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Reflection: On Dona Ann McAdams’ 'Performative Acts,' And How The Camera Can Create Intimacy

An image showing a person in a button-down shirt and jeans standing on grass in front of a white farm building, with another small building to the side
Shanta Lee Gander
/
For VPR
Dona Ann McAdams stands for a portrait on her goat farm on June 26. She has an exhibition of her photography up at the Bennington Museum through Aug. 15.

As a teenager, Dona Ann McAdams was drawn to photography during a high school trip to the Museum of Modern Art. It was 1972.

“I was supposed to look at paintings, but I ended up in the photography section of the museum,” she said. “And was really interested an upcoming exhibition by the artist Diane Arbus. I think that’s what really got me going on photography, was her work, and how she approached her work.”

For those not familiar with Diane Arbus’s work from the 1950s, she is known for bringing a normalization and intimacy to individuals and to the spaces that would not be considered the usual ideal for capturing beauty. Arbus often turned to the streets of New York in her work.

Similarly, when you look at Dona’s work — whether you are: gazing upon the behind-the scenes of milk production in the series “Milk”; staring into the faces and lives of those featured in “The Garden of Eden” (1983-1998), Dona’s participatory photography project with people experiencing mental illness and homelessness in New York City; or becoming engaged with the scenes of “Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” which capture Hasidic and Hispanic communities between 1978 and 1980 — you become enveloped into a body of work that is the counternarrative to what photography has been known for historically.

We know the art of photography through a lens that has often portrayed particular groups of people in a certain way alongside some of what Susan Sontag’s expressed, yet important, grievances about the art form. Dona is no stranger to the cultural criticism of the art form.

“Susan Sontag's work on photography, and John Berger's work on the visual arts, and Walter Benjamin's work all informed how I see,” she said. “But I think that what happened to me was, I was trained as an art photographer, I was trained to make beautiful photographs."

Then Dona says she met Harvey Milk in the 1970s, when he was running for office. She got involved in his campaign.

“And as a result, I got political,” she said. “I got as they say, into good trouble, and that trouble has informed the way I photograph. So I like to photograph with people and in community... I am interested in helping to tell their stories, because you can’t really tell other people’s stories, they have to tell their own stories.”

“I got as they say, into good trouble, and that trouble has informed the way I photograph. So I like to photograph with people and in community... I am interested in helping to tell their stories, because you can’t really tell other people’s stories, they have to tell their own stories.”
— Dona Ann McAdams

Dona explained that she is still interested in creating beautiful pictures, and continued to express the idea that as a photographer, she can bear witness to some of these stories. And to be clear, within Dona’s witnessing, she is not a photojournalist. Dona recognizes that “photojournalism is necessary and very important,” but her work is not that.

This sentiment was communicated to me as I stood within the narrow hallway of Dona’s exhibition Performative Acts, within the Bennington Museum. I could sense the engagement that Dona had with the individuals in the photos in ways that eroded the boundary between the person who is holding the camera and the person who — within the tradition of photography — would become the object. Dona’s work shifts the power dynamic in each frame that speaks to the intimacy and connectedness of her body of work.

In other words, instead of wielding the camera, Dona builds bridges. The relationship between herself and those who are in front of her camera — whether they are horses, goats, or human beings — is palpable through the photos that are captured, even if they are street scenes.

When I asked about the title, I was surprised when Dona shared that her old friend, John Killacky, a state representative from South Burlington, came up with it.

“I was really lucky,” she said. “We’ve known each other since the 90s, and he actually approached me about wanting to do an exhibition of my work, because we both lived in Vermont now... And John Killacky came up with that title, Performative Acts, and basically it came from our relationship with performance art and the live arts, performing, which is what I did a lot of back in the day, and what he curated and supported a lot of."

While the title speaks specifically to performance art and is a direct connection to the Shakespearean adage of life as a stage, there was something else I experienced with Dona’s work. The exhibition, which features work across Dona’s portfolio, conjured the idea of performing and the ways that we may be conscious and unconscious of who we are within various spaces based on who sees us and how they see us. What is a performative act? When is it called for based on who is watching?

And while this was not the direct intention of the title of the exhibit, these questions become intensified as we reflect on our own 21st century lives within a society where we are always on view.

Given that Performative Acts covers a range of years within 40-plus years of Dona’s photography career, the inevitable question is: Out of everything that Dona has photographed, what is the body of work that has drawn her the most?

“The work that's closest to me now is the work that I'm continuing to do... at the Saratoga race track,” she said. “I've been working with backstretch workers since 2004. And there's a photograph of three guys... and a little baby at the Oklahoma training track. And I think that's my favorite photograph, because it's a bunch of men, backstretch workers, a groom, a night watchman, and an outrider. And they're holding a little baby.”

a black and white image showing three people, one of them holding a baby, and a horse
Dona Ann McAdams
This 2010 silver gelatin photograph is part of Dona Ann McAdams' ongoing photography and relationship with backstretch workers at the Saratoga race track. Photographed here from left is Roger, Alvin from North Carolina holding his grandson, and Leroy.

