Editor’s Note: Read related interviews in the George Floyd: In Memoriam roundup.
Editor's Note: Read the Picture This Post review of Stephen Marc's recent book-- AMERICANS/TRUE COLORS here.
We are pleased to note that while this story was in production, Mr. Marc was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
Stephen Marc—Street photographer, Professor, and Author — is well known for his photography and digital montage artistry. Marc has been awarded with the 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship award. Recently his book American/True colors is likely to be known by an extensive audience.
Marc shares with Picture This Post readers that “ I felt it important to create an inclusive record of who we are as Americans from a Black perspective” Here Picture This Post (PTP) asks Stephen Marc (SM) to elaborate on his expertise of digital art that explores the complex nature of Americans. Through his photography we receive insight into the history of America and the Black experience.
( PTP) How have current events such as the #BLM movement affected the process of taking these photos and choosing which ones to add to your book?
(SM) This project started before the Black Lives Matter Movement was founded, but BLM has certainly become significant in the resurgence of Black activism in this country. The Black Lives Matter Movement, and the BLM slogan have served as an important wake-up call that has gained widespread support and international solidarity, greatly impacting how we define ourselves and recognize each other.
As part of the social justice continuum, BLM feels like a welcomed resurgence of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s and 1960s, that also built on the anti-slavery movements and the continuous post-Civil War struggles for racial equality, that surged after World Wars I and II, when Black soldiers returned home to the United States after distinguishing themselves abroad. Black Lives Matter has provided an infusion of fresh blood, new ideas, and different tactics; and only time will tell how the system will be changed, and what it will take to defend those gains.
Current events were a driving force for the project, because they set the mood and tone, and provided time-specific markers in the established routines of the country. There were many times when local events in Arizona gained national attention or paralleled what was happening in other parts of the nation.
There are 250 photographs in the book as an advance nod to this country becoming 250-years-old in 2026. The sequence became filled out about 5 years ago, so as I continued to make photographs, something had to be taken out for a new image to be included. The book began to have an identifiable character that continued to age, marinate, and mature over time. Although I made photographs in 2020 that I liked, there weren’t images that fit in or replaced ones already in the sequence. I don’t even want to think of how many photographs I made in order to create this book.While living with the work, I continually edited and reevaluated my selections trying to balance representation of diversity, region, types of events, et cetera. Photographing at home in Arizona provided a framework for creating work on the road.
This was a major reason for pursuing this project. Every major historical advancement of the Black community in this county has been followed with a backlash response. Take a look at the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction, the national riots when Black troops returned home after both World Wars, and the reaction to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. After Obama was elected president, which was mistakenly referred to as “the post-racial era” by several political commentators, I braced myself for what was going to happen next. For example, how the 15th Amendment (ratified in1870), had to be reinforced by the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent amendments; and now in 2021, while Congress is debating the John L. Lewis Voting Right Act, numerous states are trying to create election and voting rights legislation that will negatively impact voters of color.
What motivated/inspired you to create American/True Colors?
The country has been going through some rapid changes, including a major shift in demographics, and this was before upheavals of 2020. Although there have been other projects exploring the nation, I felt that reinvestigating who we are as Americans (how we define ourselves and recognize each other) was warranted. When a project is completed, it is easy to talk about how it happened with a great deal of confidence that in hindsight makes all the sense in the world. In reality, it is an evolving process, where more than once, I was already working on a project before recognizing it. This was the case with American/True Colors, where the first sparks happened while I was completing my third book, Passage on the Underground Railroad.
The book is a homage and update to the earlier American projects, but it is also a critical reevaluation of that work. We are living in a very different time from the earlier surveys, and how I see this country, and how this country sees me is quite different than the photographers that I have researched. During this project, it has often been suggested that I focus my documentation on Black America, but I felt it important to create an inclusive record of who we are as Americans from a Black perspective. In 1992, I published my second book: The Black Trans-Atlantic Experience: Street Life and Culture in Ghana, Jamaica, England, and the United States. It was a contemporary documentation of four countries heavily involved in the British colonial slave trade. As an African American, these were all possible places where I could have found myself today.
American/True Colors was created in response to several seminal American surveys including: Walker Evans mid-1930’s American Photographs and most notably Robert Frank’s mid-1950’s project The Americans Photographs, and the American work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark, and group documentary efforts like the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project.
