Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

My Best of 2017 (part two)

20. Tiffany

For the first time, I have divided the annual summary of a year in my photo life into two parts.  Check out the first part here.

installation view of “Emily Oliver: Weaving as Ritual and Art”

We pick up in July.  For over a year, I had been planning to introduce some non-photographic media into the mix at The Dark Room, but I struggled to explain the correlation.  With Emily’s work, I found the inspiration to make it happen.  My curator’s statement for “Emily Oliver: Weaving as Ritual and Art” is below:

“Process becomes ritual as I repeat the steps endlessly: pick up the warp threads, run the shuttle through, check the edges, beat down the yarn, repeat. Repetition of shapes, the satisfaction of watching them line up perfectly, the calm of their simplicity against an uncomplicated background, all emulate the feelings I experience while weaving.”

It might seem unusual to encounter a display of weavings in a gallery devoted to (and named after) photography.  However, The Dark Room has always been dedicated to the conversation about photography’s relationship to other art forms, as is evident in the space’s incorporation of live music, its rotating menu of delectable food preparations, and expertly selected wine and drink offerings.  For photography, which has traditionally had to overcome biases against its acceptance as art, these comparisons to other art forms are important and necessary.  For those of you reading this that are used to visiting the Gallery to see photographs, consider the ways that weaving might be similar to photography (which I will partially outline below), and perhaps imagine a time not too long ago when a photograph on the wall of an established art gallery might likewise be in question (a past relevant to weaving as well).

Traditionally, the practices of weaving and photography each contend with many of the same issues when presented as art, though for different reasons.  For example, as two-dimensional planes, both have a unique relationship to three-dimensional reality that painting, for instance, does not.  A photograph is the literal distillation of three-dimensions down to two; a weaving is the literal rending of three-dimensional components in order to make a two-dimensional expression.  A photograph requires reality both for its composition (the actual horizon becomes a line, whereas in painting, a line can reference the actual horizon) and execution (light fixation).  Likewise, in weaving, the three-dimensional composition of the thread continues to be relevant, even after the composition is ordered and the threads are woven together (in a light breeze the entire piece or its components can blow around, over time knots can loosen or threads can shrink/expand, etc.).  In weaving as in photography, the practitioner has a physical relationship to the materials necessary for the art object’s creation, and must organize those components in real space in a way that is distinct from other forms of art.

In terms of Oliver’s work, the geometric abstractions make reference both to the tradition of repetitive pattern-making found on decorative textiles throughout history, and to the formal experiments of early modernist painters like Malevich and the De Stijl group.  Ms. Oliver maintains that the forms themselves allude as well to the complications of weaving, “where a singular shape may interrupt the symmetry of a composition, or one element of a repetitive pattern might be slightly out of line.”  No matter how you interpret them, her compositions are arresting, inspired and will hold their own on a wall with other work, not as decorations, but as declarations of art, as pure and true as painting, sculpture or photography.

21. Judah and Erin

On Friday, August 11, 2017 (exactly five years since the date of our first Photo Flood), Photo Flood Saint Louis celebrated its half-decade documenting the city of St. Louis:


22. Princeton Heights (middle of the River Des Peres) for PFSTL


from family camping trip to Lake of the Ozarks State Park


23. Lake of the Ozarks State Park, Ozark Caverns


24. Lake of the Ozarks State Park

Lake of the Ozarks State Park was incredible. It is a beautiful wilderness area and remarkably large for a State Park.  Check out further details on my family’s trip there here.

