Monday, July 24, 2017

Frank Simmons and John Stewart -- Honorary Southern Photographers



The New York Times LENS Blog has recently brought us work by Frank Stewart (see image above, made in Memphis) and John Simmons (see image below, made in Nashville), two major African-American photographers from Chicago who, beginning in the 1960's, made important work all over the world, and in the American South as well.


The NY Times profile gives us the background of these photographers' early beginnings in Chicago, their development as photographers, and their current joint show of work at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery and the Kenkeleba Gallery, both on New York’s Lower East Side. 

Really interesting to see these folks' work, especially to see together their work made in the American South alongside their work made in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in NYC, and across Africa.

This show opened on June 4th (sorry for being slow to get it on the blog!) but you can still see it if you are in NYC, because it's up through July 29th, 2017.  

To make up for my tardiness in bringing attention to this important show, I'll give you a bit more of the NY Times' profile:

“You didn’t get a whole lot of history lessons about African-American culture in school,” Mr. Stewart said. “My work is culturally motivated. I wanted to know where these polyrhythms, the roots of the foods and this rich cultural history came from.” 

"Over the last five decades, Mr. Stewart’s photographs — whether made in New Orleans, New York or the Ivory Coast — have explored the culture and traditions that were “carried by the slaves, and kept intact in some places and morphed into something else, like jazz, in others,” he explained.

"Many of the images in the show were taken in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a time, Mr. Simmons said, of “hippies, artists, poets and antiwar protests.” He remembers “wearing a beret, listening to jazz” and wanting to be “a creative spirit” and express himself through photography. 

 (Archie Shepp in Nashville, photo by John Simmons)

"The pair both trace their careers to the influence of Robert Sengstacke, a photographer whose family owned The Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most prominent black weekly newspapers. Mr. Sengstacke taught them how to be photographers and even arranged for Mr. Simmons to work with him at the paper. 

"When Mr. Sengstacke became an artist-in-residence at Fisk University in Nashville, he arranged for Mr. Simmons to get a scholarship and to be his assistant there. Mr. Stewart received a track scholarship to Middle Tennessee State, a few miles down the road from Fisk, and the three Chicago natives spent time together. 

"Mr. Simmons studied painting and filmmaking in school, received an M.F.A. in cinematography at U.S.C. and works on documentary films and television shows. He is based in Los Angeles and is a vice president of the American Society of Cinematographers as well as an adjunct professor at U.C.L.A. 

"Mr. Stewart devoted his life to photography and moved to New York to learn from Roy DeCarava, who arranged for his protégé to study at Cooper Union. Granted, Mr. Stewart said that a life in photography has not always been financially easy. 

“When I first started, all I had in my apartment was a table, a chair, an enlarger, a mattress and a Leica camera with a 50 mm lens,” Mr. Stewart recalled.
"With a shoestring budget, partially provided by two National Endowment for the Arts grants, Mr. Stewart bought monthly bus tickets, which he used to travel throughout the country documenting African-American communities. 

"He also photographed multiple times in Cuba and in Africa. He worked for the Studio Museum of Harlem as well as for the artist Romare Bearden before becoming a photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center. 

"Mr. Simmons worked steadily as a cinematographer on films and television shows and continued taking still images. But he did not publicly share his photographs much until last year. They did, however, play a very important part of his life, he said. Photographs are “reflective of the culture that we live,” he said.

“Every time the shutter is released I feel like we bring our entire life to that,” he said. 

“The interesting thing is to be able to take the most common seemingly insignificant moment and preserve it. Then it takes on a life of its own.”

"Just as photography changed their lives, both men have been deeply involved in mentoring and paying forward what Mr. Sengstacke and others did for them. 

“The camera gave a direction to our lives,” Mr. Stewart said. “It took us off the streets, took us to college and gave both of us a responsibility to ourselves and our community.”

Much to learn in the work of both Mr. Steward and Mr. Simmons. 

I'm happy to include them both on my list of Honorary Southern Photographers.

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