It was extremely important for me, a Black photographer, at this time to create an overview of who we are as Americans, not just a perspective on Black America. How I see America is different than the seminal American survey photographers, and there is an even greater difference in how the country sees me.It is a little disappointing how often people suggested that instead of creating a diverse and inclusive overview of American life, that I limit my documentation to the African American community (which is also important). But, I wanted to address the Black community within American culture, not in isolation;
Because there is no American history without Black history.
How do you hope this body of work will interact with the public when American/True Colors comes out?
One of the first things is for the art world to provide greater visibility, representation, and voice to artists of color especially beyond the cultural heritage designated months. Currently, these multicultural and diversity recognition venues are still necessary, but the work is valid all year long. Within this, artists should be recognized for a diverse range of work, including having the freedom to develop a personal vision. Hopefully artists, especially those of color will answer the call to interpret socially and culturally significant issues.
As a photographer, I approach the medium as a way to bear witness, sharing a byproduct of my experiences and ideas. The medium is subtractive, meaning you have to recognize and select from what is there. But later, there are different ways to sequence and combine images for visual storytelling. There is an old saying that “history is written by the conquerors,” and I like to add, and also by a few of the survivors. While/after introducing the work to the public, I want the book to have its own life. It’s not really about me, but an America that I have had the privilege to observe and photographs that were created. I was thinking about producing a snapshot that helps to explain how this country got to this point.
I want people to see the America that they know, and additionally to recognize the diversity and complexity of this nation that goes beyond their neighborhood and comfort zone. The purpose isn’t to be confrontational, but informative and celebratory, while recognizing the issues and problems that this country faces. I am very relieved that this book became a reality, and grateful to the people who made it possible.
I look forward to exhibitions, lecture presentations, and opportunities like this for the work to be recognized and reviewed.
What is the aim of ensuring images span from people/places included in your book?
I grew up in the Midwest, and went to school on the East and West coasts. Additional travels introduced me to the South. Because of my experiences, I knew that regional character, ethnic and racial diversity needed to be represented in my inclusive overview of America.
The oldest photograph was Obama on the campaign trail at Arizona State University in 2007. But, it wasn’t until between 2011-2013 that the project began to really take shape.However, this project was limited to the “Lower 48,” and there were several states that I visited that are not included in the book.
I was interested in creating a balance, photographing people/places that provided an inclusive representation of who we are as Americans, documenting public space gatherings from protests, and celebrations, to everyday life. Some of the events I was already aware of, while others I found out about through research, people’s suggestions, and being in the right place.
They were both planned and discovered along the way. You can identify a place or event to look at, but until you are there, you don’t know what you will find. There is a point where the project revealed its own character that I had to recognize and respect. I was always researching for what made sense as the next place or event.
While visiting family in Baltimore, I watched the news concerning the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina. I turned to my cousin and said “I know I just got here, but I have to go.” She answered with a matter of fact “I know.” Often I make trips with one or more planned events, leaving healthy amounts of time to explore a region.
What were your thoughts as you compiled images in terms of balancing street photography with pictures of celebrities?
Of course, celebrities became an important part of the project, and I was very fortunate to cross paths with them. At some events they were just participants, at other times they were central to the event, but I wasn’t trying to force celebrities into the project. Due to security measures, there were several occasions where the presence of celebrities made it more difficult to photograph.
One special moment was photographing Congressman John Lewis at the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders in the historic Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station (now a museum). He was a defining figure at both that event and to an even greater extent “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. While being bombarded with admirers, there was an unexpected lull in activities which left the two of us alone for an unexplainable couple of minutes. It was short, but a warm and personable conversation with a wonderful man that I will always remember.
More than celebrities, I was aware of including situational friends; people who think and act differently than I do. I am grateful to them not only for allowing me to photograph, but for interacting with me, so I had a better understanding of what I was encountering. And yes, I know that one-on-one is different from group dynamics. Although I already had some idea, I really appreciated when one of my situational friends made it a point for me to recognize how complex and nuanced the events could be.
Do you think a photo book on this topic could have been produced at any other time than now?
The book was in production during the summer of 2020 and physically on press during the election. The final editing, designing, and physical printing of the book were completed during the pandemic. The finished copy was handed to me two days before Christmas. Although the last photographs in the book came from 2019, there are several 2020 photographs in two of the “American Gumbo” montages that accompany the text sections.
