The Paseo & Ward Parkway

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” Well, maybe not the worst of times. But looking through the latest project by photographer Mike Sinclair, “The Paseo & Ward Parkway,” it is hard not to think along these Dickensian lines. These two streets — The Paseo and Ward Parkway — had similar beginnings but are very different now. Ward Parkway mansions are home to the rich while on The Paseo, many of the beautiful homes have seen better days.

In this offshoot of his earlier series, “City Beautiful,” Sinclair focuses on the green spaces that were created to remedy unsightly urban sprawl. At the turn of the century, the rapid and unchecked growth of cities across the country resulted in dirty, congested spaces with inadequate roads and little regard for pedestrians. The City Beautiful movement sought beautification through the creation of parks and boulevards that would increase civic pride, boost the local economy and elevate the standard of living. William Rockhill Nelson, the owner of the Kansas City Star newspaper, and August Meyer, first president of the Parks Board, hired landscape architect George Kessler in 1893 to create a series of parks linked by one major boulevard — The Paseo. Running from Independence Avenue to 85th Street, The Paseo involved a series of precise tree plantings (marked by the heel of Kessler’s shoe), carefully manicured sunken gardens, rolling parklands, and hardscape elements including pergolas, fountains, ponds and memorial monuments. Ward Parkway, begun almost 15 years after The Paseo, had similar aspirations. Created to maintain the natural beauty of the area and to prevent commercial development, Ward Parkway was a part of developer J. C. Nichols’ grand plan to provide green space for residents along with carefully designed subdivisions and neighborhoods. By the 1920s, Ward Parkway had eclipsed The Paseo as Kansas City’s premier roadway.

True to his purpose, Sinclair’s photographs are about planned green spaces and the ways they are meant to enhance the lives of residents. Indeed, a cursory focus on the images, without regard for the captions, might lead one to confuse the two areas as belonging to a single road in Kansas City. The grandiose intentions of the city planners are evident: the rhythmic planting of the trees, the tennis and basketball courts, monuments, terraces, meandering streams, sidewalks and pathways — all exist for the use and enjoyment of the public. But there is a palpable melancholia that runs through this series. These photographs are also about the passing of time, a wistfulness about “what once was.”

Sinclair, a lifelong resident of Kansas City, knows many of these spaces intimately — he played tennis on the courts as a kid and watched single trees grow large and craggy with age. Although the parks were an important part of his childhood, Sinclair notes that “Now, it’s kind of a burden to the city. Some of these things are becoming ruins.” Indeed, trees are missing, new plantings impact the once balanced scene. Many of the flower beds were removed with only the footprint remaining.

Sinclair photographs both boulevards throughout the different seasons; in some images, trees are bare and sculptural, in others, leaves litter the ground. The lush spring bloom surrenders to dry summers followed by snowy winters and the detritus of fall. Most photographs are taken on overcast days or early evening, when the shadows are long. Landscapes are largely unpeopled. Sinclair places himself at a distance, much removed, as if looking backward through time.

Going slowly back through Sinclair’s photographs and reading the accompanying captions, another aspect becomes evident — the racial and economic disparities between the two streets. Sinclair concedes the similarities were much easier to reckonwith than the differences. In the prologue to the book, he writes: “(in) describing the idea to people . . . I did not talk much about their differences, that was harder. One had a monument dedicated to ‘The Loyal Women of the Old South’ and one was involved in a debate about whether to change its name from The Paseo to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.”

Although Sinclair never directly references the income disparities of the two areas, some of his captions provide clues. In one photograph of Ward Parkway, Sinclair questions the reasoning for benches located on only one side of thestreet, wondering if it was “so the maids who worked in those big houses would have a place to sit and wait for the bus.” Some dissimilarities are less obvious — well-tended dogs wait patiently with their owners for the traffic light to change on Ward Parkway while a pack of feral dogs congregates alongside a barren cul-de-sac on The Paseo. A winged lion — one of several European sculptures imported by J. C. Nichols — stands at attention on Ward Parkway while the Gates Struttin’ Man with top hat and cane pauses on The Paseo.

More than 100 years have elapsed since the beginning of either The Paseo or Ward Parkway projects, and time has not been kind — in an uneven sort of way. Nevertheless, these green spaces are still used — for pick-up basketball or hockey games, for picnics or Easter egg hunts. They provide a welcome respite from the traffic and concrete, even if only experienced briefly, while whizzing by in a car. Thankfully, photographer Mike Sinclair takes the time to slow things down and quietly, thoughtfully, and skillfully capture the past and the present, all in a single shot.

