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Capturing the Tiger: Photographing Thornton Dial

There are many responsibilities as Chief Photographer at the IMA, but none more rewarding than the opportunity to document contemporary artists in the process of artistic creation, social interactions, and exhibition installation.

These moments of observation are significant in service to the mission of the museum, and can potentially provide a collateral glimpse into the inner workings of creative practice.

In the summer of 2009, I was fortunate to accompany Conservation Department colleagues, Richard McCoy and Kathleen Kiefer, on a visit to Georgia and Alabama. The purpose of my presence during the trip was primarily to create documentation related to the evaluation and condition assessment of Thornton Dial’s works prior to the Hard Truths exhibition.

We chose to drive down from Indiana, as I loathe flying with every fiber of my being, and it was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in all things Dial along the way…audio interviews, books for the non-driver, and music steeped in southern culture and history. Setting the proper tone and knowing your subject are so important for interviews and photography, and we spent our driving time together reflecting on one man’s life and how his art connects us all through his personal experiences and vision.

Our days in Atlanta, prior to the scheduled Alabama visit, were a great occasion to spend some quality time with Mr. Dial’s assemblages in person, and provided a precursory opportunity for us to experience the works of art that will inform the photography process.

The grueling temperature of the Georgian warehouse in July was a test of will, antiperspirant, and intellectual mettle, seemingly akin to a purification of the mind, body, soul, and spirit. The sweat lodge effect was less than ideal, but we clearly understood its role in the South and the appropriate lesson that was layered into our collective experience of Mr. Dial’s art.

The most provocative portion of our travel was the end of the week outing to Bessemer, Alabama to meet Mr. Dial…and the only opportunity we had to interview and photograph him at the Dial Metal Patterns facility.

There was no guarantee I would have the opportunity, but my hope was to photograph him in his studio for publishing and media projects related to the exhibition.

Accompanied by collector Bill Arnett, Kathleen, Richard and I made the three-hour drive with anticipatory glee, as this was the moment to apply our research toward meaningful exchange and content creation efforts.

Due to the heat, we spent fewer moments as a group in the main workspace of the open-air building, but I was able to capture images of Mr. Dial’s studio space, as well as details of his art supplies, studio floor, etc. – anything that speaks to the artistic process, the artist’s intent, and can inform a broader portrait of the artist himself.

Although I was initially disappointed with his absence in the studio, we instead found ourselves gathered in a small air-conditioned office. This was a more comfortable, intimate space for conversation and I was awed by Mr. Dial’s quiet confidence, patience with both our questions and periodic bursts of my flash unit.

What caught my eye immediately was the United States map on the wall and I made quick work to ensure this element was included in a series of images while Richard and Kathleen interviewed him.

A succession of images followed during this period – his hands, shoes, expressions, etc., were all significant in building a visual narrative for multiple purposes at a later date. A single image from this grouping appears in the exhibition catalog, rendered as black and white, and the entire set of images has been posted to the IMA Flickr page.

Our time in Alabama with Mr. Dial, his wonderful family, and Bill Arnett only spanned a few hours, but it was clear we were in the presence of an American treasure – a soft spoken genius of intellect and creative purpose. His truth is our truth, as difficult as it may be; it is a truth worth telling.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Photography, Road Trip, Thornton Dial

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