It’s easy to get entirely caught up in the gaze of his celebrity portraits, or the brute force of police in his protest shots. You ride a wave of psychedelia at the Burning Man Festival, or get lost in a haze of heroin addiction. When you take in the poignancy of native boys playing on a tree stump in a clear-cut, you’re all but oblivious of the cameraman.
The story is in the photograph, Clarkes insists. At the Grand Forks Art Gallery, the plot unfolds in seven chapters. Series of Moments features more than 100 photographs arranged in seven distinct series: Burning Man Women; Rodeo Dames, Los Angeles; Shot in America, Portraits of Women in Texas with their Guns; Anti-War Protesters; Halifax RIP; As Is; Public, and his most renowned photographs, Heroines.
A striking series consisting of hundreds of portraits of addicted women who work and live in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, Heroines captures the despair of drug dependency, prostitution, addiction and poverty in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it attempts to represent the pride, dignity and beauty of these women.
Heroines was first exhibited in 1998, subsequently published as book, and made into an award-winning documentary film. From the start, Clarkes found himself in the midst of strong media and community reaction. He was praised and condemned. Some viewed his project as exploitative and voyeuristic.
To this, the photographer has always maintained: “I’m forcing people to look at these women… to look into their eyes, to really see them: a woman, a child that’s grown up.” The series “humanizes the statistics,” he says.
Indeed, public awareness of the issues affecting Vancouver’s downtown eastside grew as more people saw Clarkes’s images. (BBC, Reuters, London Observer, Los Angeles Times, CBC, Globe & Mail and countless other media profiled Clarkes and the series.) “In the style of Lewis Hine or Dorothy Lange, it is work that chronicles a particular segment of society with the intention of educating, affecting change in societal perceptions and, one would hope, influencing social policy.” – Jesseca White, sub-Terrain magazine.
“Clarkes portraits give his subjects back something that they lost somewhere along the way: identity. And his fashion-trained sensibility offers us-in the composition and the poses of his subjects-painful ironies that can’t be dismissed. From out of their photographs, the women look you in the eye. We can’t help but look back. We are involved in an uncompromising and equal scrutiny.” – Barbara Hodgson, Heroines (Anvil Press).
“Clarkes shocks us not with the lives that the women lead but with our own assumptions. This book [Heroines] shatters and raises a thousand questions. Clarkes has taken an idea that could have been merely transgressive and created something imbued with powerful and sublime truth. – Brian Joseph Davis, Broken Pencil.
During the height of the Heroines project, in September, 1999, Clarkes took a diversion. On assignment for Saturday Night magazine, the photographer travelled south to the sun-bleached Nevada dessert to experience the Burning Man Festival, a psychedelic celebration of individuality and sustainability. A magic carpet ride through an untethered world of inhibition, the annual hoedown attracts dazzling counterculture divas, and Clarkes photographed more than 200 of them for his kaleidoscopic Burning Man Women series. It is the complete antithesis of the bleak world at Hastings and Main.
Heroines was still peaking when Clarkes embarked on another series, this one a look at some of the wealthiest women in the world. Rodeo Dames, Los Angeles, is again, an antidote to Vancouver’s boulevard of broken dreams. Employing the same formula he used for the Heroines series, Clarkes approached affluent ladies cold on the street. Faces tightened by cosmetic surgery, they stand before the camera in opulent attire, determined to look pretty, defiant, and yet somewhat oblivious.
There’s a wry pessimism at work here, a flicker of sly humour that elevates much of Clarkes’s work from outright despair. It abounds in Burning Man Women, of course, but it’s even apparent in some of the Heroines pictures, in Rodeo Dames, and in the startling essay Shot in America, Portraits of Women in Texas with their Guns. A collection of 14, four- by six-inch photographs of women posing proudly, some provocatively, with their guns, it’s a popular series with Clarkes’s patrons. People don’t assume women have guns. They don’t flaunt their pistols the way men do; they’re more private about them. One sees men with guns and feels intimidated; this photographic bevy of women with their pieces makes one feel the same shame for humanity, but a sense of the ludicrous permeates the suite as well.
Clarkes participated in his first protest rally in high school in 1971. It was against U.S. nuclear testing on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Ever since, he’s gone out of his way to attend a good protest. For his series Anti-War Protesters, he photographed hundreds of people during two days of massive rallies against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A published poet, Clarkes captures forceful slogans of hand-made signs. “Boycott U.S. products until they respect international law.” “It’s waq to bomb Iraq!” Concise and immediate, protest signs express the voice of a cognizant public. Here, Clarkes can relate with his subjects, morally, ethically, on every level.
Clarkes enrolled in Emily Carr Institute originally to study painting before he switched to photography, and three series in the exhibition, Halifax RIP, As Is and Public, illustrate a gifted aesthetic. A centuries-old cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is transposed into gorgeous, minimal abstractions and graphic designs. Old-world fonts on tombstones evoke a community of women: Emma, Luisa, Sophia, Francis. Clarkes photographs textures awash in mute tones of aged nature, moss-laden stone, erosion, fading memories. Time’s play on nature.
As Is, a collection of colour photographs of Vancouver’s distressed downtown eastside, is Clarkes’s most eclectic series, incorporating people, architecture, still life, abstractions and signage. Taken during the same period as Heroines, As Is presents a kind of time warp. The images appear from another era, the 1920s, ’30s, ’50s. Time has spun its magic in the As Is department. One image depicts a run-down hotel, a field of square-windowed rooms, each one someone’s life: They look like tombstones.
A reviewer in Border Crossings, a magazine for the arts wrote, “The world would be a better place if there were more noticers: People who take the time to listen hard and watch closely. Lincoln Clarkes is a noticer.” Public is another record of what he’s seen. With an 85 millimetre lens, Clarkes captures candid, close-up images of women out and about in the business section of Vancouver. Their features relaxed, their thoughts elsewhere, the pictures show a lightness of being. In sheer contrast to his other work, there’s no photographer-subject relationship whatsoever here. The women are colours of a palette, from which quick, luxurious strokes are painted.
Throughout his oeuvre, Clarkes’s aesthetic is warm not harsh; curved architecture frames a dark-eyed street girl, an art-deco sign floats behind a bejeweled dame. Set aside for a moment their significance as social-documentary, and Clarkes’s images become works of beauty, timeless, evocative, sensual, in the same way as, say, The Absinthe Drinkers, by Degas. Society is fraught with afflictions. Like many artists of classic works before him, Clarkes delves inside alternative worlds and finds the glimmer of comfort, the allure.
Nancy Lanthier, May 2005, Vancouver