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Behold: Ken Abbott

In collaboration with Slate's photo blog, Behold, we are extending the conversation with some of their featured photographers and curators.

The first time Ken Abbott visited Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, North Carolina, was with his daughter on a preschool class trip. Abbott had recently moved to North Carolina from Colorado so his wife could complete her residency in family medicine. He had worked as a photographer back in Colorado for 15 years, but because his wife was working upward of 90 hours a week, he spent a lot of time with his daughter, which didn’t leave him much time to seek out photography projects. But something changed during that visit.

“I saw it as an opportunity to photograph a beautiful place,” he said. “And not just wandering around to look for pictures I really didn’t have time to do.”

You will find some extra Q&A below and can read the original Slate interview here.

Ken Abbott, the book  Useful Work.

Ken Abbott, the book Useful Work.

How did the project evolve from a series into a book?
Very slowly!

Initially, I just saw photographing at the Big House at Hickory Nut Gap Farm (the former Sherrill’s Inn) as a fascinating and unusual opportunity. It was fascinating because of the history of the house and family, but also because of the evidence everywhere in the house of the depth and engagement of the lives lived there in the previous ninety years. It took me a while to know the stories and learn the history, but my sense of the extraordinary quality of that life, generally, was immediate, and I knew I wanted to get to the bottom of how it worked if I could.
 
A friend once remarked they thought the reason I liked photographing there was so I could hang out with the family in that beautiful place – just so I’d have a reason to be there. That’s not far from the truth. I never really thought of the pictures as a series. They were just a way of working out what it was that I was drawn to – this sense that I was seeing evidence of something important and true, as well as beautiful, and that I could photograph there.

The unusual aspect of the opportunity was how open the house was to me, a photographer. The tradition of the family over the previous fifty years or so was always to be welcoming, inclusive, and accessible. I love to tell the story of my first visit to photograph. I knocked and knocked but no one came to the door. When I’d finally made enough racket that they couldn’t ignore me any longer, John Ager, the owner, finally swung the door open and said, “Why are you knocking? Just come in!”  I told him I’d like to photograph inside of his house and he told me to help myself! No further questions.
 
Needless to say they had no concerns about presenting the house, rich in its evidence of their very busy lives, as anything other than what it was. People ask me, now that the book is out, whether the family likes the book. They do, and it is because, “I showed the house the way it was”, without pretense.
 
So I was amassing quite a stack of what I felt were good pictures, but as I said, they’d been made with very little thought as to what they could or should become. Eventually I realized that along with that stack I was building up a responsibility to share what I had gathered. The family’s generosity with my nosy photo making needed to be repaid. That was at least part of why it became a book. Of course, I’m of a generation of photographers to whom books are the most important way of sharing and completing work so it was a natural progression.
 
The decision to make a book, naturally created the need to formalize my approach to the work. I had to decide what my book would be – a coffee table, photo based biography of the family and history of the farm and its pre-history as Sherrill’s Inn; or an artist’s monograph. There were pictures I needed to make in order to do either of those things. If a biography and history I would need to make sure I had pictures of all the salient material and also a good command of the history. I pursued this idea – an illustrated history – for a year or so, during which I researched collections of historical pictures from the farm and the Farmers Federation (which started there) and videotaped interviews with members of the family and community. But I decided that the family really wasn’t interested in having a biographer; and also, and perhaps more importantly I discovered I wasn’t really interested in turning my pleasure of discovery there – making pictures primarily to please myself – into the chore of illustrating a certain history, regardless of how important that history might be.
 
So it became a monograph. This decided, my project needed focus, and so in thinking about the pictures that meant the most to me, I decided I was primarily attracted to the beauty of the house, which was the legacy of the family matriarch, really. Jim and Elizabeth McClure had bought the old inn in 1916 and transformed it into their family home. Elizabeth was a painter, and had been educated in France prior to World War I, in Giverney, where she and her classmates could walk into the field adjacent to their school and watch Claude Monet painting the haystacks. Jim, her husband, was a minister from a long and distinguished line of ministers, educated at Yale and Oxford. They both had a strong faith in the power they held to help others, and felt a duty to carry it out, which was a legacy of their time and upbringing. This faith led Jim to found the Farmers Federation, which was an important agricultural and educational cooperative in the region. Elizabeth, the artist, proclaimed her faith in beauty, which she believed was essential to human spiritual as well as material development. The house and gardens at Hickory Nut Gap Farm are her legacy, really.
 
