SwatTalk: A Conversation with Two Guggenheim Fellows
with Professor Steven Hopkins and Associate Professor Ron Tarver
"Laments, Loss, the Black West, and Reimagining a Father's Photographs"
Recorded on Wednesday, May 18, 2022
Dina Zingaro ’13 Welcome, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to tonight's SwatTalks, Laments, Loss, the Black West and Re-imagining a Father's Photographs: A Conversation with Two Guggenheim Fellows. My name is Dina Zingaro. I am a graduate from the Class of 2013 and a member of the Alumni Council. I help to run our initiative, SwatTalks, which is a monthly virtual speaker series featuring alumni and faculty. Tonight, I will be providing brief introductions for our two speakers this evening, before handing it over to them for remarks about their respective projects. The second half of our evening will be dedicated to your questions, so please submit your questions using the chat feature. Please, don't forget to include your name and class year. We always like to sort of share those as we read your questions. As a reminder, tonight's session will be recorded and you can find it on the SwatTalks recording webpage, and it will be up within the next two to three weeks. You can also find our previous SwatTalks up on our webpage. So with that, I have the pleasure of introducing our two speakers tonight, Prof. Steven Hopkins and Prof. Ron Tarver. Both were honored last April with Guggenheim Fellowships and were selected, along with 182 other artists, writers, scholars, and scientists, out of nearly 3,000 applicants. Prof. Hopkins is the Mari S. Michener Professor of Religion at the College. He is a scholar and translator of medieval Sanskrit and Tamil devotional poetry, and has written three books for Oxford University Press on the poetry and poetics of the 14th century South Indian philosopher, Vedantadesika. He has also published widely in the area of comparative religious literatures, including the themes of love, ideal bodies, and particularity, lamentation as ethical witness, and female lament in the poetry of William Blake. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEH, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and was awarded the 2010 A.K. Ramanujan, sorry for butchering that, Book Prize for translation and the Eisner Prize in Literature for poetry at UC Berkeley in 1986. Prof. Hopkins is currently working on a comparative study of women's laments in early Greek, Greek Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist literatures, and on four manuscripts of poetry. Prof. Hopkins was also my thesis advisor when I was at Swarthmore and is the reason I ended up majoring in religious studies at Swarthmore. So this is a distinct honor for me to be here tonight. Prof. Tarver is an Associate Professor of Art at the College. He received a B.A. in Journalism and Graphic Arts from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and an M.F.A from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Before joining the faculty at Swarthmore Prof. Tarver had been a staff photojournalist at "The Philadelphia Inquirer" for 32 years, where he shares a 2012 Pulitzer Prize. While at "The Inquirer" he was nominated for three additional Pulitzers and honored with awards from World Press Photos and the Sigma Delta Chi Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. He is co-author of the book "We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans," published by Harper Collins. Prof. Tarver is also a recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He has received funding and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Independence Foundation, and his fine art work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and is included in many museums, corporate and private collections, including the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Studio Museum in Harlem. So as you can tell from these bios, we have two wonderful speakers here tonight. And with that, I will turn it over to Prof. Hopkins. I believe you're starting.
Steven Hopkins Thank you so much, Dina, for inviting both of us here. It's a pleasure to see your face and to be a part of this with Prof. Tarver. Let me sort of read and talk through elements of the background of this particular project on lament. I've long been compelled by the poetry of lamentation, these powerful sort of literary forms of lament. Some of the earliest things that attracted me is in Homer in "The Iliad," those last three, those of you who are familiar with this, those last three laments at Hector's funeral that bring "The Iliad" to such a profoundly ambiguous close and so strangely unsettled the hero's narrative of glory and glorious death and war. Elements of particular love and intimacy and stories that you didn't hear in any other part of the epic appear in those last three laments. I've also been compelled for many years by women's rural laments, Greek women's rural laments in the work of ethnographer scholars such as Gail Holst-Warhaft and Loring Danforth, searing lyrics of human pain, particular love, and irrevocable loss, laments, or , experiences of pain for the dead that refuse closure. The employments of women's laments in presumably male-authored literary texts. I've been compelled for many years by Euripides's "The Trojan Women," which is a drama that is little more than a string of laments cried by captive women at Troy. The rich literature of lamentations of the Virgin Mary in Greek and Irish and Italian literatures. The Virgin, in Greek, mad with grief, crying in the cadences of "Medea." The Virgin in the Irish speckled notebook where her lament will never cease. The Virgin Mary who, her experience of the death of her son is such that it's not worth the redemption of all humankind, that kind of excessive loss and that kind of expression of excessive love. Rachel the lamenter in "Lamentations Rabbah," who weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted. It's seen by the rabbinic commentators to be the hidden origin of the male prophet's idiom of lament. This is how Jeremiah learned how to lament the exile of the Israelites and the loss of the temple, is when God takes him to the Cave of Patriarchs. The last person to speak, that God asks to speak in order to teach