THE BLOG

On "Visual Leverage"

02/27/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

Jacqueline L. Patten-Van Sertima is a photographer with work spanning the past 30 years, major exhibitions and a feature among 100 New York Photographers, with peers including the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Chester Higgins, Jr., Adger Cowans, Len Gelstein, Amy Arbus, and Carrie Mae Weems. She is the president of Journal of African Civilizations, Ltd, whose interdisciplinary work has re-shaped pedagogy, thought, and official U.S. history. She is renowned for her hand-painted photos, each with an artistic grammar that take black and white and color as canvas to tell compelling stories. Her story lies at the intersection of art and policy, the running theme of this column.

It is astounding to stop and think of how young the U.S. really is and what that means for art coming from the American context.

Without polemic, based on classic dates in history and on democracy being defined as the nominal full participation of all citizens as equals, we could re-date the birth of the United States. It's not the Fourth of July, 1776. However, July still turns out to be a busy month for freedom.

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Image: "Innocence" 1978 (hand-painted photograph by JLP Van Sertima)

It was actually the 2nd day of July, 1776 that the Continental Congress voted to separate from Great Britain. The vote prompted John Adams to write to his wife: "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America."

He couldn't have imagined that once we affix barbecue and fireworks to a day, it's a done deal. But if you need something "spot on" for the 4th, you could still celebrate July 4, 1827 - the day New York State abolished slavery.

Regardless of the day, July 2nd or 4th and as far as the U.S. is concerned, it's actually the year that we get wrong.

It was 188 years after the Declaration of Independence, on another July 2, this time in 1964, that President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed legislation that finally brought the U.S. into compliance with the 1776 document's second paragraph and lifted the country up to the level of democracy that we know today.

In short, the U.S. is 50 years old - born on July 2nd, 1964 - making 2014 one of the quietest 50th anniversaries ever.

But, instead of lobbying for a brand new birthday, I'd rather hone in on art in this 50-year context and then take a close look at photography. It turns out we've only been a little over 50 years into popular photography, with the spark provided by the introduction of the May 1949 Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. We had photography before, but not in the hands of so many people, with over 6 million sold by 1955.

"Jacqueline L. Patten's hand-painted photographs are like vintage Victorian images." - The Village Voice

Now, juxtaposing these young '50s - the nation and photography - we are left with many questions and histories not fully explored. Principal artists have arisen from the diffusion begun in the '50s, and in this space of time we have seen photography flourish as art, even when accepted haltingly by critics. Alfred Stieglitz made the strong case for art in the late 19th century, but it wasn't until the '60s and '70s that artists such as Ansel Adams and Mapplethorpe became big names.

Looking at this young art history, you'll notice, however, that it tracks too neatly with the political history of American struggles and victories in plurality. The resulting gaps in the record and in exposure for blacks, women, members of minority groups, etc. had me wondering: "Where is the art photography among them?"

It couldn't be that they only shot documentary work, despite the fact that the most famous names among those groups are those of documentary photographers. School children can easily learn about Gordon Parks and never hear of Roy DeCarava, the first African-American artist to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship (also - a mentor of Jacqueline L. P. Van Sertima along with Max Waldman.) On Wikipedia, we, the all-knowing "crowd" afford DeCarava a single paragraph.

Perhaps a first step to discovering more could be Deborah Willis' ground-breaking Black Photographers 1940-1988, in which Jacqueline L. Patten-Van Sertima is featured.

But this isn't about history, except for context. I wanted to hear Jacqueline's voice and perspective on art today. She has obliged the interview. (Please sit for coffee on this part. Her answers merit a close reading.)

When did you begin to see the road to becoming a dedicated photographer and artist?

I was recognized as an artist while a very young child in elementary school, partially because of my ability to draw realistic subjects, and partially because of my handwriting, which some mistakenly see as calligraphy, but it isn't. It is simply my handwriting. Aside from my father's 50-year office position for the MTA, my father was an illustrator and a fine tailor. My mother was a dress designer and seamstress though she would have never admitted to it being an "art." My sister followed in my mother's footsteps. My brother was an artist/photographer as I was growing up. I, and everyone who saw their work was fascinated by it. So, art was definitely within my grasp.

What is your opinion and use of the technologies that have spanned your career?

I genuinely, appreciate the advances made in technology, and find them indispensable, particularly in the medical field, but also see many of them as still in the experimental stage, yet marketed for profit before they are truly ready for public consumption. Unfortunately, the constant "upgrading" of what we have become "dependent upon," is not within the reach of many consumers. So, in many ways, it supports the growing divide between classes and hinders the growth of others. Particularly for artists, I think technology forces them to make "shortcuts," unfortunately, also short-cutting their innate artistic abilities.