Talk about your relationship to the publisher and that influence on the editing of the book?
 
My decision to self-publish came as a result of a long learning curve about what publishers do and don’t do for photographers. Unlike in a book of writing, costs for a photo book are very high per copy, so typically the photographer or someone other than the publisher has to come up with a large pile of money in order to print a book. I did establish a relationship with two publishers in the course of deciding to self-publish, and learned in a slow and frustrating way that for this book self-publishing was the best choice. Working with the two publishers (one after the other, not at the same time) ate up several years of time, and interestingly, during that period of time, self-publishing sort of came into its own in photography and elsewhere. Technology was responsible for a lot of that but also the particular issues relevant to photo books, stated previously – the cost, and who comes up with the money. Ultimately, for me it made no sense to provide $30,000 to a publisher who would edit and design my book (and to whom my editing and design choices would play second fiddle) and then when it came out would also own all but forty or so of the books. Instead, I was able to raise about $40,000, and hire my book packager and pick the press and pay them (and travel to Italy so I could be on press with the book), and own all 1,500 when it was done.
 
Though I was warned by the irritated publisher I fired that my book would be disrespected by the academic world because it was self-published, I felt that for my particular book and its audience that would make little difference (if it was true at all). For my pride a prestigious academic publisher would have been a feather in my cap, but it didn’t make any sense for the book otherwise, especially in distribution, which is frankly where many small publishers fail.
 
 Did you find the completion of the book to be a tidy end to the project?
 

Speaking of distribution, a “tidy end” is probably easier if you leave that up to others, but you might end up not getting as many of the books out there, and you pay a hefty percentage to them. We all want to believe that our books will sell like hotcakes. Mine has done pretty well, but I am not even half way through the print run and the pace of sales has slowed down pretty thoroughly now, just a year after its release, despite how successful the book and project have been in being recognized on blog sites and reviews and such, like this present opportunity. Turning that recognition into book sales is a trick, it seems. Maybe that’s because of who is looking at the sites – maybe people don’t want to collect books as much these days. For me books are still the ultimate form for photography though, and I love having photo books that were made to be held and appreciated as the finished product from an artist.

I’m traveling an exhibit of the project, too, and hope that will generate sales. I also sell books locally at farm related and arts related stores and events, when I can.
 
In terms of being an end to the project, yes, I think a book is a good way to end a project. You do need to move on and do new work, and though when I return to the farm these days to visit or restock my freezer with grass-fed beef and pastured pork I might see things I want to photograph, I usually don’t, unless I can feel the pictures will become part of more current work.

Ken Abbott, the book  Useful Work.

Ken Abbott, the book Useful Work.

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Collector Scoop: Colony Little

Collector Scoop is a blog series of interviews and features on emerging and established art collectors. Today, we are happy to share a conversation with Colony Little of Culture Shock Art about how her collection got started.

Can you share your background with us and how you got into collecting art? Do you remember the first piece of art that you bought?

I created Culture Shock Art in 2010 as a passion project and a creative outlet from my career as an underwriter for an insurance company.  At the time I was drawn to street art I’d discover during my commute to downtown Los Angeles and I came across this incredible JR mural from his Wrinkles of the City series.  I had no idea who created the piece, so my quest to learn more about the artist/photographer led me to his TED Talk and I ended up writing about him on the blog.  JR’s career trajectory and the work he’s created to visually capture the stories of thousands of people around the world was fascinating to witness.  I ended up buying one of his early lithographs in 2011.  Since then I’ve collected art that is best described as eclectic.  My husband and I collect illustrations, graphic art, vinyl records (I love Blue Note covers), photography and low brow art. We have three pieces of art floating around here inspired by the show Arrested Development. I love them simply because they make me laugh!  

