Wednesday, January 04, 2006
A conversation with Jack Jeffers
Prestigious photographer Jeffers
never forgot his Virginia roots
|More arts talk|
Wyoming artist Jack Jeffers left his home state of Virginia nearly a decade ago. But before he did, the photographer donated 125 works to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, more to Longwood University in Farmville and, a year and a half ago, 100 prints to Radford University.
Courtesy of Jack Jeffers
If that sounds like a lot, consider that Jeffers has been taking photographs for more than half a century and has been working professionally as an artist — repeatedly garnering Best in Show awards competing against all media — for more than 30 years and has works hanging in such prestigious museums as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
This latest donation to Radford University will be on display in the university’s art museum beginning Jan. 12. An author of more than 50 published technical articles and countless works of art, Jeffers takes a few moments here to talk about photography as fine art, and about some of his personal goals as an artist.
You’ve written that in the early ‘70s you “took the giant step from photographer to artist.” What are the major points of that distinction to you?
Jack Jeffers: In thinking back, I felt for a long time that I was just a photographer. I won a number of small-town competitions and took a few awards in several international events. But something was lacking. I think I was growing tired of competing against my peers in one medium. At some point back in the early ‘60s, I submitted a color slide to a contest put on by Southern Living magazine just for the pure heck of it. In fact, I forgot about it.
Months passed, and one day I came home from my job at General Electric to a great surprise. I was working in advertising and sales promotion at the time, but I was very much involved in my photography. There, under our carport, was a tremendous wood carton containing an electric golf cart. I do not play golf.
Courtesy of Jack Jeffers
“Cloud Saucers” is Jack Jeffers’ first digital piece.
And there was a formal letter from the folks at Southern Living informing me that I had won the grand photographic prize. Plus an all-expense trip to Jekyll Island Resort. And a set of new golf clubs. Yes, even a high-tech carbon fishing rod. I was shocked to say the least. I’ll not get into how I got rid of all this stuff, but I think at that point, I realized that my photography had potential.
Plus, I had a fun time finding new owners for all the stuff. Several years later, my colleagues at G.E. told me that I should enter the big art show that was being advertised in the area. They kept telling me how good my work was.
Well, this was a chance to compete with the painters, sculptors and other media. My portfolio of the Mountain People was well under way and I thought to myself, why not. I was actually beginning to feel like an up-an-coming artist, not just a photographer. But when I applied for the show, my application was returned, and I was very politely told that photography was an “unacceptable medium.”
The whole “art” thing suddenly took an abrupt turn. I was not only launching what was later to become my career, but I decided to take on the art world and help raise the image of photography to its rightful level in the art world. I wrote back and politely said that they were prejudging my work before they even saw it. The answer, again, was “No.” That really ruffled my feathers, so I went to the press with copies marked to the art league that was putting on the show. Under this pressure and knowing that I was intent on putting them in an awkward position, the art league backed down and cracked the door for photography. It turned out to be a high-quality show. There were two fine judges. One was a sculptor who was the art critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and a well-known painter who was Artist in Residence at the University of Virginia. Imagine my absolute shock when it was announced at the awards ceremony that I had received Best in Show. I literally put my art where my mouth was and took the top award.
It was as if I had suddenly been declared an artist. I did not stop there. I broke into other well-established art shows and took top awards, including another Best in Show.
You’ve quoted a past president of the Wyoming Artist’s Association as saying that the majority of the board resisted including photography in showings because they feared “a deluge of discount-developed snapshots in future exhibits.” This is like saying, “Poetry is not art because they sell paper and pens at Wal-Mart, but they don’t sell high-quality painting supplies, so I guess painting is in.” What do you make of such continued and widespread ignorance on the part of people who ought to know better?
JJ: I have learned that it is to be expected. After all, fine art photography, as we know it today, is a newcomer to the block. Painting, sculpture and other media have been around for hundreds of years.
Thousands, in fact! The medium of photography has only been around for about 150 years. Alfred Stieglitz is remembered for being a serious promoter of photography as a fine art. Heck, that was only 100 years ago. And photographs did not start demanding fine art price tags until the early ’70s.
I can still remember selling many of my early works for $25. The same was true for Ansel Adams. His work did not take off until the ’70s and the rest is history. I saw one his vintage images hanging in a gallery in Jackson, Wyo., a couple of months ago.
The price tag was $49,000, and it was an open-ended edition. While there might be many people, and art groups included, that still do not understand black-and-white photography, the truth is that the medium is very much alive and doing well when you look at the big picture. It is a simple fact of life that many people resist change and hang on to their old beliefs and prejudices.
I expect it will be another 50 years before black and white is fully accepted by the general public. Now, we have digital photography and it is fast taking over. Personally, based on what I hear and read, I look for black and white to slowly die out as digital takes over. It won’t be long before what is left of the medium will only exist as collectibles.
You have experimented more with nontraditional photographic methods in recent years, such as transparent oils, and you’ve even gone digital now. What led to these changes for you, and how have they affected your work?
JJ: Actually, I started experimenting with oils on photographs back in the late ’70s, but my Appalachian work did not lend itself to hand coloring. That body of work could stand on its own without any doctoring up. Where the hand coloring with transparent oils really worked was on the western landscape with its many varied colors.
Actually, the images will stand alone in toned black and white. But with the addition of oil you had all sorts of varied combinations awaiting you depending on your mood on a given day. It represented a new adventure, and it is fun. Notice I use the word “fun” a lot. That’s what my art is all about. Mix that with passion and you have a winning combination.
I used to dread the very thought of digital. I swore I would never fall prey to it. Now, I must confess, I will eat crow. When I gave up my lab and studio equipment last spring, I gave considerable thought to digital. Last month, I purchased a nice Canon with all the bells and toots. I even beefed up my computer and related equipment to see what this digital world was all about.
All I can say now is, “Wow!” I am having fun again. My film camera pack weighed in at nearly 40 pounds and my doctor told me quite frankly that I should not be putting that much stress on my third hip replacement and my deformed back. It was time to take a new route. Where will I go with digital? Heavens, I don’t know. But I do know that I am having fun and the sky is the limit.
Countless young artists aspire to create works that will stand the test of time. You’ve strived for this as well, and written that at this point you can say you’ve done it. How does it feel to accomplish the elusive artist’s goal?
JJ: What really makes me feel good is knowing that I have created a body of work that will not only stand the test of time, but it will be appreciated and enjoyed by future generations. My images are timeless. If the cosmos allows me to return to this world in a fresh new body, I would like to take a similar trail, only next time the extended version.
Jack Jeffers’ exhibit, “Appalachian Images” will open Jan. 12 with a reception at 5 p.m. and will run through Feb. 12 at Radford University’s Flossie Martin Gallery.