Jeremiah how to lament, is Rachel, Rachel. And what does she lament for? She laments out of sorrow for Leah, her sister, and for the loss of her children. And so this very particular kind of grief that's not abstract, that's not, "Okay, I'll lament exile and I'll lament the temple and Jerusalem." No, "I lament my sorrow that's familial and deep and particular." And then God looks at Jeremiah and says, "That's how one laments the exile of the Israelites." So this idea of particular love and the place of women behind these male texts and behind these male voices. The very end of "Beowulf" also, for those of you who know. And, you know, these examples are in literature. Literature's really been the key for me. At the very end of "Beowulf," you know, good old Beowulf, the hero's a narrative, the fierce hero, the stereotypical hero, the dragon slayer, and those of you who remember, the very end of "Beowulf" there's a Geat woman's lament that rises up just before, again, the funeral of Beowulf at the end of the piece. And this lament undoes everything that we've just tried to admire about Beowulf. It's a vision of the ruin created by Beowulf's hubris in slaying the dragon. It's a witness to loss. It's a witness to a comfortless future. Also, male lament in general, male crying and wailing. Again, maybe some of you are familiar with the very famous lament of David over the death of Saul and, most specifically, of Jonathan in the Hebrew Bible, whose love was wonderful to him, more than the love of women. That's one of the only true formal literary laments in the Hebrew Bible. It sticks out. We are given a story of the relationship and the love between David and Jonathan that we would've never guessed, or it was not part of the sort of heroic code and narrative in the other parts of the Book of Samuel. So those things have intrigued me. It caught my eye. The other thing for years I've been interested in is the Cappadocian, 4th century Father of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa. He wrote a spectacular treatise, where he himself is a character, on the death of his sister, Macrina. In this particular treatise, by this 4th century Christian Father, he depicts himself as helplessly weeping and mourning over the sister who is dying. Macrina, his sister, is a saint. She's dried up. She's doesn't eat. She's no longer menstruating. She's created a kind of transcendent body and she has her female followers around her, and there's her brother. And she tells her brother, "I'm going to God." In effect, she tells him, in so many words, "I'm no longer your sister. I have a new family and I'm going to join God in the next world." 4th century Christians are always thinking, "Ah, the end's gonna happen. It's gonna happen." But this genius of this, here's Gregory painting himself as a weeping brother, hopelessly crying. And again, part of the dynamic of the treatise is that he is so upset, so moved by threnos sung by the women, the laments. He can't stop weeping. His sister is dying. So at a certain point he says, "Well, what I can do, I can teach these women how to sing psalmos, psalms." So the entire sort of emotional structure of it is that here is a man who is strung between the sort of ritual certainty and consolation of psalmos, and then threnos keeps on erupting. At the end, after her death, one of her women followers leads him over to her body, lifts up the sheet, and shows him her scar under her left breast. And he falls apart because that is his sister. Her whole particular history is in the scar that she cured, a cancer scar she cured by prayer. So again, this tension between early Christians who wanted to somehow suppress grief because they were going to God. This world was not something to cling to or be attached to, but their failure of that, in a sense. Eventually I began to teach seminars on the poetry of William Blake, and it seems odd, but again, in Blake, too, I was struck all over again by the deployment of female laments in the work of a male poet like William Blake. Laments of Enion and Ahania and Enitharmon and even the evil Vala in his sort of mythic and epic texts, strong female voices that were his most eloquent vehicles. For what? For his political witness to ruin, social and personal loss, refusal of comfort, and the longing for justice. I ended up by giving a series of talks. I gave one at the A.R. and then I went to the UK for a Blake symposium and gave a talk there, and ended up publishing a scholarly paper on women's laments, female laments in Blake with a comparative section, which is the seed for this study. It was originally in that Blake essay. In subsequent years, I began to turn my attention to Sita in the "Ramayana," her vilapa, her laments, when she is exiled, awaiting for her husband, King Rama to rescue her in the Ashoka Grove. Also later on, ethnographic narratives. I've always been interested in ethnographic narratives of rural women's laments and how they're often suppressed and silenced by male ritual order. The work of Veena Das on the Hindu Sikh riots of 1984 and lamenting women, lamenting sisters, wives, and mothers, having lost their husbands and partners. And finally, something that I think that you, Dina, have been more or less familiar with, I've taught this for years, Sinhala and Pali and Sanskrit texts of the Buddhist story, the Buddha narrative, the roles that the Buddha's two mothers, Siddhartha's two mothers, and his wife play in those narratives. Again, the laments of his first mother, Maya, the laments of Mahaprajapati, his milk mother, and the laments of Yasodhara. To this day, Sinhala young women memorize and, you know, the idea of Yasodhara, the woman who was abandoned by the Buddha in his hero narrative. What they remember most is the poignancy and the power of Yasodhara's laments in the absence of her husband. So these voices have haunted me for a long time and I think it's connected in many ways with my ongoing interest in particular love, particular love, familial love, erotic love, and the tensions between that, and in the religious sense, the love of God. And so how the notion of particular loss is related to lament. My current Guggenheim project focuses on lamentation as a form of ethical witness in Greek, Greek Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. In