Fluffy Gray Kitten is a photograph of a straggly-haired blue-gray kitten with white paws and chest. The cat, borrowed from a Glendora pet store, leans on a log and is backlit so that a halo of bright light appears behind it, and its hair appears fuzzier fluffy
. Its head is cocked to the side, and it has that serious, confused look that kittens get when they pause for a moment from being completely silly and frantic. Youve seen this kind of photo countless times: on posters, calendars and gift cards, and on the sweaters and mugs of some obsessive cat lady in your office. This type of image is so familiar that its nearly impossible to judge any single example, like this one, on its own merits. You see it and, if you think of it at all, you just say to yourself, Theres another one of those cat pictures. But this particular picture of the fluffy gray kitten was judged, carefully, and it won the gold medal at the most prestigious amateur photo contest in the country. The award made its creator Joanne Stolte, a business consultant to ophthalmologists so proud that she could only scream and jump around when she found out she won.
Stoltes victory is particularly sweet because she is so new to the amateur-photo-club circuit. She only began seriously entering competitions last year and, at 59, is quite young to be in a photo club. Most members are retired. But, encouraged by her early success, she is determined to become one of the highest-scoring photographers in the entire Photographic Society of America, the parent organization to thousands of small, local photo clubs.
Recently, Stolte was my host at a meeting of the Glendora Color Slide Group, which gathers on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. In person, she looks even younger than her age. She has short, untamed curly hair and wears no makeup. I watch as Stolte and a couple dozen other enthusiasts set up a slide projector and metal foldout chairs inside a large hall in a bank in San Dimas. Each member brings in three or four slides for that nights categories. It might be nature and travel one meeting, photojournalism and color slides the next. A member of some nearby club comes to judge. On this Tuesday, Stan Watt says a few words about each photograph and then gives a final score between 3 and 9. Theres a lovely picture of a mountain covered in trees, and Watt says, This is the kind of shot that makes me want to go there. Um, 8 points. Then a shot of fishermen and some colorful boats in a marina. Its always fun to see how people work. But the slide is busy. 7.5 points. There is a sameness to many of the photos. A lot of shots of mountains standing over their reflections in lakes; surfers; bucking broncos at a rodeo. On other nights its mostly kittens, puppies and birds. Thats because club members often travel on shooting trips together or share suggestions about photogenic places to visit. Theyll share a kitten for an evening and take turns shooting it.
Its strange that Stolte seems a bit nervous. Shes already won the biggest award in the nation; why does she care about her scores at this small gathering? But she does. Everyone does. Thats what being in a photo club is about. She explains the many parallel and Byzantine scoring systems clubbers use to compare themselves to each other. Each local club gives scores every session; those are added up at the end of the year, and the highest scorers receive awards at that clubs annual banquet. At the same time, photographers from around the world submit their photos to international competitions. U.S. photographers who place high in these competitions then apply for special recognition from the Photographic Society of America, which, of course, has its own competition, the one Stolte won. Club members teach each other the principles that ensure success at these various contests: Shots of animals or humans should have a speck of shiny light in each eye; vistas must have the horizon above the centerline; the point of interest is best above and to the left or right of the pictures middle. These guidelines set up the boundary within which each person can explore his creative vision.
All this seems so far removed from the image I have of photographers. I think of Ansel Adams, alone on a mountaintop; his only judge is himself. Or those photojournalists at the World Trade Center or in Bosnia, trying desperately to take a shot completely different from anyone elses. But the judgment and rules of photo clubs offer a safe place for non-artists to create. These ophthalmology consultants and microbiologists and locksmiths learn how to take slides that look just like the professional ones they see on calendars. And, if you went to a meeting, youd see how happy and proud they are to have accomplished this, and youd be glad that these clubs exist.
The event is called UnderDressed. The premise: Money raised from a fashion-show auction will buy underwear for people in local homeless shelters. The place: the modernist mansion known as the Fortress. Take the topmost section of the very tallest hill in Hollywood, slice off the peak, add a few slabs of concrete, glass and minimal wire fencing, and youll have a sense of the open-air foyer in which were standing.