This specific photo Dona is referring to, also featured in the exhibit, is connected to “Hard Boots and Legends,” based on her work that started in 2006 while photographing her friend Amy LeBarron, who was riding horses for a guy named Mike Shevey. The crew also included a groom’s man, Stymie, and a hot walker, Paul. A hot walker is a person who warms up a horse before it exercises and cools it down after, and will often graze the horse and hold it for the groom.

Dona shares that this work was all based upon the foundation of building relationships, before the camera entered the equation, as she became trained as a fellow hot walker and started to take riding lessons at age 50. Stymie, one of the people she started to photograph, asked Dona if she would photograph his community before they all passed away.

This is a community of people who tend to the horses in ways that extend beyond what people may be familiar with at the Kentucky Derby. A community that is often unnoticed or not thought of. To put it another way, we know the names of race horses or their famous jockeys even if we never watch horse racing. However, who remains invisible is the people and communal labor that are a key piece of this geography. Dona’s “Hard Boots and Legends” series answers the question of whose labor is supporting the industry within the bigger questions of who we see and who we choose to see as it relates to certain parts of our lives.

While Dona was charged with doing this work of seeing the unseen with her photography within the race horse world, it was both implicit and explicit that Dona needed to go find them on her own.

“[Stymie] basically just said, ‘OK, go find us,’” Dona said. “‘How do I talk to them? How do I approach them?’ So after a year of looking and basically photographing all of the people that Stymie knew, I just would walk up and say: ‘This is who I am, and what I am doing. I am interested in who you are and what you are doing. And I'd like to take your photograph, if you think that's OK.’”

Dona emphasized that this was often a process that involved showing up and building trust within that community over a period of years, a process that Dona didn’t shy away from. The door was further opened by meeting and becoming friends with Saudi Burton, a female Black American clocker (an individual who times the horse workouts and race) and whose work was inspired from her love of the show, Bonanza, that she watched as a kid. It was Saudi who introduced Dona to more individuals behind the horses, adding more of a foundation for this series.

“Hard Boots and Legends” is among the most fascinating and illustrative of Dona’s skill at both capturing the micro (the world of these people) within the macro (the societal layers and context that impacts these people). This specific project, however, is not without the challenge of Dona being told by some people that she can’t do this work given that she is a white female photographer capturing the images Black Americans. This talk with Dona about the questions regarding the intersections of image making and race is more nuanced than the current, fraught environment of cancel culture.

She pointed out she was asked to capture this community. She said she wasn't able to go in 2020 due to COVID, but needs to check on them, and see who's left.

In this moment, and all of the other moments of speaking to her, Dona wasn’t the photographer concerned with her images. I sensed that Dona was talking about extended family members.

This was not an uncommon feature throughout our conversation. Speaking of the seen and unseen, one of the photographs within Performative Acts includes an image of 12 women holding signs over their shirtless torsos. The signs read either “FEMINIST” or “PORN STAR.” I shared my noticing with Dona, and wittily she clarified, “It's the oldest profession.”

She added, wrapping with another layer of her truth in her approach to her photography: “I’m always interested in labor. Who makes? ... Who does the work?"

Dona spoke about building a relationship with Margot St. James, a sex worker and founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in San Francisco, an organization focused on decriminalizing prostitution.

“Margo St. James passed away in January of this year,” Dona said. “She was helping to find health care for sex workers in San Francisco. And that relationship was really important to me, because it showed me at an early age — in my early 20s — that health care is a right for everybody... [She] helped to inform me, in that relationship with her, and those women who were working in San Francisco. And inviting me to the Hookers Ball, if we can be so bold ... That relationship also helped to inform me as an activist, and as a woman, in particular, and as a fierce advocate for health care for all.”

It is also in this way that many — especially the twelve topless women who were proud to hold their signs as “FEMINIST” or “PORN STAR” — are not objects. Instead, this connection between Dona and the person, or people, including the animals, are at the center, with the image making being a part of the package.

“I like to have this sense of, I don't want to go out and just take pictures. I want to make pictures. I want to be able to understand who it is that I'm photographing.”
— Dona Ann McAdams

With an approach of relationship-building that runs through to the final product of the photograph, I was curious about what Dona had to say about learning from her mistakes in her career. And as someone on my own creative journey, I needed to know: Where did Dona fumble, and how did she navigate these mistakes?

“I think a mistake that I have made in the past, or I could make in the future, was not really understanding why I was there, why I was with a camera, and what I was doing,” Dona said. “I like to have this sense of, I don't want to go out and just take pictures. I want to make pictures. I want to be able to understand who it is that I'm photographing.”

