Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E16 | FULL EPISODE

Activist Photography, "Loving," and more

Photographers OJ Slaughter and Philip Keith discuss documenting activism and social issues. Then the authors of the book, "Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s," is a collection of 2800 historic images chronicling the relationships of men in love. Plus, Reno, Nevada sustainable fine jewelry artist, and goldsmith Micah Blank and a public art project “Herons on the Bayou."

AIRED: October 30, 2020 | 0:26:46
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

the photographers making the defining images of our times.

>> To me, it was really important to highlight

those really powerful moments

of people with fists in their air, in the air,

with people in community with Black joy.

>> BOWEN: Then a discovery of photographs

dating back to the 1800s

of men brave enough to show their love.

>> When you look at all the photographs in the book,

it's just a repetition over and over again

of how much these people loved each other,

and how the love is the exact same love

that everybody else feels.

>> BOWEN: Plus confessions of an artisanal jeweler.

>> I really like taking apart things

and putting them back together.

I want my rings to stand the test of time.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, thinking back to the images

that have defined this country's most turbulent moments,

we reached out to two of the photographers

capturing protests right now, fully aware their pictures

may be the markers of this time for generations to come.

These are portraits of protests.

Documented by photographer O.J. Slaughter since May,

they are the images of people

who have taken to the streets in Washington and Boston

demanding a racial reckoning.

>> For a long time, we've always been told what our history is

through outdated textbooks, through history stories

that have been whitewashed.

As of recently, I'm understanding, to me,

that there is one side,

and that side is for Black liberation.

And those are the stories that are so important for me to tell.

>> BOWEN: This gallery show hangs on the studio walls of

Windy Films, where Slaughter has been working

on a documentary about these times.

It's where we recently met both Slaughter

and photographer Philip Keith,

who has also been documenting protests

for the last five months.

>> It's easy for people to reduce Black Lives Matter

to a statement or a slogan, or start to look at it as, like,

um, this organization.

But it's quite simply a fact

that these people's lives matter, our lives matter.

So I just wanted to go and show the humanity of, of the people.

PROTESTER: Black Lives Matter!

CROWD (in response): Black Lives Matter!

>> BOWEN: Both photographers say

there's so much more nuance, emotion, and story

to the protests than the mainstream news reports.

>> They're removed from the crowd.

They show the size of the demonstration,

but they're not getting

to the heart of the, the movement.

I'm, like, shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone

as much as possible.

>> BOWEN: And what does that allow you to,

I guess, both see and feel?

>> I mean, the, the entire range of emotion that's present.

>> I don't ever look for anything.

I always try and follow the mood.

>> BOWEN: Slaughter, who uses the pronoun they,

is entirely self-taught,

honing their craft over the last nine years

in fashion and fine art photography,

all of which, they say, informs their protest work.

>> People who don't take photos don't always understand

how much of it is watching body language,

and being able to understand where a person is

when you're taking their photo,

and meeting them where they're at.

Every time I take someone's photo, it feels like an honor,

because they're letting me peer into their lives.

>> You start to build these relationships with people.

You can see what they're going through.

>> BOWEN: Keith has been photographing

since he was a student at Boston Arts Academy.

His work has appeared in Rolling Stone,

The Guardian, and Bloomberg.

At the protests, he says he deliberately avoids

photographing police presence whenever he can.

>> Black people have had enough-- it's been...

It's just been so many years of being, like, beat down

and not seeing any change come through.

So I think Black, I think it's hard

to find moments of joy, but,

but there are-- or, of pure joy.

Um, but there are people who are happy

to be together at these protests.

>> Most of the time, there's no violence at these protests.

Most of the time.

Um, it's friends, you know, walking together and talking,

and this idea of healing versus anything else.

So, to me, it was really important to highlight

those really powerful moments

of people with fists in their air, in the air,

with people in community with Black joy,

because Black joy is a protest.

>> BOWEN: But there is, they are finding, danger in their work.

Several days before our interview,

Slaughter arrived at Boston's Copley Square,

where the right-wing group Super Happy Fun America

was holding a rally.

What transpired was recorded and posted to Instagram.

>> (shouting, clamoring)

>> As I'm walking, a police officer comes up to me

and pushes me.