During the pandemic, I focused on “woodshedding.” I was able to virtually travel from city-to-city editing photographs from my archive taken over the last few years to create new work that I informally refer to as the “street story montages.”
In some ways, Yes, there have been several seminal and/or significant American photographic surveys already produced. But it was time for another chapter to reevaluate who we are as Americans, so I chose to do this project in response to those surveys as an homage, update, and critique of the earlier work.
But on the other hand, No! American/True Colors couldn’t have been produced at any other time. because it is specifically a documentation of this time, and more importantly by me, an African American photographer at a certain stage of my life, who over the years, has traveled a great deal around the country. In comparison to the earlier photographers, how I see this country is different, and equally important is how America sees me. This was what I jokingly refer to as an AARP journey, because this wasn’t an early career exploration of America.
Please tell Picture This Post readers about your personal and professional background.
I am Professor of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, who is a documentary/street photographer and digital montage artist. Raised between Chicago and Champaign, IL, I began teaching at ASU in 1998, following 20 years at Columbia College Chicago. My current book: American/True Colors (2020) addresses who we are as Americans in a polarized country with changing demographics, from an African American perspective. My three earlier books include: Urban Notions (1983), addressing the three Illinois communities where I had family ties; The Black Trans-Atlantic Experience: Street Life and Culture in Ghana, Jamaica, England, and the United States (1992); and Passage on the Underground Railroad (2009): digital composites that provide insight the historic sites, the institution of slavery and the freedom seekers. My family frequently teased me about being a curious kid, who even lost a babysitter because I asked too many questions.
One of my oldest and closest friends who has been an artist since the day he was born (creating his own cartoon characters when he was four), was the only person who wasn’t surprised when I made the commitment to photography. His words were “You’ve been a photographer as long as I’ve known you, it’s about time you learned how to use a camera!” So even though my exposure to photography didn’t come until the end of high school, the medium provided me with an invaluable by-product from my experiences that I can share.
There were numerous hurdles to overcome at the beginning of my career, and still a few hurdles that remain. There is never enough time or money to create work, you have to creatively adapt and learn to work within your limitations.
Another major hurdle was dealing with people who tell you that you can’t do something. I have encountered this concerning almost everything I have attempted to do seriously. If you still want to do it, my advice is to find out why they are doubters, in order to come up with a successful strategy for yourself, and then go for it. You have to believe in yourself.
Getting used to rejections, is like losing in sports (have a tough ego and move forward by doing something about it), believe me, this never changes. Realize that only successes are listed on the resume; the rejections are a private matter between you and your ego. Hustling to get exhibitions, because I’m not an art star with people knocking down my door. I often joke around that I will do anything to get my work out of the house. I am very grateful to many of the university/college venues and alternative gallery spaces.
Any highlights from your career or comments that you would like to share with our readers?
1- Securing teaching positions at Columbia College Chicago (1978) and Arizona State University (1998)
2- Publishing four books, currently planning number five
3- Receiving several grants, awards, and commissions, (including the 79th Street Red Line CTA Station public art commission in Chicago, the SPE Insight Award, an Arts Midwest/NEA and three Illinois Artist Fellowships, and an 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art)
4- Passage on the Underground Railroad being accepted as an Interpretative program of the Network to Freedom of the National Park Service (first and only in the state of Arizona)
Just a few tips
1) Role reversal: when you are in school studying art/photography, you don’t have time to be a student, approach your work seriously as a professional; but once you are out of school, never forget that you are a student for the rest of your life.
2) Especially for artists/photographers, choose your friends wisely, and especially who you marry. They need to understand what you are trying to accomplish.
3) Being an artist/photographer is a process where you have to find the things that you are curious about, and those things in life that are important to you. Create work about them, not only when it is convenient, but often in spite of everything else happening in your life.
4) As a photographer, you will constantly be questioned and challenged about what you are doing. Before going out, stop and think about who people will see: dressed that way, carrying that type of equipment, and walking into that particular community. It also helps to carry examples of your work; sometimes showing goes a lot further than telling.
5) Talk to people, otherwise you won’t know where you are and/or where you’ve been; especially if you want societal change. But as a photographer, you have to remember that you can’t just talk about a picture.