When I was in high school I had an English teacher who was a real hard ass but I loved her because she not only taught, she challenged. There was a writing assignment that I did, probably only giving half the effort and she knew it so she asked me “What do you even want to do after high school? What’s your goal here?” I’ll never forget that because she looked at me with such disdain, like she just wanted to scream at me to get my shit together. I told her I wanted to be a photographer. I could tell by the look on her face that she was surprised (why, I don’t know- I carried a camera around with me in high school). She said “Bring me a list of ten women photographers.” She was one of the only intellectual feminist teachers at my school and one of three who really inspired me to learn and to do something. (In fact, now that my kids are in high school, I can look back at MY high school years and honestly say that I had some incredible teachers. But I digress…)
I wrote that list of ten women photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, and Eve Arnold, explaining why each were great, what they did and how they helped to document and record history in their own unique ways. I listed nine great women photographers but for number ten, I listed my own name. I went on to explain that while I didn’t necessarily expect to be in the same category as these women, I still deserved to be on the list simply because I am a woman and I am a photographer. My teacher handed the paper back to me, with a reluctant smile and said “This is perfect.”
That teacher, Mrs. Doyle, inspired me that day. Her words still ring in my ears. And we all have those who have inspired and influenced us over the course of our lives. As an artist, a photographer, I look back at the greats in my field-- Henri-Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans and Elliott Erwitt make me want to carry my camera with me everywhere I go but also remind me of how inferior I am. The Elusive Image, indeed. Dorothea Lange was a pioneer and set the impossible standard for women photojournalists and her work reminds me of how important a woman’s perspective truly is in the face of cold news and tragedy. I love the quiet sensitivity of David Hilliard’s portrait work—his photographs make me feel, I only wish one of my pictures could do that. I’ve recently discovered the incredible work of the mysterious Vivian Maier, a woman who photographed for decades, selflessly giving the world so much with her images and never asked for a thing in return. She did it for the art of it, not for money or prestige or anything---her photographs stayed stuffed in boxes for years and years before being discovered and uncovered.
But of all of the great teachers, artists, writers, musicians, photographers and people who have influenced and inspired me, aside from my husband and my father, the most inspiring person would have to be Gordon Parks, Sr. He was this great photographer who worked for Life magazine back in the day, going where no one had gone before, certainly not any person of color. He knocked down barriers and went against every stereotype. More than just a photographer, he was a true renaissance man, and artist in every sense of the world, a writer, poet, musician and filmmaker. All of his work inspires me, it makes me work harder and reminds me that I’m not the only one, that this feeling inside of me that compels me to shoot, to write, to constantly create things (even when I don’t finish them), that I’m not alone and yes there are some of us who’s minds just never stop, who somehow find beauty in nearly everything and we have to stop and make note of it, either with a pen or a camera or whatever. And he accomplished what the rest of us will spend our lives trying to do: He left the world a better place, a more beautiful place, than what it was before.
Today is Gordon Parks’ 100th birthday. It’s also the opening of my first solo art show. I think that’s poetic serendipity.
This show has been a lifetime in the making for me. The opportunity just sort of fell into my lap about a month ago and on a whim, I agreed to do it. But really, I’ve been planning this night since I handed that paper to Mrs. Doyle back in 12th grade. So when I pour myself a glass of wine tonight, I’ll be celebrating all of my own hard work and celebrating with the friends and family who are able to join me. But I’ll also be raising my glass to those who helped me along the way, the teachers, the ones who encouraged me, to my father who bought me my first camera (also on a whim), to the great photographers who’s work will keep me shooting until my eyeballs fall out because I’ll always be striving for better, to my husband and my kids who help, inspire and put up with me. And of course, to Mr. Gordon Parks, because I know that without him tonight wouldn’t be possible.
I hope you’ll join me.