Family camp life:

25. Total solar eclipse for PFSTL

26. Total solar eclipse for PFSTL

27. Carondelet Park

28. Maplewood for PFSTL

installation view of “Jen Everett: Inimitable Blackness and A Blues for St. Louis”

September ushered in what I still feel like is a landmark show for The Dark Room, “Jen Everett: Inimitable Blackness and A Blues for St. Louis”.  These two bodies of work express so succinctly many of the struggles contemporary to our culture, and this was a unique first opportunity to combine both into a single venue.  My curator’s statement for Jen’s show is below:

There is a distinct difference between presence and representation in art and in culture. For African Americans, the distance between speaking and being spoken about is sometimes as far as that distance separating being understood or misunderstood, free or incarcerated, alive or dead. In Jen Everett’s work, the artist explores notions of Black identity, especially in response to America’s tendency to see only in terms of the extremes of black or white, those exhausted stereotypes with no exemptions for the shades of gray that are most often closer to the truth. Further, the artist holds up the notion of Blackness as something that is purer and more faceted (with a history that goes deep, though is still unfolding) than society’s debased, simplistic representation of it.

The artist on her series Inimitable Blackness: “Through a series of portrait based collages I seek to explore Blackness and defy the gaze that others use to view and/or appropriate Black culture. This gaze vacillates between a ferocious consumption of Blackness and an effort to shrink it so that it may be contained. The constructing and building of the sculptural components of this work speak to how our image, identity, and Blackness are constructed. The cutting and piecing together, layer after layer, the covering and revealing reinforce this notion. I have also considered the sculptures emerging from the photographs and how they are read. How they cannot be taken at face value, much like our identities.”

The artist on her series A Blues for Saint Louis: “A Blues for Saint Louis is an ongoing series culled from news articles, headlines, conversations, images and other information that we consume and take into our bodies, knowingly and unknowingly. This work, this blues, stems from the grief of living in traumatic times of state sanctioned violence and hashtag death rosters. This work was an interruption to my other work. It was and is uncomfortable and agonizing. It interrogates the uncomfortable silence that plagues Saint Louis and America. A discomfort that some would rather bury like a body than face. But it isn’t all sorrow. The work is a conversation, a dialogue of resilience, and transcendence. As Langston Hughes put it, ‘[T]he blues are about the crossroads between good and evil and tragedy and comedy.’”

Shortly before the opening of Jen’s exhibit, I had the opportunity to sit down with City Corner’s Steve Potter to discuss all things The Dark Room:

29. Loufest, Chuck Berry Tribute (Harper’s first concert)

me and the boys at Loufest

Incidentally, I was diagnosed this summer with Psoriatic Arthritis (visible on my knuckles in the pic above).  Related to the disease, I experience varying degrees of pain in my hips, knees, and shoulders, in addition to the psoriasis on my hands and feet, that makes my busy lifestyle that much more difficult to conduct. I am sometimes very tired after fighting against the joint pain all day, and the anxiety of how the red, dry spots must appear to people that suddenly notice is annoying, but so far, the condition is manageable.  That said, it is somewhat of a relief to know the cause behind a group of mystery symptoms that started after my layoff in 2016.

30. St. Louis Great Ballon Race, Forest Park


31. Clayton-Tamm for PFSTL







32. St. Louis Lambert International Airport (click image to open gallery)

Midway through last summer, I began working with the Airport to include Photo Flood Saint Louis in an exhibition as part of their Art and Culture Program.  During a meeting with Airport staff, I floated the idea of letting PFSTL photograph the Airport, and very surprisingly, they were receptive. Myself and 12 other PFSTL members were invited out in October to do just that, and were given special behind-the-scenes access that few other groups have been afforded.  Some of my images from that session appear in the gallery above (cheating again).

police detection dog daring me to take away its toy, photo by Jeff Lea

32. Fox Park for PFSTL

me installing “Theo Welling: Portraits”

My final exhibition at The Dark Room was an opportunity to exhibit the work of a photographer whose work I’ve been observing for some time. Over the course of the last year or so, his work has steadily risen in stature and significance, and the moment was perfect to show it.  My curator’s statement for Theo’s show is below:

Portraiture is among the oldest and most popular uses of photography.  Even in images that mostly feature other subjects, like landscapes, it has long been recognized that viewers visually locate the people in them first before taking in the broader view.  The advent of social media has further expanded our obsession with human depiction, with some sites even acknowledging this curious psychological tendency in their names (i.e. Facebook).  So why, with so many images of people coming into our connected consumption, does portraiture still matter? Why are these images still so affecting? Why make a portrait of a stranger when it is likely that they have already produced dozens, if not hundreds, of their own?

