Charles Swedlund

Charles Swedlund’s notion of photography was an inclusive one. He taught me that it’s all right to be curious about photographers as different as Lartique, Ansel Adams and Les Krims; to see both the beauty in a postmortem daguerreotype of a child and the importance the picture must have had for the child’s family. He taught me how to make flip books, zeotropes and photo buttons; to work with obscure and temperamental color processes – like his beloved kwik-print. He taught me how to use a letterpress. 

Thinking about it now, I don’t remember one comment he made about a finished picture of mine. What I remember is how much he liked seeing his students trying things – experimenting, having successful accidents. And if we did it in some empty room in the basement of the photo building, instead of the darkroom upstairs, all the better. He taught us to appreciate both an Eliot Porter dye-transfer print and a dime-store flip-book; he taught us to be curious about everything. From the one time I was at his house I learned that if you want to get a lot of work done don’t have comfortable chairs.

He made SIU an exciting place. I remember sitting with fellow students, in the hallway of the photo building, waiting for darkrooms to open up and seeing Chuck walk into the building. He always had on his uniform: white shirt, khaki pants and work boots. Usually, he’d stop to talk. Often, he had a story to tell – as he told it his speech would get faster and faster and his voice would rise (he did the same thing in his history class when telling of a photographer he particularly admired). At the end of the story he’d turn and walk down the hall to his office. His enthusiasm was so contagious I still remember wanting to follow him.

Commercial Photography

My first job after college was working as a photographer’s assistant. We worked in a large windowless studio photographing all sort of things for ads and catalogs. During my lunch hour I would sometimes go to Wilborn and Associates. They were located at 31st and Mercier, in the limestone caves below Coleman Highlands. This seemed appropriate for chroniclers of a city built on limestone, with limestone. In the front room were metal shelves with boxes and boxes of mostly old photographs. The woman who always greeted me was happy to let me spend as much time as I wanted looking through them. The prints were for sale, ten dollars each, five if they were damaged—most were, with bent corners or unevenly ferrotyped. Sometimes I would buy a print. I remember buying one of a grocery store window with an elaborate display of fruits and vegetables to give to my brother-in-law, but mostly I just liked looking through them.

Unlike the Farm Security Administration’s archive I had learned so much about as a photography student, Wilborn’s archive, stored in yellow Kodak photo paper boxes, was funded by fraternal organizations, high school senior classes, and all the owners of newly opened restaurants and stores that paid for the photographer to come set up his camera, tripod, ladder, and record for them (and now for us) their event.

Looking through those pictures, that random history of Kansas City, I learned some things about photography: the importance of clarity and about how the meanings and reasons for photos change with time. I only remember buying one photo for myself, a picture of Fairyland Park. Something about this photo, it’s elevated view, the perfectly choreographed arrangement of the people, and the way the photo rewarded you for looking at it again and again interested me. I guess I bought it because I wanted to make pictures that good.

Rodeo Stars, Strong City, Kansas

These portraits show the Roberts family: the father, E.C., and three of his five children: Gerald, Margie and Ken. All three children were world champion rodeo riders. The display is located just outside the rodeo grounds in Strong City, Kansas, where E.C. started his first rodeo in 1937. There's been a rodeo in Strong City ever since. Held in early June, when the bluestem grass on this part of the prairie is its greenest, the rodeo is Chase County's biggest event of the year. People come from as far as Abilene and Wichita. On Saturday morning a parade starts at Cottonwood Falls, the county seat, and travels one mile north on Highway 57 to Strong City, ending at the rodeo grounds. After the rodeo, there's a dance at Ken Roberts' old place east of town. Wooden tables and folding chairs brought up from the church circle the outdoor concrete dance floor. Beer and barbecue is for sale. The year I was there, proceeds went to re-roof the town's collapsing opera house. The dance lasts well past midnight. One couple told me that after the dance they always drive the thirty miles home on back roads with their headlights off, guided only by moonlight.

Fourth of July #2, Independence, Missouri

This Fourth of July celebration took place on the lawn of the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. July nights are slow to get dark enough to set off fireworks and I remember this evening included some speeches, introductions of prominent citizens and a band concert that included a few numbers with a children's choir. I think the Declaration of Independence was read aloud. The lawn was full of people, some picnicking, some just there for the fireworks. A group of Civil War re-enactors had set up camp at the far edge of the lawn. Towards dusk, a few vendors started moving throuKgh the crowd selling multi-colored plastic circles, like mini hula-hoops, that when activated, glowed in the dark. They were irresistible to kids bored with waiting so long for the main event and each vendor had a trail of children following him. Soon the lawn was spotted with the glowing necklaces. At dark, the fireworks began. The haze in the picture is a combination of Missouri's humid summer weather, fireworks, and smoke from Civil War-era cannons fired while Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture played.

Guggenheim Project Plan 2013

I want to photograph how people involve themselves in taking care of their city, from volunteering to pick up trash in parks to attending school board meetings. I’m interested in the ways citizens improve their city and influence the actions of city hall. I want to study this notion of civics that I first learned about in junior high school. This idea has come from two sources: conversations with my ninety-one year old mother and time spent photographing a variety of local public meetings.

My mother grew up in an agrarian community and moved to Kansas City as a young adult. She was excited to live in that post World War II city, and she developed a love, respect and pride in the town. She believed that one’s city was a place you needed to contribute to and work to improve and that things only got better or worse. My mother’s domain of improvement included our front yard, our neighborhood and the city as a whole. When I drive her around the city today she is still interested in whether the yards are tidy, the streets are free of trash and the current state of development along Main Street. She has always taken the job of citizenship seriously.

