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As a teenager, Dona Ann McAdams was fatigued to photography during a aerial academy cruise to the Architecture of Modern Art. It was 1972.
“I was declared to attending at paintings, but I concluded up in the photography area of the museum,” she said. “And was absolutely absorbed an attainable exhibition by the artisan Diane Arbus. I anticipate that’s what absolutely got me activity on photography, was her work, and how she approached her work.”
For those not accustomed with Diane Arbus’s assignment from the 1950s, she is accepted for bringing a normalization and acquaintance to individuals and to the spaces that would not be advised the accepted ideal for capturing beauty. Arbus generally angry to the streets of New York in her work.
Similarly, aback you attending at Dona’s assignment — whether you are: gazing aloft the behind-the scenes of milk assembly in the alternation “Milk”; staring into the faces and lives of those featured in “The Garden of Eden” (1983-1998), Dona’s participatory photography activity with bodies experiencing brainy affliction and homelessness in New York City; or acceptable affianced with the scenes of “Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” which abduction Hasidic and Hispanic communities amid 1978 and 1980 — you become belted into a anatomy of assignment that is the counternarrative to what photography has been accepted for historically.
We apperceive the art of photography through a lens that has generally portrayed accurate groups of bodies in a assertive way alongside some of what Susan Sontag’s expressed, yet important, grievances about the art form. Dona is no drifter to the cultural criticism of the art form.
“Susan Sontag’s assignment on photography, and John Berger’s assignment on the beheld arts, and Walter Benjamin’s assignment all abreast how I see,” she said. “But I anticipate that what happened to me was, I was accomplished as an art photographer, I was accomplished to accomplish admirable photographs.”
Then Dona says she met Harvey Milk in the 1970s, aback he was alive for office. She got complex in his campaign.
“And as a result, I got political,” she said. “I got as they say, into acceptable trouble, and that agitation has abreast the way I photograph. So I like to photograph with bodies and in community… I am absorbed in allowance to acquaint their stories, because you can’t absolutely acquaint added people’s stories, they accept to acquaint their own stories.”
“I got as they say, into acceptable trouble, and that agitation has abreast the way I photograph. So I like to photograph with bodies and in community… I am absorbed in allowance to acquaint their stories, because you can’t absolutely acquaint added people’s stories, they accept to acquaint their own stories.”
— Dona Ann McAdams
Dona explained that she is still absorbed in creating admirable pictures, and affiliated to accurate the abstraction that as a photographer, she can buck attestant to some of these stories. And to be clear, aural Dona’s witnessing, she is not a photojournalist. Dona recognizes that “photojournalism is all-important and actual important,” but her assignment is not that.
This affect was announced to me as I stood aural the attenuated alley of Dona’s exhibition Performative Acts, aural the Bennington Museum. I could faculty the assurance that Dona had with the individuals in the photos in means that breakable the abuttals amid the actuality who is captivation the camera and the actuality who — aural the attitude of photography — would become the object. Dona’s assignment accouterment the ability activating in anniversary anatomy that speaks to the acquaintance and connectedness of her anatomy of work.
In added words, instead of wielding the camera, Dona builds bridges. The accord amid herself and those who are in advanced of her camera — whether they are horses, goats, or animal beings — is apparent through the photos that are captured, alike if they are artery scenes.
When I asked about the title, I was afraid aback Dona aggregate that her old friend, John Killacky, a accompaniment adumbrative from South Burlington, came up with it.
“I was absolutely lucky,” she said. “We’ve accepted anniversary added aback the 90s, and he absolutely approached me about absent to do an exhibition of my work, because we both lived in Vermont now… And John Killacky came up with that title, Performative Acts, and basically it came from our accord with achievement art and the alive arts, performing, which is what I did a lot of aback in the day, and what he curated and accurate a lot of.”
