Neuberger Museum of Art

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Lewis Watts: Photographs


For San Francisco Bay Area-based photographer Lewis Watts, living near the coast is essential. It speaks of unlimited horizons, of success, of looking forward. In his art, however, Watts conveys the notion of halted motion, of events memorialized in their moments in time. Watts' photographs recall the past, society's interaction with its environment, the emigration of an area's inhabitants, and social and economic displacement. Watts' work is starkly striking. (left: 24 Street, West Oakland, 1997, silver gelatin print, 11 1/4 x 18 1/4 inches, Courtesy of the artist)

The Neuberger Museum of Art's exhibition of Lewis Watts' photography features pictures of people from Harlem, the South and West Oakland, California. It will be on view from September 10 through December 31, 2000. Watts draws imagery for the most part from African-American neighborhoods - religious icons, kids playing basketball, graffiti scrawls, the facades of vernacular architecture-all are vital to his repertoire. "My central subjects are people from the rural South and urban North. My inquiries manifest the cultural landscape and investigate the exodus from country to city. Part of my study investigates what has been brought from the country to the city and the traces found generations later manifested in the cultural landscape," Watts says. (left: Strivers Row, 1989, silver gelatin print, 16 x 13 inches)

"Lewis Watts' photographs evidence human existence and passage. His photographs retain, validate, and bear witness. The presence of people in his work sometimes is implied rather than actual," says Neuberger Museum of Arts Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs Judy Collischan, Ph.D. who is the curator of the exhibition. "The intensity and absolutism of Watts' presentation foster a sense of eliciting reality and forcing it into strong relief. The result is an expression of the mystery of human existence."

Lewis Watts holds his BA in Political Science and his MA in Photography and Design from the University of California, Berkeley, where he presently teaches. His architectural preservation studies and his work as an architectural preservation photographer have influenced his personal artistic production. Farm Security Administration photographs and the documentary traditions influenced his reflective references to agricultural backgrounds and makeshift storefront churches. His parents' southern background enlightens much of his research into the "great migration from the rural South to the urban North. (left: Light Tree, Louisiana, 1994, silver gelatin print, 12 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches)

Because it affords a sense of strong relief and high black and white contrasts, Watts' selected the gelatin-silver print for his special pursuit. Watts' work emphasizes the medium's potential for artistic composition by calling attention to subjects that usually might go unnoticed. His references to the conventional still life imbue his unassuming topics with technical mastery; relationships with the modern Dadaist focus on mundane manufactured objects. By designating the special in opposition to the ordinary, the perfect versus the imperfect, and the respected alongside the ignored, Watts reverses cultural hierarchies. If an important principle of art is its ability to transform, Watts has taken that aspect to its higher levels. (left: Luma Kanda at the Key Bookshop, Oakland, 1995, silver gelatin print, 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 inches)

Several photographs on display in the Neuberger exhibition were taken in New York City, a place that inspires Watts' creativity. "In New York, everyone' s ethnicity is more intact on the surface," he says. "There are also many more layers of history in the environment. In the West, everything is newer and it is easier to reinvent oneself."

The photographs of Lewis Watts are part of the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum of California, Light Work of Syracuse, New York, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.

rev. 9/16/00

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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