Image from personal collection of Colony Little (Left to Right) Graham Erwin,  I am a Monster!  2012 ; Ralph Ziman,  Mbara Bara , 2014

Image from personal collection of Colony Little
(Left to Right) Graham Erwin, I am a Monster! 2012 ; Ralph Ziman, Mbara Bara, 2014

How do you think that collecting contributes to the artistic community?

Patrons are the fuel that keep artistic communities running.  I’m inspired by creative collectives of artists, writers, designers, musicians and collectors that build synergies to support one another. During the past 5 years, L.A. has seen an artistic evolution taking place among creatives that drove the growth of the Arts District.  This in turn has resulted in a huge uptick in gallery openings there.  In my early years of writing and collecting I found the gallery system exclusive and limiting, but now those barriers to access are slowly disappearing as technology and media encourage galleries to create more open and (somewhat) democratic spaces for building communities.  Additionally, artist-run spaces are cultivating stronger bonds among artists, the community and future collectors. For example, I love what’s happening in Leimert Park--the Hammer Museum has partnered with artist Mark Bradford at Art + Practice and I’m also inspired by Michelle Papillion’s groundbreaking work at Papillion.   

Your career as an arts writer has allowed you the opportunity to discover many established and emerging artists. Has there been a situation where your career lead you to collecting art from a new artist or a similar experience?

When I worked in the insurance industry roughly 1/3 of the business my company produced came from high net worth individuals, and many of them were collectors of fine art.  This afforded me opportunities to interact with collectors, artists and galleries at fairs.  In the early years of Culture Shock Art I would use the blog to research and write about artists that I collected or wanted to collect.  Now that I’m writing exclusively, my wish list of art to collect has grown but my bank account hasn’t!  With that said, there is fantastic art that can be had at any price point. I’m amazed at the growth rate of art purchased on-line in the past few years.  Also, events like L.A.’s Incognito at the old Santa Monica Museum of Art (now known as the ICA and is moving downtown) are a good example of leveling the playing field between emerging and established collectors. 

Incognito was a fundraising event disguised as a fun artistic experiment--hundreds of works of art donated by emerging and well known artists were placed on display, each piece priced the same.  The catch was that the identity of the artist was hidden, so you could potentially walk away with an Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari or Catherine Opie if you were lucky.  At the end of the day there was no wrong choice because you were ideally basing your decision on instinct and love for the piece.  That’s how we came to own a work by Rena Small.  It is one of my favorite photographs because my husband chose it and he was not familiar with her work at all.  Years later we were at the Norton Simon museum and he came across one of her photos of Basquiatthat was part of her “Artists Hands” series in 1985.  Moments of serendipity lead us to beautiful discoveries!

Rena Small,  Untitled , 2012

Rena Small, Untitled, 2012

What are your favorite resources for discovering new artists?

Hands down Instagram! You can find me @cultureshockart

It has been an amazing platform to virtually interact with artists while getting a behind the scenes look into their lives and their process.  Many of the relationships I’ve cultivated through Instagram have turned into friendships and great collaborations.  Years later I'm still obsessed with Instagram because it is a convergence of all the things I love (art, coffee, handbags, records, photography and dogs). To satisfy my wanderlust, I’ll follow someone like photographer Rick Poon and for creative inspiration I love fashion designers like Duro Olowu and Reuben Reul.  Kim Drew @museummammy curates amazing work by black artists on her blog Black Contemporary Art.  My queen of kawai is Hana Kim @supahcute who introduced me to some amazing work by Martin Hsu (@martinhsuart) and for a shot of pure colorful joy, I love the photography of Kimberly Genevieve (@kimgenevieve).  Another great resource for collectors is One Art Nation.  They have a very informative video series on topics ranging from the art market to protecting your collection.  

Yoichi Kawamura,  Untitled , 2012

Yoichi Kawamura, Untitled, 2012

Do you have any advice for emerging or aspiring art collectors?