While the appellation speaks accurately to achievement art and is a absolute affiliation to the Shakespearean aphorism of activity as a stage, there was article abroad I accomplished with Dona’s work. The exhibition, which appearance assignment above Dona’s portfolio, conjured the abstraction of assuming and the means that we may be acquainted and benumbed of who we are aural assorted spaces based on who sees us and how they see us. What is a performative act? Aback is it alleged for based on who is watching?
And while this was not the absolute ambition of the appellation of the exhibit, these questions become agitated as we reflect on our own 21st aeon lives aural a association area we are consistently on view.
Given that Performative Acts covers a ambit of years aural 40-plus years of Dona’s photography career, the assured catechism is: Out of aggregate that Dona has photographed, what is the anatomy of assignment that has fatigued her the most?
“The assignment that’s abutting to me now is the assignment that I’m continuing to do… at the Saratoga chase track,” she said. “I’ve been alive with backstretch workers aback 2004. And there’s a photograph of three guys… and a little babyish at the Oklahoma training track. And I anticipate that’s my admired photograph, because it’s a agglomeration of men, backstretch workers, a groom, a night watchman, and an outrider. And they’re captivation a little baby.”
Dona Ann McAdams
This specific photo Dona is apropos to, additionally featured in the exhibit, is affiliated to “Hard Boots and Legends,” based on her assignment that started in 2006 while photographing her acquaintance Amy LeBarron, who was benumbed horses for a guy called Mike Shevey. The aggregation additionally included a groom’s man, Stymie, and a hot walker, Paul. A hot ambler is a actuality who warms up a horse afore it contest and cools it bottomward after, and will generally abrade the horse and authority it for the groom.
Dona shares that this assignment was all based aloft the foundation of architecture relationships, afore the camera entered the equation, as she became accomplished as a adolescent hot ambler and started to booty benumbed acquaint at age 50. Stymie, one of the bodies she started to photograph, asked Dona if she would photograph his association afore they all anesthetized away.
This is a association of bodies who tend to the horses in means that extend above what bodies may be accustomed with at the Kentucky Derby. A association that is generally disregarded or not anticipation of. To put it addition way, we apperceive the names of chase horses or their acclaimed jockeys alike if we never watch horse racing. However, who charcoal airy is the bodies and common activity that are a key allotment of this geography. Dona’s “Hard Boots and Legends” alternation answers the catechism of whose activity is acknowledging the industry aural the bigger questions of who we see and who we accept to see as it relates to assertive genitalia of our lives.
While Dona was answerable with accomplishing this assignment of seeing the concealed with her photography aural the chase horse world, it was both absolute and absolute that Dona bare to go acquisition them on her own.
“[Stymie] basically aloof said, ‘OK, go acquisition us,’” Dona said. “‘How do I allocution to them? How do I admission them?’ So afterwards a year of attractive and basically photographing all of the bodies that Stymie knew, I aloof would airing up and say: ‘This is who I am, and what I am doing. I am absorbed in who you are and what you are doing. And I’d like to booty your photograph, if you anticipate that’s OK.’”
Dona emphasized that this was generally a action that complex assuming up and architecture assurance aural that association over a aeon of years, a action that Dona didn’t shy abroad from. The aperture was added opened by affair and acceptable accompany with Saudi Burton, a changeable Atramentous American clocker (an abandoned who times the horse workouts and race) and whose assignment was aggressive from her adulation of the show, Bonanza, that she watched as a kid. It was Saudi who alien Dona to added individuals abaft the horses, abacus added of a foundation for this series.
“Hard Boots and Legends” is amid the best alluring and allegorical of Dona’s accomplishment at both capturing the micro (the apple of these people) aural the macro (the civic layers and ambience that impacts these people). This specific project, however, is not after the claiming of Dona actuality told by some bodies that she can’t do this assignment accustomed that she is a white changeable columnist capturing the images Atramentous Americans. This allocution with Dona about the questions apropos the intersections of angel authoritative and chase is added nuanced than the current, abounding ambiance of abolish culture.
She acicular out she was asked to abduction this community. She said she wasn’t able to go in 2020 due to COVID, but needs to analysis on them, and see who’s left.
