Search

50 YEARS OF FILM PHOTOGRAPHY WITH JEFFREY WOLIN

GUSTO35 ARTIST SPOTLIGHT

WRITTEN BY ALEC WELSH

Jeffrey is originally from the suburbs of New York City. When he was nineteen, two friends from the Bronx, a young woman with a car and a boyfriend in San Francisco, and himself drove across the continent to California. "Photographing all the way, those were my first rolls of film". Gas and food were their only expenses; they would camp outside or stay at drop-in centers along the way, "I realize now they were for homeless people".

In 1970, 35mm SLR cameras were just breaking through in terms of accessibility but tutorials or instructed classes were scarce, so, "Your friends would teach you how to do it; those first rolls were a mess". His interest remained and he surrounded himself with the right people, going on to say, "One friend taught me how to develop film, one friend taught me to print and I was just off and running. I was lucky, I would get photography jobs." Jeffrey soon became the public relations photographer at his college. "I didn't really know what I was doing". But this was 1972, when a lottery system decided whether or not you were drafted into the Vietnam War.

Luckily, he wasn't chosen, but as a "Sort of a protest, I wanted to leave the country". Flash forward: he's in Belgium attending the same art school as Vincent Van Gogh. "I didn't really have much money but school was free basically, I just had to pay for rent". This is when things were changing within the photo art world as color was being introduced for the photography market. "At the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Antwerp they taught us how to print color, which was awesome".

Although he continued to shoot in Black & White for his personal work, he had this capability, which propelled him into the field even further. To make a long story short though, he ended up in Michigan working at a retail store that sold cameras and equipment. He was the furthest from a salesman; he very much hated it, but things were still moving in a direction whether he realized it or not.

One of the regular clients was a detective that worked in the police crime lab, buying film for forensic photography. "They had an opening for a civilian who could develop and print color. They didn't have any candidates that could do that." Wolin goes on to explain; " I was mostly a darkroom tech". This is because they wanted sworn police officers to do the actual shooting of crime scenes, but that didn't last long. "They would send a police officer if there was a shooting or accident or robbery or whatever it was, but if two bad things happened, they'd put me in a squad car and I would do the other thing".

Although there were a few really bad cases, Jeffrey says that most of his jobs were "If you had to actually know something about photography, they would send me." A perfect example of this is cases of arson, where if you don't have an understanding of lighting you'll end up with a black negative. So anything requiring knowledge beyond a point-and-shoot were all him. "I saw my first dead people." Once he was required to photograph the autopsy of a child that was accidentally run over by his own father, which seemed to be the one that bothered him the most. It wasn't all dark and disturbing though, he quickly moves on to say that, "I liked doing mugshots; it certainly influenced my aesthetic".

After a few years of this he decided that more education was necessary so he moved to Rochester, NY for graduate school at RIT and got a few part time jobs to pay for his classes. This is what landed him eventually as Head of Photographic Services at the George Eastman House, a museum that houses the world’s largest collection of photography and photo equipment, spanning the entire history of photography. It is also the world's oldest museum dedicated to photography. Jeffrey goes on to explain the times; "This is the seventies, and photography was considered a bastard medium in the larger art world." Very few accredited art museums considered photography a legitimate art form.

"Many wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole... [in their perspective] a monkey could take photographs". This is why the Eastman House became a major hub for photographers at the time because it was one of the only museums along with MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and several others that cared about the relatively new art form. It was hard to see photography as a sustainable business model in the art world because when it comes to a painting, there's only one, whereas a negative can produce infinite prints. This began to change, however, towards the end of the decade when the Getty Museum hired the curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to build a significant collection from scratch. Other museums began to compete but they didn't have the depth of pocket.

It drove prices up and helped establish photography in the museum and commercial gallery realm. Not that the Getty was single handedly responsible, but other museums started hiring photography curators of their own, some of which had spent time at the Eastman House. "So I had good connections; the curator of LACMA was the curator at the Eastman house when I was there. He bought some of my work for LACMA and exhibited it. That really excited me, knowing that the photo art world was small but expanding".

''I had wanted to be a writer; I was an English major in college. When I got my first camera it changed everything, I just fell in love with photography. This is who I am, this is what I can do". From this background, Jeffrey was able to bring a narrative to his photographs. "I want to tell stories... so I thought, make a series that takes years to build; it's not any one photograph. It's the idea of a large body of work done over a period of time that can tell a story. The images rely upon each other to move the narrative forward". In grad school, he had started experimenting with bookmaking. In fact, his thesis was a combination of his poetry and photographs.