A related note from Jacqueline's archives:"Her technique is not new, but her application is unique, for hand-painting (sometimes used interchangeably with such terms as hand-coloring and hand-tinting) had been an artistic technique begun in the early 1900s before color film was invented. This art, during that era, predominantly, "suggested" color. Mrs. Van Sertima's departure lies in her unlimited palette of soft and vibrant color, and their playful interaction to express realistic subtleties. Its overlapping, reflective diversity satisfies contemporary taste with a discreet, surrealistic element, while delicately whispering memories of years gone by."

What is your thought on the preponderance of black photography as documentary work? Why does this seem to persist, with only a few figures known in the work of art photography?

One need only visit a major bookstore's art section to discover that there is little in the way of black art books, either fine art or documentary art on their shelves, compared to that of other races. And there is no doubt that there is a small segment of black artists that must have coined the market on this topic, but for the most part, I doubt that we have entered this arena, professionally, though we most definitely should, if we want our "Works" to be recognized in the broader art circuit. Art is a universal and very compelling vehicle for political change, but sadly to say, I do not believe we have entered that kind of thinking, as yet, though it is refreshing to know it is being taught in our colleges and universities, particularly for those who are seriously interested in art policy and law, and/or journalism.

Everyone is not necessarily drawn to the documentary side of art, as that takes time and effort to find when, why, what and where to be at any given location to photograph that which might affect policy or minds. Like all issues of importance, I think it is crucial to introduce policy to the young, who have a leaning toward art. Unfortunately many artists see art as a pastime, a fun activity, or a short term project, or hobby to profit by (on the side). We, as a people must think differently in today's world, and think of every talent, or skill available to us, to be used in terms of policy and profitability, while still participating in, and enjoying the aesthetic aspects of the pursuit.

As far as art's impact on society is concerned, I think there, generally, must be reasonable restraints in place to maintain the integrity of any country. All artists gravitate toward creating what is important to them, individually, or what speaks to the populace, meaningfully.

Can you give us insight into your worldview as it has affected your method: hand-painting on pictures?

Actually, I have never been particularly attracted to color photographs unless they were expertly executed. Yes, they portray a special, or colorful occasion with the spark that simulates the event, but for the most part, I like the clean clear, uncluttered look of a beautiful black and white print, with all its proper shades of grey. I can, then, concentrate on the content without distraction.

Furthermore, color can be used to override the quality of the content of the photograph. Sometimes that works quite well - sometimes not. When I first started painting my photographs, I can't tell you why I even began. I just know that I thought it yielded more realistic results than many color photographs.

Can you describe a pivotal point in your journey?

It was at a New York citywide conference that I came across a name unfamiliar to me. I was familiar with all of the other presenters, but not of the name, Ivan Van Sertima, nor of his Random House book, They Came Before Columbus.

So, I signed up for his presentation out of curiosity. Little did I know that he would fill in all the gaps of history that I yearned to understand ever since childhood - an expanded, in-depth understanding of our history beyond that of the African-American plight. I was, absolutely, in awe of what was uncovered and displayed with serious, thorough, anthropological evidence. His presentation was peppered with just the right amount of tempered light-heartedness which endeared the entire audience to him. We would burst into unexpected laughter, and then return to the gravity of the subject matter. Quite naturally, the bottom line was to clearly learn, and to pass this wealth of information on to our peers and generations to come.

Since I was in the midst of a photographic adventure, I carried my camera at all times, even though photography, seemingly, had little to do with my focus, which was the field of education. Of course, I took advantage of this grand, fortuitous opportunity. No doubt, Dr. Van Sertima noticed the flashes of my camera from the podium. So, immediately after his presentation, he asked one of our mutual colleagues, to introduce us. He was in need of an artist/photographer, as he had just published the pilot issue of the Journal of African Civilizations the year before, while teaching at Princeton University, and had plans for worldwide expansion. It was, as though my life was coming full-circle, and it has not waned, even until today.
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Here, we dive straightway into art, history, and politics, drawn by honest inquiry. But we're hindered, like Pogo, by ourselves and by our primary tool for advancing society: "the Internet." It has an inescapable and extreme priority for the local and the present, leaves out what doesn't pass "crowd" muster, reinforces our young biases, leaves a wealth of knowledge un-Googleable. How could you know more about Jacqueline winning first prize in Mademoiselle's Fourteenth Annual Photography Competition? How would you know of her influence and work on a journal that has re-shaped a large swath of American and world history -- The Journal of African Civilizations as the U.S. Congress has obliged history by officially removing the word "discovery" from association with Columbus. The Internet represents a constrained future in many ways, missing what is seeded by the present and by a comprehensive historical view: It has not caught up to the work of Jacqueline L. P. Van Sertima.

"You know, old books are a big problem for us. Old knowledge in general. We call it OK. Old Knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the Internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite - in fact , OK accounts for most things that people know, and have ever known. - Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

There's the problem: finding knowledge (old or new), finding art in a time when convenience and the political status quo are twins as the world's most influential curators. We welcome what Jacqueline L. Patten-Van Sertima refers to as "visual leverage" and the inquiry only now beginning.