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Interview: Jeffrey A. Wolin

Can you talk about your work that Catherine Edelman is exhibiting here at AIPAD and your book Pigeon Hill: Then & Now? I’m interested in how you started the project and what made you revisit the work twenty years later. I started photographing in the Crestmont public housing projects on Pigeon Hill. Pigeon Hill is a larger area on a bluff overlooking the Indiana University campus, maybe a mile or so to the west, and it’s always been the area where poor people have lived—filled with shacks and bungalows. My car repair shop was on the hill.

On the way to and from my car repair, I would pass the projects, and they fascinated me. One time, I took my car to the shop and took a cab to campus, and the cab driver stopped in the projects. A door opened and an old guy came out with a walker, and behind him was a strapping young man and a small child. The child came out and started swirling and twirling in a state of elation, just joyous, and it was such an interesting scene.

The old guy with his walker moved forward to the cab, and got in. He sat in front. The younger guy, his son, took his walker, folded it up, and put it in the trunk and sat next to me. We drove for just about a mile to a barbershop where the old guy was going to get his haircut. The young guy is telling me all of this personal information—his dad’s got cancer; he smoked a lot and drank a lot. It was so out there, this whole scene with the little kid twirling and the older guy, who is dying, and the son whose life is going to go on. I would have guessed the guy was 65, he was so aged; but he was like 49 or something.

Around the same time, or maybe shortly thereafter, an IU (Indiana University) graduate student named Ellen Marks was murdered up on the hill. She wasn’t in Crestmont; she was on the hill and she lived in a lean-to. She was very intelligent, from a wealthy family, privileged background, private school. She had gone to Wesleyan University, and came to IU for grad school in English. There were some issues, and she wound up in the mental ward of the hospital for a while. She became estranged from her family, and they didn’t want anything to do with her anymore—she was living off the grid.

The kids on the hill loved her. She would ride bikes and play the flute for them. She worked in a soup kitchen feeding the homeless, and I guess you could say she was homeless. Some guy murdered her in 1986.

I had been a police photographer, and I was interested in crime images. It just peaked my curiosity. Reagan was president, and there was a lot of talk about welfare cheats, people on welfare and getting people back to work, and with the crack cocaine epidemic. There was a lot of focus on housing projects around the country; this was the one that was accessible to me. I was brought in by the scene I described and by the murder of this student from IU.

One day I decided I was going to go there with my camera and just see what happens. I was a little nervous because you read a lot about the crime in the neighborhood and how that’s where all the crime in Bloomington, Indiana, or most of it, takes place. I was a little leery, and so I took a very, very large B.F.A. student with me. He only came a few times before I realized I didn’t need him, and I was OK; it’s not dangerous. These people know me, and I know them, so it’s OK. I would go each week, and I would photograph. I used my medium format camera.

This was in the mid-’80s and one of your earliest projects? I started in ’87 and I would go [to the Hill] every week and make photographs. I’d process and print everything, and bring back a box of prints and give them out. I didn’t always find the people that I’d photographed the week before; it sometimes would take a few weeks or months to find them and give them the prints. Sometimes, somebody would say, “That’s my cousin; I’ll give it to him,” and then, of course, they never got them.

It’s OK. I was connecting with the community, and I became known as “the picture man”. Over time, I was recognizable as an IU professor—a photographer who did really nice portraits for free. That was a good thing. I tried to explain why I was doing it, but I don’t think I had a vocabulary for that at the time. Things proceeded, and I began doing other projects as well.

I started writing on my pictures in 1985; two years later I was up doing portraits on the Hill. From 1985–86 and into the late ’80s I was doing what I would I call my autobiographical series. I got a great response. It was a way for me to use my background in literature and writing, and my background in photography and bring them together. Before then I had made books, but I kept the words and the pictures separate. This was a way to really integrate them. I would love to say I invented this, but I didn’t. I was influenced by an exhibition we had in the fine arts gallery on folk artists from the South—Howard Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan.

These were wonderful artists who were self-trained, and they would paint and then write on the paintings—mostly scriptural things or dreams. Sister Gertrude Morgan thought she was married to Jesus, not in the way that a nun is married to Jesus, but like a man and wife are married. She writes this visionary stuff; it was visually striking.

