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Still Life at Locust Street

Kenn Morgan at the Locust Street School. (photo by Jerry Greenberg)

An afternoon with Kenn Morgan and Still Photographers of Greater Buffalo

Kenn Morgan is a longtime teacher and mentor to youth, a gadfly about town, a radio host, an outré society paparazzo, and the chief cook and bottle-washer to the Locust Street School, the free, community-based, arts education nonprofit in the Fruit Belt neighborhood on Buffalo’s near East Side.

One of the numerous “culturals” hanging fire in Erie County Executive Chris Collins’s exhausting budget roulette, Locust Street is three floors of multimedia collective engaged in creative enthusiasms including painting, drawing, and sculpture, and home to the illustrious old-school analog/archivalist group called Still Photographers of Greater Buffalo. This loose association of artists, both professional and amateur, and those who support their efforts regularly squeeze into one of the high-ceilinged, Victorian-era, paneled classrooms for seminars, documentaries, and head-shaking wakes for the death of analog film stock.

I visited Locust Street recently to see what a box of my negatives from 1972 might finally amount to once they were developed on a contact sheet. Morgan had encouraged me to get past a tendency to leave the idea in limbo and get the work developed. These shots were left over from sorties to the then-brand-new World Trade Center, and to the exhibit of Jean Dubuffet’s huge abstract geometric sculpture as part of the inauguration of those towers, as well as candid strolling shots I’d taken in Chinatown.

We stepped inside the “wet”darkroom and set up the five trays of the development sequence, each with their corresponding time signature, laid out the test strips, calibrated the enlarger, set the timer, and turned out the overhead light. The borderline magical realm of the darkroom brought my eyes to a gradual re-focus as the red light began to illuminate our surrounds. Once oriented, Morgan and I moved purposefully back and forth, timing out each test strip for clarity and contrast. As I moved the paper through each of its five baths, Morgan adjusted the filters and the timing of exposures to bring the image into an optimal range of tonal detail. Once we had established a successful gradation of light and dark for the test strip, we set like parameters for the remaining negatives and prepared the contact sheet.

Morgan said that over the many years spent in the darkroom he had developed, along with thousands of photographs, the habit of talking to himself. In listening to him, I wished I had brought a tape recorder because his musings during that afternoon constituted a lecture on the techniques of picture-taking and making successful prints. (He makes a point to attend weekly art shows and cultural events and photographs the principals with a small camera. Later at some subsequent occasion he will present the artists with portrait prints, often delighting his subjects.)

I visit with Morgan while the prints are drying. He, along with numerous fellow members of Still Photographers of Greater Buffalo, is presently engaged in an extensive photo project involving a single subject: a female model who, working with the various photographers, is willing and able to present herself in whatever pose, with whatever prop, in whatever setting they collectively arrive at. (Morgan always takes the model out for a drink after the shoot.) The resulting exhibit is scheduled for an April 2011 opening—unless of course they are still shooting.

A student comes in with word that there are jobs available at Sam’s Club demonstrating food stuffs, the little tables where people in corporate aprons set out samples of eatables to entice passing consumers. Morgan confides that he has had that job too, one of many over the years that cumulatively have allowed him to devote himself to Locust Street.

Back in the lab, my contact sheets are drying, and I can see that the haul of pictures developed from shots taken 38 years ago are not likely going to set the world on its ear. But there may be a few for greeting card images—a couple of baggage carts on a railway siding, Chinese children at recess, pictures of my parents in matching windbreakers on their small sailboat.

j. tim raymond

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