PCA&D hosts photographer and cultural activist Lonnie Graham Feb. 4

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Thursday, January 21st, 2021

For photographer and cultural activist Lonnie Graham, the immediacy of his chosen medium has the potential to “defy comprehension.”

It can, he says, “articulate a narrative that has the capacity to surpass literature in terms of its capacity to describe.”

A Pew Fellow and Professor of Visual Art at Penn State University, Graham also serves as Executive Director of the PhotoAlliance in San Francisco. His Virtual Artist Talk, on February 4 at noon, is open to the College community as well as the general public. The event is co-sponsored by the Photography & Video Department and BLAC, PCA&D’s Black Led Art Coalition.

Virtual Artist Talk: Lonnie Graham, Thursday, February 4, noon. 

As a cultural activist he created the African/American Garden Project, a cultural exchange between urban mothers and Kenyan farmers. His current project, “A Conversation with the World,” is an ongoing project meant to illustrate our common humanity, and a book prompted by the project has been published by Datz Press. His innovative projects have been cited as a national model for arts education and have been the subject of a Harvard case study. A four-time Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowship recipient, Graham was cited as Artist of the Year and presented the Governor’s Award by former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell. And he’s received a National Endowment for the Arts/Pew Charitable Trust Travel Grant for travel to Ghana.

During Graham’s virtual visit to PCA&D’s campus, he’ll follow his Artist Talk with a virtual lunch meeting with BLAC members, and an interview with Into the Darkroom podcast hosts Emily Reifsnyder ’22 and William Metzinger IV ’21, both Photography & Video majors, that will be released at a later date.

You spend much of your time teaching. does that experience lend something new to your own practice?
LG: Teaching and learning are reciprocal. A good teacher is constantly in the process of learning. Information and experiences that are gleaned from that reciprocal process undoubtedly constitute a resource that is invaluable. Working with individuals in an attempt to solve problems or helping individuals understand the depth of their own contribution to the society through their own artistic practice is an endeavor that helped me gain insight into my personal resource while I am able to provide and share information with individuals that I encounter.
Was photography always “your” medium? 
LG: While taking drawing lessons at the Cleveland Art Museum in the early 1960s I was fascinated by the traditional photographs on view in the vitrines in the hall of prints. I spent a great deal of time studying the work of who I now understand were masters of photography. Even though when I was young I aspired to make a contribution to the field of painting, I gradually understood the level of visual fluency that I possessed in photography. photography also had a greater breadth and deeper potential than I estimated at the time. Given the fact that I have been working in photography since the late 1950s with the advent of the Polaroid Land process and subsequent awards I would receive in competitions in the late 1960s, I was encouraged to continue along the lines of photographic expression.
Also … photography is much more immediate, almost instantaneous, in its capacity to immediately articulate visual statements from the artist. If the machine is at hand, the photographer can instantaneously describe the scene in detail that defies comprehension and articulate a narrative that has the capacity to surpass literature in terms of its capacity to describe.
Given the vast potential, its immediacy, and its enormous flexibility, I felt photography was an area that I might be able to make a substantive contribution — especially given the fact that the medium was less than 200 years old. Painting has existed since the inception of our species.
Are you finding students increasingly receptive to — or inspired by — the potential role of artists as agents of change?
LG: I find the level of student response commensurate to the level of interest or investment in the subject. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make a blanket statement about all the students that I encounter. I find students matriculating in various institutions and various grade levels can possess varying degrees of commitment to the subject. In some classes  I have taught in some parts of the world, it has taken months to get through the course material, while that same material presented in other institutions were digested and acted upon in the course of an afternoon. Again, so much depends on choices and priorities of administrations of these institutions and how much is given to the potential contribution of the arts.
You can check out Graham’s TEDxPSU talk, “Art as Tradition in Modern Culture,” below: