Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Q & A with Rupert Jenkins

Portrait courtesy of CPAC
Rupert Jenkins is the former Executive Director of Colorado Photographic Art Center and a recent transplant to Eugene.

BA: What brought you to Eugene? What will occupy your time here?

RJ: My partner Christina Kreps, who is an anthropologist, joined the faculty of the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts. I left my position as director of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), based in Denver, to join her. Right now I’m enjoying some down time after four years running CPAC, although I just returned from Paris and London where I met with a group of students from the University of Denver for a photography interterm class. 

Are you still teaching for University of Denver? Or was that just a one shot trip? 

I teach interterm classes once or twice a year. I was never a faculty member – this is something I do informally with the university.

Why London and Paris? What's there that's essential for students?

The significance of London and Paris is immense from both cultural and historical perspectives and students take full advantage of being there. For some the priority is a visit to the Louvre or British Museum, for others it’s a visit to the Bataclan Theatre memorial or the London Eye; but it could also be a pilgrimage to Track 9 ¾ at King’s Cross or a Lady Gaga concert. Photographically speaking, we arrive in Paris right after Paris Photo so there are always amazing exhibitions to see. For instance, this year we viewed “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers” at two museums on Paris that presented an in depth survey of pioneer women photographers from the 1850s through the mid-20th century.  For our class, that exhibition cross referenced a Lee Miller show at the Imperial War Museum and two Julia Margaret Cameron shows in London. And while we expose the students to contemporary and historical photography during excursions, we also try to improve their own photography through critiques and reviews during the class. 

What did you know of Eugene before moving here? What are your first impressions of the city as a place to live?

Portland, OR, 1980, after Mt. St. Helens eruption

I lived in Portland back in 1980 so passed by Eugene but never actually visited the town. Before moving here I certainly knew of its reputation as a university town – it turned out that quite a few friends and colleagues in Denver had studied at UO and enjoyed living here a lot. Christina graduated and received her doctorate here so she knew Eugene well, and we had often discussed moving back to Oregon from Colorado.

Describe Eugene in 3 words.

Peaceful, bipedal, communal.

Describe Denver in 3 words.

Growing, emerging, vivid.

What if anything had you heard about the Eugene photo scene before moving here? What are your first impressions of the photo community?

Chris Rauschenberg had given me the names of a few photographers to meet with in Eugene but the photo scene itself was completely unknown to me. My first impressions are that UO has a very solid faculty and its members have been very generous in welcoming me, which I appreciate a lot. My interests lean toward contemporary photography; outside of the university I’m not seeing much of that but as I’ve only been here for a couple of months it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.

Your first impressions are spot on. There is not much interest in contemporary photography here outside the U of O. And the academic community suffers from ivory tower syndrome. Not much interaction with Eugene as a whole.

What, if anything, do the following names mean to you? Thom Sempere. Bernie Fremesser. Ron Jude.

Thom and I meet regularly. We were colleagues in San Francisco and I’ve participated in the Photo Alliance reviews there, which he organizes. We’re speaking together on a panel at the Schnitzer Museum March 5. I wasn’t aware of Bernie Freemesser’s career until you asked that question. I haven’t met Ron Jude yet, although I know his work superficially. I’m sure he’s a great addition to the UO faculty. 

Were Thom or Ron among the photographers suggested by Chris Rauschenberg? 

No. He gave me Craig Hickman’s name and a few others; I think Terri Warpinski was another.

You headed CPAC in Colorado. In your opinion, could such an organization work in Eugene? Do you have any plans to start one?

Like I said, it’s too early for me to make judgments about what would work or has worked in Eugene. I know from my time in Denver that sustaining a successful photo organization – non-profit or commercial - is very challenging. Eugene is not exactly an economic powerhouse and I assume it has a small collector base, which is necessary even for a non-profit. I certainly don’t have any intentions to start anything like CPAC in the foreseeable future!

How did you first become interested in photography? What holds your interest now?

My interests are more in the book publishing and editing arenas right now. Actually, Blue Sky was very inspirational to me when I lived in Portland. I used to go there a lot and became friends with Terry Toedtemeier, for instance. I started experimenting with photography and took myself quite seriously as an artist, which was probably misplaced but it did propel me to become involved with a Blue Sky-type of gallery in San Francisco when I moved there in 1981.

Are you referring to Camerawork? 