I became familiar with the work of Frida Kahlo around this time as well, and I knew about how she was using the folk art tradition of ex-votos. Basically, in an ex-voto, if you had some dreaded illness and you survived, it was because of the intercession of a saint. You would thank that saint—I don’t know how you knew which one it was—but you would thank that saint by going to a painter, who would paint the tableaux depicting your illness and how you survived this dreaded thing, and include that information written on the bottom.

For Frida Kahlo, that was a direct influence. For me, I was looking at all of these examples about how you combine images and text. That was a link in the puzzle. I began to write on my own autobiographical pieces. But after a few years I ran out of autobiography.

I was looking for other things to do, and I started photographing on the Hill. I was interweaving both. Both things were ongoing; the autobiographical work was getting a lot of positive feedback. Museums started buying the work and exhibiting it in a way that hadn’t been happening with my straight images, which were perfectly good; but they were just like those of a lot of other artists, and I didn’t stand out. Whereas with this stuff I was. For example, MoMA used to have this thing called drop off day. You came in on Wednesday and dropped off your portfolio. The curators would look at it, and so you got a chance to get your work before them. Then on Thursday you would go pick it up. I had done that a couple of times but, nothing. One time I went, this time with the new work with the writing, and the receptionist said, “Could you wait a minute? Peter Galassi would like to talk to you.’’ OK, that sounded good. He came out and said, “I really like these. I want to follow this work for awhile; I’m interested in photographers who are working with text.”

It was a pat on the back, and I also got my first NEA grant. Artists could get grants to support their work. That ended in the ’90s, but I got one in the late ’80s with this work, and then I got another one in the early ’90s. It was the very last year before they did away with it. Between museums trying to purchase and exhibit the work and getting grants and support, I could tell the direction was a good one. I really loved working with text on my photographs; it was me.

It was something that I could do that was different from other people, and the art world was responding to it in ways that they weren’t with my straight images. I could still apply the same aesthetics. I still love photography in the very straight traditional manner, but I could tweak it. I could personalize it.

All the while, I’m photographing on the Hill, and over time I got to know some families very well, ones who would tell me very intimate details of their lives. One day this guy had his leg bandaged, and he said, “Jeff, come look at this.’’ He peeled off the bandage and showed me two shotgun wounds in his leg and said, “Can you take a picture of my wounds?” because he knew I had been a police photographer. He said, “This guy shot me and the police aren’t going to do anything, so I want to take pictures to the prosecutor to see if he could prosecute this guy; he’s dangerous.’’ So I did and gave him a copy. His story was about how he had come to be shot.

Then I wrote a grant for a Guggenheim fellowship. I had applied a couple of times before but had never gotten one. I wanted to complete this series and maybe make a book, exhibit the work, and so on.

When I got the Guggenheim, the local newspaper did an article about it and they ran some of the photographs, and all hell broke loose. I went back to the Hill to photograph, and a woman told me, “I didn’t want to have to do it, but they made me do it. I’ve got to sue you. I didn’t mean to sue; I didn’t want to have to sue you, but you used pictures of my daughters.’’ The article in the newspaper said that 180 scholars, artists, writers, and scientists got two million dollars for their Guggenheim fellowship.

This woman thought I had gotten two million dollars, when in reality I hadn’t even gotten half of my salary. Now she was going to sue me, and I said to her, “What do you mean, you’re going to sue me?” She said, “Well, you got two million dollars.’’ I had to get a lawyer and defend myself, because I had to find out if I was suable—if I had “exposure”, as they called it.

I talked to my lawyer and he said, “No, you don’t have exposure. On the street, you can photograph anyone. There’s no issues. I can’t say that you won’t get sued, but it’s highly unlikely. They wouldn’t win, but you’d still have to defend yourself and that could be costly.” Then one day I got a phone call from a woman who said, “I see that you have pictures of my grandchildren and that they’re going to be up in New York and Chicago, and I know what this is all about; I know what you’re up to. Those people in New York and Chicago are sterile and they can’t have babies, and they’re going to see these pictures of our babies, and they’re going to come and steal our babies, and when my son-in-law gets out of prison, he’s going to take care of you.” She was threatening me over the phone. I kept going back to the Hill to photograph for a while. People were saying, “Don’t listen to that woman. She’s a welfare cheat. We love what you’re doing, and we support you. We’ve got your back; don’t worry.’’