Several dozen smartly dressed men preen while the 20-something hostess in a Cinderella gown pumps the room, along with Jonathan Silverman, the evenings co-MC (black suit, black shirt). Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe, arm in arm, check out a table loaded with auction goodies. Jacinda Barrett, from MTVs Real World, appears in a vintage outfit. James Cromwell autographs a pair of boxers, then grins for a French camera crew, spreading the boxers across his chest. Hippie Skivvies reads the elastic band. This is me, he says gamely, holding underwear.
As the sun sets, the city stretches out beneath us, a sea of glittering lights.
Breathtaking, isnt it? the photographer says. One million people down there.
Try 9 million. His girlfriend jabs him in the arm.
A bearded producer-type ambles over and favors us with a mock sneer: Aaagh. Ive seen better . . . on the satellite.
It seems more than a little demented that there are people who live like this every day, while somewhere, in some back alley south of the Hollywood Hills, someone is dreaming of a hot shower and a clean pair of underpants. Which is, we must not forget, the point of why the hundred or so of us are here, checkbooks in hand, on this chilly February night.
Someone has tied a white bed sheet to a tree for use as a makeshift projection screen. The words No Signal ripple in video-blue as the wind blows, an unintentional metaphor. Spacy alien music pipes in through hidden speakers. The crowd gathers to view a documentary about UnderShare, the events sponsor. Onscreen, a homeless woman talks about the shame of not having a bra that fits, of wearing one that has to be held together with a safety pin. Another woman talks about kids in shelters who wear plain, tattered briefs while their classmates sport Spider-Man UnderRoos. We shift uncomfortably at the incongruity of it all, as images of men in dirty sleeping bags flit across the bed sheet. I, myself, am here in Victorias Secret. How many other women, in slipping on the spaghetti-strap dresses for tonights formal gig, worried about panty lines and G-strings? At the cost of $250, each of the evenings by invitation only tickets will fetch 30 packs of new underwear. I catch bits of disjointed conversations:
Did you hear that one of the owners had a fit about the parking and kicked everyone out of the house?
Do you know anyone here?
Hell no, Im just here to dress the models! â
I bump into a young man tinkering with a camera. Youre the videographer.
No, he intones, I am the Video Artist.
The fashion-show portion of the night opens with a brunette in pantaloons and bustier. She twirls a parasol to the French lounge tunes of Pink Martini: Je ne vais pas travailler, je ne vais pas déjeuner. I dont want to work, I dont want to get up. Next a perky blond in pearls and 1920s-vintage nightie, followed by a raven-haired Betty Paige in a gingham bikini. From one fin de siècle to the other, its a history of fashion traced out in lingerie. A girl in a satin jumper prances by. The Video Artist does a double take as her nipple slips out from beneath her bra strap. Oblivious, she adjusts her panties. Sexy.
On the walk back down to the car, its so dark you can hardly see where youre stepping. I stumble on a cracked section of asphalt. All around, the houses, protected by massive gates and flanked by ornate grilles and impressive walls, are silent. Someone has graffitied the chain-linked plywood fences that have been erected as an afterthought, presumably, to shelter residents from passing headlights and to prevent wayward Porsches from plummeting down the side of the mountain. By Hollywood standards, tonights party has been a modest one. The end result of months of wrangling and finagling and coaxing, sculpted into glam seamlessness. I hope theyve made thousands. What Picasso said about art could also be said for the ritual of fund-raising: It is the lie that helps us see the truth.
He hasnt been a DJ since 1976, but Tom Reed still sometimes acts as if you cant see him. The voice is quick like invisible gloved fists on the speed bag; your head snaps to his beat: listenup listenup listenup. Doesnt move much. (Radio booths are cramped.) Hunches a little, concentrating through the dark glasses worn even indoors mood shades, control windows. Black ski cap, dark pinstriped suit jacket, black drainpipes, sharp black patent-leather shoes. Documenting black culture is his work. Hes black.
Not so black, though, that the nurses in the segregated St. Louis hospital where he was born in 1936 didnt get confused. When his relatives came to view him, he had to be moved from among the white babies to his proper place. Although Reed has done well for himself his career in newspapers, radio and TV stretches back over 40 years the postnatal mix-up is the kind of story that can make a person think deeply about race. What might have been different if hed been born white?