I swing onto one leg, and of course,

my body is not gonna-- I didn't fall down.

I have pretty good balance.

I stood back up.

I got pushed by another police officer.

I went to turn, and I got pepper-sprayed in the face.

I had a pretty bad allergic reaction to the pepper spray.

I had to go to the urgent care,

get my ears irrigated.

I had really bad burns on my body,

because I probably stayed with pepper spray on me

for a little bit too long.

>> BOWEN: How does this change what you feel

about what you need to do?

>> I think my mission has changed greatly.

I'm more focused on creating a press coalition.

And what that means is,

what does it look like for local historians to know their rights?

>> BOWEN: Modern history is often written in photographs:

the fight for women's suffrage,

the anti-Vietnam War protests,

and the March on Washington,

all remembered in defining images.

So both Slaughter and Keith hope

their work right now will outlive all of us.

>> I want to phrase this right.

I don't think anyone...

Yeah, I don't think people need to see protest photos.

Um, I think that the Black community

needs to see images of themselves, uh,

with dignity and with power

and respect and love.

I want to show us in a different light.

>> I hope one day, you know, someone's reading a textbook

and they're, like, "Wow, I saw this photo of Ayanna Pressley,

and it made-- it made me feel powerful."

That's why I do it every day.

I want people to feel powerful.

>> BOWEN: Next, two photography collectors

have gathered images of men in love.

But what makes the photographs striking

is that they were all taken well before gay relationships

were in any way socially acceptable,

and date as far back as pre-Civil War.

They're published in the new bookLoving.

Hugh Nini, Neal Treadwell,

thank you so much for joining us, gentlemen.

We should say you're married,

thus the lack of social distancing in your interview,

married right here in Massachusetts.

But Hugh, I'll start with you.

Tell us about this, the images in this collection,

this collection that you have amassed together

and that we now find in your bookLoving.

>> Well, um, you know,

we found the first one quite by accident

about 20 years ago, and, uh, we were surprised

that the photograph like this would have ever been taken--

and it looked like it took place somewhere around the 1920s--

would ever be taken and then survive another 80 years

to, for us to be holding it in our hands.

And we thought it was, you know, the only one of, of a kind,

and there wouldn't be a second one.

So we just went home with it.

>> BOWEN: And you say the first one, thinking, you know,

I think what we're all thinking as we see these images,

even now, "How could this possibly happen?"

Neal, is that the case?

>> We think, you know, did this really exist back,

uh, you know, that was probably 100 years then,

and would there other, be another one?

>> BOWEN: So what do we-- how do you describe

what, what we actually see in these photographs,

these men together?

>> When we saw this first one,

and all the photographs that we collected subsequently,

what we see when we look into this photograph

is a look of love between two men.

It's just, it's unmistakable.

It's not a look that you can manufacture

if you're not feeling it,

and it's not a look that you can hide if you are feeling it.

And so these, these men that, you know,

whatever period during the 100 years

that these photographs were taken,

risked a lot to take a photograph and memorial--

and memorialize the feelings they had for one another,

and then for its survival,

had to keep it hidden for its lifetime.

And then I, we suppose that somebody,

after the subjects passed away, you know,

kept, kept it hidden for us to find one day.

And cumulatively, when you look at this, uh, collection,

when you look at all the photographs in the book,

it's just a repetition over and over again

of how much these people loved each other

and how the love is the exact same love

that everybody else feels.

>> BOWEN: Well, I have to confess,

when I first learned of this, I thought,

"Well, how do they actually know?

They weren't there, of course."

(laughter) And these were old photographs,

and they, they could just be really good friends,

or they could even be brothers.

But then I got your book

and I started looking through it, and you just know.

There's no other way to explain it.

You just know.

So-- and I know that you've had to weigh those...

You've had to make judgment calls,

so how do you decide they are indeed a couple?

>> Well, we finally came up with a 50/50 rule.

And so we will collect photographs

that we think are a possibility.

But the photographs that we have in the book, to us,

we're 100% sure that they are.

And it's just, as Hugh said,

it's that mistakable, unmistakable look in the eyes

and the emotion that it pulls from you

to look at, to look at the image.

