by Tom Sims
Tom Sims covers the Tower District, Downtown Fresno, and Old Town Clovis in his monthly column Strolling the Town.
We feel these are three areas in this Valley that are filled with history, culture and interesting stories. So join us each month as Tom goes Strolling! This month we get a bonus Strolling!
You can stroll through Fresno, veer off to the mountains and cities of Laos, and never leave your chair. As long as local photographer, cinematographer, and author, Joel Pickford is your guide, you can travel far and experience new worlds through his keen eye. What you see through his eye, is a combination of lights and images that evoke awareness, emotion, and a call to notice.
A conversation with Pickford is a stroll in itself. It is like a long walk in a dense deciduous forest in the morning as the dew is lifting and the sun is slowly cutting through the fog. You travel what appears to be a meandering and undefined trail. Yet, after a few twists and turns you realize that your guide was never lost and neither were you.
It is in the reality of Pickford’s varied interests, eclectic strengths, and broad-based passions that clarity emerges. Like his art itself, there is a unity of purpose and passion to his thinking. Technique and aesthetic are reconciled in the tension between their non-competing demands.
Joel Pickford is one of the Valley’s leading artistic voices from a family of artistic voices. With deep appreciation for his own heritage, he is tireless in his efforts to help others preserve theirs.
One of his most recent projects is a series of fictional stories which, at first, might seem disconnected. However, at the core of his art and these stories is a family of families who have come to a unique place called “Fresno” in the Central Valley of California from all over the world. In a sense, all are refugee people in a land of opportunity.
That was the trigger in his heart for his book, Soul Calling, which was released a little over a year ago. That project was exhibited and featured at Fresno Art Museum from September of 2012- January of 2013. It took about six years to complete.
According to the museum, “This project, conceived by photographer, author, and documentarian Joel Pickford, highlighted the stories of the Hmong community in Laos, their journeys to the United States and the San Joaquin Valley, and their integration into American culture and society.”
“Six years in the making, this was the first comprehensive exhibition on the Hmong Diaspora. The exhibition of photographs, as companion to the textiles of Houa Vang, was an amazing ethnographic study. FAM is proud to have been the first to host this exhibition.”
“Momma Houa,” as she is known, was an inspiration to Joel and has been a part of the local Hmong diaspora community for years. What she does with tapestries, Joel does with a camera.
Pickford’s canvas was film until relatively recent years. In fact, Soul Calling was his first foray into serious digital work. While he still likes what he can accomplish with large format film, it is hard to go back after experiencing the convenience and versatility of digital technology.
Overlapping interests and unquenchable curiosity call his soul to fully immerse himself in the learning and experience of every new project. When undertaking the Hmong project, he plunged into the Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute in Madison Wisconsin where he gained a working knowledge of the Laotian language.
That happened during the time span from 2007-2008.
Prior to that, he was recruited for the project by Kim Thompson from Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM). He had no idea what she was going to be proposing when she invited him to meet for coffee near his home in Central Fresno. Soon he was on board with the project and the grant quest began in earnest.
He remembers the frenzy of writing, hustling to meet deadlines, photocopying proposals in the middle of the night, and searching through files of funders. Finally, the California Council for the Humanities came through and the project took next steps.
The grant was funded through FIRM and Joel Pickford testifies that the most important contact he had there was Tout Tou Bounthapanya. Tout Tou is a native of Laos and has been associated with FIRM, first as a client, then as a volunteer, and for a number of years, as a staff member. She showed him around the Lao and Hmong communities of Fresno and arranged meetings and introductions for him in Laos. Christy Lee, from FIRM, also played an important role in the process. Franklin Yang was indispensable.
Joel is always thinking and always working. Whether he is creating, teaching, conducting workshops, speaking, learning new languages, archiving, writing, or dreaming new dreams, he always tries to have three major projects in his life.
Writing has become a part of his life, but he says, “Books don’t pay much unless you are Stephen King. But they open doors.”
Some of those doors are book tours, lecture invitations, and exhibitions. He figures that one big project can keep him going financially for about eighteen months. Soul Calling itself led to two major exhibitions including a rich experience in Milwaukee.
There are lots of dream projects floating around in his very large mind. One is to build an archive of images chronicling the Hmong experience in America and the migration from Laos. He has 12,000 images out of 50,000 frames.