In this moment, and all of the added moments of speaking to her, Dona wasn’t the columnist anxious with her images. I sensed that Dona was talking about continued ancestors members.
This was not an aberrant affection throughout our conversation. Speaking of the apparent and unseen, one of the photographs aural Performative Acts includes an angel of 12 women captivation signs over their shirtless torsos. The signs apprehend either “FEMINIST” or “PORN STAR.” I aggregate my acquainted with Dona, and wittily she clarified, “It’s the oldest profession.”
She added, wrapping with addition band of her accuracy in her admission to her photography: “I’m consistently absorbed in labor. Who makes? … Who does the work?”
Dona batten about architecture a accord with Margot St. James, a sex artisan and architect of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in San Francisco, an alignment focused on decriminalizing prostitution.
“Margo St. James anesthetized abroad in January of this year,” Dona said. “She was allowance to acquisition bloom affliction for sex workers in San Francisco. And that accord was absolutely important to me, because it showed me at an aboriginal age — in my aboriginal 20s — that bloom affliction is a appropriate for everybody… [She] helped to acquaint me, in that accord with her, and those women who were alive in San Francisco. And agreeable me to the Hookers Ball, if we can be so adventurous … That accord additionally helped to acquaint me as an activist, and as a woman, in particular, and as a angry apostle for bloom affliction for all.”
It is additionally in this way that abounding — abnormally the twelve topless women who were appreciative to authority their signs as “FEMINIST” or “PORN STAR” — are not objects. Instead, this affiliation amid Dona and the person, or people, including the animals, are at the center, with the angel authoritative actuality a allotment of the package.
“I like to accept this faculty of, I don’t appetite to go out and aloof booty pictures. I appetite to accomplish pictures. I appetite to be able to accept who it is that I’m photographing.”
— Dona Ann McAdams
With an admission of relationship-building that runs through to the final artefact of the photograph, I was analytical about what Dona had to say about acquirements from her mistakes in her career. And as addition on my own artistic journey, I bare to know: Area did Dona fumble, and how did she cross these mistakes?
“I anticipate a aberration that I accept fabricated in the past, or I could accomplish in the future, was not absolutely compassionate why I was there, why I was with a camera, and what I was doing,” Dona said. “I like to accept this faculty of, I don’t appetite to go out and aloof booty pictures. I appetite to accomplish pictures. I appetite to be able to accept who it is that I’m photographing.”
She added: “However, if you attending in my artery work, I’m actual accusable of aloof activity out and demography pictures … I anticipate a aberration that I fabricated in the past, was cerebration that I could absolutely change things with my work. The pictures are not abundant to accomplish change. What you charge to do to accomplish change is absolutely be physically present on the line, on the beef line, or wherever it is that you are working… Demography a account is not enough. You accept to be alive and proactive with who it is that you’re photographing and the association that you’re administration your action with.”
What I admired best about this is the way Dona was aboveboard in axis the lens on herself. You will additionally apprehension that she did not absolved herself from the approaching abeyant of what she sees as the misstep of mistaking her photography as the alive assurance with the amusing moment. As I listened to Dona, her articulation reflected the accurate presented in Performative Acts and abundant of her added work.
Hearing her acknowledgment additionally reminded me of this adduce from Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, featured in the architecture catalogue, “Look around: these aren’t photos of activism; these photos are activism. And they’ll abide to save lives continued into the abroad future.”
Though Dona says that she acquainted like her assignment abandoned did not actualize change, her photographs ability above time and amplitude in a way as to inform, engage, and allure inquiry.
“The annal is here, and the annal is attainable and if artists, and people, individuals, and communities appetite to admission that archive, they’re acceptable to accept it,” she said.
I acclaim interrupted, asking: “Are those all your photographs?” As an developed that has one bottom in analog and remembers billowing disks acutely well, my added bottom is durably buried aural this apple of annal as article agenda and password-protected. Dona added explained that all of the large, atramentous boxes surrounding us in her flat was one archive, and, of course, there are all of the negatives below us.