It was like I had lost my invisibility, and I thought, “Why was I up there? What was I doing up there?” So I wound up not doing the work anymore and started photographing Holocaust survivors and Vietnam veterans. That took the next twenty years of my life and my career.

So, there is a twenty-year gap between when you ended the Pigeon Hill work and when you began to revisit it. What prompted you to venture back into that territory and reexamine the Hill? Another murder. On the front page of the local paper there was a picture of a 29-year-old woman, Crystal, who had been murdered by her meth-cooking boyfriend, and they couldn’t find the body. I recognized the face. This was one of the kids that I had photographed who had grown up, only to be murdered. I tracked down her family and found out what her last days on Earth were like. She had left two daughters who were just little children. Poverty can do terrible things to people.

I had been thinking for years about how I could re-enter this project. I really loved those portraits. I spent a lot of time going through all 250 contact sheets, I had made 2,500 photographs over four years. I printed my favorite ones and brought them to Catherine [Edelman Gallery], and I said, “Let’s do something with these.’’ And she said, “Well, you need to find a way to bring them up to date; these are twenty-five-year-old photographs.’’ That made sense, but I didn’t know how. I started looking for people that I had photographed so I could re-photograph them. Crystal had died, but other people could still be alive. I wanted to know what had happened to them.

I went to the housing authority that runs the Crestmont, which is a portion of Pigeon Hill. I went to the housing people and said, “Here is a box of prints from photographs I took twenty years ago; do you recognize any of these people? Can you put me in touch with them?” They responded with, “We recognize this person, this person, and this person. We can’t give you their contact information, but if you give us yours, we’ll pass it along, and they can contact you if they choose.” But I knew nothing was going to come of that. Coincidentally, the Boys and Girls Club in Crestmont had e-mailed me and said, “We want to start a summer club for our camp that teaches photography to the kids. Do you have any students who would like to do that?” I said, “Well, yes, certainly. I have students who would be very happy to do that, but so would I, because during the summer I have time and can do that.”

I taught the class in the afternoon with a couple of my students. After class, I would go out to the projects, and I would go up to anybody that was outside and say, “Do you know anybody in these pictures?” Many said, “No, I don’t know any of those people.” But one woman said, “Yes, I know this woman; I can take you to her.” She did and so, after twenty years, I was face to face with one of the people I had photographed. I re-photographed her and told her what I wanted to do, and she put me in touch with her sister and some other friends. She looked through all the contacts and started identifying people and told me where they lived, and it took off from there. The networking was made easier because of Facebook. There was already a Facebook page devoted to the Hillians, as they call themselves, so I could reach them. Even when these people have phones, they are burners—they get minutes, but when the minutes are gone they toss the phones. Their addresses change, too, but Facebook made it easy to reach them. I was able to rebuild. Over the next four to five years, I re-photographed over 100 individuals and interviewed probably thirty-five to forty. I included about thirty to thirty-five then & now portraits in the final cut.

You exhibited this work, Pigeon Hill: Then & Now, but you also made it into a really interesting book. Are you presenting this project in different ways at Edelman Gallery, for example, than you did for the book version? The prints are larger on the wall; people read them, but they are standing to do so. There’s something about a book that’s a very different kind of reading. Even though it’s a visual book, there’s a lot of text. I wanted to go with much shorter stories; I didn’t want to tell their whole life stories. I wanted to focus on points and traces—looking at themselves as children or as young men and women, and looking at themselves now as adults. I wanted them to talk about those places in between—the disappointments, the pleasures, the miseries, the tears, the laughs.

I printed anything and everything that they asked me to—photographs of their cousins, their boyfriends, and their cars—because what I found was, yes, the portraits were as fascinating to them as they were to me, and sometimes people still had the originals that I had given to them twenty-five years ago. It was a trip to see them as treasured objects. The photographs were not just portraits—they were also a personal history, a family history, neighborhood history. They speak of a time and place that was very important to the lives of these people, even if they had a difficult childhood.

