Portrait of Pope

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Tool of the Trade:
toy camera

I am dealing with the unconscious in that I don’t think about what I shoot, I just react to what I see. But I am only reacting to what I see and my thoughts about what I want to see. Before I go shoot I have made up my mind about some of the things I am interested in and what I hope to do. Then when I go out and shoot I have already programmed myself about some of the things I am interested in, but I leave myself open to see what happens. Later I think about what it is I have just seen and photographed and experienced.

–Carl Robert Pope, Jr.

 

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"They were proud of the black students who came there, even though it was a poor community."

The writing on the photograph:

“I’ve been over there plenty of times and nothing has happened to me. At one time black students always went over there. It’s not dangerous so what keeps you from going over there? Are you ashamed of those people? You must think you’re better than they are. The sad thing about all of this is that alot of those people are proud of you!”

These photographs are excerpts from a series about the black community in Carbondale, Illinois.

I would like to thank ALLAH, Gamma Group, Karen, Western Sun printing, George Harris, Frame Designs, Matrix, Bill Grimes, Dar, 431 Gallery, and everyone I forgot.

Photographer Carl Pope intended this picture to introduce his series of photographs documenting the black community of Carbondale, Illinois. Carbondale is near Southern Illinois University, where Pope was a student. The photograph and accompanying text, Pope explains, “indirectly speaks about the history of the people in the black community in Carbondale. The history of this area in Carbondale is that they embraced the black students who came there. They were proud of the black students who came there, even though it was a poor community. On the weekends the black students would spend a lot of time in that neighborhood getting their hair cut, partying in the clubs on Friday and Saturday nights.”“But because of drugs and upward mobility and possibly integration, the black students quit going over there and there began to be an animosity and sort of a hierarchy between the black students and the townspeople. There began to be rhetoric about that neighborhood ‘across the tracks,’ about the townspeople: ‘you shouldn’t go over there, its dangerous.’ It was probably true,” says Pope. “Because of the growing split between the haves and the have-nots and drugs and alcoholism and hopelessness, there was probably anger and resentment. It wasn’t always that way but it had started when I got there.”

The writing on the photograph is a quote from a conversation Pope had about how it is not dangerous in the Carbondale neighborhood, but the kids in the photo are showing gang signs. Does Pope think that the picture contradicts the text?

“I never had any problem,” laughs Pope. “It is just like my friends who go to Egypt. Right now they say on the news that Egypt can be dangerous for white Americans. If you are black in Egypt they think you are African. So the question is: dangerous for who?”

 
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"When I started to print the pictures I really liked the edge because it looked homemade…"

I was interested in environmental portraiture, the mix between the environment and the person. I didn’t know any of these people, but they knew my face and felt comfortable with me. I had been there with a medium-format camera the year before. I would have little contact sheets to show what I was doing. I would ask questions about what they were doing in the community and their lives. They felt comfortable with a toy camera, they were not threatened at all.

– Carl Robert Pope, Jr.

Carl Pope began to document the black community in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1982, using a toy camera. The previous year he made photographs in that same community using a medium-format 4 x 5-inch camera. He found the big, heavy 4 x 5-inch camera tiresome to haul around, and he was interested in being more spontaneous, more immediate, and less threatening. In 1982 he picked up a toy camera. It used 120 mm film, too big for the 35 mm negative holders that fit in the darkroom enlargers he was using, so Pope cut his own negative holders out of pieces of cardboard.

“When I started to print the pictures I really liked the edge,” he explained, “because it looked homemade, the whole look of the image was informal. And then I had very little control over the exposure, the three settings on this toy camera were ‘sunny’, ‘partly cloudy’ and ‘totally cloudy.’ I was also fascinated with the past and how, through photography, the past was illustrated with hand coloring and stuff like that.” The man in this picture inhabits the edge of the photograph, and the lonely street beyond the edges has a very worn feeling. Parking meters march down the street like poor little tilting soldiers, and the man joins them on guard with his own tilting “sword.”

 
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Pope and Peress

The men in this picture all inhabit one narrow stretch of city, but they all head in different directions, hardly seeming to notice one another. Tilted planes and tipped horizons give this photo a drive-by feeling. Photographer Carl Pope calls it a “snapshot aesthetic.” Pope used a toy camera to make this picture, and the viewfinder wasn’t very accurate. He could see only approximately what the lens of the camera saw, and rather than try to compensate for its errors he played on them by using his intuition as much as his eye. The result was a picture that documents that process as well as this neighborhood in Carbondale, Illinois: a photographer reacting to what he sees and letting the camera take care of the picture.

“I realized that people have a really intuitive relationship with photography and most people’s relationship with photography is through their personal documentation of their own history with their family and friends and their trips,” explains Pope. “That informal way of composing is a really powerful strategy to use as a photographer to draw people in. The immediacy of a seemingly informal composition is a way of really speaking the language of people who have cameras, of the way we see our lives in pictures. I am always fascinated by that and always ready to use photography in that way. There are a lot of other ways people understand photography. We understand photography through advertising and through photojournalism, but the most immediate and the most emotionally enriching way is the way that people take pictures of the people of they love, because of that sort of investment.”

