The photographer and former Atlantan opens up about his lifelong project of documenting his family and hometown of Galesburg, Illinois
by Cindy King
October 2, 2019
Featured image: Chris Verene as Cheri Nevers: Giving Apples To Visitors on Empire State Building, 2000 (All images courtesy the artist/Marcia Wood Gallery)
Chris Verene arrived in Atlanta as a teenager, performing drums with seminal artists of the 80s and 90s and observing the clubs of the RuPaul scene from–as he puts it–the ‘too-young-to-get-in’ perspective. He eventually studied film and photography at Emory and Georgia State, gaining quick art-world renown for his strange but intimate images of family and friends back in his childhood hometown of Galesburg, Illinois.
Verene moved to Brooklyn in 1999, but three generations of his family still live in Galesburg, and they remain the primary subjects of his life’s work. His images are currently having a sort of miniature homecoming in his adopted city of Atlanta at Marcia Wood Gallery.
The Alexander Report caught up with Verene, now an associate professor of photography at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, to ask if his art-world success, the advent of social media, or this last election have altered his approach to his work.
For over 30 years, you’ve documented the people of Galesburg as part of what is apparently a lifelong project. Has the success of your work changed your subjects’ willingness to appear in it? Has this awareness ever affected your ability to continue the work?
Chris Verene: I always thought that the widespread acceptance of the work and museums showing it worldwide would somehow spoil it. It still has not. In 1999, when my first book was due to come out, I was sure Oprah and the TV shows would come around, and would turn it into mush. It did not happen though. PBS came and made a nice piece. Nobody minded.
I think my cousins and grandparents were thankful that I could at least make a living as a photographer, which is really all that it has amounted to. In our community, being able to have a job and raise a family is the most important goal, and I got that from this artwork…
I guess I don’t know it any other way. I have been on a trajectory to make this same stuff since the late 1980s, and I didn’t ever stop.
How has the current political environment and presidential administration influenced the reception of your work?
Verene: I make the work, and then let it out for other people to reckon with and to discuss. I should note that it takes me several years to make and release work. In the timeline of what I do, the 2016-2019 Republican party has only influenced a small fraction of the images. While you may see people flying a confederate flag, it’s long been popular in western Illinois, I have not seen really any support for the current Republican White House within most of these families in the pictures.
Why do you include hand-written captions with the images?
Verene: This practice was very common in my family. I generally try to write the reason that we took the picture. My great-grandmother was a photographer, and had a home darkroom. We have many photographs with a name or event written on the back of the image, making a complete package: image plus words. I write on the face of the image so as to make it impossible to separate the truths of the two—there are words that you must repeat in your head while you see the faces. This, I think makes a more whole truth of the image.
I am also trying to make my own presence seen—it’s through my eyes that you are looking, and the subjects are looking back at me, and then at you.
In my books, I sometimes write even more detail, so that the pictures can be tied together into a storyline. Sometimes, as is the case at the show at Marcia Wood Gallery, I try to give names to the faces.
What sort of work did you create when you lived in Atlanta? Was it different from the work created in Illinois and New York? Was your work influenced by living in the South?
Verene: That’s a good question. I still run into people who have seen my shows, who thought the pictures were made in Georgia. I want them to be universal, so that’s ok. However, my southern roots are really important to me. The first book Chris Verene (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000) has Mrs. Brown and Grandpa Bill in the final chapters. They are living in Georgia and Florida, so as documents, that’s about the south, and it’s about a black woman taking care of a white man in his home – and it marks a time in history for that– 1990s to 2000. That dynamic goes back to the time of American slavery.
As far as influence, growing up in Atlanta made me the artist I am today. I was nurtured in a southern nest of artists and musicians. Atlanta has a beautiful community of art lovers and open-minded creators and supporters. Outkast shot their band photos right by my house! Georgia State University was very instrumental in stoking my creativity and growing me as a person and as an artist. I went there in undergrad and grad school, and it was great. The faculty, Professor Constance Thalken, Professor John McWilliams were brilliant, and they pushed me into the creative force that I still ride today. At Emory, I worked with Professor Nancy Marshall, who reinforced and educated me in art at an even earlier age. Professor Virginia Warren Smith, an art historian at GSU, is part of why I myself am a good educator to this day in my role as a teacher and photography program leader at CUNY.
In another interview, you expressed some contempt for technological advances in photography, such as digital alteration, filters, and predictive apps that make images look, as you say, “better than real life.” What role has technology—including the advent of the internet and social media–played in your work? How do you feel the absence of these technologies in your formative years affected you as an artist?
Verene: I was at Six Flags amusement park yesterday. They have an unbelievably strict policy about no cellphones on their rides. There are guards in reflective vests leaning over the crowd making absolutely sure that no one has a phone, not even in their pocket, not even in your purse. They will not allow these phones to be flying into the air, causing damage to the riders or the tracks, threatening to hurt the public. They will throw your whole party out of the park and ban you for a year or forever if you violate the rules—it’s far more strict than a public school’s cellphone policy. No guns allowed, either. They have signs and audio broadcast about this in every direction. People have lockers, and just leave the stuff in there for the day. Then, they spend hours hanging out in long lines for the roller coasters, simply chatting, horsing around, holding hands, being with their kids, listening to music on the public address system. It was last like this in the 90s. That’s what we lost. That’s gone now. We lost that freedom and love, and we lost those times. It’s gone forever.
My Instagram feed is very popular. I just re-post my same 30 years of work, one-at-a-time. It’s the same exact pictures I already showed, put in books, put in museums. People love it—it’s in their little pocket mirror—about the same damn size as the contact sheet where I first struggled to find it for y’all in the first place. Yet, somehow, it sparks joy all over again. That’s ok.
Can you discuss the relationship between your music and your photography? How does one inform the other?
Verene: I think that my photography is kind of a performance, something meant to be seen by an audience and felt in a room. Music is like that as well. For me it’s all kind of one big way to reach a crowd. One part, the music is a group effort, where photography is more like writing novels or history books: one person makes a mass-media object. I owe my music success to the great band leaders and songwriters like Grace Braun (now Anna Trodglen) and Chris Lopez, Ani Cordero, Marty Matteson.
Your son, Nico, appears in at least one image in the Home Movies exhibition. Do you believe your immediate family—and/or your current Brooklyn location—will become more frequent subjects in future work?
Verene: Nico wound up in the work because the kids in the work were his age- and so they played together. His little cousins were just part of the times. Maybe he will wind up in the work again, I don’t know. Ani and I have The Self-Esteem Salon, were we often stage elaborate photoshoots in New York, with costumes and life-altering behaviors. There is more of that on the way.
Cindy King’s work has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, River Styx, Black Warrior, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. Zoonotic, her book-length poetry manuscript, will be published by Tinderbox Editions in 2020. Her chapbook, Easy Street, will be published by Dancing Girl Press in July 2019. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Dixie State University.
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