Two years ago as a winter project I started going to public meetings, such as school board meetings and police board meetings. I was most interested in the crowd – who would attend these events? I remember going to a candidate forum for the city’s upcoming mayoral election. It was held over the lunch hour in the auditorium at a community college; the seven candidates were on stage and there were fifty or sixty people in the audience, mostly students. After the candidates spoke there was a question and answer session. Towards the end a young man stood up in the back of the auditorium, and in a polite but forceful way, asked whether any of the candidates, when elected, would listen to him and people his age. Cheered on by several friends sitting next to him, his question broke the mood of this polite meeting. I remember him standing there, very erect, waiting for an answer. The place was silent for a while – and I don’t remember what happened next but I was impressed with him, his bravery and forthrightness. Thinking about it now, this young man and my mother have a lot in common – something that would be interesting to learn more about.

Anne’s Wedding, Overland Park, Kansas

Some things have changed since I took this picture of my friend’s wedding reception for their daughter. The marriage being celebrated has dissolved, the trees have grown taller and more of the yards have fences. When they moved into this neighborhood there were no fences, the trees were fewer and smaller. It looked like a domesticated version of the tall grass prairie ranch-land you find a hundred miles to the west. Here in these suburban backyards Kansas’ historic battle between an open range and a fenced one is still going on. It’s human nature to give where we live our own stamp. We plant trees to block the view of the house across the way that looks almost exactly like ours. We need shade by the patio. Our kids and dogs need to be contained, or some want a barrier to keeps those kids and dogs out. We are always looking for our proper balance between the public and the private.

Opening Day, Bennett Spring State Park 

For years I'd heard about the crowds that attended opening day of trout season at Bennett Spring State Park in the Missouri Ozarks. Before dawn thousands of fishermen line the narrow stream ready to make their first cast when the siren blows at 7 a.m. This event always seemed crazy to me, the opposite of what trout fishing was about, a peaceful, solitary experience. But talking to some of the fishermen that day I realized it was not as much about fishing as about tradition. Almost everyone had a story of how their father had brought them or their family here and hadn't missed an opening day in 10 years. This was a celebration like baseball's opening day, where all the other people only made it better.

Heated Pool, Palm Springs, CA

One of the things photography has been successful at is recording the exotic. From Felice Beato’s first photographs of East Asia in the 1850’s to the astronaut photos taken on the surface of the moon, photographs  excite us about a land outside our everyday vision. This picture was taken during my first trip to California. I was in my 20‘s and on a cross-country drive delivering a very temperamental MG from Kansas City to Los Angeles. I was only in Palm Springs overnight but it seemed like every motel from the cheapest to the most expense had these heated pools. It was winter and if water had been left in a pool in Kansas City its only use would be as a skating rink. The morning I left I took this photo. Steam off the pool, palm trees, mountains in the distance–together with easy access to leisure afforded by the orderly-arranged chaise lounges all added up to a very exotic scene to this young midwesterner.

Basketball Game, Kansas City

I sometimes wonder when I look at a picture like this why I took it from so far away. Truth is, I’m shy and it’s a comfortable distance for me. If that’s a liability – and it can be for a photographer– I’ve tried to make the best of it. From a distance I can study the action without having much impact on it, letting me work at the slow pace I enjoy. Sometimes I also wonder if I wouldn’t have been better suited being a painter. A painter friend who always works from direct observation, sets up his easel each day at the same location for the two or three months it will take him to complete a painting. The attention he get is all positive. It’s not unusual for him to have several visitors come up to chat during a session, it seems so civilized. People are more suspicious of photographers and the questions I’m asked are more demanding, like “why are you taking a picture here?,” or if I’m on private property they simply tell me to leave! And I’m sure my own reaction would be the same. If a painter set up his easel in front of my house I’d be flattered but if a photographer began setting up a tripod I’d go out and ask why.

Movie Night, New York City

My notes from when I took this picture, at New York City’s Bryant Park, remind me that the movie all these young people are waiting to see was The Graduate. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1967. It was a protest movie- of sorts- for my generation. Reminding us that like the movie’s anti-hero Benjamin, even if we didn’t know what to do with our lives we knew we didn’t want to become our parents. Now, some thirty years later, I don’t think it was that message on nonconformity that drew this crowd. More probably it was the chance to be outside on a lovely summer night, sharing a meal with friends and celebrating the good fortune of being young and living in such a great city. 

Rose Garden, Loose Park

For a long time roses were the things I was least interested in at the rose garden. I went to watch and photograph. I went to watch the wedding parties who’d stop by for group portraits; in late spring the American Pillar roses on the south edge of the garden create a wall of red blossoms that make a beautiful backdrop. In May I went to see the annual arrival of prom-goers and their parents, the kids in whatever the current prom- finery is and their parents in jeans and cameras. I also went to see families getting their pictures taken, being artistically grouped amongst the roses, each family member wearing a shirt of the same hue. And in recent years, as it’s become more common, I went to see the fifteen year-old girls in their aqua-blue quincenterra dresses having their portraits taken. Polly, my dog, always accompanied me on these trips; her outgoing personality made me braver about interrupting people to take their picture. When she died last year, I stopped going for a while and when I went back my interest had shifted. I’d become interested in the roses—particularly the climbing roses. I like watching how they would change from week to week, month to month. At some point I decided to photograph them. 

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