It is something to do with the interaction (conscious or subconscious) between the sitter and the photographer that makes these images, the really good ones, stand out. The best portrait photographers realize this exchange, and recognize that photographing a person’s likeness is a very intimate gesture, for a picture exposes a subject to the realm of possibilities. When a viewer sees a portrait, they are invited into a person’s life while their defenses are down, so it is the primary responsibility of these photographers to capture what is vulnerable, what is evocative, and what is true.  Theo Welling is one of these photographers.

Welling is the photographer behind “The Lede”, a weekly short-form interview centered around a portrait of a St. Louisan, which kicks off each issue of The Riverfront Times. To complete this assignment, Theo casts a wide net, often driving around the city for hours looking for that subject with a story to tell; the person that stands out even among other people. It is remarkable how successful Mr. Welling is at this task, and at uncovering the fundamental quirks that make up the people he points his lens toward. The photographs pulled for this exhibition are among his best. Each image reveals the essence of the sitter. Each image communicates an entire existence in a single shot.

installation view of “Theo Welling: Portraits”

33. Carr Square (cleared section of the Pruitt-Igoe “forest”) for PFSTL

We’ve been lucky in Photo Flood Saint Louis to have at least one group show every year since our founding.  This has positioned us in some pretty interesting spaces, ranging from the International Photography Hall of Fame to Clayton’s White Box to St. Louis Lambert International Airport, where we are now installed as part of the Airport’s Arts and Culture Program.  If you are traveling Southwest between now and May 15, 2018, be sure to check us out in the Concourse for Terminal 2!

PFSTL group show at the Airport

Sort of a weird thing to discuss, but in December of 2016, I decided to take on a year-long project/experiment with my Instagram account.  Instead of my usual posting of recent best work, I elected to follow a theme each month that would range from site-specific postings (i.e. Saint Louis Art Museum) to general ones (i.e. travel).  I wanted to observe what effect this approach would have on followership and engagement to my account, and see which of the kinds of photography that I do have the most resonance with viewers.  I started the year with 500 followers, and my goal was to double that using all organic growths methods (I don’t like follow-bots, sponsored postings, etc.).  I came close, peaking 900 followers in November, and probably would have had more if not for a noticeable change to the algorithm Instagram uses to promote new posts (hashtags are not as effective in late 2017 as they were in early 2017).  Anyway, it is interesting data that will inform my image-making moving forward.  If you want to follow me, my tag is @grayphotostl, or you can click on the link in the side-bar of this site.

34. Monica


35. Hyde Park for PFSTL


self-portrait in an undisclosed location

Since September, I have been working with St. Louis Magazine contributor, Chris Naffziger on a project to document a secret site. I have scores of images from this project that could have made it on this “Best of 2017” list, but can’t be published until after the article is live.  Stay tuned for more info on this, and until then, enjoy the little teaser above.

Also, 2018 represents the 10 year anniversary of this blog, and 10 years since I started freelancing some writing. During that time until this point, I have authored over 840 articles, appearing both in print and online, that have been read in virtually every country in the world where content from the U.S. is not banned. The most popular of those articles (that I have access to the metrics of) has been read more than 80,000 times! Thank you to all my loyal readers, and here’s to what the future holds.


2 Responses

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  1. […] instance, in the pie chart above (based upon the images I selected for My Best of 2017 posts 1 and 2), I know that I leave the bigger, heavier cameras at home at least 25% of the time (or at the very […]

  2. […] post (a year that I lost my job and my purpose) or 2017’s Best Of (a year of transition and preparation). This year has been the year of “I used to be”, as in, I used to be a curator, I used […]

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