Richard Klin’s writing has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, Parabola, Moment, The Bloomsbury Review, online at January and Jewcy, and others. He lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley.
The Art of Politics: An interview with
Richard Klin and Lily Prince by Sarah Murphy
In his forthcoming book, Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America (April 2011), author Richard Klin profiles 15 artists of varied media, seeking their input on “the intersection of art and politics.”
His subjects range from poet Quincy Troupe to Pete Seeger to the late Howard Zinn, who died in January 2010. The artist Lily Prince photographed the subjects in black and white portraiture.
“The idea of art and politics has always attracted a lot of debate and conversation. There’s also something very American about even having a discussion on fusing activism with art. It would be hard to imagine artists in, say, Mexico or Turkey, grappling with the concept of political art,” he said.
“So, I wanted to go to the source: speak to active, political art-makers and ascertain what their feelings were.” He added that he tried to be as expansive as possible in his definition of what is considered “political,” avoiding political jargon.
Klin said his subjects were enthusiastic and generous, and no encouragement for participation was necessary. He made initial contact by a combination of sleuthing, Internet searches and luck, and they literally opened their doors, welcoming him and Prince into their homes and worlds.
What surprised him most was their optimism and work ethic, despite whatever adversity they faced.
“Pete Seeger was blacklisted. Howard Zinn flew combat missions in World War II and was active in one political struggle after another. Yoko Ono faced the most vile sexism, much of it motivated, I think, by anti-Asian feelings. Quincy Troupe’s formative years were underscored by an enormous amount of racism,” Klin said.
“Who could blame them for feeling exhausted or despairing? Yet, they still carry on, as active as ever. Howard Zinn was obviously giving interviews right up until the end. It’s awe-inspiring.”|
Klin was raised in an “intellectually vibrant” household, and was a voracious reader from a young age.
“Both my parents taught, my father painted in his spare time, and the house was full of books. Nobody thought it was odd that a 12-year-old was reading Candide,” he said.
Klin recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as the first time he was impacted by the power of art.
“I remember being absolutely devastated at the ending. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but there was also the deep-down realization that somebody created these words, these characters; a writer had so much power, he could really affect someone’s emotions,” he said.
Klin gave Prince creative authority when it came to the portraits for Something to Say.
“The photographs were in the same spirit as the writing. I didn’t want to do a cut-and-dried Q&A; the idea was to convey a sense of the artists and their art. Lily is a painter, and her photos weren’t intended as an exercise in photojournalism; there was a painter’s ethos, and I think it very effectively adds a sense of each interviewee.”
Prince said she primarily let the subjects speak to her through the photos, rather than controlling the outcome.
“It was important to me to photograph people in their own space whenever possible, so that the energy of their personal environment could come through. People tend to be more relaxed that way, and when the subject in a portrait is more relaxed, it enables his or her essence to shine through,” she said.
“Also, when in their own home or studio, the objects that fill their daily lives help inform us of who they are.”
For the others, she created settings in which she felt they would connect, and also convey something about their essence.
“I shot the cartoonist Jen Sorenson in a comics store in New York City, right under some cartoon lunch boxes, for she loved Peanuts when growing up,” she said. “Pete Seeger is placed outside near his beloved Hudson River in his hometown.”
Prince feels that black and white photography is a more evocative medium than color.
“It allows for the spirit of the sitter to emerge without the distraction of color. And the contrast of black and white creates more drama,” she said. “The drama that is created by light and shadow seems to be a more natural, albeit theatrical, expression of emotion.”