Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: Carrie Mae Weems Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

10 May 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the thirty-second in our series of Saturday matinees today: a Stanford Artist lecture by Carrie Mae Weems.

This hour-long lecture at Stanford University was delivered last year during Weems' first large-scale retrospective at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center.

Born in 1953 in Portland, Oregon, Weems moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in modern dance. At the same time, she became politically active in the labor movement, merging two interests that would become life-long touchstones.

In 1973 she received her first camera as a birthday present and fell in love with it, studying photography at San Francisco City College.

She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the California Institute of the Arts in 1981 and a master of fine arts degree at the University of California, San Diego in 1984.

"In a darkroom at Visual Studies Workshop," her bio continues, "she meets Jeff Hoone. She sees the future and knows that they will be married. He sees nothing." But 30 years later he's in the audience for this lecture.

Her work has been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, the Tate Liverpool and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Among her many awards is a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

But you have to hear the woman speak. And speak she does in this lecture delivered with no notes but plenty of images that range over the course of her career, project after project, in a fascinating intellectual and artistic odyssey.

This is not superficial stuff. A discussion that begins with intimations of racism transcends the usual slogans to become an appreciation of humanity. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

She acknowledges she can be inspired by work she doesn't like. But, she adds, she always respects the artist because "if you are seriously searching for the truth through the work, you have to respect that integrity."

It's not a bad description of her own method.

Her intersection is art and, not technology (she used a ratty old camera on a tripod to shoot one outdoor series), but civic dialog. Questions of social responsibility. How we protect our communities. It gets art out of the museum and into the street.

She tells about a snowy day that she planned to spend in bed watching I Love Lucy only to discover a child had been killed by gangland violence in her neighborhood. Creating a public art campaign against violence that involved her neighbors was the way she spent the rest of the day.

Another story involves a summer program for youths in which one young girl was driving her crazy. But that girl turned out to be her best student. "You just never give up on a child," she learned. "Half the time they're trying to figure out how quickly you are going to give up on them." That's the world they know. The adults and teachers around them all give up.

Her MacArthur grant went to those children in that summer program.

She talks about the importance of using humor in her work. Black humor and Jewish humor are very similar, she observes. Deeply self-reflective, they make jokes about themselves. Blacks tells jokes about blacks. Jews tell jokes about Jews. But whites, she noticed, tell jokes about everybody else.

The audience laughs.

She discovered the kind of image she wanted to make, incorporating text with photography, when she saw an image she had not tossed out in a different light. That became her kitchen table series. Save your work, it will assist you, she promises.

Text remains an important aspect to her work. At the very end, during the question and answer session, she confesses to a love of typefaces. And she names names, too.

In between there's a great deal to discover as she describes not just her work itself, but how it came about. You'll find yourself appreciating not just the art but the wisdom Weems dispenses.

The MacArthur grants are commonly called genius grants. After listening to Weems for an hour you'll see why.

BackBack to Photo Corners