Jane Aspinwall, KC Studio July 2023

Public Domain

Mike Sinclair works in a manner that fuses - or, rather, balances - the reportorial coolness and visual sensuality of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore with the brittle "new topographic" approach of Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, and others. This is only fitting, as Sinclair's purview is Kansas City, south or north or east or west of the terrains covered by these other photographers. Whether shooting city parks in early spring or attendees at municipal board meetings, Sinclair awakens our eyes to fleeting patterns and textures, and to the way they recapture incident and atmosphere in a novelistic rather than journalistic way. Sinclair drains even his ball games of urgency, even momentousness, but does not turn them into monuments of the everyday. Rather, he relishes their very ordinariness, their temperate, present-tense, self-explanatory self-containment; they may not be momentous, but they are in the moment. And they may not be average, but they locate themselves right down the middle of American experience. Certain of his pictures, especially in this latest exhibition, "speak" of Kansas City, documenting places in town that locals can readily identify. But as many shots could have been taken in Atlanta or Sacramento or Milwaukee or anywhere Americans do what they do. Sinclair would be a good candidate for updating Robert Frank's The Americans; his eye isn't quite as critical as Frank's, but it is at least as restless and optically hungry. And you get the feeling Sinclair could turn his beloved KC into a synecdoche for the whole country, finding a whole country in a single city. 

Peter Frank, Huffington Post, 2012

Notes on Performatist Photography: Experiencing Beauty and Transcendence after Postmodernism

Mike Sinclair’s photos of the American Midwest (his hometown is Kansas City, Missouri) avoid the usual ironic send-ups of quotidian architecture and consumer society that we have come to expect since Lee Friedlander or William Eggleston. Instead, Sinclair depicts banal forms that evoke an upwardly directed feeling of transcendence (such as church tower-like structures in the Main Street series) or create quiet harmonies between nature and culture. The winged pavilion in an image from the City Beautiful series is almost Buddhist in its harmonic, bird-like grace; the looping tear-shaped gully pulls us sensually into the autumn landscape a bit like in a Grant Wood painting come to life. The irresistible feeling of being drawn into the warm, undulating depths of the park overrides the barrenness of the immediate theme.

In an untitled picture from the series Popular Attractions, the formal arrangement of the two telephone poles in the picture of a line at a fairground eatery creates an upward movement similar to that in the two pictures from the Main Street series; this is enhanced by the gently sloping telephone wires and the tilted lines of the booth and the surrounding objects. Through its form, the warm, brightly lit, inwardly directed lines of the steak sandwich stand acquires a sacral charge that transfers in a positive way to the mundane act of eating. Sinclair‘s pictures project an almost meditative calm and capture the unconscious striving for transcendence contained in humdrum situations and scenes. Sinclair‘s distinctive vision of Middle America avoids sentimental boosterism on the one hand and the snarky celebration of suburban ugliness on the other; it shows Middle America in a mode of quiet grace that eludes easy positive representation and disarms insincere mockery.

Raoul Eshelman, 2017

Public Assembly: The Photographs of Mike Sinclair

For this week's issue, we combed countless archives in search of the perfect photograph to accompany a history of the American Dream, the subject of the cover story by Jon Meacham. In the end, we turned to photographer Mike Sinclair, who’s been rigorously documenting America’s heartland near his home in Kansas City, Mo. When asked about his photos, he modestly says, “I never really set out to photograph the American Dream or western culture. These are not projects. The edits come out of thinking about themes. I like going through my work and then figuring it out."
For more than 30 years, Sinclair has documented places where people gather, like state fairs, sporting events and parks. “I grew up in the heyday of LIFE and photojournalism. I realized early on that I was better at visual things," he tells TIME.

