Jonathan Calm

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Photographing Jim Crow-Era 'Green Book' Locations


Recent Acquisition: Portland Art Museum

Two works by Jonathan Calm, Green Book (Crater Lake Lodge 1) and Double Vision (Record), have been acquired by the Portland Art Museum. 

Travel is Fatal to Prejudice

The title of this piece is pulled from Mark Twain’s famous words (in The Innocents Abroad from 1869): “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” More than 150 years later, African American automobility is fatal to those who engage in it precisely because of the prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness of a racist social system that operates with callous disregard for the humanity of black and brown bodies, and a law enforcement that defends the system with impunity.

The series, currently 50 images, is created through the ‘double exposure’ process of solarization, constitutes a memorial piece for the seemingly endless line of black men, women and children who have been unjustly targeted and subjected to excessive-often lethal-force by the police. Reaching back to the assault of Rodney King almost 30 years ago, the generic multiplicity of locations (depicted through Google Maps) evokes the cyclical natureof a history of violent oppression that keeps repeating itself, at the risk of desensitizing the public.

The open-endedness of the work came from the sad realization that more of my people are bound to fall victim to this terrifying latter-day lynching practice, as the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd have tragically shown

Green Book – Journey Through the South

These images render Calm’s visual impression of his first road trip through the American South, traveling by car from Tallahassee Florida to Montgomery Alabama, Jackson Mississippi, Memphis Tennessee and ending in Ferguson Missouri on an assignment to document what has become of the ‘safe places’ listed in the Green Book guide for travelers of color during the last three decades of the Jim Crow era. While some of these sites have been preserved as surreal time capsules, and others summarily commemorated by way of signs and plaques, many have disappeared altogether, with only street names and fragments of buildings, long-unoccupied properties and weed-covered lots bearing silent witness to formerly thriving black businesses and communities.

Double Vision

These photographs, all of which feature the artist, hint at different aspects of visibility and reflexivity at stake for mobile people of color. The image of Calm under the hood of his camera looking out over the Pacific coast expresses the anomaly and vulnerability of a black landscape photographer, and highlights the select privilege of access to open spaces of natural beauty and grandeur. Three pictures of the artist behind the wheel of his truck, each shot from a different angle, are rendered in harsh light, creating a tension that conveys the ambivalent, over-exposed conditions of an otherwise neutral act. The photograph of Calm stretched out on the concrete, staring wide-eyed with a camera lens in his open mouth, shows him in the position of a slain individual ‘returning the gaze,’ and suggests how revealing footage of police brutality is often captured and disseminated in the media through recording devices used by fellow travelers of the victims.