New York photographer Accra Shepp recently wrapped up his conversation series at the International Center for Photography, titled Radical Conversation: Making America Great. The conversation series – lasting four weeks – was a series of interviews with art activist Dread Scott, Beat generation poet Hettie Jones, visual journalist Brian Palmer and American National Public Radio reporter Arun Venugopal. About the series Accra told me: “In the work of resistance the size of the gesture is not so important as the sincerity and content of the act. For example, when beat poet Hettie Jones published the seminal poetry journal Yugen- its distribution was very small, but over time it became an important voice in American poetry introducing radical poets like Allen Ginsberg and Amir Baraka whose work resonates with us today.”
Catching up with him in his studio in Queens I asked him what he’s up to now:
“I’ve started work on a series of cyanotypes. It’s a 19th century process that creates an image in tones of blue.”
Why is this colour meaningful to you?
“I’ve been feeling the need to do this work for over a year and am still exploring it. People who have responded to the images have talked about how the colour blue evokes our current collective political mood. [Note: For Americans blue is the colour of depression and sadness while for Germans to be blue means to be drunk.] Printing these images in tones of blue (as cyanotypes) they come alive in a way they have not previously – as traditional black and white photographs. It’s like this is the color that they ‘need’ to be. When I’m further along in the series I will know why. The first images came out of a residency I did at a castle in Italy in 1997. The photos were from that castle and a nearby farmhouse. The cyanotype, a very early photo process from the 1840s, links us to our past. In this political moment, which is so uncertain, it provides a kind of anchor. Like Janus, the Roman god of thresholds, looking forward and backward at the same time.”
Accra’s statements reminded me of a blog I had stumbled onto recently by an upstate New York watercolour artist – Kateri Ewing called Thinking About Blue. She states ”As a watercolourist I now see everything in terms of not only shape, but colour, and no colour is as elusive or as important to me as the colour blue.” Ewing describes the complexity of blue – its appearance in art in the Middle Ages- its multiple palettes and symbolism in both the English and German language. A friend of mine had a dance company in Chicago called Cerulean [considered a deep sky blue]. For Accra, blue is a bridge to memory. For me, in these tumultuous American times gazing at these fresh delicately papered photos I feel a sense of new peace.