1994 EXHIBIT STATEMENT

Portraits of Tradition:
Photography from the TAC Folk Arts Program

Since coming to the Tennessee Arts Commission to establish the Folk Arts Program in 1984, I’ve been a jack of all trades, involved in diverse duties and projects.  Though I don’t specialize in it, photography has been one of the most valuable and rewarding parts of my job.

Being the only government folklorist for a state as large and culturally rich as Tennessee is a daunting task.  I’ve tried to balance my efforts between documentation, informational and technical services, and active public programming.  In all these areas, photography has proven essential.  Our folk arts and folklife are living, ephemeral resources, and building a lasting visual record of them is very important.  So is putting that record to use in beneficial ways, as I try to do through slide lectures, publications, and exhibitry.

I shoot outmoded manual equipment and usually rely on existing light.  While I also take color slides, I prefer the textures and simplicity of black-and-white film.  I like the challenges of photographing people, trying to come up with shots that really capture their identities.  And I’m convinced that social skills are as important as artistic and technical ones in doing that.  Handling a camera in people’s faces, without making them feel imposed upon, requires trust and finesse.  That carries through to giving them copies of the photos, a detail which too many photographers ignore.

In these images, I’ve selected folk artists from across the state and photographic work from various projects over the past decade.  Some were taken in fieldwork, others for or during special events.  My strategies usually revolve around very straightforward poses, at-work portraits, and spur-of-the-moment context shots.  When the results are good, fine subjects and chance timing usually have a hand in it.

Robert Cogswell
Director of Folk Arts
Tennessee Arts Commission

 

Portraits of Tradition
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