Collectors are largely driven by status, investment or love for the art.  Always stick with love and your instincts! One of the goals of my blog is to make art accessible for my readers because many close friends and family struggle with contemporary art and feel that it is intimidating.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Whether I’m in a museum, gallery, art fair or a studio I don’t try to make sense of everything I see.  I simply trust my gut and ask questions.  What are you drawn to?  What does the piece remind you of?  Does the work make you happy, sad, angry, confused? Allow yourself to go with those simple questions and keep asking why.  If I find myself thinking about a piece days after I’ve seen it, I know I am onto an artist or work that I want to learn about and explore more deeply.   

Learn more about Colony Little and Culture Shock Art
Are you an emerging or established art collector and interested in being featured? Email Rachael at rachael@crusadeforart.org

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Behold: Ruben Natal-San Miguel

In collaboration with Slate's photo blog, Behold, we are extending the conversation with some of their featured photographers and curators.

Ruben Natal-San Miguel might be one of the hardest working people out there. The trained architect turned to photography after the September 11 attacks in New York City. “The world became more of the moment,” Natal-San Miguel said to Slate in a 2013 story. “Photography became a passion to collect as an art media and for me (a medium) to communicate all the activities, the costumes and traditions of everyday life.” Using mostly a bicycle to get around his beloved New York City, Natal-San Miguel’s photographs of the people he encounters are intimate, sometimes alluring, other times provocative, and always overflowing with emotion. He has also curated a number of shots including the current one on view at Station Independent Projects in New York titled “WE:AMEricans” that asks (and answers) the question: what does it mean to be an American? We caught up with Natal-San Miguel before he left for Boston and the Griffin Museum; he has work included in The Peter Urban Legacy Exhibition.

You will find some extra Q&A below and can read the original Slate interview here.

Ruben Natal-San Miguel,  AMEricano (selfie) , 2013, Rockaway, Queens. Image Source:  Slate

Ruben Natal-San Miguel, AMEricano (selfie), 2013, Rockaway, Queens. Image Source: Slate

You work as both a photographer and a curator. Talk a bit about wearing both hats.
 
It can be quite challenging. The amount of time that you spend curating takes away from working on your personal work, which, it is sort of taking off. It is a tough act to balance but, there is a great learning curve that can be applied to your own personal work while curating.

I am fortunate enough that every single curated show I have been the creative director of so, it gives me the freedom to create the concept theme, select the works, and create installations with it .
 
What do you feel are some of the major changes in the art world these days?
 
I think that artists need to be very careful in selecting from the opportunities listed out there. There are a ton of competitions, call for entries etc, etc out there now (which it is a positive thing) but, most of then have turn into fundraising events for institutions which are considered non-profit. Yet, the artists are subjected to spending tons of money just enter and and participate with no guarantees. I only charged $25.00 per five entry photos, kept the exhibition's print size small (so printing and framing will be affordable and more accessible) and even referred a very affordable master printer to keep costs down for artists. To print, frame and ship a print with return label (besides entry andorganization membership fees) can be extremely expensive for most artists. Something needs to be done about it.

The art dealers and galleries are at times more conservative and afraid to take chances on new work, so when I curate exhibitions, I try to bring and combine selected new work with more established big names. In doing this, the dialogue between both has a great learning curve and more impact. It also inspires and motivates newer talent to do their best to have great image quality on the wall. The established artists benefit also because they tend to resonate well with the press, fan following/audience, reviews and any type of show coverage. It is a Win -Win.
 
How would you like to change things in the art world?

It is very important to give a voice to new talent.
                                     Hope Will Never Be Silent.
                                                            -Harvey Milk
 
You are a prolific photographer. How has your work evolved over the years and where do you want to take it?
 
After more than a decade photographing the five Boroughs of NYC non-stop, I am approaching communities in nearby states to see how they mirror each other in terms of gentrification, street life, and sense of community.

The good news is that my work is reaching and getting museum attention. I am currently on display at the Alice Austen Museum on their First Triennial of Photography , The Griffin Museum of Photography, The African American Museum of Philadelphia ( 10/1/16-1/30/17)  and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I also just recently just taught a photo seminar based on the Rashaad Newsome exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem where the work was shot live and displayed.

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