traditional religious settings and in religious literature, lament served to reinscribe and witness to particular loss in all its human power. In their raw emotion, their refusal to forget, and their will to remember, female laments can be perceived often from the outside, often from male ritual culture, as dangerous or uncontrollable. Though they weep, sob, sigh, include mute gesture and pantomime, evoking birdsong, bodies melting, or funereal perfumes at the very edge of speech, women's laments are also artful. And this is my colleague Gail Holst-Warhaft's words, they give structure and rhythm to rage and grief. As Gail says, we go "from experience to art and from tears to ideas," and we can talk more about that later, 'cause I think, Dina, you mentioned you wanting to clarify the whole notion of what it is to go from tears, from overpowering affect, to ideas, and how lament does that. In lament, mourning refuses to accomplish itself, in Freud's sense, right? So this is something that is connected with the fact that, again, in lament, you find that the grieved person, the aggrieved, remembered person, does not get dislodged from the body in the work of mourning. The work of mourning fails to accomplish itself, and so, in a sense, something also is gained. That is, the person is kept there. There's no amnesty and no closure in these lament texts. To study the voices of female lament is not merely to ponder a fascinating though arcane world of old stories or the practices of traditional rural communities, but discover, I think, and this is my sort of task and my overarching plan and my overarching project, is to develop resources for a contemporary particularist ethics, one rooted not only an attentiveness to personal pain and personal witness but, through affective contagion, to the pain of others, potentially giving rise to the possibility of awaking empathy and compassion and not only rage or the desire for revenge. And we might talk more about that tonight, about this notion of the contagion of pain and the identity of the pain of others. We hear a person expressing pain, and in the lament world often there's a contagion. So I mourn with the other person but then I think of my own pain, and we're united in our experience of pain and loss. That induces compassion, perhaps. Not always. That's the background of this work. However, as with love, and this is another connection between love and loss and lament, it's very hard to talk about lament in the abstract. We must inevitably tell a story. It must be made particular. And for this, we need to learn to listen, to listen and to also know that we'll be hearing not only real women's voices, in the project, like this, from a variety of sources and tales, but in great measure male ventriloquists of female lament, the inevitable othering and appropriating of female voices to serve as foils to power and male narratives. And this, I find, is some of those problematic aspects of this study for me, as I sort of navigate through it. Lament inspires a discomfort in a variety of directions. Male laments bear their own marks of transgression. The key insight here being that such voices, I think, can open up spaces of narrative exception, spaces that often twist normative values into the direction of explicit or implicit critique, trans spaces for bodies normally not considered worthy of mourning, persistent, powerful zones of visionary, ethical estrangement. Let me end with three more voices that might, you know, provide a good setting for our discussion. Claudia Rankine's brilliant reading in her 2015 essay, "The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning," of Black Lives Matter as an ethic of political, personal vigilance and of what she would call endless mourning: Rachel's refusal of comfort. Rankine begins her essay with the image of a morning mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till's mother, who refused to mourn according to the rules, to conform to the usual etiquette of grief, displaying her son's mutilated body in an open coffin for all to see and to witness and to photograph, to photograph, to have an evidence of this person, this particularity of this death. And Rankine ends with the declaration that Black Lives Matter aligns with the dead, continues the mourning, and refuses the forgetting in front of all of us. And I think that's another key to this sort of world of lament that I'm discovering in a variety of earlier and more ancient sources: the politics of a mother's grief that refuses closure. Second example is W.E.B. Du Bois's "Souls of Black Folk." Some of you may know this. It's often been, it is kind of amazing to me that, as you may know, that he caps each chapter with a sorrow song. He structures the entire book with sorrow songs and he does it very intentionally. And the sorrow songs are captured in cages of Western church music underneath. You know, these spirituals. And many of them have their origins in Black and Black female song traditions as well. And he does it in order to resist and to critique some kind of redemption arc of this book. And again, the use of lament in that. Finally, this is just anecdotal and it may be just because I have this kind of imaginary that's taken me over. But shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, in a suburb of Kiev, very early in, maybe in the third or fourth day, it was very early, a journalist was shown a woman's ruined flat. She was showing this journalist around. It was on TV. I was sitting there watching it. And she said just a couple of things that seemed to indicate to me a lot of these cursing, shaming, and blaming idioms of lament. She looked at him and she said, "Do you have a mother?" And she asked him and he nodded. And she looked at him and she said, "Good. Putin," she spits out, "doesn't this man have a mother? What shame she must feel for having given birth to such a child." And that is a kind, that comes from, in a sense, that's an idea content that is not an uncommon idiom that emerges from laments, mostly of mothers but not only of mothers, and often particularly with regard to female lament. So I'll end with that and we can discuss different elements of what this brings up. But that's really the project, and anyway.