“People may say this is my legacy, but it’s not my legacy,” Dona said. “It’s their legacy. It’s the bequest of everybody who’s stood afore me and let me booty their photograph, accomplish their photograph, allotment their activity for a 250th of a second. So the assignment technically is mine, but it absolutely isn’t mine.”
As a columnist alive primarily in digital, to say that I was addled does not activate to awning it. Perhaps you can chronicle my analysis to article you ability accept apparent online or in photo reproductions. For example, a photograph of a abode that you eventually get to appointment and somehow, you see this abode in person, acceptance it to become absolute in means that may feel indescribable, yet fills you with a faculty of awe.
After acumen that we were amidst by Dona’s work, it was adamantine not to accumulate casual at the ample atramentous boxes. Again, I was amidst — no, hugged — by 40-plus years of Dona’s work. On the aboriginal attic is Dona’s aphotic room. At the alpha of our interview, Dona arrive me to accept a attending about as she larboard briefly to add beginning goat’s milk to my tea. I acquainted like I was in a amplitude area the barrier of a bottle case was removed, acceptance me to absolutely see the adored appurtenances inside.
If you assignment primarily in agenda photography like me, you will accept aback I say that this moment of continuing in Dona’s aphotic allowance acquainted like I was a crude abiding to what fabricated me abatement in adulation with photography in the aboriginal place: the aphotic allowance in my aerial school. Except here, the aphotic allowance was aural an artisan flat on a dupe farm. In advancing for this interview, I anticipation about my alteration to agenda and my growing ache to acknowledgment to the aphotic room, the common use of the electronics that abounding of us accept — our iPods, our corpuscle phones — that are additionally able of creating video or creating images.
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I asked Dona what she saw as the approaching of photography. After absence a beat, Dona brought the about-face durably into this moment.
“I mean, attending what happened with a camera aftermost year on May 25,” she said. “Look what happened. Bodies are able to almanac things that we never would accept seen, and I’m so beholden for that. And I anticipate it’s admirable to put the camera, the buzz into the easily of people. That girl, she was what,  years old? It’s afflicted the apple profoundly. So I anticipate agenda photography is a blessing.”
During the agenda anarchy aural photography, Dona had a besom with cerebration that her career was activity to end in the aboriginal 2000s, accustomed that she prefers to assignment in the aphotic room. Despite this, she is in favor of the means that the alive technology has become added attainable and democratized, and additionally gives the ability to bodies to reflect all of the things that ability contrarily go unseen.
I abide to feel the aforementioned awe of actuality amidst by Dona’s assignment forth with the activity of her abasement that came above the moment we met. A appropriate that runs abysmal below the apparent of the images Dona has created allows us as an admirers to acquaintance and absolutely see the bodies aural her work, rather than absorption on the actuality who cautiously developed the assignment from alpha to finish.
This is a assignment that is about impossible, accustomed that an admirers will generally try to acquisition a trace of the artisan aural the artist’s work. In this case, you ability acquisition yourself absent to point to a specific anecdotic camera angle, you may try to attending for one accumulation accountable matter, or any added affection of Dona’s assignment in adjustment to be able to say that is her modus operandi.
Instead, you will acquisition yourself staring into the faces of performers; acceptable absorbed in artery scenes; captivation 18-carat concern about anniversary of the sex workers aural that one photograph; and you ability acknowledgment to the faces on the centermost bank from Dona’s “The Garden of Eden” series, which was a 15-year participatory photography activity focused on bodies adversity from homelessness and brainy affliction in New York.
These faces that beam aback will be one of many, agreeable you to leave what you anticipation you knew about the attributes of the acquaintance and affiliation aural the branch of photography in the parking lot, as you are arrive to aloof angle and behold.
Shanta Lee Gander is an absolute producer, artisan and writer. Performative Acts: Dona Ann McAdams is currently on appearance at the Bennington Architecture through Aug. 15. Acquisition added advice about the display at benningtonmuseum.org.
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