This would be much easier today with the presence of digital, but with the resources that were available at the time his process was much more engaged. "I learned how to make paper, I learned how to set type, I learned how to bind books. And I loved all that." After graduate school, Jeffrey says "My life just opened up in photography. I was learning about the history of photography and photographic processes from the nineteenth century and I fell in love". Using a 5x7” view camera, he didn't have to make enlargements. One of the earliest methods, printing-out paper, requires no developing chemicals. "I could just print these things in sunlight, which was great fun."

However, the longer these images are exposed to light, the darker they get. In order to preserve them, they need to be dipped in a heavy metal toner, so they used gold chloride. His next project involved an overall theme of man and nature, focusing on trees in urban landscapes. Around this time, more and more universities began teaching photography as a part of their art departments, which led to him being an instructor at Indiana University, which featured the second oldest Photography MFA program in the country.

“Breaking Away,” a feature film inspired his interest in the local population of people that worked in the limestone quarries and mills, quickly learning that the materials to build the majority of skyscrapers in his hometown of New York and cities across the country had come from this small section of the United States.

He spent the next five years shooting the limestone industry, making a narrative book, though this time he partnered with an established writer, Scott Sanders. "I love Scott and working with him was one of the great joys of my life". Although Wolin's admiration for Scott's writing is vividly clear, he still wanted writing to be a part of his own medium. "I want to be my own writer, I can do this". He began writing on his own prints, which became his introduction into the art world. Or better yet, the art world's introduction to him. "Right on the front, right on the photograph... the print was considered sacrosanct".

This is modernism, you can't mess with the purity of the print. "I was like, fuck that, I can do whatever I want". Having traction with curators before, this is when they started to really express interest. "It was a series of autobiographical photographs with stories about the formative experiences that shaped my life. ‘My Father’ was the very first photograph I wrote on.” This was his first work to be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which included one of his photo/text works in an exhibition of recent acquisitions.


From there, "I started getting recognition by way of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation." Other museums began to buy and show his work and he found commercial representation with Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago as well as a gallery in New York. May I remind you though, this isn't an overnight success. At this point in time, it's been twenty years since Jeffrey picked up his first camera and traveled across the country. And even still, it took him years to master a coherent body of work with the new process that gained so much interest from curators.

Already knowing how to make photographic prints last forever, he found that a Sharpie marker for the handwriting wasn't going to cut it, the writing would begin to fade. "So then I had to experiment." Trying a multitude of different inks, he remembered a good friend of his "Who I'm actually going to go see on Saturday... he's retired now but he was probably the most important photographic conservator in the world". This gave him access to accelerated aging ovens that would change the humidity and heat and simulate the aging process by years, decades or centuries. "Do me a favor" he says, "Let's cook these things and see what happens". Finally deciding on carbon ink, a fundamental element that isn't going anywhere. "I had to call the curator of MoMA, 'you know that photo you just bought? Can I replace it?'". Around this time, there were only editions of three or four so the curator’s only concern was if he were to like the first one better than the one he was attempting to replace it with. Jeffrey's solution; "Then keep them both".

After several years exploring autobiographical issues, he felt like he was drying up, he needed to tell the story of something new other than himself. Not going very far though, he found it within the local population again, but this time at a place called Pigeon Hill. It's a housing project with a high crime rate in Bloomington, Indiana, on a bluff overlooking the campus. What first drew him to this particular neighborhood was a grad student from Indiana University who was the daughter of a successful physician. She had everything to gain in life but suffered from mental health issues which landed her there, living an off-the-grid type of lifestyle. Soon after, she was murdered in a gruesome manner. It didn't take very long for them to find the monster who was responsible living on Pigeon Hill. "They found her body, but they never found her head". Out of curiosity, along with his interest in crime and punishment and his background in the field, "It brought me up to the Hill". He would ask the locals whether or not they knew the victim or perpetrator, photographing as much as he could along the way. "I became known as the ‘Picture Man.’" As this body of work progressed his interest diverted from the crime to the people of the community. "I would just photograph anybody that wanted to be photographed, and then I'd go back the next week with a box of prints and give them free photographs, and of course they liked that. And I was building up a body of work on an issue".

During this time—It's the eighties and Reagan is president; he began dismantling much of the safety net that the poor relied on for food and shelter. This was fuel for Jeffrey, protesting through his medium by telling the stories of these children, but later on... "Basically it just stopped. After four years, instead of bringing it to completion during my year as a Guggenheim Fellow, I started two long-term projects that spanned the next twenty years". One was on Holocaust survivors, "I was videotaping their stories at that point," and the other on Vietnam veterans. "I’m best known for these series".

