The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed down Associate Professor of Art/Photography Dan Farnum, who continues to exhibit and publish his images at home and abroad. One of Farnum’s most recent works is included in the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) exhibition traveling across the United Kingdom.
Farnum’s contribution to the RPS’s International Photography Exhibition 162 is a print taken from his recent book Young Blood: Growing Up in Michigan’s Auto Towns (2009-2019):
This subject captured my attention while I was visiting a DIY skateboard park adjacent to downtown Detroit. I was creating portraits of skaters while they were taking a breather. This guy was off to the side and looked like he was deeply in his own thoughts.
I make a point to talk with the subjects of my photographs to make sure I learn about them and so they can understand why I am photographing. During the conversation, the skateboarder revealed that his father just passed away. My own father died at about the same age. We talked about how skateboarding was cathartic before I eventually created this portrait.
Launched at the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA’s PS1 venue in 2019, Young Blood is a series of images created over the course of 10 years that explore adolescence in the context of deindustrialization in his home state.
According to Farnum, “the portraits in my book are a way to challenge stereotypes of cities like Detroit and Flint that are often depicted as vacant, destroyed and dangerous.” Through Farnum’s lens, readers/viewers come to see, instead, “the potential and energy in the region’s young people as communities fight for a better future.”
Voice and perspective
What drew Farnum to photography in the first place and keeps him both developing his art and teaching with such energy and enthusiasm?
First off, Farnum commented, “I love that the medium is accessible to a lot of people. It gives individuals the chance to have an artistic voice and to contribute their perspective.”
Second, Farnum is attracted to the fact that photography is “often a misunderstood and slippery medium.” Rather than being a shortcoming, however, he believes this condition “allows for the possibility of subjective approaches to documenting places and situations. I see this as a strength of this discipline.”
“I also enjoy the immediacy of a photograph, which is powerful,” said Farnum. “I do not mean that photography is an instantaneous process (not the case). I am talking about the immediacy of seeing a portrait with a high level of clarity or the ability to quickly respond and adapt to current events happening around you as a maker.”
Tulsa: New home, old bones
Drawing on these multifaceted elements of photography and overlapping with the conclusion of Young Blood, Farnum’s next major project Centennial: Tulsa, OK (2018-current) – is also concerned with cities, decay and revivals. The early steps on this quest were, appropriately enough, carried out while Farnum was a Tulsa Artist Fellow (2019-20).
“Both projects have gentrification as at least part of the underlying themes, and both touch on issues of the past and present of the two different regions,” said Farnum. “Both are also about economic challenges, stereotypes and social divisions — just done differently.”
With Centennial, a version of which was published as a zine by Walls Divide Press, Farnum is responding to the changing landscape and communities that have historical connections to the Tulsa Race Massacre and Indigenous communities, as well as, more broadly, to class and economic divisions. “In this work, I investigate locations, people, and items in parts of our city that are rapidly changing, such as in the Arts District, Greenwood and parts of Kendall-Whittier. Through this series,” he continued, “I wanted to acknowledge a complicated past as well as the need for including community members and preserving regional history during an era that seems hyper-focused on the future.”
Widely published and exhibited in the United States and around the world, as well as the recipient of numerous awards, Farnum’s lens cap is never on for long. His current projects include additional images related to Centennial, wrapping up another long-term project in Los Angeles called Syndicated and, most recently, a new series that is being worked on in his Tulsa neighborhood during the pandemic.
Alongside these creative endeavors, Farnum is also enthusiastic about his role as a teacher, both in terms of what it brings to his students and his own work as an artist. “I can convey my professional experiences to the classroom for students, while also being inspired by the energy of the talented people in my courses,” he noted. “Teaching helps keep me excited and engaged in contemporary art, which in turn fosters ambition and goal-setting for students.” For Farnum, the classroom is a “communal venue,” a dynamic space “where ideas can be born, explored, shared and discussed.”
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