Dina Zingaro ’13 Thank you so much, Professor. Prof. Tarver, you're up.
Ron Tarver Okay, oh man, Steven, this is a hard act to follow. That sounds amazing. I was taking notes as you were writing, and I hope, I'm gonna have to talk with you later about this, but it's really amazing. But thanks for inviting us, Dina. This is such an honor and privilege. So let me just talk a little bit about my work. So I started this project in 2017. Actually, there's two projects that I'm working on. I'll start with the one about my father's work first. So there's that. And then it's sort of loosely called the Black Cowboy Project, which is the second project, but it's not so much about Black cowboys. It's more about people who've inherited this Western lifestyle and Black people that have inherited this Western lifestyle, which I grew up with, actually, in Oklahoma, but not thinking it was anything special. When I came out and started this project for "The Philadelphia Inquirer," realized that it was an oddity, that people didn't know that there were Black people that lived on ranches, that owned horses, that knew about this whole Western idea of living. And so started that project in 1993. But let me share my screen and I'll get into my dad's work first. Can I do this? All right, so you can see that picture of my father. So this is my sort of a decomposing picture of my father that he made, that actually, I found out from my brother, that he took this when he was working in 1944 in California in Sausalito. But this is him. I made this picture for another project of my mom's dresser with all of our family on it. But it became more, I made this picture back in, I don't know, 1999, somewhere in that range, but for another project. But it became really relevant to the project I'm working on now, because I started reading, I read bell hooks' essay "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Lives," and it really made me think about how, back in the day, when my dad was making his pictures, there was no place that he could really show these images. I mean, he couldn't show 'em in a museum. They weren't allowed in cultural institutions, I mean, due to Jim Crow. And so the way that Black people curated their images were in their homes, on their walls, on their mantle pieces and on their dressers and things like that. And so I started thinking about that and, like, how could I relate my father's work that he did in this time of Jim Crow during the '40s and '50s in Oklahoma, in a small town in Oklahoma, to what's going on now? And so I started making images thinking about that. This is some of the images that I put up on my wall in my studio, just to have, just to absorb who these people were. I've been really specific not to know who these people are. I've been really careful not to find out who these people are, because, obviously, there's some pictures of actually my son and I, when he was a little boy, then my dad and me when I was little. But beyond that, I really didn't want to know who these people were because I didn't, and I realized probably most of 'em were, or many of 'em were my relatives, but I didn't want that to factor in how I thought about making images with them. So I tried to keep that pretty sacred. But a dear cousin of mine visited my studio one time and started saying, "Oh, here's Uncle This and Aunt This." And I'm like, "Oh no, don't tell me." So it kind of slipped out. But anyway, I started making images from that. This is one setup in my studio. I wanted to make an image from a couple that I found. Actually, it was a family that I found that looked like they were from the Dust Bowl era. And I thought about that image, and I thought, well, if they were now, how would they feel about living on this planet now? I mean, with all the racial injustices going on, with the environmental issues we have, would they just wanna leave this planet for good? So I built this set in my studio and came up with that image. So that's the family, there. So with the idea of the backstory is that they've left the planet to forge a new life. But the planet that they landed on is pretty turbulent and violent, and so they have to deal with making a new life there. All these images sort of have a backstory to 'em, and that's the only way that I could really get through this project. And I have to say, this is probably the most difficult project that I've done, because being a photojournalist, my usual work habit is to go out in the world and photograph what's in front of me. But in these images, I have to make the images from scratch. And also, they're based around the idea that I have, and how do you make that idea visual? So with this image, this portrait of this little girl who look, she just had, I just fell in love with this portrait, and I don't know who she is, but I just fell in love with her portrait and how she just has this look of optimism on her face, like the whole future's ahead of her, although she's living in this place that was inhospitable, especially to young Black children. So I thought about this, and then I thought, well, how can I make that childhood innocence visual? And so I call this image "Flower Girl," and it's hard to maybe visualize in a slide, but it's actually layered. It has depth to it. So it looks flat on the screen, but if you see it in person, you can see the layers to the dove that's hovering overhead and then the shadow behind the dove. But the whole idea, and I started thinking about this, and I started thinking about, you know, Ruby Bridges