|Photo by Jack Gould|
“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. You’ve 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 it’s 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, “There’s 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
Stolte’s 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 night’s 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. There’s
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. “It’s 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 it’s mostly kittens, puppies and
birds. That’s because club members often travel on shooting trips together or
share suggestions about photogenic places to visit. They’ll share a kitten for
an evening and take turns shooting it.
It’s strange that Stolte seems a bit nervous. She’s already won the biggest
award in the nation; why does she care about her scores at this small gathering?
But she does. Everyone does. That’s 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 club’s 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 picture’s
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 else’s. 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, you’d see how happy and proud they are to have accomplished this,
and you’d 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 you’ll have a sense of
the open-air foyer in which we’re standing.
Several dozen smartly dressed men preen while the 20-something hostess in
a Cinderella gown pumps the room, along with Jonathan Silverman, the evening’s
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 MTV’s 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,
As the sun sets, the city stretches out beneath us, a sea of glittering lights.
“Breathtaking, isn’t it?” the photographer says. “One million people down
“Try 9 million.” His girlfriend jabs him in the arm.
A bearded producer-type ambles over and favors us with a mock sneer: “Aaagh.
I’ve 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 event’s 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 Victoria’s Secret. How many other women, in slipping on the spaghetti-strap
dresses for tonight’s formal gig, worried about panty lines and G-strings? At
the cost of $250, each of the evening’s “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, I’m just here to dress the models!” â
I bump into a young man tinkering with a camera. “You’re 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 don’t want to
work, I don’t 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, it’s 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
On the walk back down to the car, it’s so dark you can hardly see where you’re
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, tonight’s party has been a modest one.
The end result of months of wrangling and finagling and coaxing, sculpted into
glam seamlessness. I hope they’ve 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 hasn’t been a DJ since 1976, but Tom Reed still sometimes
acts as if you can’t see him. The voice is quick like invisible gloved fists
on the speed bag; your head snaps to his beat: listenup listenup listenup. Doesn’t
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. He’s black.
Not so black, though, that the nurses in the segregated St. Louis hospital
where he was born in 1936 didn’t 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 he’d been
As it is, Reed’s 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 Reed’s customary segments on overlooked black notables. It’s so real, it
doesn’t seem like television.
Reed answers to no one about his choice of topics. “As long as we’re not cussin’
and fuckin’ on the air,” he says, kicking back last week in his North Valley
townhouse, “we’re 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 didn’t 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,
that’s 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
King’s English, well, you heard it. But the guys, man, had soul. And they knew
Reed’s own broadcast training shows in the contained explosiveness of his
diction: He wasn’t 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 wasn’t dead. “Everybody was taking a little money,” says Reed. “I’m
being honest, that’s how it went down. And you had a salary, but I made my money
with record hops.” He’d appear at venues like the Mardi Gras, South Gate Palace,
Dooton’s 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
Those were crucible years for American black identity. Reed’s 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 gospel’s 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 don’t 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
Several closets bulge with shelves of Reed’s 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 don’t even want to say that
they’re black. Anything but a nigger. They disown themselves, because they don’t
“People are searching, lookin’ for the real deal. And that’s important. When
you’re thinkin’, man, you’re dangerous.”