Sinclair decided to pursue journalism at the University of Missouri, but after one year, he realized that it wasn’t a great fit. “I came under the spell of Winogrand and Friedlander and found them more interesting as a budding photojournalist. I eventually went to Southern Illinois University, where they had an undergraduate program in fine art photography. Once I got there, I was in heaven—it combined my interest in the fine arts and photography.”
“I just like everything about taking photos and going to these events. It’s a great counterpoint to photographing modern architecture,” says Sinclair, who does the job professionally to make a living between his documentary projects. All of his images reflect the rigor of an architectural photographer with the straightforward style of masters like Walker Evans, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore.
“I switched to architecture because I thought after 30 or 40 years I'd have some kind of record of this time and what happened,” he explains.
Sinclair's understated and introverted approach to documenting an event feels easygoing, placing viewers in the shoes of a local rather than an outsider. He photographs on trips he plans and usually goes with his family. “I kind of plant the camera in front of people and spend time with them,” he says. In all his images, he almost feels invisible.
Sinclair has no real plans for his work except to keep making it. In the beginning, he says, “I first shared the work to the owner of the Dolphin Gallery in Kansas City and was encouraged by him to show it [elsewhere]. Eventually, through them, my work found its way into collections around the country.” These collections include The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, also in Kansas City.
Sinclair disagrees when people label him as a certain type of photographer. “I don't think of myself as a Midwestern photographer. I think the same sort of things happen everywhere I've been.” His image of the Fourth of July (featured above) speaks to his claim—it feels like it could represent almost anywhere in America.
“Part of what I'm interested in is this idea of public space and the preciousness of it. It’s something that we all need," he says.

Paul Moakley, Time Magazine, 2012

Kansas City Snapshot

Generally one of two things happen when looking at Mike Sinclair's photographs. If you've never been to the place photographed, his images urges you to go there. Yet even if you have been there — I know from instances where I was with Mike when he shot a photo — you wonder how he did it, how he made this picture, as they always contain stark differences from what you saw that jolt your memory of the experience. These are the pleasures of looking at great photography, a revision of one's lived experience, and this quality in Mike's work is remarkable considering the straightforward, almost prosaic nature of many of his photographs. His are not lusty images and the wonder is subdued, but their lure is palpable, particularly in concert with one another. The pictures in this portfolio offer small thrills that collectively usher a sweeping correction of the way one views Kansas City.

This portfolio is culled from an effort initiated by the American Institute of Architects Kansas City to document the city in 2007. The yearlong project, Kansas City Snapshot, resulted in the publication Where are you supposed to be?. The goal of the project — to simply present a snapshot of the city the way it is, a sprawling metropolitan area comprised of many disparate parts — seemed to balloon before us, very much at odds with our preconceptions and knowledge of the city. In mid-summer 2007 we realized our best hope was to become aliens and for a solid week we wandered the city. Several of these pictures were made during that week of getting lost.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit perfectly describes the process we took to become strangers in our own city. "Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. Objects and people disappear; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control… Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before."

Getting lost is an inherent joy of looking at Mike's images. His agenda-free pictures have a directionless totality, there is no over-arching idea, rather a network of relationships and patterns in precarious orbit. While working with Mike on Kansas City Snapshot, I was frequently struck by his even-handed approach to subjects normally strung along a steep hierarchy. Were Mike to have simply shot what he knew, much would have been excluded. A lesser body of images might mimic the city's divisions, its economic, cultural and racial fault lines. These pictures however are not the product of tunnel vision and contain no blithe dismissals. The easy route would have been to shoot the city as it is, a monstrously unequal, segregated metropolis, home to hilariously misguided policy and a shimmering cultural heritage. Mike's strategy — making pictures across a vast span of subjects through curiosity and exploration, devoid of hyperbole and critical assumptions — pulls us through the images and allows us to get lost in the fraught relations of the city, not bound up in the politics of the image. 

Several times Mike mentioned his portrait of Damon as a touchstone for the project. Here Damon is serenely peaceful, gleaming in the sunlight, brimming with life yet posed as if in death. He'd just trimmed his hair and inscribed a meandering path leading toward a big KC. He'd arrived at the same place we had, perhaps nowhere, but hitting many strange points along the way. To think of Damon and this portrait as a symbol for this project, one also must think of him as a symbol for the city — an immature body bound to its own complicated history as much as that of its ancestors, yet moving forward, partially self-aware of its promise and of the depth of investment held by its stakeholders, however without a clear-headed clue as to the best direction to take, role models to follow or even the ability to recognize its true strengths. Damon is still young enough to shrug off his mistakes. Kansas City doesn't possess the same youthful luxury. 2007 was likely a critical juncture in the lives of Damon and the city, the future of each inextricably bound to the success of the other.
Other noted contemporary photographers have produced images that celebrate coolness, dispassion, irreverence and cynicism. These photographers commonly assume the perspective of God, aided by cranes, strobes, digital manipulation or extensive staging, placing us, the viewers in a space outside ourselves but also detached from the physical world. Mike always shoots from our perspective, his pictures earned by a willingness to stick around after others have left and an uncanny ability to locate the relevance in any place. This portfolio is a result of Mike waiting the city out, withholding judgement while embedding himself as a humble participant within places he isn't supposed to be. 