What would be the purpose of such an undertaking? There would be two functions:
1. To provide a heritage database for Hmong families, especially for the next generation.
2. For scholars and anthropologists who wish to chronicle cultural history.
It looks like journalism, but Pickford insists that he is more of an artist. He views life through an artistic lens. Nevertheless, his work is so systematic and comprehensive, that it bleeds into journalism and becomes a part of the cultural record.
Continuing his story writing about the families who end up in Fresno from various backgrounds and journeys is excruciating work that he does every morning until noon. It is a joyful and painful discipline as writing often is, extracting words from imagination and squeezing out comprehensible ideas from vague images.
He senses the need to get away sometimes to engage in this work. Miles Davis, he recounts, detoxing from life, and emerging as the brilliant jazz artist that he was, went through a period of emptying himself. When he did so, there was a transition and a transformation. One does not need to be toxic in the sense that Davis was in order to need such a pause. Life and its demands can be toxic.
The conversation takes a detour into a bit of history and a book to reference, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity on the Global Drug Trade by Alfred W. McCoy. His sense of justice and distaste for injustice show themselves as he describes how heroin was introduced into jazz communities. Again, there is overlap and it comes around to Southeast Asia and the secret war that disrupted Hmong communities and created the diaspora.
Out of all this thinking, a trio of projects and themes emerge for immediate engagement:
1. The stories – wherever they lead. They have a life of their own. They are fiction and they are truth. An old professor of mine once described “myth” as truth whether it was true or not. The focus here is on individuals.
2. A documentary film essay on sprawl in Fresno County and how that contributes to blight and to the phenomenon of the land of plenty becoming the second poorest community in America after Detroit. He sees the consequences of leapfrog development and sprawl as imparting this poverty. He notes that most urban planning texts have a chapter on Fresno. The focus here is systemic and community in orientation,
3. The third is a general portfolio of color photography of Fresno. This project’s focus is random in its organization and vision.
The clear, compelling, and unifying theme of the projects is three ways of looking at Fresno. Fresno is Pickford’s family.
Last year, he was working on a Valley Public Television project called, Hunger in the Valley. Still, with overlaps to journalism, it is still art. Art has always been a trail meandering through the wilderness of human experience and creating signposts along paths that others can follow through time to more fully understand their past and present as they create their futures.
There are challenges associated with visual art today. Television disperses focus. However, small screen video brings hope because it draws focus toward a center.
He learned these principles by observing Ansel Adams, who was also a writer as well as an acclaimed photographer. His concepts on how technical variables intersect with aesthetic values provided a launch pad for Joel’s thinking and exploration. For instance, Adams would burn the edges of a print, not to decorate it, but to draw the viewers’ attention to what he wanted that person to see. He explained Adam’s “Zone System” to me, but it will clearly take more “exposure” for me to understand.
After all, Pickford is a scholar and a professor among other things, holding a Master’s degree in Fine Arts. Like his assessment of Ansel Adams, “He welded the technique to the aesthetic.”
Young photographers, who have been his university students, need to understand the principles, techniques, and even science of their art. Once they know why and how something works, they can make a decision about what to utilize to create the vision that they wish to display. Technique and aesthetic are always connected in Pickford’s mind, but technique is never used simply for the sake of showing off technique.
There is always a message and always a moment of seeing. He might manipulate stops and shutter speeds. These are techniques. Yet, at a deeper level, he views them as an intersection of time and space.
The stroll continues. This is about vision.
There are other influences in Joel Pickford’s life and thinking.
Not the least of these is his own father, the noted watercolor artist, Rollin Pickford. The elder Pickford, who died in 2010, was San Joaquin Valley Painter laureate. What he did with watercolors to create light, Joel does with a camera.
Besides many paintings, of which Joel Pickford is archivist (and producer of Master of Light for public television), Rollin Pickford left behind some telling sayings such as, “Let the water do it; don’t try to control it.”
“Always paint trees from the ground up because that’s how they grow.”
At some point, you have to stop the stroll and go to press. At some point, you have to stop and save more of the journey for another day. At some point, the conversation must be abbreviated. It is true with art. It is true with interviews. It is true with strolling.
Strolling with Joel Pickford, a valley artistic treasure is a journey worth taking up again where we left off … and we shall. This one ends here, not at the end, not at the beginning, but somewhere, perhaps, in the middle. Even as his camera and studio work take a picture and expose its light in such a way to draw attention to center, so this meander has focus and ends somewhere in the dead center of his thinking, where time and space, art and journalism, technique and improvisation, impression and expression, social consciousness and individual sensibility, and heart all come to the heart of the matter … which is somewhere in the Central Valley and settled in the mind of Joel Pickford.