>> BOWEN: So in your going

through all of these photographs,

of course, they couldn't possibly know

that others are being photographed like they are,

and yet you're noticing, throughout 170 years,

there, there's a similarity in pose-- tell me about that.

>> Let me... >> Yeah.

>> I'm gonna take this, because you're the one that found it.

>> (laughs) >> So there was a point

about, I don't know, six years ago or so,

we had accumulated a lot of photographs

and we hadn't put them in albums yet.

And I just said to Neal, "Could you go through these

"and figure out how they might get, you know,

sorted onto different pages?"

And he was behind us at the dough board,

and he was just messing around with the photographs,

and he said, "I think I've got it,"

and I walked over there, and all of a sudden, all of these...

He had grouped them together

by, like, double handhold,

over the shoulder finger-holder...

>> (chuckling) >> Just boys in,

boyfriends in boats, boyfriends on bicycles,

boyfriends in trees.

The pictures could be as old as 60 years apart

and different, different eras during that,

during that 100-year period, but the poses were identical.

There's no way they could have seen each other.

There's no way they could have seen

an example printed somewhere

or reproduced somewhere.

They just-- these were organic poses

that they came up with in isolation

that matched across time and geography.

>> BOWEN: They kind of just tell us we're,

we're all just human beings with the same instincts, right?

>> Yeah, exactly.

>> BOWEN: Well, as you begin to look at this collection

in its totality, and you realize how many men

were willing to be photographed together,

and as you've gone into the history,

what have you come to understand maybe about who these men were,

why this was being done?

>> I think they, you know,

they wanted to memorialize the love

that they had for each other.

And when it was in a, in a safe space,

and they found someone who could take their photograph,

they had that opportunity to memorialize that moment.

We don't know if that moment lasted a week,

a month, you know, all their life.

But it definitely, you can tell

from the wear on the photographs,

and if they were kept pristine or if they had folds in them,

how, how they were used or, you know, loved.

>> BOWEN: I mean, this is a question I never ask,

but I feel it is appropriate here.

Do both of you have favorites?

Have you, as you've spent time not only with these photographs,

but with these men-- and again, just looking in their eyes

and knowing what they saw?

>> We, we do. >> (chuckles)

>> I have, I have one that, uh, we, we name some of them,

and mine, we call it Splendor in the Grass.

It's a double-spread in the book, and it's two guys laying,

it's, like, they're maybe in a hayfield.

They're stopping for a break.

There's a loaf of bread in front of them.

And it's just the, the innocence,

the sweetness in both of their face.

One has the blanket kind of pulling up a little bit

over his face.

>> And then mine, mine-- I love that photograph, as well--

and, uh, but if I had to choose a favorite,

I think I would choose the photo of the two young men

in the, in the photo studio that are holding the sign

that says, "Not married but willing to be."

It's just, it is breathtaking that somewhere around 1900,

before or after a little bit,

these two young guys had the awareness and the sense

that they wanted to be

or were in their own minds and hearts a married couple.

You know, we think of that as such a new subject

and it really wasn't.

>> BOWEN: Well, finally, you're just at the,

the book has just come out.

People are just becoming aware of these photographs.

I feel like this is going to be a game-changer

as people understand that this exists,

and people understand the nature of this love

has existed, and so boldly.

What is your sense

as people begin to respond to what you've done?

>> I'll start-- it's been amazing,

the response that we have received

and the letters that we get

about what the book means to them,

what the project means to them,

what they see in it,

how it's really changed their life,

and, from a positive aspect,

making them feel better about themself.

>> We hoped that we would have this kind of response,

because we feel like that's,

the message in the collection is very powerful,

and we wanted to share it with the world.

We've finally decided that doing, making a book

was the way to do that, and once the book was done,

was out there, we just crossed our fingers

and hoped the people would receive the message

that we thought was there,

and it has been the, that has been the case.

What has surprised us is,

it is just rocketing across the planet.

We cannot keep up, on a day-to-day basis,

with the messages and questions,

and, you know, requests and so forth.

It's just, it really, from, from everywhere.

It's amazing, absolutely amazing.

And it's really-- it's wonderful, really.

