Thursday, August 2, 2012
The elegant photographs of O. Rufus Lovett
"When I first went to school, very few colleges offered degrees in photography,” he says. “Photography is now accepted as an art form more than it ever was before. You see it accepted in art departments, art galleries and art museums. In fact, Texas has some of the largest and most important photographic collections in the world.”
KILGORE The works of nationally recognized photographer O. Rufus Lovett have earned so many awards and honors it would be impossible to even try to list them on one page. His images have been included in major museum exhibitions and collections. They have been seen in important publications including Texas Monthly, Photo, Photo Review, Money, and Southern Accents. His work has been selected for the prestigious Annual Governor’s Exhibition in Texas and has received recognition in the 2000 Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards issue of LIFE magazine. He was honored by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation of San Antonio, which named him a Piper Professor.
Lovett’s photographs are owned by large and small museums. He is a frequently invited guest lecturer and has been included on panel discussions at universities and museums such as the Tyler Museum of Art, the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Texas State University, as well as Stephen F. Austin State University, Baylor University, and the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
When people mention that O. Rufus Lovett is a major force for defining photography as art not only in East Texas but also in the nation, he characteristically denies his own importance. “I don’t know if that’s true,” he says. “I’m just teaching at the college and passing the information along.”
The truth is that he has inspired a generation of students who have become teachers, exhibiting artists, and published authors. Roy Flukinger, Research Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin wrote, “I am pleased to report that in addition to collecting O. Rufus Lovett’s own fine work over the years, our center has also recently begun collecting that of several of his former students as well. It is not all that easy to find a teacher who can continually expand learning and encourage talent at the same time; he is such a teacher.”
Former student Jacob Botter says, “I have accepted grants from the Dallas Museum of Art, Kodak, and the Society for Photographic Education, and without hesitation, I can trace this exciting path back to one source: O. Rufus Lovett.”
As a photographer, author and dedicated teacher, Lovett believes that each student’s life can become richer because of the visual awareness they discover in his classes. His students develop the kind of understanding of art in which technique is not enough because the art of photography is about issues and points of view, self-expression and interpretation. He helps them understand how art can have a positive effect on their lives and on the lives of other people.
Lovett came to the field of photography early. He learned the technical side of taking professional quality photographs from his father, Opel R. Lovett, who was campus photographer for Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, for nearly 30 years. The senior Lovett was named one of 10 University Photographers of America. He was also a founding member of the Professional Photographers of Mississippi-Alabama (PPMA) and Cheaha Professional Photographers Society.
O. Rufus Lovett jokes that his high school was on the university campus just down the hill from his father’s photo lab. “My high school journalism teachers asked me to do the photographs for the newspaper because they knew I could go down the hill to my father’s lab to get it done, so I did it.”
After apprenticing with his father, he continued to study photography at Sam Houston State University where he received his bachelor’s degree. He received his MFA from East Texas State University before joining the faculty at Kilgore College. In 1981, he went to the Ansel Adams workshop in Yosemite, Cal. where he was asked to come back the following year and assist. He remembers, “Adams had several teachers come in and be part of the workshop so that we had the opportunity to learn from all of them.”
In 2006, the University of Texas Press published his first major book, Weeping Mary. “I was approached by Gary Borders who was then publisher at the Nacogdoches/Lufkin newspapers,” he explains. “Gary was doing a series of stories about American Indian mounds in the area, and he mentioned a place called Weeping Mary to me. He suggested I might want to go check it out. The poetic mystery of the name intrigued me, so I went to approach the community.”
Local legend says the name came about because an African American woman called Mary wept inconsolably over the loss of her land, which had been stolen by an unscrupulous white man.
“I began making photographs, and the Nacogdoches paper published stories like “Christmas at Weeping Mary” and “Children of Weeping Mary.” The body of work continued to grow. Texas Monthly saw the photos and wanted to do a piece on the place. After awhile, the University of Texas asked if I wanted to do the book, which of course I did.”
In 2008, the University of Texas Press also published his second major book, The Kilgore Rangerettes: Photographs by O. Rufus Lovett. His photo essay about the world-famous Rangerettes has been described as “unsentimental and occasionally irreverent.” It portrays “the glamour of the Rangerettes’ performances juxtaposed with a small-town atmosphere, football turf, metal bleachers, chain-link fences, and asphalt and concrete environment.”
He says, “Right now my interest is in another book, Barbecue Revelations, which I’m doing with Houston Press food writer Robb Walsh. We did stories together for Gourmet Magazine. Although it will have photos of food, and it will include recipes, Barbecue Revelations will be all about the food, the culture, and the history of barbecue joints from Texas to Arkansas, from Alabama to North and South Carolina and beyond.”
Lovett has embraced the changes which have come about since the introduction of digital photography. The major change in his own work is possibly that he is more interested in color work than he was before. He thinks this may be because of the convenience of using digital color, or it may be that as an artist, he simply wants to use color.
“Whether digital or film, the challenges remain the same,” he explains. “It may surprise people to know that a lot of people are still using film and hand processing their photographs. We are still fortunate to have a wet lab at Kilgore College as well as a digital lab, although what was once the major way of processing is now the alternative process.”
“When I first went to school, very few colleges offered degrees in photography,” he says. “Photography is now accepted as an art form more than it ever was before. You see it accepted in art departments, art galleries and art museums. In fact, Texas has some of the largest and most important photographic collections in the world.
“Everyone knows about the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, but their collection may be equaled by the collection at the Harry Ransom Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. There are fine collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Dallas Museum of Art. Even some of the smaller venues like the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont have excellent photography collections. Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography takes up the entire seventh floor on the campus of the Texas State University.”
Lovett believes that it is always a good time to be involved in photography. From its very beginnings as simple daguerreotypes and onward, photography has always been the art form that accepts change. “We live in an increasingly visual world,” he commented. “The internet has forced us to use photography more and more, and it will continue to develop and evolve.”
The famous photographer Michael Kenna once said, “It’s easy to take pictures. It’s just difficult to make a good one.” In describing Lovett’s work, Kenna said, “O. Rufus Lovett photographs with love in his heart. His graphic pictures are elegant and powerfully poignant.”