Monday, May 30, 2011

Two Artists

Self Portrait by Stephen Dominguez, c. 2000

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote several years ago, describing the growth and evolution of the group of artists called the Seeing With Photography Collective. Both these artists were part of our art group...
Stephen Dominguez and Frederick Minor have contributed so many unique ideas and images, but unfortunately both have been unavailable to interview. Leaving a blank here isn’t an option, so I’ve chosen to relate these artists as best as I can. A vague filter - but I hope that in considering them here, people might realize a deeper meaning of their extraordinary photographs.

Stephen Dominguez was a long time and wonderfully creative member, but unfortunately, like Frederick, Stephen has chosen to remain apart from us, and has not recently wished to be in contact, I miss his voice here. Stephen’s views are articulate and passionate. He advocates for disabled and marginalized people. He’s been working with Mark in various places since 1986, and is more independently than most of us, because he could manage to see and focus the ground glass.

Caring for troubled and ill people is an essential part of his character. One evening I spent with him shooting at his home, he took some pictures of his friend Pat, a somewhat helpless man with Cerebral Palsy. Stephen befriended this frail and troubled person, and was always trying to improve and get something positive going, to take some pictures and get involved, but Pat seemed oblivious. Many people in his family have gone blind; he understands the interconnections and power structures of needs which these large blind service agencies embody. He was a leader in the vocal protests blind people expressed when funds were cut for the blind members at the Lighthouse. Not being able to interview Stephen, these issues require his own very thoughtful words, so I limit myself to his images and his friendship.

Some of his photographs show binding, or a penned in person, and I feel this symbolizes, and makes visible, how Stephen feels we blind people are treated by society, and the large Institutions which disabled people need to trust. More than any of us, he wanted passionately for SWP to be disassociated from Visions. Eventually he chose not to participate in any Visions sponsored classes, but remained with us when we left Visions. He became involved in Housing issues then, and perseveres to regain his health and stabilize his Glaucoma by holistic means. He was the major force behind our split with Visions.

Stephen raised questions of language too. “visually impaired” was a term he objected to, telling us that “sight impaired” was more accurate, as vision meant more of a total concept - a vision of something - and that word implied we sight impaired lacked that imagination.
Light House by Stephen Dominguez, c.2000
In the summer of 2003, I was in our basement classroom /darkroom with Stephen, Fred, Ben and Donald, finishing up a days printing, when New York City was blacked out. We lent our flashlights to the staff. Many blind people were caught and stranded on 23rd street that afternoon, unable to get home, and forced to sleep in the auditorium. Stephen lived in the building which is also a residence for the blind, he kindly offered me sleeping accommodations that difficult night. Two other refugees wound up at his apartment also.
He laid down, in pain from the Glaucoma, refusing any pain killer, even aspirin- he opposes conventional medicine. 

We worried and talked and gazed out the window toward the lightless mass of the Empire State Building, towering in the soft twilight to the North, oddly shadowed and looming like any mountain. Later, we went onto the roof. Stephen and the rest remarked about the darkness of the night, in the absence of light pollution. And counted the little lights, and tried to discern the subtle warm and cool color of stellar spectra in the new found clarity. “How far away do you think that star is” he gently asked Linda’s sister. “Who cares Stephen” she answered. He needed to be that person who tries to inspire and evoke wonder. He succeeds often. 

A red laser- pointer penlight was transformed into a new tool for Stephen when he started using that to light up his sitters. It was tedious for anyone brave enough to sit still posing for his laser pictures, because this light, though sharp, was so difficult to register on the Polaroid that it seemed to take forever to get any visible result. So Stephen’s laser pictures took on a reputation for the enormous time they needed, often more than half an hour. We groaned and laughed and tried to be unnoticed if he asked for a volunteer to model for those laser pictures. The results were usually striking and powerfully scratchy – as if a scrutinizing scanner had investigated a human being, wrapping them in luminous electric tendons. This scrutiny feels to me, like Stephen’s mind - alert and curious and observant.
The flashlight could reveal more graphic and linear qualities in Stephen’s hand, than the other artists. I sense sometimes, struggle, confinement and isolation in his work; He found photographic ways to convey these to a viewer - by wrapping people up or by putting somebody in a tight, small place. One volunteer modeling for a Dominguez laser picture almost fainted from her effort to hold still during the endlessly long exposure. I wasn’t there then, but someone told me he put her in a cabinet.
Sometimes he’d build precarious environments like a cardboard dog house, with boxes, plastic bags, discarded Styrofoam pieces, or heaps of balloons. My own take on this is that these discarded things were related to how society views handicapped people. It’s a strange and fascinating thing, how people’s deeper essences are made visible through photographs.
His girlfriend Linda was the subject of some of his earlier images. One reason why Linda moved to the United States from Myanmar was because she is sight impaired and wasn’t permitted to attend school for this reason in her native country and was expected to live her life shut away at home, as Asian societies view blindness as somehow shameful. Luckily, Linda has managed to determine her own life here; however photography never captured her imagination at all. He also did a number of photographs of Linda’s young nephews and Stephen enjoyed building rocket ship environments of Styrofoam to use for his images.
For awhile, he was using tiny toys placed all around someone, usually Linda, scores and scores, big bagfuls of them he brought down stairs from his apartment above. He used Chinese Take out items in the same way too, scattered about on the floor, surrounding the figure like a weird, little army. These sorts of photos, well, they took awhile, as each little toy had to be lit individually.
Another time he planned a very ambitious photograph in Arnhem, using the Cultuurherberg’s huge main hall. On one wall were a group of our portraits and Stephen talked about using these to make another image, but incredibly, his idea was to light up this vast room using the tiny and dim red laser light. One night we were all exhausted, but Mark and I made pictures anyway, in an adjacent hallway while he spent hours lighting his own image by himself, long after Mark and I called it quits for the night. Hours alone tracing tendrils of thin light connecting framed portraits on the wall to entwine and embrace each other, erupting tendrils on the brick floor, Stephen’s dance of connection. Few people do these things. The focusing was off though, and the effort was just dimly a reflection of his engaging concept.

