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Madonna For President


I RECENTLY PHOTOGRAPHED the Quixotic journey of Joey Allen, a Navajo Indian who embarked on a mission to ride his bicycle from Flagstaff, Arizona to Monument Valley, Utah campaigning for “Madonna for President.” The idea, at the least, is unexpected – especially in an era when trolling one’s political adversaries from the anonymity of a computer screen is easier than taking a physical stand for something you truly believe. The story of Joey runs deep: a convicted felon, former drug addict and the victim of a drunk driving collision that crippled his hip, Joey is an unlikely hero for the rest of us – a man who sees courage in people who stand up publicly to the injustices of a broken political system, however misconstrued his interpretation of Madonna’s 2017 speech in Washington happens to be. Armed only with a pup tent he painted, black shoe polish, extra Argyle socks and other essentials, like tape, Joey departed Flagstaff, along with his cane and a loose-leaf notebook for collecting signatures, on a quest that concluded 200 miles later at the place of his birth – in part, over the very land the U.S. government forced his people to march during the Long Walk to Fort Sumner in 1864. As his self-appointed documentarian, it was important for me to capture the essence of Joey’s undertaking… the emotion, physical sacrifice and single-minded purpose of elevating a pop culture icon to an elected role as the global spokesperson of moral conscience (times have certainly changed). Along the way he taught me the importance of having a larger, noble purpose in life… of speaking to people you don’t know about matters that they, too, may care deeply about. Which helped me to reach my own conclusion at the end of the journey: this is a compelling human-interest story that belies the perceived apathy of Native Americans, and Americans at large – and speaks to the capacity of the human spirit, even if it’s contained in the crippled body of a Navajo man stabbing at windmills.

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Personal Documentary

Exposure


MY AIM IS TO SEE the humanity of a situation, not just the circumstance – which basically defines the act of street photography: an attempt to freeze the choreography of our surroundings in order to more fully investigate an otherwise constantly moving environment, allowing a closer inspection of the deeper truths captured in frame. It suspends time, lets you roll the moment around on your tongue and get a flavor of things, maybe even imagine what happened before or after the picture was taken. I love this type of social documentation, especially out there on the cultural fringe. Another, longer aim of the documentary work is to capture and preserve the local traditions of people whose image is typically shaped by either travel brochures or a patronizing view of their relatively poor economic conditions.

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Social Justice

Protest


WE LIVE IN AN ERA of social unrest. From women’s rights to the disputed qualifications of a Supreme Court nominee, the U.S. is churning in political grievances, triggered in part by the Trump administration but also by festering resentments over what is seen as prolonged social injustices. Few have put more on the line than Water Protectors, who continue challenging the extraction industry for impugning their lawful governance of traditional lands. One such protester I met at Standing Rock was Marcus Mitchell, who was shot in the face by police using sandbag bullets on the evening of Jan. 18, 2017. Marcus and others in his tribe were exercising their First Amendment rights in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) when they came under attack. Upon meeting Marcus during testimony at a U.N. hearing on human rights violations, I was captivated by his story as a Lakota Sioux, which includes more than just the assault. I was also reminded that there’s an underlying motivation behind these Native American protests. Following Custer’s crushing defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the U.S. government came down hard, which concluded with a treaty in 1877 that sequestered the Sioux and other Great Plains Indians on a series of self-governing reservations. The bloodshed didn’t end there, eventually leading to the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. As commercial interests reduce the domain over which Sioux, Hopi, Navajo and other tribes have rightful jurisdiction, the battle is not only over national sovereignty but for cultural survival.

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Portraiture

Complexion


RGB STANDS FOR red, green and blue – three colors of light that can be combined in distinct ratios to produce more than 16 million different visible colors. If three basic colors can generate that kind of complexity, imagine what a human face can affect with at least that many forms of expression. I think that’s what makes portrait photography so intriguing, especially when the subject is captured within their native environment. The added layer of context forces a broader interpretation of the subject’s physical expression to encompass the circumstances around which the photo was taken, as with Steve McCurry’s iconic Afghan Girl. Suddenly, the enigmatic eyes and deeply held suspicions of a vulnerable child are magnified by the knowledge she is absent a burka inside the alien environs of a Pakistani refugee camp. It’s not so much a million-in-one image as it is one of a million possible moments that blurs the distinction between innocence and the sorrows of war.

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Concept

Manscapes


As theoretical physicists like to point out, there is absolutely no perfection in nature. That’s why we have planets – because a minor anomaly in a trillion particles following the Big Bang created an imbalance that propagated the force of gravitational attraction, causing a domino effect in the stellar dust – and thus the coagulation of matter. And here we are as humans, with mass, hell bent on achieving perfection when, in fact, we owe our very existence to an assemblage of imbalance rendered on the grandest of scales.

I’ve thought a lot about this, as did Donald Judd, one of art history’s great minimalists. Like anyone, I’m inherently free to contemplate the prisms of reality surrounding my relationship to nature and how I perceive the space I am actually in, versus the representation of space found in more conventional forms, such as in a classical painting. This idea intersects with Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man when you consider that Judd was preoccupied with stacks, boxes and progressions – in other words, repeated patterns – and that the combination of arm and leg positions in da Vinci’s drawing creates sixteen different poses. Both artists seem to be using physical science, if not math itself, to explore their views on reality.

We visited Marfa, Texas, where the Chinati Foundation is home to some of Judd’s most important work, including a quarter-mile-long outdoor installation of concrete slabs. While exploring the installation I chose to become entirely exposed so that nothing could separate my physical self from the idea of spatial relations that Judd was trying to convey. In other words, I was able to literally stand inside of the idea… to look through my prism inside of an actual prism, which is really the perception of a prism depending on where you stand at the time. Which begs the issue of relativism, not to mention proportion, which then spawned multiple ways to explore one’s identity/occupied space in relation to earth, to hell, to art, to nuclear war, to eternity, to the actual journey. In every pose I felt vulnerable and inherently flawed, as I know is our nature…and, without doubt, oddly divine.

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Concept

The Terranauts


THIS IS A DEVELOPING series in which vintage 1940s manikin heads are staged in different environments to create dystopian beings who emerge from earth to confront what for them is both a revelation and a disturbing alien world. I’ve always been intrigued by the anthropomorphism of supposedly inanimate objects, like dolls – sort of a Frankensteinian reality gone amuck. My first discovery of their potential as a photography project occurred during a visit to Island of the Dolls in the canals of Xochimilco, outside of Mexico City. By altering the camera’s point of view I could bring the dolls to life, creating relationships between them, conversations among themselves, and occasionally dialogues with me, the observer, through minor adjustments to the camera’s perspective. A deep concern about man’s denigration of the environment has driven the construct of recent images, namely those shot around White Sands Missile Range, where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated. It does seem futile to me, this intention we have of colonizing the galaxy when we live on the Eden we seek to create. Aliens from another planet might find that difficult to understand. Some would suggest they already do.

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Adventure Travel

11 Twenty-Two


IT’S A BIG WORLD out there and we’re at the crossroads of some significant changes. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this or that – so adding my own to the noise seems counterproductive to the general intent of becoming more contemplative about a world in which problems might be more easily solved by opening our minds and not only our mouths. This series of vernacular images gives visual expression to the more authentic aspects of our shared human experience through travels with Barbara Ruffini – including the mysterious, often delightful discoveries we’ve made, especially through the U.S. Southwest. The moment we hit the road, whether it’s down Route 66 or to destinations further afield, like Marfa, Texas, we immediately start vibrating at a higher frequency which, for whatever reason, tends to align to the numbers 11 and twenty-two.

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