No, the first gallery I was involved in was the Eye Gallery, which was a small collective in the Mission District founded by social documentarians and rock music photographers (a strange mix!) After a couple of years I started being paid for administrative tasks and after it became a 501c3 Tom Ferentz (one of the founders) and I became the first “official” co-directors. I joined Camerawork soon after leaving Eye Gallery.

I am curious to see your early photo experiments form the 1980s. Are they online somewhere?

Yes, on Flickr. There are a couple of albums – “Early B&W” and “Micropets” – and there is also an album of projects I’ve worked on, although that needs updating.

Your Flickr stream is mostly personal snapshots. Do you consider those photos a meaningful body of work? 

Nagasaki Journey, 1995, Edited by Rupert Jenkins
As you say, most of my photos are personal or are taken on trips so I’m essentially a vacation photographer. I certainly don’t consider myself a photographer in the sense of having an artistic career. But my photos are often meaningful to me, and I’ve made a few books of my personal work that people have responded to positively. I am a curator and a writer, and I have directed non-profit and municipal galleries for more than 30 years, so those are my professional strengths. Right now I am discussing a variety of photo book projects with colleagues that range from a book and exhibition about drug-related disappearances and murders in Colombia to a series on “social practice” art. I’m also hopeful that a book on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that I edited in 1995 will be republished for the 75th anniversary of the bombing in 2020. Boiling down my interests, documentary and socially engaged work is the most important to me.

I enjoyed looking at both albums you mentioned ("Early B&W" and Micropets"). Street photography is my first love, and I will always have a soft spot (pun intended?) for plastic camera work. So I'm a natural audience for both. 

Laurie Price, San Francisco, 1982, from Micropets

I'm curious about your decision to concentrate less on your own work and more on curation/publishing of others. At one point you were very serious about your own photography. And somewhere along the line you realized it wasn't your calling. When did that transition happen, and was it difficult? Or relatively smooth? I think that realization is fairly common, and I'm wondering what insight you can offer as it applies to you or to others?

What happened was that I started getting shows but realized that there was a lot of time and expense incurred with framing, shipping printing etc., as well as the need to publicize the shows and generally self-promote (this was before the internet – perhaps promotion is easier these days via social media but getting bodies into galleries is more difficult now. The relevance of galleries in general is a complex issue that we don’t have room to discuss here). 

In my emerging role as gallery administrator and curator I had also started to interact with artists whose work was far more developed than mine. Very soon I realized that I was more interested in curating other people’s work than I was in promoting my own. Essentially it all comes down to whether you identify as an artist or not – for me the litmus test is whether you driven to create new work each day. When I asked myself that question I had to say “no.” I have a good sense of composition and am happy to make the occasional successful image but it’s far more satisfying for me to interact with “real” artists for whom I can offer exposure in a gallery or elsewhere.

I’ve been able to provide a leg up the art world ladder for many photographers and have worked with hundreds of artists who are far more talented than I am. For me that’s been very fulfilling; it also proves the value of having a vibrant not-for-profit sector serving its arts community. In San Francisco that’s definitely the case – here in Eugene and even in Denver I’m not so sure.

Santa Fe, Spring 2015

What do you mean "the relevance of galleries in general is a complex issue which we don't have time to discuss here"?

Generally, I think that galleries essentially remain relevant to artists, who as a species want to show their work, but otherwise galleries are not all that important anymore. Certainly attendance is defined by generation more than anything, and venues are becoming culled by the need to respond to specific demographics rather than trusting in a cross-cultural/cross-generational response to "good work," which is the old paradigm.

As a "gallerist" (I hate that term but it's appropriate here) one wants to attract a diverse audience, and certainly one wants to engage with youth. As far as I can see, though, Gen Z is defined by the need to document itself more than anything, and to be entertained by the mob or the phone, with little in between. And Generations X and Y —pretty much everyone of working age actually— are preoccupied by the need to make a living, in league with just about everyone under retirement age, which further limits audience potential. 

In Eugene the Jacobs Gallery is closing. Personally I don't know why, but it's probably as much to do with a failure to connect with an audience in terms of entertainment as it is to do with the art they show. I see crowds at First Fridays but there are as many shows in business spaces as there are in galleries; I see this as a form of gentrification that leverages art to entice people into a business or a neighborhood, ultimately with the goal of making a profit without any significant benefit to artist or arts community. 