and the little girls that were blown up in the South at the church, and things like that, and like how this was such a, it was a lost innocence. And so that's what this picture refers to, is all those lives and children that were just desecrated back in the '40s and '50s, and not just children but Black people in general. I found this picture of this man, who I found out his name was Frank, thanks to my cousin, but I really don't know what his background is. But I was curious. It was such a curious and odd picture that he's standing there in this field. His pants are muddied from the bottom. He looks like he's been chased or running from something. He sort of has this deer in the headlight look. I guess, from my dad's flash. But it's just such a curious picture. And I thought, well, what can I make with this? And so because he has this look as if he's been caught or he's been trapped, I made this picture. And the image is about 40. It's a pretty large picture. But I wanted to give that idea that he has been caught by who knows what, that he's caught in this dark place with this intense light shining on him. And I wanted to relate to how that, moving forward, where we are in this time, where Black people are, you know, we're surveilled, we're watched, as evident by what happened in Buffalo. It just brings... It seems these pictures that I've made four or five years ago, incidents keep happening that refer back to these images for me. And it's a little troubling in a sense that we're not making any progress, it seems, in this country when it comes to race relations. It seems like we're going backwards, but anyway. I may have found this picture of these two little white girls in his archive, and I started thinking about this idea about how, this idea that Black and brown people are behind all of the ills of the world when it comes to crime and things like that. And so I call this picture "The Act of White Privilege." And I call it that because Black people, Black and brown and Asian people are not allowed to perform that act. Now, in the past, I'm sure there were some people that could pass, but for the most part, we're not allowed to perform that act of privilege. That act of privilege is only reserved for a few. And so I made this stage in my studio and I wanted to, I made it during a time when there was a political ad running, and it was this white woman running down the street and she keeps looking over her shoulder, like something's after her. And I'm thinking about Willie Horton and all the way that Bush sort of latched onto that to build fear and win an election. But this idea that there's this shadowy figure that's gonna get you in some way. So I wanted to make this image that referred to that idea. I found this picture of these people that look as if they may be at a funeral, but I've inspected this picture up and down and I cannot figure out what's going on there, because whatever's going on, it's hidden. But they're paying respect and reverence to something. And so I thought, well, what could I do with this? So I made this image, and I call this "Uncertain Future." And so I built this, again, in my studio. But I wanted to have this starry feel that they're gazing into, referencing the underground railroad and how slaves traveled at night. And I found this frame, actually, in a thrift store, but it has sort of this almost reliquary sort of feel to it, but it makes it feel as if it has this sacredness to it that I wanted. I'd originally framed these images in black, very contemporary black frames, and I thought there was a disconnect there. So I started going to thrift stores and finding frames. And luckily, I found frames that I felt matched the sentiment of the image. My next project, the project that I'm working on now. So I'm on leave this semester, so I have my leave sort of split up in two different areas. I'm working on this Black cowboy project now because I've been able to connect with some of the people that I photographed 30 years ago. So that's what I want to do this summer and fall, is to catch up with some of these folks. So it all started with this project that I did with the Philadelphia Sunday magazine in 1993. And I was just coming off a big project that dealt with drugs in North Philadelphia, and I'd spent like almost a year just in crack houses and just seeing some really dark things that was going on up there at the time and how the drug epidemic had taken over. And I came out of that project and I thought, well, I just really wanna have something that is light and I thought wouldn't take too long to do and would be fun to do, and it would be in color 'cause most of my essays had been in black and white. And so I started this project, and when it ran in the Sunday magazine, we got more letters than, I think, of any story that I'd ever done, most people saying, "I didn't know that there was such a thing as Black cowboys." And I grew up in Oklahoma, so my grandfather was a working cattleman in Tulsa that drove cattle from Catoosa, Oklahoma to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was a, from what I understand, I never met him, but from what I understand, was a very championship calf roper. So I had all of this in my... I grew up next to a rodeo arena where they would, that was our, that's where we went on Saturday nights. We'd go to the rodeo. So I just never knew that this was such a hidden lifestyle. And so I started the project. This was taken up in Strawberry Mansion. I started the project, got a lot of mail, talked to my