Friday, August 10, 2012

A Poet, His Cameras & More than 100,000 Photographs

Eugene B. Redmond photographing Amiri Baraka at SIUE, 2005
During the 1970s, poet Eugene B. Redmond used his cameras the way most general users did. He'd usually take photos on special occasions. He took a few photos of Quincy Troupe, Mari Evans, and Askia Toure at a writers conference in Washington D.C. He took a few photographs of Toni Morrison in her office at Random House on the occasion of the release of Henry Dumas's poetry, which Morrison and Redmond had worked on together.

During the early to mid 1980s, Redmond began to slowly pick up the pace of his photography, and by the late 1980s after he co-founded the Eugene B. Redmond (EBR) Writers Club in 1986, he was taking even more photographs--at family gatherings, arts activities, and just about any event in East St. Louis. In 1990, when he accepted a faculty position at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he would work until his retirement in 2007, he was in the full swing, taking rolls of film to just about every gathering he attended.

In 2003, by the time I met Redmond and began working with him to curate exhibits of his vast collection of images, he had taken over 100,000 photographs, including thousands and thousands of images of African American poets. Interestingly, Redmond had met and collaborated on projects with large numbers of literary artists during the late 1960s and early 1970s and began developing friendships with many of his favored subjects such as Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Troupe, and the late Katherine Dunham 20 years before he began photographing them regularly.

Redmond's close friendships with writers allowed him to produce a visual chronicle that moves beyond their public identities as professional writers. For every several shots that Redmond has of major writers in crowded auditoriums reading their works to large audiences, he has photographs of the same figures at their homes relaxing with family members. One of my favorite images from Redmond's collection shows Amiri Baraka reading a poem in his basement at his home in Newark, New Jersey in 1989.

A couple of years ago, Redmond told me that his most productive years as an artist were during the 1970s when he published poems, essays, plays, volumes of poetry, and his landmark work Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976). At the time, I slightly disagreed with him, noting that his editorial work for the literary magazine Drumvoices Revue, which he founded, had published more than 800 poets and his tremendous body of photographs chronicling African American artistic culture was unparalleled. But the more I've thought on it, I gained more appreciation for those early years when he began shaping an artistic style and at the same time started establishing friendships that served as the crucial foundations for the remarkable work that he's done over the last 25 years. 
A Notebook on Eugene B. Redmond & the EBR Collection 

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