>> BOWEN: Well, Hugh Nini, Neal Treadwell,

all for a book, I might add, that you didn't think anybody

would have any interest in when it was first posed to you,

that's incredible. (laughter)

Thank you so much for being with us.

>> Great, thanks, Jared.

>> Thank you very much for having us.

>> BOWEN: Another museum is welcoming visitors once again.

It's time now for Arts This Week.

>> (playing "Appalachian Spring")

>> BOWEN: New England Conservatory is taking

itsFirst Mondays series online.

This week, catch the music of Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington,

and Jason Moran.

It's all about getting the big picture

at Fitchburg Art Museum.

Wednesday, see how photographers have used emerging technology

to make large-scale prints.

Framingham's Danforth Museum has reopened.

See the work of three New England artists

featuring funerary monuments, women in pants,

and recycled materials-- visit Thursday.

>> ♪ I come from the clouds

♪ And sunlight of the sky

>> BOWEN: Hear jazz vocalist Alicia Olatuja

reflect on our times in her virtual concert

Everything Must Change.

Friday, catch her performance at rockportmusic.org.

Take a moment for MoMA Saturday.

It's the day the Museum of Modern Art

first opened its doors in 1929,

on the 12th floor of New York's Heckscher Building.

We move to Reno, Nevada, now,

where artist and goldsmith Micah Blank

has designs on sustainable jewelry.

>> My name is Micah Blank, and I create jewelry.

I make all of my jewelry

in the Old Post Office in Downtown Reno, in The Basement.

I got started in jewelry because I wanted to wear jewelry,

and I couldn't ever find jewelry that I liked, so I decided

that I had to make my own jewelry.

I really like gold jewelry, but I like it to be particular

and kind of look a certain way-- I like signet-style rings

and I like kind of bigger, heavier pieces.

I like to use a lot of diamonds and 18-karat gold.

I would consider it to be more of a fine jewelry,

but I also like it to be just very basic

and kind of minimalist and simplistic.

I make necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings.

I really like to make engagement rings.

I love diamonds, so when people want, like, an engagement ring,

I'm just, I get excited, because

it's just, like, a statement piece, and I love it.

Usually, I start with the stone,

so I'm building a design around a center stone.

So depending on the shape,

I kind of create, you know, the lines of it and,

so it's gonna kind of fit with the shape of the stone.

When I sit down to create a piece of metal,

I usually melt the metal in some kind of a crucible

or just some, a form so that I can get a basic shape

of the melted metal, and then from there,

I will draw it into wire

or hammer it into a shape that I need.

I really like working with the metal.

It's, it's very pleasing to see that kind of stretch out

and become something out of

kind of just this lump of gold that I melted down.

I try to keep in mind dimensions

and proportions of the actual jewelry itself.

I don't want to make a ring too heavy

so that the stone looks smaller,

and I don't wanna make it too small so it...

Like, too thin, so it's flimsy.

I try to keep in mind, like, structural integrity

and things like that.

Sometimes people will bring in, like,

an heirloom piece of jewelry

that they received from a, you know, a relative,

whether it be their mother or their grandmother,

and the style is a bit outdated

and they just want something using those stones.

They want it to be a bit more, you know, current

or something unique to them.

And so from there,

we'll just kind of discuss what they want,

and then we'll take all the stones out,

and melt the gold down, and start making

a really, really interesting ring

using metal and stones they already have.

I think it's really important to repurpose jewelry

and things that we have, like, repurposing anything.

So if we can use diamonds that have already, you know,

and we can use recycled gold,

I think that's very important in the process.

You want to make sure

that you are buying something that you know, like,"Okay,

"the person was paid a fair wage

to find this gemstone,"

and I think everyone should want to make sure

that their, you know, their hands are clean, so to say,

when they buy their jewelry.

I think the most gratifying part to me is the finished piece,

because I know where it started.

I know that it started with just a wire,

or just a wire and some stones on my bench,

and then I get to see it kind of evolve

into this, you know, actual-- it starts to look like a ring,

and then when you polish it or clean it up,

then it starts to look like,

and then you see the finished piece coming out.

Every time I make a piece of jewelry,

I just go, I'm, like, "Oh, this is, this is nice."

>> BOWEN: In Monroe, Louisiana, the community came together

pre-COVID to develop and stage a public art project.