In October 2005, Stephen suffered a life threatening cardiac rupture, and was close to death. He is recovering. Stephen’s told me he wants to rejoin us at some future time. ♦ 

Untitled by Frederick Minor, c. 2003
I wanted very much to interview Fredrick Minor, or Lord Frederick XIII - XIII, as he wants to be called also. His phone has been disconnected and no one has been able to contact him. His gifts for picture making are unique and wonderful. Fred sometimes joined us dressed up in really amazing outfits, meticulously put together, tailored and superbly color coordinated and groomed with his braided hair, which, a few years ago anyway, almost touched the floor…A Presence! His silk top hat floored me.

His usual routine included singing as he walked down the hallway to our room, tapping his cane to his vocals too. I guess the theater was everywhere for him. Our discussion grew silent as his singing grew louder and, as he entranced the room, his song wouldn’t falter much, everything sort of stopped, it had to, our focus diverted. We were cast - as his audience. And he worked for a theater company in costuming, making his own clothing as well.

Usually Fred made a small set, like a little theater and precisely positioned dolls, along with toy cars or motorcycles, to enact some generic scene or Pop Culture moment. The doll’s gestures and placement were exacting. If Barbie and Ken weren’t aligned exactly right when you helped out, you’d hear about it. I still don’t know if he was parodying Pop Culture, or simply loved it, but it was a big theme. Occasionally, Fred would repeat some phrase or sentence someone had just had spoken, but, he gave it back with satirical mimicry, exposing underbellies as he echoed flaws like an unforgiving tape recorder. Again, I wonder if these doll images reflect a deliberate satire of society, but Fred’s present absence is our loss, as I’d enjoy delving into this question with him. He still holds on to a huge collection of dolls and toys he cherishes and still adds to. Knowing a rather tall, adult man was fussing with Barbie’s cascading locks unnerved me a little. Yet, this doll world, readily touched, was a tangible way for him to control and comprehend an environment which blindness denies.
After the Rats, by Mark Andres with Steven Erra, c.2002
Fred had been evicted and was struggling with all the enormous difficulties of finding an apartment when you cannot see. He was staying temporarily with a friend, a 500 lb blind woman. Sleepy one morning, he explained he’d been up all night because the exterminators had been killing rats in their apartment and they scurried around in their death throes. Besides all that, he needed to help his roommate too, trying to free her when she got stuck in the bathtub. Mark, Fred and I went into the unused sculpture studio we call “Studio 3”, to take pictures, but Fred fell asleep though, and Mark got the idea for the picture eventually called “After the Rats”. Mark framed it out and we lit fast, worried he’d waken and ruin the great position he had while sleeping, sitting slouched down in a wooden chair. He roused in the middle of the exposure, Mark told him to go back to sleep, and Fred obliged easily enough. We shot that one twice; the second time captured an elegant man exhausted by the mayhem of a sleepless night.
Helping him set up an Indian type picture, I saw him craft a detailed and flowing headdress of feathers from a roll of brown wrapping paper, feeling and tearing out the spaces, long fingers remembering, finding shapes. I was impressed at the skill. Costume and clothing aren’t too separate categories for him. An Egyptian ensemble was designed for one of his pictures, he made a wooden staff, entwined with coiled rope, the cut off head of a stuffed alligator serving as the staff’s tip, graced with a red plastic jewel - drop. Spray painted gold; it stood in, as real as any Hollywood artifact.

Despite being blind for many years, his visual memory from earlier times is extraordinarily rich. Fred could minutely compare the differences and similarities of the two Darren Stephens of “Bewitched”, and his visual brain, full of vivid color memory, absorbed even the hues of the interior of Jeannie’s bottle in “I Dream of Jeannie”. That Frederick retains hope, and knows he will see again - one day- is due to the indisputable fact that his blind mother eventually did see again, after loosing her eyesight to the same disease which robbed him of sight. He told me he wanted to try to conceal a little video camera in his hat and record the hostile reactions he encountered on a daily basis, so the camera would verify his perceptions of just how badly some behaved to him. 

Untitled by Frederick Minor, c. 2002
In one of his images, he instructed us to light our hands many times near the floor, as if a sea of hands were reaching upwards to him in the center, tall and wearing some ethnic outfit. He brought in beautiful, downy soft angel wings, theater props, and made some exquisite images using those. I imagine Frederick, making his way around the subway, carrying those big, fluffy wings to 23rd Street, those soft feathers brushing the coats of New Yorkers. I can only imagine the conversations. I hope he returns. ♦

Thursday, May 12, 2011


By poking a tiny hole in a small piece of aluminum foil, a lens is made. Its amazing that it works. Lens-less photography. Pinhole images are soft, but the depth of field is supposed to be infinite. Here are a few new ones.

5.11.11 #24