 
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"It seems like I grabbed from life and caught the image."

“Grabbing at images is a hallmark of the way I was shooting these pictures,” says photographer Carl Pope. “It seems like I grabbed from life and caught the image.” That was just the quality that Minneapolis Institute of Arts Photography Curator Ted Hartwell saw when he met Pope on a visit to Pope’s hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana.

“He wasn’t over reaching or straining artistically,” says Hartwell. “There is a spontaneity in his approach, responding to his subjects.” The toy camera that Pope used to make these pictures can’t be focused. It is a haphazard and accidental way to take pictures. The accidental look Hartwell describes as “crazy energy that I think is really nice, and the ragged edges of the photos just add to the informality of the pictures.”

 
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" 'pig's ears, 59 lb.' What a thing to eat!"

I tried to find that spiritual access to the everyday world, where I am using one thing to talk about another. There is more going on than what I have showed you in the photograph, whether it be emotional or psychological or both. What fascinated me about that sign was just the fact ‘pig’s ears, 59¢ lb.’ What a thing to eat! It speaks to the history of what black people had to do to survive in slavery. A lot of the weird things that are in black cuisine came from slavery, from not having anything and having to make do with very little.

– Carl Robert Pope Jr.

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"I always felt that the black community was a place you experienced various types of time warp."

The history of photography in the black community [of Carbondale] was that white students would go in and spy on the black community. The whole association with a 35 mm camera was very threatening to the people who lived in that community because they associated it with the students. No one was brave enough to actually go in and confront those people, introduce themselves and learn about those people’s lives. For me, going in the year before with a 4 x 5 medium-format camera, I would have to ask people to sit down and I actually went into their houses and I got to meet people. The next year, 1982, I used a toy camera because I thought it was less threatening than a 35 mm camera. I took bar scenes too, and that made it even easier, to go into bars with a toy camera.

– Carl Robert Pope Jr.

History is something photographer Carl Pope thinks about a lot. The history of photography is evident in the way he presents this picture, a hand-colored black-and-white print with homemade edges. The man in this picture seems stuck in history. His clothes, his hairstyle, the jukebox in the background all place him in a very specific time and place (not now).

“I think about how the past is so visually present when you walk through the black community [of Carbondale] because the black community was in ruins," recalled Pope. "The way people dressed, their clothes were past fashion. I always felt that the black community was a place you experienced various types of time warp. To me, the mark of how well a particular black community is doing is how much of that community is in present time. I ask myself when I am in some weird town and I am going into a black community, do I feel like I’m in the present moment, or do I feel like it’s 1970 or 1950?”

 

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Photographers and children

This little girl’s expression seems contrary to her young age. She looks as if she has the weight of the world on her thin shoulders. “She was so dark, in that white dress, holding an iron. It was all there, issues of gender, race and poverty,” said Carl Pope. “It’s a heartbreaking image.”

The girl’s sweet expression and obvious shyness takes on much larger, more grown-up matters when you consider that a white dress could symbolize a bride. That kind of association, coupled with the iron she is holding, suggests a woman and housewife, not a child with a toy. The setting she stands in with a trash can as a backdrop completes the connections among issues of race, gender, innocence and poverty.

 

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Carl Pope is an observer, who has taken some aspects of snapshots and used them in his work.

As members of a photographic culture, we lug around a lot of psychic and emotional baggage: the past is always with us, in the form of our photographs, which we tell as we might a rosary, wearing them smooth with the fingering of our eyes. Photographs are small and weightless objects in comparison with our larger possessions, but unlike cars and TV sets and other material goods we cannot trade our photographs in and break our attachments to them without considerable pain. It is no coincidence that one cardinal rule in brainwashing is to remove from the victim all photographs of himself and people he has known . . .

– A. D. Coleman, Light Readings, 1979

A.D. Coleman, an art critic who regularly writes about photography, said the snapshot “is an interruption of the flow of events and of time, an interruption whose purpose is to preserve rather than observe.” (New York Times, December 30, 1973) Non-professionals who take snapshots do it to preserve someone’s image or remember an event. The snapshots are personal keepsakes, mementos of a person or time that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Carl Pope is an observer, who has taken some aspects of snapshots and used them in his work. This scene in a bar represents a moment that many of us could find in a family album; but Carl Pope didn’t know the woman in the picture and neither do we. What we do notice is that all the wires from the disc jockey’s equipment appear to run right into the woman’s head, as if he is performing a bizarre experiment on this poor stranger instead of spinning records. If this were your snapshot of Aunt Sally or Cousin Bea, you might consider the picture an embarrassing accident. But in Carl Pope’s hands the picture becomes an intriguing comment on the bar scene in Carbondale, Illinois, and an observation on snapshots themselves.

 

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