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Photography

Street life

A photographer documents America, one relationship at a time

High schoolers Peter and David Turnley, in 1972, captured the working class with their cameras
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Published 3/19/2008

Rarely does a novice pick up a paintbrush, a pen or a camera and, right off the bat, create a product at a professional level. But that's exactly what happened to Peter Turnley and his twin brother, David, when they brought their camera to the working-class neighborhood on McClellan Street in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1972 for a high school photo project. They were 17 years old.

"Like the life of McClellan Street, it was a time of much light and darkness," Peter has said of the experience. In a brilliant series of black-and-white photographs, the brothers captured a slice of middle America during a time when politics, war, civil rights and activism mixed in a culture-changing crucible.

Both brothers graduated from the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, and in the decades since their early exploits, have produced award-winning work as photojournalists in the United States and overseas, from south central Los Angeles to Chechnya. David, then at the Detroit Free Press, earned a Pulitzer in 1990 for his images of political upheaval in China and Eastern Europe, and Peter's work has been on the cover of Newsweek more than 40 times. Peter returns to the Ann Arbor campus for an exhibition in conjunction with a new McClellan Street book (Indiana University Press, $29.95 hardcover), and to discuss how this pivotal series has shaped his career.

Metro Times: You and your brother wrote in your introductions that you've come a long way since McClellan Street. What are your criticisms or praises of these photos?

Peter Turnley: I had been snapping pictures for about one year before discovering McClellan Street. I look at this set of photos with great fondness because many things go into vision and the process of observation; there are probably few things in that process that are more powerful than honesty, sincerity and authenticity.

Up until that point, I had mostly expressed myself through sports. The camera offered me a very joyful and passionate way to find a language; I could express myself in a way that seemed to correspond to subtleties and complexities, and I could speak about it much more succinctly with an image than I could with words. Both of my parents had a very passionate interest in life in general, in America, in the world, in history, and were very passionate about justice, opportunity and equality for people. There were several forces at play in our young lives: One was certainly the backdrop of a country that was in the midst of a very important change; the second was a household atmosphere that involved a lot of discussion about true opportunity for people. There was always a sense of indignation for the people who had too little and the people who had too much.

MT: How has your approach to documentary photography changed since you were 17 years old?

Turnley: I actually don't in any way look at this work through the prism of it being developing or young work. I think of "McClellan Street" as some of the best photos my brother and I ever made. One of the reasons this project is so gratifying 35 years later is because the approach we took is the best way to approach all documentary work: Take the time necessary to really get to know the subject and form a true human bond. Regrettably, while I think I've had an incredibly fortunate career and a life rich with opportunity, I have sometimes felt that I didn't have enough time.

MT: You wrote you were struck by the sense of community on McClellan Street. Was that sense lacking from your own neighborhood?

Turnley: Where we were living at the time was a sort of middle-class, quasi-suburban neighborhood, very residential. It was similar to McClellan Street in that everyone lived in houses with yards and driveways, but the difference was one of spirit. Ironically, in spite of the fact that our neighborhood, economically, was quite better off than McClellan Street, there was a much greater sense of interdependence on that street.

There is another dimension to McClellan Street worth discussing, and I feel I can speak about the following point from a rather informed position, being someone who grew up in the heartland of Americana and also has lived a long way from the heartland: I have a distinct sense that both nationally and internationally the realities of the American heartland have never really been understood by America's ruling class, even by American's intelligentsia and by America's political leadership. There's this sense that the real movers and shakers live on both coasts, that's where the intellectual vibrancy exists, and the heartland is a desert with bumbling idiots who follow life like sheep.

That misunderstanding has a lot of really dangerous consequences: Too often our political leadership thinks that people will be willing to digest and believe oversimplified explanations of black-and-white issues: all across America, people are very in-tune to the realities of their world; they are quite a bit more intuitive than they're given credit for; they have great ability to make informed and wise decisions. They are not offered access to information. I feel proud that this project gives voice to those people whose voices often go unheard.

McClellan Street runs through April 18 at the RC Art Gallery, 701 E. University, Ann Arbor; 734-647-9960. Peter Turnley and French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon discuss their work at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 20, at the East Quad Building, Room 126, on the U-M campus in Ann Arbor. This event is sponsored by Arts Poetica Chamber Orchestra and U-M's Residential College.

Andrew S. Klein is an intern for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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