editors, and said, "You know, we really should maybe think about expanding this for Black History Month." And so they said, "Well, go out and find some stories." And so I found stories in Chicago, in L.A., in Texas, and went out and started photographing that. That story ran. "National Geographic" saw it and so I started shooting it for them. So this short little story that I thought would take three months to do, has taken 30 years, and I'm still working on it. So where I'm at now, this was up at the White House stables in Brewerytown that was owned by Bumpsey and his son, Bumpsey Bullock, who's on the left, and his son, Jordan. And so Bumpsey had built these incredible stables up in North Philadelphia that I spent most of my time photographing, at that place. Ironically, or sadly, I got a call from Bumpsey about a year ago, during COVID, and this was completely out of . I hadn't spoken to the guy in 25 years. And he said, "I really think you need to connect with Jordan." And I said, "Bumpsey, it's so great to hear from you." And he said, "Well, I'd really like for you to connect with Jordan." And so I said, "Yeah, sure. You know, send me his email." So this was all over Facebook. And he sent me his contact information. And I got in touch with Jordan about two weeks after I spoke with his dad. And he said, "My dad died of COVID." And I just thought it was, I don't know, a lightning bolt went through my body when I found that out. And so Jordan and I have been connected and I've been photographing him for the last, you know, off and on for the last month or so. This is him with his daughter now. And, you know, I still get a little choked up just being connected with Jordan this way. And I know I'm gonna have this experience with other people that I've photographed 30 years ago. This was Jordan on... And Jordan actually became a really championship trainer. He trains racehorses for a racetrack here in town. He owns what he calls a pony operation, where he has horses that he takes to parties and things like that. His daughter Sydney rides Western in competitions, things like that, and has won medals. This is Jordan. I just photographed this, made this picture, last week of Jordan, right before race. And so he was playing with his horse before he actually, the race didn't turn out so well, but the horse was really nice and they had a really nice relationship. But yeah, so this is Jordan. I'm gonna go down in two weeks to Houston to photograph Molly Stevenson and her husband, Scott. I shot their wedding 30 years ago. This is them jumping the broom, which is a tradition in the Black community, jumping the broom. This is Molly and Scott after the wedding. They have a ranch down in Houston now where they have a herd of cattle called Watusi cattle from Africa. And they're, I think they're only, I think we got some, I just heard, at the zoo now, so you can actually see them. But they have eight head of cattle there, so I'm gonna photograph them. And I know, once I pull the string and I start talking to them, because they know people that I've photographed before, I'm probably gonna be down there longer than I expected. But I'm really looking forward to going down and talking with them. And actually, the pig came and the pig's toenails were painted pink for their wedding. And they're gonna, they know the woman in this photograph, so I'm gonna meet her, and I'm sure the pig's probably not around anymore, but it'll be fun to see and connect with them. And these are some of the other folks that I hope to connect with. This man's name is Ragor, and his son. His son, now, has to be in his thirties. So I'm looking forward to finding them. All these kids now are in their thirties and forties, so it's gonna be interesting to catch up with them. And that's it. So that's my project.
Dina Zingaro ’13 Thank you so much, both of you. I know we're a little bit behind schedule here for our half-hour question and answer, but I think that's what happens when you have two incredible projects and try and squeeze them both into the first half hour, but thank you both so much. Just both them, just such powerful projects. For our attendees, please don't forget to use the chat to submit any questions that you have, and please include your class year so that we can sort of share that with the group. So I'm gonna start off selfishly with some of my own questions, and then I'll go into audience members' questions once they appear. So what's interesting is, our last SwatTalk we featured filmmaker Tayarisha Poe, who has a really interesting thought about the way that the particular, the role that the particular plays in her storytelling. And she said, quote, "It is when we try to be all-encompassing and try to tell every story that we tend to fall flat. It is the specificity of perspectives that is a story's greatest strength. The specific is universal," end quote. And so one of the things I was thinking about, learning about both of your projects, is that you're both sort of balancing between the particular and the universal, and sort of going, it seems to me, like going and using the universal in order to tap into whether it's a universal experience or empathy or understanding, and I'd just love to hear both of you sort of reflect on those two different modes, how you see them working in your projects, and whether you feel there are limitations in the particular, and sort of where are you finding those limitations, and sort of the power of what a particular narrative can do.
Ron Tarver Steven, do you wanna?
