For artists, inspiration can strike at any time and often in response to other artists. Local professional photographer Dean Davis had his “aha” moment for his latest project, “Pictures of Poets,” after attending the annual Spokane Arts Awards party two years ago.
Not much of a poetry reader at the time, the former Spokane Arts Commission chair was nevertheless struck by the live recitations of quirky performance artist Mark Anderson. The then-29-year-old had just been named Spokane’s new poet laureate for 2017-2019. He took the mic at the party to perform two of his own spoken word pieces.
Anderson’s endearing performance stayed with Davis. “Later, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I thought: ‘Poets! I need to photograph poets!’ ” Davis said. “Then I thought, ‘I hope I remember this in the morning’ and went back to sleep.”
Davis did remember the next day. And got to work. Two years later, Davis’ “Pictures of Poets” has evolved from a local photography experiment into a national multimedia experience of photographic portraits and spoken word combined.
Along with starkly black-and-white, and impossibly huge, faces of poets, viewers can experience the sound of the pictured poets reading their own words. Gazing at the poets’ larger-than-life faces while hearing their performances is like being inside their heads. Or like having the poets inside your head.
Davis didn’t start out wanting to elevate poets. Inspired by visual artists Chuck Close and Platon, his first thought was to “photograph a bunch of really big heads,” as he put it. Davis was still noodling whom to shoot for his “high-res big heads” portrait project when he happened to witness Anderson’s poetry performance.
He decided he would not only photograph poets. He also would record them reading their own works. “It seems to me that poetry is designed for your ears, not your eyes,” Davis said. “Reading a written poem is like reading the lyrics of your favorite song. … It really comes to life when you hear it sung.”
And while photography has been his primary focus since he opened his own commercial photography business in 1997, music also has been one of Davis’ enduring passions. He used to book musical acts back when he was part owner of Spokane’s first microbrewery, the Fort Spokane Brewery.
He also founded the Inland Empire Blues Society in 1991 and spent 13 years co-hosting a weekly blues show on KKZX. Suffice it to say, Davis knows a few things about gathering sound.
Anderson noted that for a lot of poets, their works can be a private experience until they are heard live. Davis’ focus on seeing and hearing the poet can be illuminating for audiences.
“Reading it on the page, you can be somewhat removed from the author, so I think it’s an interesting idea to capture the human behind the poem and hear them perform,” Anderson said.
Since that first photography and recording session with Anderson in Davis’ studio on Pacific Avenue, Davis has spent the past two years criss-crossing the state, hitting poetry festivals in towns and universities in Washington.
He has amassed images and recordings of 158 poets so far. Anyone can access the “Pictures of Poets” experience at Davis’ website at picturesofpoets.com.
There are plans in the works to partner with the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture to bring traveling exhibitions to museums, universities and galleries statewide.
Shows might include around 30 portraits, with audiences donning headphones to hear the written words while viewing the faces. Each exhibition can be customized to the region where it’s held.
Poetry doesn’t respect state lines. Davis incidentally met and photographed poets from all over the country who were visiting the Pacific Northwest, so, again, he is thinking even bigger.
He is working toward securing funding from national arts foundations and universities interested in documenting, preserving and sharing poetry and the poets themselves.
Davis has already sunk $10,000 of his own money into “Pictures of Poets.” Without outside funding, it would be cost-prohibitive to take the project nationwide.
Traveling coast-to-coast, lugging camera and recording equipment, renting hotel rooms and taking time off from his own business isn’t feasible for Davis without getting paid. Just framing the 40-by-60 inch portraits is a financial barrier at $400 a pop.
There are plans for upcoming shows but no announcements yet. For now, Davis is committed to continuing to add poets to his website indefinitely. “I don’t know what the end game is,” he said. “I have no mechanism to generate revenue yet, and that’s OK.”
Even without traveling shows, the website could be considered a national treasure for poetry lovers. Former Washington state poet laureate and Spokane resident Tod Marshall, who participated in the project, said he particularly appreciates the multiple entry points for viewers, readers and listeners.
Marshall wrote in support of “Pictures of Poets”: “From Baker to Boyden to Gerber to Kuipers to Pinsky and Van Winckel. Frowns and smiles, distant gazes and intense stares, obvious grimaces and eye brow twerks – they’re all here.
“That Davis has combined these revealing photos with an archive of recordings and brief introductory notes to the poets works. Well, these energies create intersections that give us those brief accesses – glimpses – into the poets’ works and, maybe, workings.”
Davis confessed he was more of a reader of philosophy than poetry before this project. Now he regularly attends local open mic nights at Neato Burrito and Auntie’s bookstore to scout new subjects.
He also dives into stacks of poetry books ranging from works by Homer to Charles Bukowski. He is even memorizing some of Marshall’s published verses to perform at a local open mic night soon. So far he has no plans to write poetry himself.
“One thing I’ve learned is that poets are some of the most courageous people I know,” Davis said. “They bare their souls.”
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