The man behind the camera, Dan Wynn.
These photos of poet Weldon Kees completely threw me into one of those blissful archiving holes... where time stands still and you are transported to the time and place. Before now, I was not familiar with Weldon Kees work...and the first thing that struck me is that they were taken in California, not New York where Dan Wynn was based. There was a different quality to these portraits and I set about trying to figure out the story behind thees images.
A brief bio of Kees, courtesy of Wikipedia.. Harry Weldon Kees (February 24, 1914 – July 18, 1955) was an American poet, painter, literary critic, novelist, playwright, jazz pianist, short story writer, and filmmaker. Despite his brief career, he is considered an important mid-twentieth-century poet of the same generation as John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell. His work has been immensely influential on subsequent generations of poets writing in English and other languages and his collected poems have been included in many anthologies. Harold Bloom lists the publication of Kees's first book The Last Man (1943) as an important event in the chronology of his textbook Modern American Poetry as well as a book worthy of his Western Canon.
In 1950, Kees drove cross country to California from the East Coast with his wife Ann. In 1954, Kees separated from Ann, whose alcoholism led to a psychotic episode triggered by watching the Army–McCarthy hearings on television. After having her institutionalized, Kees divorced her around the time that his last book appeared, Poems, 1947–1954. Ann is present in many of the photos, mostly in the background, and you can sense a tension in their relationship.
The bungalow they're living in is minimalist and has the air of a mid century, California bohemian lifestyle - with Kees' abstract paintings gracing the walls, simple wood furniture and a small heater. Kees has a debonair quality about him...and he seems to embody the turn culture was starting to take at the time from buttoned up 1950's to the freedom that was to come in the 1960's.
Sadly, adding to his mystique, Weldon Kees is believed to have committed suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. His car was found abandoned at the Marin County entrance to the bridge on July 19, 1955. There is also a theory that he staged the suicide and moved to Mexico. Either way, he was never seen or heard from again. He was 41.
Today I discovered negatives of singer songwriter Janis Ian. Her most widely recognized song is "At Seventeen" - and she was 17 years old when Dan Wynn took these beautiful portraits of her in his studio. There is a realness in her that comes through in these images. I've been acquainting myself with more of her music... Have a listen to "At Seventeen" below...
Arguably one of Dan Wynn's most recognized portraits, This iconic image of the two founders of Ms. Magazine was taken by Dan Wynn in 1971 for Esquire Magazine and shows Steinem and Hughes sharing a large skirt, each with a raised fist salute to demonstrate feminist solidarity. A print of this image is housed in The National Portrait Gallery's collection. You can purchase Open and Limited Edition Fine Art prints of this image here.
Almost a decade earlier in 1963, Wynn photographed Gloria Steinem for her groundbreaking two-part series published in Show Magazine, "A Bunny's Tale", her personal account of going undercover to work as a bunny at Hugh Hefner's New York Playboy Club.
Gloria Marie Steinem is an American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist, who became nationally recognized as a leader and a spokeswoman for the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Steinem was a columnist for New York magazine, and a founder of Ms. magazine. In 1969, Steinem published an article, "After Black Power, Women's Liberation," which brought her to national fame as a feminist leader.
In 2005, Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan co-founded the Women's Media Center, an organization that works "to make women visible and powerful in the media."
Steinem currently travels internationally as an organizer and lecturer, and is a media spokeswoman on issues of equality.
Dorothy Pitman Hughes is a feminist, child-welfare advocate, African-American activist, public speaker, author, pioneering African-American small business owner, and mother of three daughters. She was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine in 1972. She organized the first shelter for battered women in New York City and co-founded the New York City Agency for Child Development (now the New York City Administration for Children's Services). Hughes also co-founded with Gloria Steinem and others the Women’s Action Alliance in 1971. The two women toured together speaking about gender, class and race throughout the 1970s.
Hughes owned and operated three early child-care centers helping establish the modern convention in the 1960s. She also owned an office supply business in Harlem from 1997 to 2007 and wrote about her experiences in Wake Up and Smell the Dollars! (2011) and I'm Just Saying... It Looks Like Ethnic Cleansing (The Gentrification of Harlem) (2012), advocating small business ownership to other African Americans as a form of empowerment, as well as advising how to avoid potential pitfalls specific to African Americans.
I never met Dan Wynn, but I've watched his life and career over the past two years, by archiving his immense body of work. From early 8x10 color beauty portraits from late the 1940's, to the idealistic fashions of the 1950's, to his movement from the studio to more environmental work, capturing 1960's artists, writers, politicians and contributors to every corner of society, captured in beautiful crisp medium format black and white. The list of work, subjects and clients is long, and I still feel as if I'm just getting into it. As I go through negatives and contact sheets, editing and scanning, I imagine what it was like to work for him in his studio. When I find a picture of one of his assistants posing for test shots, holding a chalkboard with f-stops and ASAs, wearing a black rubber film developing apron, it's like finding a treasure. Coming across an amazing story of an important midcentury artist - young, energetic in their studio, it's like stepping back in time. The aim of this blog will be to take you back in time as well and delve deeper into the images and the stories behind them. I hope you enjoy! - Geraldine Baum