staten island
europe childhood
grandma san francisco

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Robert Welsh

Excerpts from Address to Museum Members on November 12, 2009
Atelier Gallery, Griffin Museum of Photography
67 Shore Rd., Winchester, MA 01890

Chinatown: Metaphor and Memory

First of all, I would like to welcome and thank everyone for taking time out to attend and show an interest in photography and art in general. I would like to thank a few specific people.

Thank you to Paula Tognarelli, the director of the Griffin Museum for the opportunity. I know there are many talented, deserving photographers to choose from, so this is quite an honor. Thank you to the staff, Francis and Frank, and anyone else who may have helped in the coordination and hanging of the show.

Secondly, I want to thank my wife, Edith and daughter, Alia. They have supported, believed, and encouraged me to pursue my passion.

Now I would like to talk about my upbringing and how these experiences shaped my sensibilities as a person and an artist and allowed me to take the photographs that I do.

I grew up in the Faneuil St. Public Housing Project here in Brighton. My brother Jim and I were raised by my mother Marguerite, a single mom. We were surrounded by working class folks with real struggles, some more profound than others. We did not look at ourselves as deprived or poor. We were grateful for what we had. We were challenged, engaged, appreciative, and had lots of friends, many who are my dearest friends today.

These experiences gave me my values, my sensibilities and the perseverance to pursue my life as an artist, challenge myself, learn from my mistakes, and attain my goals.

When I turned 18, my mom married my stepfather, Fran, a Boston firefighter. We moved to a modest home in Brighton. At the age of 21, I traveled throughout Europe, bringing with me my first camera, a manual 35-millimete Pentax Spotmatic. These travels opened my eyes as to how others lived. I found myself drawn to the simple, the mundane, the overlooked, finding beauty in the everyday comings and goings of its people.

Throughout my 20’s and 30’s I worked for the Red Cross here in Boston, driving a truck. Taking leave a number of times for six weeks at a time, I continued my travels in Europe, the middle east and Mexico. Appreciating different cultures, enhancing my perspectives and appreciating others.

In 1989, I met my wife Edith Ng, a Chinese-American and moved to San Francisco. I began to explore the streets of Chinatown where I found similarities to Brighton, a closely knit community, characterized by long term friendships and relationships, street conversations, a feeling of intimacy, loyalty and a sense of belonging. At this time, I worked in Special Education, going to school at night to earn enough credits to teach. Working with this population gave me yet another perspective on life.

In 1991, I traveled with Edith and my in-laws around China. I continued to observe and contemplate how others lived. In 1994 we returned to China to adopt our daughter Alia from an orphanage. She was six weeks old.

We decided I would be a full-time stay-at-home Dad. This experience slowed me down, forced me to look at things through a child’s perspective; it taught me patience and understanding. All these experiences would continue to shape my vision as an artist.

The photographs that you see here in the show of Chan Soo Look, my wife’s grandmother, would develop, as we would go on visits to her apartment. I would have my camera with me and occasionally, take a few photos. I would respond to the light falling on a chair, a shadow, simple color or composition--some of her personal items, her pajamas, her pillows, and her cooking utensils.

I showed these photographs to the Curator of the Denver Art Museum. He responded by saying that these are strong images but do you have any text to go with the photos? I mentioned that I never thought to write. He suggested that I bring a notebook with me next time I visit Grandma’s house.

It was at this time that I realized the power of the subconscious and how relevant it is for me as a photographer. I started to write about what was motivating me to take these photos of Grandma and her apartment. I realized that I lost my own mom at a young age of 57 and lost my grandmother at a relatively young age as well and never thought to photograph or record them and their personal spaces when they were alive. Without being conscious about it, I was photographing Grandma to share with my wife Edith, and eventually leave a memoir to my daughter, Alia.

Grandma’s world was a dramatic contrast to contemporary society. I noticed the care and appreciation she gave her personal possessions, eliciting memories from my upbringing in the Projects where things were used and re-used, shared and not discarded so easily like in today’s society. I noticed how things were patched and sewn over, not unlike my own mother ironing patches on the knees of my brother’s and my worn-out jeans.

I hope, with these photographs, to capture a sense of intimacy, with the quality of light, to reveal quiet moments, to invite the viewer from outside into her apartment, and allow some of her possessions to reveal part of her story. So that we may ponder what this 98 year-old immigrant women contemplates as she sits at her alter with her offerings of fruits, flowers and incense. Pawh-pawh, which translates to “Grandma” in Cantonese passed away at 99 and left behind five generations.

Now I want to talk a little about my process.

I am basically self-taught. Taking a basic black-and-white printing course here in Boston at New England School of Photography 35 years ago, and taking a basic color printing course at UC Berkeley in California 20 years ago.

I use the same camera I have been using for 30 years now, a manual Yashica model 635 medium-format made in the mid-1950’s. I like this camera for its large 2-1/4” by 2-1/4” negative, which provides lots of detail and sharpness. This camera has drawbacks for some because of the lack of lenses made and the fact that it has no light meter. I use a hand-held light meter and occasionally do not use any meter at all, making light calculations from experience alone. I use the one fixed lens.

I continue to shoot negative film and continue to print my own black-and-white and color prints, using traditional methods. When asked why I use this age-old process, I explain that I continue to have somewhat of a childlike response as my photo comes to life in the developer. I enjoy the mixing of the chemicals and every step of the process.

I cherish my time in the darkroom. I do not feel the need to work fast. Photography is not an analytical process for me. I really do not have a preconceived image in mind when I photograph in the street. It is a visual response to a form, a shape, shadow, movement, light falling, color or contrast. It is only later when I view my contact sheets that I see a theme laced throughout my work.

In my photographs I would hope to elicit feeling from the viewer but do not give all the information. I feel the viewer has a responsibility to bring something to the photograph. As opposed to just looking, I would encourage one to read a little into it. Bring an assumption, an expectation, a memory, a dream or personal connection to help with one’s interpretation.

When passionate about a body of work such as this, I would hope that the photographs would reveal something about myself and what is important in my life.

And last: the fact that I am capable, with my camera to stop time forever at a 500th of a second continues to amaze me and keep me engaged. The ability to create is a gift that I embrace in this wonderful medium of photography. Thank you.

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© Robert Welsh. All Rights Reserved.

updated 12/15//2010 (rge)