Steven Hopkins It's a great question and it's something that's been in the forefront of my work on particularity, right? So the whole point is, one doesn't love God, you know, sort of religiously. Often God comes through a particular other person. So love operates this way. And that's why loss is so huge when one loses a beloved, because that person is irreplaceable. There's an irreducible particularity there. But in terms of the focus of the project, let's say, on lament, what I try to do is actually to stay within certain bounds. So I find that there are common patterns when one looks at the lament speeches and the stories of Yasodhara, the Buddha's wife, Sita, another wife, and Andromache, from the Homeric material, in terms of the idea of a wife's lament of an absent or dead husband, or possibly dead husband. And so the specificity is important that these are women's who are wives laments, and how those operate. So there is important to be specific about that kind of lament, or mothers' laments. And so you have Hecuba and you have Mahaprajapati and Maya. These are mothers. And so there's very specific things that operate within those stories. Though, I guess what I try to do, and this is part of a project too, I'm interested also in common patterns, of common patterns of the way laments operate with regard to resisting, easily giving up, or, let's say, hero narratives, right? The person died for the state. The person died as a sacrifice to a community of people. And that tends, what is common in many of these things, is that's the unsatisfactory thing. My husband or my wife died or has disappeared, or I have erotic disconnection with this person, and that person is irreplaceable. It's not related. I can't sort of, kind of sublimate it into a larger sort of notion of sacrifice. So I look at that kind of specificity. And again, in a comparison like this, I can't do everything, but I've been doing a particular cast of characters and trying to keep the comparisons responsible and circumscribed. So I do these Buddha narratives with the two mothers, I do Sita in the "Ramayana," but also Mandodari, too. Ravana, the evil king's, his wife and her laments, too. So there's two wives there. And then I do Andromache, Briseis, and Helen from the tragedians and from Homer. And so to try to keep the specificity of these particular female voices and how those experiences relate to larger themes of lament, which, I guess, I'm finding common patterns that compel me to. So constantly going back and forth. It's important to, in a sense, and particularly in comparison, which can be a very perilous project. So are they the same? Are they different? Do similarities mean more than differences? And that's kind of where I'm at now and trying to work through, my way through the very particular stories and what I see as common patterns that run through these characters, primarily female, though I'm gonna talk more, I'm expanding the section on male wailers to talk about Gregory and his experience and how that relates to something like David and Jonathan's stories as well. And also, very famously composed Latin laments on the death of his monk friend, Simon, that have their own patterns. So male laments also. Again, . So, you know, one tries to do one's best in working through the material and coming up with a theory or a perspective that honors both those things.
Ron Tarver Yeah, from mine, so the parameters and restrictions I set up for myself is, with my dad's work, to stay within that time period of the '40s and '50s and Jim Crow, and so to make images that respond to that. And like I said before, I don't think, this is the most difficult thing that I have because it's heavily research-driven. I mean, I have to read and read. And I never know when an image is gonna come to me, because it has to come to me and then I have to build it and then I have to rebuild it sometimes. So that's that. The narrative of the cowboy, and I hate to call it cowboy because it started out as cowboy but it's really Black people that share this Western lifestyle together. So that's the range, that's what I want to build this narrative around. So when I go out, I plan to do video and audio to help define the story even more. But it's keeping it within that band of these people and not so much about the cowboy thing, because, you know, the cowboy is problematic in a lot of ways. So I wanna talk about these people that have this shared lifestyle together, so that's the structure that wanna keep it in.
Dina Zingaro ’13 Thank you both. So we have a question from, this is for Prof. Tarver. It's from Francisco. Francisco, I'm sorry if I get your last name wrong, Francisco Veron, or Veron, from the Class of 2019. And Francisco asks, "Why did you choose color photography for the Black Cowboys project, as opposed to your usual black and white style?"
Ron Tarver Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, because I love black and white. I mean, anybody who's taken my classes know that I love black and white. Like I said before, I mean, I'd spent a year and a half working on this project about drugs in North Philly. That was all black and white. And just about every project that I'd done before then was all black and white. And coming outta that drug story, I just really wanted something that would be completely outta my experience, that I would really have to be challenged on shooting color. Like, how do colors work? I didn't know how colors work. So yeah, so that was the reason why I really started shooting in color. The project that came after that, funny enough, was a black and white, large format project where I spent on . So I went right back to black and white. This is, I think, probably the largest story that I've ever done. It's the largest story I've ever done, period, but it's the largest collection of images in color that I've ever made. So, you know, I don't know. I mean, I think it's just how the spirit moves you, you know? It just felt like it needed to be in color, although parts of it are in black and white. I do have a segment that I shot in black and white medium format in Texas. So I may go back. I have no idea. It depends on where the camera leads me, so.
Dina Zingaro ’13 Hmm, have you found that there are certain advantages to sort of using color? Like, are there certain modes that you can get into with that have color, sort of things you can access with it?
Ron Tarver Oh yeah, like, you know, I think the first two images, maybe the first three images I showed you, I've tried to view those in black and white and they just don't have the same impact. I mean, they're very primary colors, reds and blues and yellows and things like that, that just work well with those photos. There's other images that I thought worked well in black and white. I think why I'm drawn to black and white is because, especially when it comes to documentary photography, in my mind, and I'm sure people could argue this, but color strips away another process that your brain has to do. And I think there has been research on that. Where black and white, you're looking at the content of the image. You can focus better on the content of the image, focus more on the content of the image. So that's the way, that's the reason I prefer black and white. Not to say that some images can't have that same impact in color, but it's just easier. Maybe I just have a simple brain, but I just like to think about my images in black and white and I like the way that they function in black and white.
Dina Zingaro ’13 I'm sitting here. I'm very aware that we only have five minutes left. I can't believe the hour has gone by so fast. And I have so many questions I'd like to ask, but I do feel like it's so important just to sort of provide some space for both of you to reflect on your respective projects in light of this past weekend, the shooting in Buffalo, which is one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history. And sort of just for both of you to have a moment just to sort of offer your thoughts on your projects relationship to the tragedy and sort of, yeah, just to sort of give that space. And either one of you can start first.
