learn more about the workshops and see the amazing work this year’s participants put together in just a few days last week, click here.
The Feb. 1 deadline is approaching for the Lexington Film League’s second annual Doers Contest, which asks local filmmakers to profile organizations, people and businesses that are doing positive things in the community.
More than $800 in prize money is being offered. Submissions will be screened March 8 in late February at Natasha’s. For rules and more information, click here.
Last year’s initial contest attracted more than 30 submissions. Click on these links to watch last year’s winners:
Best Overall: “A Place to Call Home,” by Angela Shoemaker.
People’s Choice: “CKRE – Sharing the Vision,” by Leif Rigney on Central Kentucky Radio Eye
Best Student Submission: “The Unpaid Shoveler,” by Griffin F. Sims on Walker Miller
When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera.
They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.
Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won’t be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.
These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.
“The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn’t happened before,” said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.
Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected “virtual” sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.
“If you were in the balcony, it didn’t work at all,” said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.
“I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.
To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.
Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is “calibration” software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.
As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. “Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen,” Seales said.
The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy’s shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. “But we won’t have those huge pieces that we’ve had to build before to make it believable,” McCorvey said.
McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation’s top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.
But Seales and McCorvey didn’t meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.
“As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing,” said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. “As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater.”
McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.
“It’s a work near and dear to my heart,” McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.
McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House’s stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.
McCorvey’s problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK’s Porgy and Bess.
After UK’s last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.
UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.
“Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about,” Seales said.
While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK’s vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.
“I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time,” McCorvey said. “Len Heller looked at it and said to me, ‘This is going to be really big.’”
If You Go
‘Porgy and Bess’
What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at singletarytickets.com.
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As we begin 2011, a slide show of some of my favorite photos of 2010.
Art historian Estill Curtis Pennington likes to solve mysteries, share discoveries and celebrate Kentucky culture. He does a bit of all of that in his new book, Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920.
The book (The University Press of Kentucky, $50) is likely to become an important reference work on Kentucky’s cultural history, thanks to his three decades of shoe-leather research. Lessons in Likeness has been nominated for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Charles C. Eldredge Prize, which honors scholarship with new insights into America’s artistic heritage.
But don’t let that scare you off. Despite its academic ambition and seemingly arcane topic, this is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in Kentucky history or curious about the often- colorful characters who made the only images we have of our 18th- and early 19th-century ancestors.
The large-format book is richly illustrated and well-written, with many humorous and revealing anecdotes. Many portraits in the book come from the collection of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.
Photography has made portraiture something of an artistic stepchild. But the media can be very different.
“A portrait is not a photograph; it is a likeness, which was the old-fashioned word,” Pennington said. “A portrait is a product of the imagination. It is what the artist saw in his mind’s eye and laid out. It is an interactive process that involved a sitter with expectations and an artist with abilities.”
The first section of Lessons in Likeness is a chronological essay that puts Kentucky portraiture in the context of social and artistic trends. The second section profiles the best and most influential artists who worked in Kentucky. They included famous names such as Matthew Jouett and John James Audubon (who drew people as well as birds) and many artists who have been almost forgotten.
“I love finding artists who are virtually unknown in our own time and bringing them back to some kind of attention,” Pennington said. “It’s cultural archaeology.”
Of course, not all old portraits are great works of art. Before photography, a portrait was the only way to preserve a loved one’s likeness, so there was a market for pictures by less-talented artists. “These painters were the mall photographers of their time,” Pennington said, adding that it was often a point of pride to be “self-taught.”
But Kentucky produced many fine portraitists. Some of the best were born in and near Lexington in the decades around the turn of the 19th century. They include Jouett, who studied under Gilbert Stuart, early America’s most famous portrait painter; and Oliver Frazer and William Edward West, two of the first Kentucky-born artists to study in Europe.
Before the Civil War, Kentucky was the crossroads of the American frontier — an exciting and almost mythical place. Famous Kentuckians such as Henry Clay and Daniel Boone were popular portrait subjects.
John Filson’s colorful “autobiography” of Boone shaped many Europeans’ views of America, and Kentuckians were celebrated elsewhere as raconteurs. Stuart, the Philadelphia painter most famous for his George Washington portrait on the dollar bill, had the same nickname for his student Jouett as West’s friends in Europe had for him: “Kentucky.”
Pennington discusses what Kentucky portraitists learned from one another and how society influenced their work. Even before the Civil War, some painters skillfully addressed the complexities of race relations in works that have been debated ever since. “The key phrase is what informs the object, and how does the object inform us,” he said.