It’s interesting to think about how these photographs, the old ones and the new ones, function as an archive of time. Time is inherent to photography, but in this case it is amplified because there is this twenty-year gap that seems to be collapsed through the narrative of what the subjects are telling you and what the visuals can convey. It’s a generation; if they were a kid, now they are a parent. If they were a young man, now they are middle-aged. The idea of photography as a marker for the aging process is very human. We’re fascinated to see the way the body changes.

Now that you have released the book and you’ve been exhibiting the Pigeon Hill work, do you have anything new that you are working on, or are you still working through this archive? I went to Latitude here in Chicago and drum-scanned 8 x 10” negatives, and I’m going to use their Piezography printer to make large black-and-white prints. I’ve got to say, I’m not done yet. The Pigeon Hill: Then & Now work has been shown mostly in Europe, but there’s starting to be an American run beginning with Loyola University Museum of Art from July 1-October 21. The book is out, and we’re getting a ton of press in the U.S., but also especially in Germany, France, and England. They are really responding to this work now that the political environment has changed and Trump is the president.

The thing is, one of the many issues that the work raises is how the criminal justice system functions and the way that poor people are criminalized—almost everything they do is criminalized. They tend to get poor educations, and they’re not living in enriched environments where there are books and their parents are reading to them. That’s why I’m such a big fan of and supporter of the Boys and Girls Clubs. They provide role models, a nurturing environment, encouragement, and a positive space—they see a lot of child abuse, sexual abuse. That’s the really sad part of it, but it’s the reality and it needs to be addressed.

Who got out? Not a big percentage. I photographed one person in prison. Several others had been to prison and were working off the grid, scrapping metal; some are homeless. There are a lot of negative outcomes, unfortunately, but then there are some very, very positive outcomes. One guy is a photographer in Los Angeles. He’s doing great. Then there’s Wendy, the woman on the cover of the book; she’s a water quality engineer. She lives in a nice house with a wonderful man, and they’re getting married soon. She’s also a drag racer. I’ve seen her drag race; she competes with the big boys. She’s tough as nails and I love her, and everybody who meets her loves her. Anyway, she has had a positive outcome. She’s got a wonderful daughter, and she raised her. One guy works at the Monroe County Jail. He’s a jailer for the Sheriff’s department. It’s a funny thing—he contacted me, but I didn’t see his Facebook message for months. It said, “I’m one of the kids you photographed.” I told him, “I’m so sorry I missed this, but I’m afraid I’m almost done.”

I told him, “Let’s get together, and I’ll show you what I’ve got. I don’t know who you are, so I don’t know which of these pictures might be you.” So he found this picture of himself and some other ones, and I made copies for him. In one of them, he and his friends were playing cops and robbers, and he’s got a gun up in the air; he’s playing a cop. Cops and robbers—everybody plays that. I took a picture of him in his uniform outside the jail. He lives in Greenwood. He’s got a house and a wife. It’s a great outcome.

It’s interesting that the book deals with the complexities of growing up in poverty. It showcases the small percentage of people who are able to rise out of their income bracket. There’s a bit of research on that and how it’s such a small percentage. It’s not simply about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—it has to do with privilege, education, government funding, etc. This work is interesting in the context of our current political climate. We’ve entered into the Trump era, and a lot of the things that help individuals of a lower income are under fire. The demographics of individuals who voted for Trump and the unfortunate repercussions of that decision is horrifying. I’m interested in how Pigeon Hill becomes re-contextualized by this unstable social and political space. I think that’s why it’s popular in Europe, where they really talk about income inequality and class. They look to America, and they’re shocked.

My parents, who didn’t graduate from college, were the ones who really took the American dream to heart. My dad was a high school graduate. My mother went to college for a year or two but then ran out of money. Her parents didn’t want her to go to college anyway. My parents wanted to get married and raise kids.

I was the first in my family to graduate from college, do much better economically, and live the middle-class life that I have. I see that getting harder. We’re more class bound than England, and we always thought that, in America, you could “pull yourself up and have a better life.” With these people, you see instead that, “Yes, well, it’s possible, but it’s very hard.”

 

Interview and photography created April 12, 2017 at AIPAD by Jaclyn Wright

To contact and see more of Wolin’s work visit his website. jeffreywolin.com