She added: “However, if you look in my street work, I'm very guilty of just going out and taking pictures ... I think a mistake that I made in the past, was thinking that I could actually change things with my work. The pictures are not enough to make change. What you need to do to make change is actually be physically present on the line, on the protest line, or wherever it is that you are working... Taking a picture is not enough. You have to be active and proactive with who it is that you're photographing and the community that you're sharing your process with.”

What I loved most about this is the way Dona was candid in turning the lens on herself. You will also notice that she did not exempt herself from the future potential of what she sees as the misstep of mistaking her photography as the active engagement with the social moment. As I listened to Dona, her voice reflected the truth-telling presented in Performative Acts and much of her other work.

Hearing her answer also reminded me of this quote from Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, featured in the museum catalogue, “Look around: these aren’t photos of activism; these photos are activism. And they’ll continue to save lives long into the distant future.”

Though Dona says that she felt like her work alone did not create change, her photographs reach across time and space in a way as to inform, engage, and invite inquiry.

“The archive is here, and the archive is available and if artists, and people, individuals, and communities want to access that archive, they're welcome to have it,” she said.

I gently interrupted, asking: “Are those all your photographs?” As an adult that has one foot in analog and remembers floppy disks extremely well, my other foot is firmly planted within this world of archive as something digital and password-protected. Dona further explained that all of the large, black boxes surrounding us in her studio was one archive, and, of course, there are all of the negatives beneath us.

“People may say this is my legacy, but it’s not my legacy,” Dona said. “It’s their legacy. It’s the legacy of everybody who's stood before me and let me take their photograph, make their photograph, share their life for a 250th of a second. So the work technically is mine, but it really isn't mine.”

As a photographer working primarily in digital, to say that I was floored does not begin to cover it. Perhaps you can relate my discovery to something you might have seen online or in photo reproductions. For example, a photograph of a place that you eventually get to visit and somehow, you see this place in person, allowing it to become real in ways that may feel indescribable, yet fills you with a sense of awe.

After realizing that we were surrounded by Dona’s work, it was hard not to keep glancing at the large black boxes. Again, I was surrounded — no, hugged — by 40-plus years of Dona’s work. On the first floor is Dona’s dark room. At the start of our interview, Dona invited me to have a look around as she left briefly to add fresh goat’s milk to my tea. I felt like I was in a space where the barrier of a glass case was removed, allowing me to fully see the precious goods inside.

If you work primarily in digital photography like me, you will understand when I say that this moment of standing in Dona’s dark room felt like I was a pilgrim returning to what made me fall in love with photography in the first place: the dark room in my high school. Except here, the dark room was within an artist studio on a goat farm. In preparing for this interview, I thought about my transition to digital and my growing hunger to return to the dark room, the pervasive use of the electronics that many of us have — our iPods, our cell phones — that are also capable of creating video or creating images.

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I asked Dona what she saw as the future of photography. Without skipping a beat, Dona brought the conversion firmly into this moment.

“I mean, look what happened with a camera last year on May 25,” she said. “Look what happened. People are able to record things that we never would have seen, and I'm so grateful for that. And I think it's wonderful to put the camera, the phone into the hands of people. That girl, she was what, [17] years old? It’s changed the world profoundly. So I think digital photography is a blessing.”

During the digital revolution within photography, Dona had a brush with thinking that her career was going to end in the early 2000s, given that she prefers to work in the dark room. Despite this, she is in favor of the ways that the shifting technology has become more accessible and democratized, and also gives the power to people to reflect all of the things that might otherwise go unseen.

I continue to feel the same awe of being surrounded by Dona’s work along with the feeling of her humility that came across the moment we met. A characteristic that runs deep beneath the surface of the images Dona has created allows us as an audience to experience and fully see the people within her work, rather than focusing on the person who skillfully developed the work from start to finish.

This is a task that is nearly impossible, given that an audience will often try to find a trace of the artist within the artist’s work. In this case, you might find yourself wanting to point to a specific identifying camera angle, you may try to look for one unifying subject matter, or any other feature of Dona’s work in order to be able to say that is her modus operandi.

Instead, you will find yourself staring into the faces of performers; becoming immersed in street scenes; holding genuine curiosity about each of the sex workers within that one photograph; and you might return to the faces on the center wall from Dona’s “The Garden of Eden” series, which was a 15-year participatory photography project focused on people suffering from homelessness and mental illness in New York.

These faces that stare back will be one of many, inviting you to leave what you thought you knew about the nature of the intimacy and connection within the realm of photography in the parking lot, as you are invited to just stand and behold.

Shanta Lee Gander is an independent producer, artist and writer. Performative Acts: Dona Ann McAdams is currently on view at the Bennington Museum through Aug. 15. Find more information about the exhibit at benningtonmuseum.org.

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