Lessons in Likeness also reflects Pennington’s interest in itinerant artists, who left work scattered around the South. “Piecing it all together was like a giant jigsaw puzzle for me, figuring out where they had been and the impact they may have had,” he said.
Pennington began his work in 1980 after studying at the University of Kentucky and George Washington University and in Europe, and working for the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
As an “itinerant curator,” he traveled the South gathering material as the Archives’ field representative. He later worked as director or a curator of art museums in Laurel, Miss.; New Orleans; and Augusta, Ga.
Pennington gathered much of the material for this book during those years. Perhaps his most significant find was West’s personal papers, which were in the possession of a descendant Pennington tracked down through genealogical research. The papers included West’s hand-written account of painting the last portrait of the English romantic poet Lord Byron in 1822.
Pennington moved to Europe and worked in Amsterdam for nearly a decade. Then, in 2005, he returned to his native Bourbon County, where he lives in a farm cottage he restored.
“Suddenly, I’m 60 years old and want to get this stuff in print,” said Pennington, who published the book, Kentucky: The Master Painters, in 2008.
“My goal is to heighten our awareness of Kentucky’s great cultural heritage,” he said. “I think it’s so important to understand that our antebellum history was so much more dynamic and important than people may understand today.”
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The roll of Kodachrome had been in my desk for so long, I had forgotten what pictures I took with it, or when. The yellow-and-red cylinder became a symbol of mystery and procrastination.
I knew I needed to have that slide film developed, especially after Eastman Kodak announced in June 2009 that it would stop making Kodachrome because almost everyone now uses digital cameras.
Then I heard that the last Kodachrome lab in America — Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan. — would stop processing it at the end of this year. If I wanted to relieve my guilt and solve this mystery, it was now or never.
What were these pictures? They must have been important; otherwise, I would have used a lesser, cheaper film.
When Kodachrome was introduced in the 1930s, it was the first widely available color film. It remained the gold standard for decades. “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away!” Paul Simon begged in his 1973 hit song, which praised the film’s qualities:
You give us those nice bright colors.
You give us the greens of summers.
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.
By the 1970s, though, Kodak’s Ektachrome was almost as good, required less light and was cheaper and easier to process. Many professionals switched to Fujichrome Velvia in the 1990s. Color print film got better and better. But until advances in digital photography made 35mm film all but obsolete, many photographers still reached for Kodachrome.
I took Kodachrome on my first trip to London in 1992, where I made a picture of a Horse Guard so crisp you could count the stray strands of horse hair on his helmet. When I covered the 1994 Olympics, Kodak was a sponsor, so there was plenty of Kodachrome. It was perfect for capturing Norway’s breathtaking winter beauty.
Some photographers are nostalgic about film. Not me. I love digital photography: It is easier, cheaper, more versatile, makes better pictures with less light and is instantaneous. I would never want to go back to film.
As a roving reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-1980s, I liked shooting photographs to accompany my stories, but it was a pain. I didn’t have a darkroom, so all I could do was put exposed film on a Greyhound bus to Atlanta and hope for the best.
Photojournalism was then done mostly in black and white. Even when I shot color, it was rarely Kodachrome. It was too fussy. Kodachrome required abundant daylight, precise exposure and special processing. If the film was not kept cool and developed promptly, the color quality suffered.
I saw that firsthand when Dwayne’s sent back my Kodachrome, which, it turns out, I had shot in early 1998, just before moving back to Lexington from Atlanta. The pictures were faded, which seemed appropriate given how much had changed in those dozen years.
There were several pictures from my older daughter Mollie’s 16th birthday party. She is now 28 and married, as are several of the giggly girlfriends who were with her that day.
Most of the pictures were from a going-away party my boss gave for me at her cabin in the north Georgia mountains. I had many good friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they and their now-grown children came to send me home in style.
The digital revolution that made Kodachrome obsolete also radically changed the newspaper and advertising businesses. The Journal-Constitution has been hit especially hard. Its newsroom now has fewer than half the 500 journalists who were there when I left.
As I looked at my faded party pictures, I counted the friends who have since retired, taken buyouts or moved on to other careers. Like my Kodachrome, today’s Journal-Constitution is a pale reflection of what it was then. But times change, and we must change with them.
Thinking about those days prompted me to search for more memories. In one box of old photographs, I found several unprocessed rolls of less-fussy black-and-white film. At least I had taken the time to label most of them.
Some were pictures for newspaper stories I wrote in the 1980s. Somehow, they never made it to the bus station. Two rolls were labeled “Shannon 1987″ — the year my younger daughter, now 23, was born.
I must get them developed. One of these days.
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