Situating Robert Adams, 2012, Curated by Rupert Jenkins
I just got back from NY and I visited a couple of big museums that seemed more to be places to be seen in, rather than places to see things at. Any and all icons were more selfie zones than places for contemplation; I'm including meteors and Egyptian tombs as much as paintings when I say that! So spectacle and entertainment are increasingly important audience drivers, which is not exactly news, but when it comes to the smaller galleries, especially non-profits, it's a difficult challenge to face.

My experience with CPAC - and from informal discussions this counts for most of my peers as well -was that beyond the opening reception visitation was so low as to question the need for a gallery, outside of providing a venue for the artist(s) on show. Whereas before (in days of yore) students were regular visitors, now they only come as part of a class visit or for extra credit. Certainly, the internet has attuned people to look at art online, which is wonderful, but the concept of a personal, introspective interaction with an artwork is close to being lost. So unless galleries find ways to entertain as well as educate, enlighten, or sell, I think they are an increasingly less practical and/or viable arena for appreciating art.

You were one of the jurors for a $10,000 grant awarded for the idea of sending home photographic prints with newborns. Have you followed that project? If so, how is it going? 

I think it’s going fine. I talked about it recently with the award sponsor, Jennifer Schwartz of Crusade for Art, and she told me there’s interest in repeating the project in several other cities, which is exciting. The intention was to award innovative ways of disseminating photography to non-traditional consumers – that is, to communities outside of the usual art market circus. The project we funded stood out for it’s unique approach and we felt it deserved funding, if only for it’s out-of-left-field quirkiness!

I joked with some other photographers that parents of infants might be the worst possible audience to build a new collector base. Their attention is very much devoted toward another direction, creating blinders to anything else. That said, I give high points for thinking outside the box.

Good! Those swag bags given to new parents are full of consumer crap. So a photo seemed like a nice addition for those few who would appreciate it. Certainly it would be naïve to think that everyone would appreciate it but the idea was that it could become a treasured memento of the birth, or perhaps even spur a lifetime appreciation of photography.

Who are your 3 favorite contemporary photographers? 

Rineke Dijkstra, Phil Toledano, Ed Kashi.

3 favorite music albums?

Soft Machine Third, Patti Smith Twelve, Cowboy Junkies Open.

What is the professional litmus test of "no ducks"? I'm throwing this question out there in reference to the Ducks sports teams. They are huge here, as you'll find out.

I already have found out – we know when there’s a Ducks game because the parking spots on our street fill up early morning. To be clear, I made that rule for CPAC so it had nothing to do with the UO Ducks! It ruffled a few feathers, if you’ll excuse the pun, but the litmus test is exactly as it reads – do not expect to exhibit pictures of ducks in my gallery. If you are the kind of photographer who takes pictures of ducks, no matter how professionally rendered they might be, you need to look for a different venue, and a different gallery director, to support your work. 

I understand the thought behind this. Still, I don't like to exclude any subject. Even ducks might be ok under certain circumstances. What other subject matter falls under the "no ducks" label for you? What else is off limits? Barns? Sunsets? Other stuff?

To answer your own response to the “no ducks” – it’s a general litmus test that was a knee jerk response to all the mundane landscapes and nature photos we would receive as entries to our members show and at reviews when CPAC relaunched in 2011. Each year we were pleased to see that entries got stronger and less mundane, to the point at which last year’s show was by far the best in years. 

Are you equating mundane photography with weak photography? Would photographers like the Bechers or John Gossage or Penelope Umbrico be weak by that standard?

Stockholm Ferry, 1984

No, no. When I say mundane I’m talking about very naïve pictorial imagery that is superficially pleasant but lacking any meaningful content - not in any way comparable to work by the artists you cite. I am talking about images taken that are lovely in a sentimental sort of way but entirely without artistic merit beyond base sentimentality.

That largely reflected a change in philosophy from “let’s show something by everyone because we want our constituents to be happy” to “let’s be tough and push entrants to conceptualize, improve, and work hard to be better photographers.” There are certainly down sides to that in terms of everyone NOT being happy, but the upside is a more developed program that opens up opportunities for career development among photographers who are serious about their practice.

Off the top of your head, what was Colorado's record last year in football? The U of O? 

[Colorado went 4-9 in 2015; Oregon was 9-4]

No idea. I’m a soccer fan. Go Brighton!

What about the Timbers? 

So far the MLS hasn’t moved me. I did used to see the old Portland soccer team at the Civic Stadium back in 1980 and saw many aging icons of the game like George Best and Johann Cruyff. I will make a special effort to see the Timbers this year!

(all photos above by Rupert Jenkins unless otherwise noted)