It took flight with large sculptures of herons.

>>Herons on the Bayou is a public art project.

We had quite a few projects that we were working on for the city,

trying to get our environment a little bit more engaged.

We really have been lacking, in our public spaces,

art where people can see it, not just in a gallery or a museum.

And I got the beautiful opportunity

to work with a partner of mine, Emery Thibodeaux.

And we started doing murals and public art projects

and really getting out there and showing people

how beautiful art is,

and how much it can do for your community.

And the next project that really sort of felt right

was theHerons on the Bayou project,

which is projects that you see in lots of different communities

where they'll paint tigers or pigs

and all these fun characters

that really mean a lot to your community.

And we started thinking about what would be an icon

that would represent our community,

and let's just try it.

We went through the black bear, we went through the catfish--

lots of things that mean a lot to our state,

but we kept thinking about, we're a bayou community.

We have a lot of water, and what is an animal that we see

that maybe we're just forgetting about?

And we loved the idea

of doing a bird-- it just sort of resonated with us,

because you wouldn't normally see a bird done,

and they got these really spindly legs,

so it makes it kind of difficult.

We were, like, "Well, what about the blue heron?"

It's this really elegant, beautiful, to-itself bird

that you just have to look for.

They're always in our bayous.

They're are on the campus at U.L.M.,

which is one of our partners for the project.

So we felt, "That would be perfect, let's try it."

And the more we thought about it,

the more it became, like, the perfect symbol for us,

because it's, it's quiet,

and it's something that you have to look for.

It's not something that just hits you right in the face.

It gave us the opportunity to make our sculpture different

than everybody else's.

Most of the time, they're one solid fiberglass animal.

But we were able to make it a mixed-media sculpture,

so we added metal into those legs,

which really makes it different.

We have created 51 of these things

in our first round of the project.

We started the project with the idea that maybe we would get 20.

We'll convince 20 people to buy them and let us

get artists to paint them.

And we just blew it out of the water.

Our community has just really supported the project

and just really loved it.

We have been blown away

by the amount of design options for the herons.

We had over 250 designs

submitted for 51 herons.

You couldn't dream up some of the things they came up with.

Some of them are doodle-y...

Some of them are nature-y...

Some of them are throwbacks to our community.

Like, we have one that's all about cotton

and about the cotton industry.

And then we have others that are about locations,

like our park, and our walking trails,

and the bayou, and things like that.

Some are dotted.

They go from one end of the spectrum to the other,

from masterpiece fine arts

to fun, whimsical, wonderful pieces, as well.

Everybody understands that it takes a team

to make things happen, and that has just

been beyond positive for our community.

Because we were able to go past 20--

we have 51 of them-- you do just happen to glance around

and there's one there, if you're driving around town.

Our community is so small that as you're driving around,

within a couple of minutes of your drive,

you're gonna find one if you're on the main drags,

if you're on some of our main streets,

some of our main community areas-- they are everywhere.

You kind of have to be not paying attention

to not see them, which is really wonderful.

When our community is traveling around or gathering together

for an event of any kind,

some of the best comments that I have are how exciting it is

to spot one.

And this is coming from adults or kids.

Parents will bring their children over to me

and explain how exciting it is

for their kids to be able to see them.

And then they want to go find all of them.

But when the kids are done talking,

the parents have just as much excitement about them.

They, on their own, young to old,

they want to get out, they want to find them,

they want to see all the really fun things in them.

And they want to get out of their cars and look closer

and see all the neat little bits of them.

When we think about our artists that actually

got to paint them, it brought the kid out in them, as well.

They got to just think of something fun

that they could do on a bird, which was kind of

something that they hadn't ever done before.

Mostly, they're painting on canvases,

they're painting on wood,

they are doing commissions and things like that.

This gave them the opportunity, so once they painted them,

then our community has just jumped on and just felt like

this is a fun game, this is, let's see how many

we can find, and we're doing a way-finding element,

so people can go online

and they can go, like, have a scavenger hunt and find them.

They're really finding them really fun and exciting.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, America,

as seen by photographer Robert Frank in the 1950s.

Plus Wampanoag artist Elizabeth James Perry

on her new exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen, thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioGBH.

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