We’re delighted to showcase work by Wendel White today on the site! Wendel reached out to share his most recent project, called Manifest, about the history of African American communities, for which he has been traveling to libraries and historical collections to photograph African American artifacts. Enjoy! ~Erinn
Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
Wendel White (WW): I was born in Newark, New Jersey and grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. As a student I was awarded a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York and an MFA in photography from the University of Texas at Austin. I taught photography at the School of Visual Arts, NY; The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, NY; the International Center for Photography, NY; Rochester Institute of Technology; and currently serve as Distinguished Professor of Art at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
My work is photo-based and in that context has crossed various materials and processes. Most of the Manifest portfolio images are large format, film-based images. Other projects have been entirely digital and most of my work is presented in the print format, however, I have also been producing web-based presentations since 1995. (see blacktowns.org) The Small Towns, Black Lives images are formatted for print, web, book, and briefly a multimedia presentation for the first museum venue.
In addition to my work as an artist and educator, I have served on the boards of the Society for Photographic Education, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and recently was appointed to the New Jersey Martin Luther King Commission.
LAIP: What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
WW: The Manifest project is currently the most active, with an upcoming publication of selected works as part of the Chroma publications by The Arts at CIIS program in San Francisco. An exhibition of work from the portfolio is also scheduled for opening at the New Jersey State Museum in January 2015. As a result of information gathered during the research for the Manifest project, I am developing two new projects about violent racial conflicts in U.S. history. However, I am still actively visiting libraries and related historical collections as part of the Manifest project.
LAIP: How have libraries informed your creative work? Tell us about the first library you remember playing a part in your artistic development.
WW: The first use of a library in my own work was the National Archive. In the late 1980s I began work on a project that would become Small Towns, Black Lives. Early on I encountered a small cemetery of USCT veterans’ graves in a location where there was no black community or any accessible documentation. Using the headstone information and my faculty credentials, I obtained a researcher card at the archive and with the assistance of the staff began collecting all of the information in the veterans’ folders. This information was the basis for my ’95 webpresentation (at the time called The Cemetery) and the use of textual information in my artworks. One of the motivations for creating the web site was the idea that I would be able to present my work (images and text) and also provide readers with access to the original documents that helped to form the narrative. The Cemetery web site contained photographs, text, and scanned images of documents from the National Archive (e.g. muster cards, benefit forms, affidavits, etc). Throughout the Small Towns, Black Lives project I continued to work with librarians as a source of information about the communities I photographed.
The Small Towns project was followed by Schools for the Colored. Although Schools is a landscape and architecture portfolio, without text, I nevertheless continued to rely on local libraries and historical societies as a primary resources for information and locations. This portfolio contains fifty images of the buildings and sites that once served as segregated schools for African Americans living in the northern states of NJ, PA, OH, IN, and IL.
In the Manifest project all of my work is being created in libraries and historical collections.
LAIP: Can you describe a particular library-incubated project for us?
WW: Small Towns, Black Lives and Manifest are both projects that have their origins in libraries. In STBL, the idea of combining text and images grew out of the experience of gathering information at the National Archive; before that, I had not considered using textual material as part of my artwork.
Manifest is the portfolio that was wholly invented in the library experience.
Manifest is the portfolio that was wholly invented in the library experience. During the fall 2008 I was a visiting faculty at RIT in Rochester, NY. Before going there, I planned for a new project using aspects of the local history, particularly the origins of the Niagara Movement which would later become the NAACP. I was also interested in Frederick Douglass and his grave site in Rochester. This eventually led me to visiting the Rush Rhees Library at the U of R and the discovery that they held in their collection a lock of Frederick Douglass’ hair.
Due to the interest and willingness of the librarians who let me photograph objects in the collection, setting up a small area for my cameras and backgrounds, I began the work on this project. They were particularly helpful by letting me return to re-photograph when the first attempts were not really satisfactory. This experience led to a continuing process of working in libraries and historical societies in various states for the past six years. Some of the libraries include Univ of Rochester, Cornell University Rare and Special Collections, Buffalo University Special Collections, Harriet Tubman Home, University of Florida Gainesville, Rollins College Library, Nebraska State Historical Society, State Historical Society of Iowa, Department of the Interior Library, and many more.
In each library/collection I bring a large format camera, a simple black background, tripod and lots of necessary accessories. As a result, I depend deeply on the cooperation and support of librarians to continue this work. In many circumstances, the objects I photograph are also a result of many conversations with the librarians about the content of the collection. Several photographs are the direct result of staff recommendations.
LAIP: As an artist, what would your ideal library be like?
WW: For my purposes, artistic production, I am most interested in libraries that build archives of material as well as literary history. Most of the libraries I have worked with are already quite suitable for my needs. In a few collections, there were special areas, set aside from the public reading areas where I was allowed to bring and photograph items from the collection. Working in the public area is not usually a problem, but the ability to work in a more controlled space clearly enhances the experience.
All photographs come from the Manifest project.
- Check out Wendel White’s website for more information on his work and even more gorgeous images.
- Follow Wendel on Twitter @cameraimages and Facebook at Wendel White Projects
- Click here for more information on Wendel’s upcoming book from Chroma publications