Ron Tarver Well, I mean, I'll just jump in real quick to say that, I mean, we were talking about this before we went live, about how I've been doing a lot of work in my yard and I live in Cheltenham, which is a very diverse neighborhood. I love it here. But in a lot of ways it reflects sort of that neighborhood that was in Buffalo. You know, I shop at a predominantly Black supermarket. We live on, it's at times a busy street, but for the most part, it's quiet. And when I'm working in the yard and a car stops, I look over my shoulder, and why do I have to do that? You know? I mean, why is that? Why are we still in this space, in this country, where just being Black is enough to fuel this kind of rage. It just, I don't know. So my images reflect back at that, and maybe I'll make an image that responds to that. I don't know. I think these things, you have to do it sensitively and it takes a lot of thought before you jump into something like that. But anyway, I could talk forever about this, but.
Dina Zingaro ’13 Yeah, thank you. Prof. Hopkins?
Steven Hopkins I just go like back, I guess, to what we were talking about with Rankine's essay on Black bodies, dead Black bodies, Michael Brown, that, unfortunately, essay was written in 2015, before George Floyd, before what we experienced, with the idea that, is it possible that a kind of act of, let's say, vigilant melancholy, that keeping wounds open and not closing them, can inspire a recognition of the pain in others? I mean, these are profound questions. It's, that have absolutely nothing has happened. You know, you think, oh, civil rights movement, and Jim Crow period . The tragic evidence of this kind of rage and white hatred, how to cope with it, I think there's a melancholic element here that surrounds us, both with regard to the attitude to lament and the attitude of not-closure. You know, which her phrase about, "refuses the forgetting in front of all of us," that we have to refuse the forgetting, that so much still needs to be done. Refuse to forget. To be vigilant, to mourn. And there's an act of mourning, a work of mourning in ethics and in a political and social awareness of justice here. So I think those things that, in an abstract way, attract me to lament speech and lament attitudes are important to somewhat come to terms with the tragedy over time of this hour, I suppose. And then I'll go back to Rankine, who I so much admire, and I think that essay is still important and articulate some of these things.
Dina Zingaro ’13 It's so interesting, 'cause that idea, the refusal to forget, I think, is also so much a part of Prof. Tarver's, I mean, Prof. Tarver, I don't wanna put words in your mouth or in your project, but it feels like that's such a piece of what you're doing with both of your projects.
Ron Tarver Steven, I have that written down in big, bold letters. That is so powerful. That is so powerful, to refuse to forget. I mean, it's where we are. It's how things, it's how people are, it's amazing how this, we have this history and we haven't learned anything from it.
Steven Hopkins And everyone is so eager for closure.
Ron Tarver Right.
Steven Hopkins "Oh, we can..." And that's kinda how, that's the pattern of how, let's say, laments, like, say, of certain women in certain traditional, gender-specific division of labor cultures has been, you shut 'em down, because these laments actually keep open and don't close. So you've gotta erase them, or they can't be in public, or public funerals are outlawed, or in ancient Athens you outlawed threnos, public threnos, and you instigate something called an epitaphioi logoi, which is the praise of heroes for the state. That's an act of forgetting, an act of active forgetting for the sake of a kind of a political detente of some kind. This lament world is not about that and it's about refusing to forget. There's no amnesty, no closure, in the words of in terms of some of this material. So I think that's really something here, I suppose. It's a contribution of lament literature to this moment.
Dina Zingaro ’13 Well, thank you both, so, so much. I just wanna reiterate for everyone who is watching right now, a question that came in just about the recording. So this recording will be available up on the webpage in about two to three weeks, so please do check that out on the SwatTalks website. Prof. Tarver, Prof. Hopkins, feels like our time has gone by way too fast, but thank you both so much for sharing your projects with all of us. Just really powerful. All of these thanks are coming in right now into the chat. So thank you both so, so much, and enjoy the rest of your Guggenheim years.
Steven Hopkins Thank you. Thank you, Dina. You're awesome.
Ron Tarver Yeah. Thanks so much.
Steven Hopkins Your eloquence. It's just been a great pleasure. And Ron, I just love images and I loved hearing you speak about your images, and thank you so much for your work. And I noticed Maurice Eldridge said something in the chat. I would like to shout out to Maurice. You are also such an important part of my memory that I'll never forget that's part of my Swarthmore. It's great to see your comment and to think about you as one of the embodiments for me of this college over a period of almost 30 years now for me.
Ron Tarver Yeah, same here. Same here.
Dina Zingaro ’13 All right. Have a great night, everyone. Thank you, again.