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Book Review – Portraits and Dreams by Wendy Ewald

Russel Akemon, ‘I am lying on the back on my old
horse,’ from ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald
(MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Photographer Wendy Ewald is a community based practitioner who has worked on collaborative photographic projects with children for more than fifty years. Within her newly republished and updated book Portraits and Dreams, it is immediately apparent that we are not just viewing images of children, we are actually getting to meet them.  Ewald has the inert ability to treat children with profound tenderness, nurturing their fragile self esteem, enabling them to realise a range and depth to their imagery that originally would not have seemed possible. This book is rich in humanity. Each child shares not only their dreams and sometimes their fears, by creating portraiture of themselves in some cases but also of their siblings, their animals and their landscapes too. A child’s world as portrayed throughout Portraits and Dreams serves as a social document but a few of the images are also allegorical in nature. The image of Denise Dixon with the title “I am the girl with the snake around her neck“, displays a glowing resemblance to a Cindy Sherman esque shot, complete with pouting lips, blonde wig and party dress, as she models herself bridging childhood and adulthood.

Ruby Cornett, ‘I asked my sister to take a picture of me on
Easter morning,’ from ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald
(MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

This was Ewald’s first project in a series of work that has taken place over the past five decades around the world. Many of these children would typically be overlooked but Ewald managed to create a project that turned towards them with boundless empathy that they are empowered to bloom. “I wanted them to expand their ideas about picture making but to stay close to what they felt deeply“, she explained in an absorbing essay within this book.

Allen Shepherd, ‘I dreamt I killed my best friend, Ricky Dixon,’ from ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Greg Cornett, ‘Gary Crase and his mom and dad in front of
their house on Campbells Branch,’ from ‘Portraits and Dreams’
by Wendy Ewald (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Ewald studied photography under American modernist Minor White, at M.I.T. more as an artist rather than as a documentarian. She moved to live in Whitesburg, Kentucky in 1975 not only to capture images of her own but also to teach workshops. She stayed for six years and it was there that she developed her benevolent streak of conceptualism.

Ruby Cornett, ‘Daddy at our hog killing, Big Branch,’
from ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald (MACK,
2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

The children and their families photographed in Portraits and Dreams lived in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in 1975. It was there that she not only taught them how to use cameras and understand light but she also gave each child a camera to capture their own photographs. “The students bought 10 dollar Instamatic cameras from me; I hoped by buying the cameras they would value them as things that they had worked for and would have as long as they took care of them. If they didn’t have the money, they earned it by mowing lawns or holding a bake sale or a raffle. I supplied the children with film and flash“, she said. The project enabled them to learn more about their own environment and their lives, whilst also offering them the power to reflect and direct what they saw.

Each photograph tells a story of its own, as if torn from a novel, a fragment of a life reconstructing itself as you observe. The more you look, the more you see. The images echo what we already know but very often forbear.

Denise Dixon, ‘Self-portrait reaching for the Red Star sky,’ from ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald (MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Portraits and Dreams also prospers with an essay written by Ben Lifson photographer, critic and teacher who died on July 3, 2013 at the age of 72. Lifson was a prominent voice in photography criticism – the ICP’s Encyclopedia of Photography named him one of the most influential photography critics of the 1970s and ‘80s. He writes “these are photographs by children from the hollers of Letcher County, Kentucky – children familiar with mountains and woods and the ways of the small animals they hunt there with their .22s, children familiar with strip mines and shaft mines and deaths by mining accidents, black lung, suicide“.

Denise Dixon, ‘Jamie is praying for help from his kin people
who have died,’ in ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald
(MACK, 2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

The updated version of this book revisits some of the children, now living as adults and unveils their present lives. Notably, it seizes our inquisitiveness as to whether any of their dreams or fears have become reality. Some have, some lives are better than we could have imagined and some much worse. Ultimately, this book is rooted in love and reveals how even the most paradisiacal of households and I did not really see one in Portraits and Dreams, can still quiver on the periphery of catastrophe.

Freddy Childers, ‘Self-portrait with the picture of my biggest
brother, Everett, who killed himself when he came back from
Vietnam’ in ‘Portraits and Dreams’ by Wendy Ewald (MACK,
2020). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Portraits and Dreams by Wendy Ewald is a treasure trove. The physical book itself is a joy in the hand and as individual pages are turned, the curation and placement of each photograph demonstrates the arcane knowledge that only good curators can demonstrate, ultimately they are storytellers and bring with it a sense of theatre and occasion. Lifson ends with “who among you does not wish that you could recall better what you imagined when you were young, or what the world looked like, or what you wore, when you imagined it?”, who wouldn’t?

Portraits and Dreams (2020) by Wendy Ewald, published by MACK


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Joanne Carter, creator of the world’s most popular mobile photography and art website—— TheAppWhisperer platform has been a pivotal cyberspace for mobile artists of all abilities to learn about, to explore, to celebrate and to share mobile artworks. Joanne’s compassion, inclusivity, and humility are hallmarks in all that she does, and is particularly evident in the platform she has built. In her words, “We all have the potential to remove ourselves from the centre of any circle and to expand a sphere of compassion outward; to include everyone interested in mobile art, ensuring every artist is within reach”, she has said. Promotion of mobile artists and the art form as a primary medium in today’s art world, has become her life’s focus. She has presented lectures bolstering mobile artists and their art from as far away as the Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea to closer to her home in the UK at Focus on Imaging. Her experience as a jurist for mobile art competitions includes: Portugal, Canada, US, S Korea, UK and Italy. And her travels pioneering the breadth of mobile art includes key events in: Frankfurt, Naples, Amalfi Coast, Paris, Brazil, London. Pioneering the world’s first mobile art online gallery - has extended her reach even further, shipping from London, UK to clients in the US, Europe and The Far East to a global group of collectors looking for exclusive art to hang in their homes and offices. The online gallery specialises in prints for discerning collectors of unique, previously unseen signed limited edition art. Her journey towards becoming The App Whisperer, includes (but is not limited to) working for a paparazzi photo agency for several years and as a deputy editor for a photo print magazine. Her own freelance photographic journalistic work is also widely acclaimed. She has been published extensively both within the UK and the US in national and international titles. These include The Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Popular Photography & Imaging, dpreview, NikonPro, Which? and more recently with the BBC as a Contributor, Columnist at Vogue Italia and Contributing Editor at LensCulture. Her professional photography has also been widely exhibited throughout Europe, including Italy, Portugal and the UK. She is currently writing several books, all related to mobile art and is always open to requests for new commissions for either writing or photography projects or a combination of both. Please contact her at: [email protected]