As it is, Reeds race has provided a rich field for his excavations. Since 1980, his For Members Only Television has been producing black-themed independent talk shows and especially documentaries, aired most every holiday Monday including this Monday, February 18, on KSCI-TV 18 at 11 a.m. This latest chapter will draw on his homegrown archives for clips featuring world-music innovator Don Cherry, rock & roll rhythm king Bo Diddley and the 1995 Million Man March, plus Reeds customary segments on overlooked black notables. Its so real, it doesnt seem like television.
Reed answers to no one about his choice of topics. As long as were not cussin and fuckin on the air, he says, kicking back last week in his North Valley townhouse, were cool. Reed buys his own airtime and finds his own sponsors Budweiser, ARCO, local businesses. This marketplace methodology dates back to his time writing for L.A.s The Sentinel in the days when black journalists would starve if they didnt also sell ads. But his main inspiration was 40s and 50s radio.
Most of the black disc jockeys did not work for stations, they bought their airtime. That was the height of payola, all kinds of shit going on, but it was also the height of rock & roll, rhythm & blues. This was in D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle, not just New York and L.A. Just as big as Alan Freed, man, thats how powerful these guys were. The guy created his own little thing. Never went to school his on-air experience was right there. If he fucked up the Kings English, well, you heard it. But the guys, man, had soul. And they knew their music.
Reeds own broadcast training shows in the contained explosiveness of his diction: He wasnt called the Master Blaster just for his turntable selections. After stints in Kansas City, Detroit and New York, he pumped out the soul sounds for L.A.s KGFJ in the 60s and 70s. You could hear it like gangbusters in San Diego, says Reed. Me and Wolf [Wolfman Jack] worked back to back. We controlled this motherfucker. We ran it, Jack.
Payola wasnt dead. Everybody was taking a little money, says Reed. Im being honest, thats how it went down. And you had a salary, but I made my money with record hops. Hed appear at venues like the Mardi Gras, South Gate Palace, Dootons Music Center and the Apartment, bringing in name artists such as Big Joe Turner, O.C. Smith and Percy Mayfield to lip-synch. Diversified entrepreneurship again. Survival.
Those were crucible years for American black identity. Reeds own groove, though, had already been dug. As a child, he was allowed to observe the booze-and-blues sessions of his pianist-singer uncle, Walter Davis. Another uncle, more godly, was Vance Tiny Powell of gospels original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. His godfather was a riverboat musician; a cousin was Elston Howard, the catcher who first integrated the Yankees.
His professional life put Reed next to Malcolm X, Ron Karenga and more beacons to steer by. He moves briskly along the walls of his home, showing his stuff. Pictures with Dizzy Gillespie and Muhammad Ali; another shows Reed as the complete 70s Master Blaster bell-bottoms like jib sails, Afro the size of a steering wheel. Photos of admired musicians: Jelly Roll Morton, Hadda Brooks, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, even Ice-T. Sports figures, too. Franco Harris. Jackie Robinson was a bitch, man. Chick Hearn! He brought personality to it. Nowadays, they dont want personality.
Work by black artists. Powerful sculpture and lithograph by Nathaniel Bustion. Pieces by Ronette Honeywood, John Heard and Charles Wight. A photo by Howard Moorhead. A beautiful rough-textured abstract panel by Reed himself. Striking wooden figures from the Obi and Dogon tribes. Ancient stone heads, one from the Olmecs and one from the Shang dynasty, each displaying African lips, African eyes.
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Several closets bulge with shelves of Reeds videotape archives: the history. The Black Music History of Los Angeles Its Roots, that is, a recurring title in his television documentaries, and also the title of his coffee-table book, now in its fourth printing. (Inquire at P.O. Box 27487, L.A., CA, 90027.)
History was always exciting to me, says Reed. My father and my grandfather told us who we were, where we came from. But blacks dont even want to say that theyre black. Anything but a nigger. They disown themselves, because they dont know history.
People are searching, lookin for the real deal. And thats important. When youre thinkin, man, youre dangerous.