Hesse McGraw, 2007

City Beautiful

In his thoughtful new show at Dolphin, Sinclair turns his lens on Kansas City's parks as a ledger of communal aspirations and social history.The works are as visually alluring as ever but share an ineluctable melancholy that is new. The images, seven large ones made with a 4-by-5 view camera and roughly a dozen 20-by-24-inch prints, prompt reflection on our changing relationships with nature and one another. 

Sinclair, a lifetime resident of Kansas City, grew up with these parks and brings decades of observing them to this new project.  As a kid, he thought the city's park system was its best achievement. "Now, it's kind of a burden to the city," he said in a recent interview at the gallery. "Some of these things are becoming ruins."

"Wading Pool, The Grove" (2008) shows a once popular site at Truman Road and Benton Boulevard, now dilapidated and forgotten. It's an autumnal shot, showing bare trees and the dried-up leaves that have drifted into the cracked cement basin that almost a century ago welcomed scores of children each day.

In the course of his park research, Sinclair discovered an early photograph of the site and a 1987 Kansas City Times article citing the park board's 1914 description of the Grove as "the finest and most complete park and playground in the city." Besides the wading pool, it included croquet courts and horseshoe pitching grounds "for elderly men." Sinclair shot the pool from the same vantage point as the early photograph, driving home the demise of this once idyllic spot.

Kansas City's parks and boulevard system was conceived at the time of the "City Beautiful" movement and its idea that manicured, well-laid-out and green cities would inspire moral and civic virtues in their residents and foster an improved society. "I wanted to record this big idea," Sinclair said, "of using landscape as a way to unify the city and instill pride in your city." He also aims to show "some of what remains of that intent today."
For Sinclair, one of the most fascinating things about the parks is their role in the history of the area's race relations. "There were parks for blacks and parks for whites," he said, citing a 1951 incident when six blacks were prohibited from using the swimming pool in Swope Park. (After a lawsuit was filed by the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP, the pool was reopened to all races in 1954.) For the most part (racial divisions) are still intact."

Sinclair's passions run high on the "City Beautiful" topic, but he doesn't propagandize. The strength of this work is its subtlety — we succumb first to its visual powers and then respond to its gentle prodding to look deeper.

Alice Thorson, The Kansas City Star, 2009

The Nelson: The Thrills of Common Ground

Generally one of two things happen when looking at Mike Sinclair's photographs. If you've never been to the place photographed, his images urge you to go there. Yet even if you know a place well, you wonder how he made this picture, as the images contain stark discoveries that jolt memory. These are the pleasures of great photography, a revision of one's lived experience, and this quality is striking considering the straightforward, almost prosaic nature of Sinclair’s photographs. His are not lusty images and their wonder is subdued, but the lure is palpable. The pictures in this portfolio offer small thrills that usher sweeping adjustments of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and its home, Kansas City.

These images bring together the Nelson’s transformation of the last ten years and Sinclair’s focus on the civic fabric and uplift of the city over the same period. His images crystallize the Nelson’s makeover from a temple of culture into a civic hub that serves as the living room, and backyard, of our city. Here the Nelson is much more than a place to seek a solitary experience of art; it’s a land of first dates, yoga on weekends, a quick coffee break, and perhaps the deep ideal of the community cornerstone — it’s a place where we are comfortable simply to wait.

Hesse McGraw, 2016

State of the World

The photographs included in this exhibition illustrate both the ubiquity and the power of the American flag as seen in the context of everyday life. Instantly recognizable here and everywhere, and both complex and strong as an image, the American flag may be the epitome of all symbols. Its very power opens the flag up to interpretation and contestation: it is simultaneously our flag and that of each individual, subject to continual reconsideration and steadfast allegiance, simple and complicated at the same time. In two of these shots – those of the restaurant and the barbecue – the flags appear incidental, either difficult to see (BBQ) or overshadowed by a host of red, white, and blue Pepsi placards. If not for the theme of this show, we might not even notice these flags; or, perhaps, we’d just ignore them. But they are there, waved high on top of a stand (BBQ) and perched on pole after pole inside the restaurant. Even when they do not command our attention, the flags provide a narrative within their commonplace settings. In particular, the flags mixed with the Pepsi signs speak to our commercial republic.  Viewed alongside the flags, the Pepsi advertisements become richer, more significant, with Sinclair’s framing of this interplay encouraging us to consider the simultaneity—perhaps inextricability—of our roles as American citizens and as consumers. 

Burdett Loomis

Professor, Political Science

University of Kansas, Lawrence 2017

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