In this world of vibrant color, Joe Cameron seeks to strip it all down to the barest of essentials.
Cameron, an art photographer, has a fascination with setting the darkest black against the brightest white in his photographs, and exploring every shade of gray in between.
His latest exhibition – titled “Touching Air” – is on view through March 12th as part of the Alper Initiative for Washington Art at the American University Museum in the Katzen Arts Center. Its 43 photographs are displayed side by side around one room. Cameron feels that the photographs comprise one cohesive whole, so the viewer will come away feeling the exhibition was more like a single piece of art.
Cameron has lived in DC almost all his life and in Forest Hills about six years. He and his wife moved into the neighborhood seeking quiet in the midst of a bustling city.
Cameron taught photography at the Corcoran College of Art + Design for 35 years, until he retired from teaching in 2006. The Corcoran had been a second home to him since he himself began studying drawing and painting there in 1961, when the institution was called the Corcoran School of Art. At that time the school did not award certificates or degrees, so he went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in painting at David and Elkins College and a Master of Fine Arts in photography at the Maryland Institute before beginning his teaching career, which soon took him back to the Corcoran.
In our recent conversation, he likened the atmosphere at the Corcoran to a Renaissance guild, where apprentices observed masters of their respective arts and learned by doing.
“It was an alternative to a traditional college,” Cameron explained. “It had a persona and a soul that was profoundly different.” He remembers that throughout his time teaching there, even once the Corcoran became a degree-conveying school, no one ever told him how to teach his classes. He said, “There was room to move.”
It was in this atmosphere that he honed his photography skills and developed his own style. He captured scenes of daily life on the city streets and sidewalks candidly but with a sense of mystery, as if there were more to the story than met the eye. Cameron called his street photography “an acceptable way to embrace strangers.”
Over time, Cameron has stripped down what he captures in his photographs to the point where some of the subjects are not even recognizable. The objects in the frame in his recent work can be as simple as a hand, a shadow, an extension cord, the corner of a building against the sky, blinds over a brightly lit window. The focus of the photograph, though, is clearly on the interplay between dark and light.
“Most photos happen in context,” Cameron said, “but I’m trying to strip context away.” He went on, “Over the years, I have slowly and meticulously taken things out of the frame.”
The photograph on the cover of his exhibition catalog is the strongest example of this deletion of context – an unidentifiable circle of grainy light on deep blackness.
“The black spaces are very full,” Cameron said. “The black is very expressive and is part of the mystery.”
In his drawing and painting days, Cameron found charcoal drawing particularly fascinating because of the depth of the blackness he could achieve with the medium. He sees a kind of yin-and-yang interaction between deep black and bright white in his photographs that he was starting to explore with charcoal.
His recent art is created using a surprising piece of equipment: an Olympus EPL1 pocket digital camera, which he described as, “simple, outdated and small,” and is less sophisticated than the typical digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) that springs to mind when talking photography. However, the camera has two crucial settings: “art” and “grainy film,” which allow Cameron to give his photos the texture of old film or newspaper photos. It is also lightweight enough to go everywhere with him, even when he is going no farther than his kitchen or down the block to capture the image of a snow pile.
For the current exhibition, Cameron used a particular type of inkjet paper and ink to print the photos, and mounted them under non-reflective Museum Glass, so that the blackness would be as deep as possible on presentation.
In composing his photographic subjects, Cameron is most interested in understatement, in capturing a gesture instead of a subject, but also feels the drama in the interaction between black and white in his photos. What is most important to Cameron is that his photos capture what he terms a “precarious balance.”
“In the photos, there’s a very emotive balance, an entropic balance,” he said, “where things could fall apart easily. I’m very interested in mystery; not in revealing the mystery, but in finding and embracing it.”
Speaking of where he draws his artistic inspiration, Cameron quoted celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who said, “I think everything is interesting, if you scratch it,” and the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem, “Sometimes,” includes the lines: “Instructions for living a life: / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”
At the end of our interview at Soapstone Market, as Cameron and I said our goodbyes and moved to the door to part ways, he paused and pulled out his camera. The shadow of a salt shaker on a white tabletop reflecting the winter sunlight had caught his eye. He shot, considered, shot again, then looked up and smiled. That action, that moment, said almost as much about Cameron’s art as our entire conversation had.
Joe Cameron’s photography exhibition, “Touching Air,” is on display until March 12, 2017 and is part of the Alper Initiative for Washington Art at the American University Museum in the Katzen Arts Center. The museum is open from Tuesdays to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with metered parking below the building that is free on weekends. Exhibition catalogs with all 43 display photographs, plus one extra photograph not on display, are available.