When it came to Holocaust survivors, Jeffrey describes two categories: people who were very public about their stories and others that lived their lives and never brought it up. "Those interviews were really hard. We would often have to stop the tape". A woman got in contact with Wolin, claiming that her father was a survivor who was familiar with his work. She said he had never told his story to her or her siblings, but was willing to tell him. This would end up being the last interview for Jeffrey on the project. "He was an OBGYN and talked about how his whole goal in life was to deliver as many babies as he could. He was bringing life into the world, but what he experienced was the darkest, most gruesome—I mean I thought I'd heard everything." Heads up, this story involves cannibalism. "After he came to America he became a medical doctor, but in Europe he was a teenager... in some really bad camps, but he survived them". Basically, a guard came up to him and asked if he'd like some meat. Of course he does, he hasn't eaten anything in over four days. "So the guard makes him some roasted meat and he eats it". The guard laughs, informing the victim that he'd just eaten human flesh. The nineteen year old at the time goes on to say that if he'd known it was human meat prior, he'd probably have eaten it anyway. 'That's what I was reduced to.' Well, we had to stop the tape a whole bunch of times and it was very dark, his story."

The survivor-turned-doctor met his wife while she was serving as a nurse in a displaced person's camp—she was treating him after he was rescued. They came to the United States and started a family and she did not want him doing the interview. "His daughter did, his wife didn't" because she's the one that's going to have to deal with his nightmares. "But he was ready to tell his story." Going home that night after such a rough, prolonged interview, he felt completely existential. "Who was I to think that I could do this...I'm not a psychiatrist. I mean this is art? Well fuck this. These are peoples’ lives." Knowing that many survivors had taken their own lives due to post traumatic stress, "I couldn't take that if it was on me". Worried, he called the survivor a few days later to thank him for his participation in the project and to see how he was doing. "I feel great! It was such a relief to tell someone my story." And what's even more fascinating is that Wolin would end up going to Vietnam himself, with a friend that served in the war who he met through his experience with “Inconvenient Stories”. "He got shot up real bad, almost died in the war".

The two found themselves on the past enemy’s territory but under very different circumstances; "We would get together with the Vietnamese our military had fought against and it would be very friendly. We would toast to each other: to your health!" What's even more ironic is that on occasion, they would find out that his friend had been stationed in the same locations as some of the soldiers from the other side during the conflict. "And they'd say to each other: 'Oh, I'm so glad I didn't shoot you!’ And they would hug and show each other their scars. It was very moving".

In 2010, things came back full circle. Wolin saw the face of a young woman on the front page of the local newspaper. She had been murdered by her boyfriend in a clash involving methamphetamines. He recognized her as one of the children he had photographed from Pigeon Hill two decades earlier. "And so that brought me back. I know what happened to her; what happened to everyone else?" The challenge was to get started though; how do you find these people twenty years later? With little luck prior, he recieves an email from the Boys & Girls Club of Pigeon Hill. They wanted to know if he knew of any IU students who would like to teach photography to the kids of the community. "I said yeah... but you know what, let me do it. And I'll bring some IU students with me to help".

He found himself back on the Hill twice a week teaching photography and with this he started bringing the box of prints from so long ago and asking everyone he ran into, "Do you know any of these people?" After a few months of absolutely no leads, finally "Oh yeah I know this person. I can take you to her." A snowball effect began, "That's my sister! That's my cousin!". For the next five years, Jeffrey Wolin ended up re-photographing over a hundred people, interviewing them as well. "One guy managed to go from the projects to IU, studied photography and graphic design, and now lives in Pasadena. He's a photographer and a designer. He's got a wife and kids and a house and a mortgage--you know, solidly middle class".

He gained their perspectives on life and what it takes to transcend poverty. Coincidences through the magic of this medium continued. After Facebook was introduced it became easier to find and reach out to people. A county jailer found him and reached out, "I remember you, Picture Man!"

So Jeffrey went and photographed him again, in his full uniform with the iron bars in the background. Afterwards, Wolin went searching for the previous picture from the man's childhood. "It was of him and two buddies playing cops and robbers. He's holding a toy gun... and now he's a jailer. He deals with the people that he grew up with but they're the ones on the inside and he gets to go home." Recently, Jeffrey moved to Chicago and saw a portion of the homelessness crisis first hand. "Eventually I thought I'd like to do something on this subject as well with my photo-text technique. So that's what I'm in the middle of now, I've been working for two years, here in Venice, Chicago and few other places".

You may think Jeffrey Wolin's subject matter consists only of trauma, but what he is truly showcasing is; "How you transcend trauma; the resiliency of the soul". Whether it's surviving Auschwitz, the turbulence of poverty, the loss from war, or homelessness. With someone who's had thirty-six years teaching photography at the Indiana University, we had to ask what his advice is to anyone interested in learning the craft. "Really it's a matter of finding who you are. What do you have to say that's unique? That's true to your experience? To your background?"

223 views
  • Instagram
  • YouTube