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A retrospective of a lifetime with a camera, one email at a time

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The first email arrived sometime in early January.

It was from Dennis Darling, a photographer and professor of photojournalism at the University of Texas.

Perhaps, Darling emailed, I was interested in a little project on which he had embarked. Perhaps, I wouldn't mind receiving an email from him about twice a week with photos culled from his four decades behind the lens.

In September of last year, as a way to recognize his 65th birthday, Darling began picking through his archive of thousands of negatives and contact sheets, digitizing images and sending them to friends, family, acquaintances or, in my case, professional contacts.

Many of the photos he had never printed. Many he had never seen in years. He selects what he sends rather randomly, sometimes loosely pegging his choices to a holiday or a season, or sometimes grouping them thematically.

Darling's effort is something of a self-curated career retrospective exhibited one modest email at a time.

The images arrive on a loosely-regular schedule. Sometimes there are two to a missive. No information is provided but for the photographs' titles, and Darling is not one for fanciful labels.

"County morgue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1978" arrived one day. "Cajun Mardi Gras, Lafayette, La., 1998" arrived in February during the week of Mardi Gras.

Darling started sending the photos to about 200 folks. Now, as word has spread, he sends to more than 600.

Email is an antiquated way of sharing, some have told him. Why not a website, a blog, a Tumblr page, a Flickr stream?

"I'm a dinosaur, a Luddite," Darling says from Prague, where he is director of a UT summer program. (Although given that he's speaking via the online phone service Skype, Darling perhaps undercuts his lack of technical knowledge.)

Yes, he has a cell phone, but it doesn't have a camera function. He has no need for that.

"I'm an occasional photographer. I don't like doing it all the time," he says. "There's no reason to photograph all the time."

When he does photograph, he shoots with one of two medium-format film cameras (one from the 1960s, one from the 1970s) and always in black and white.

"I'm happy with what I have," Darling says of his equipment.

And if they stop making black-and-white film?

"I'll go back to drawing," he says.

Though he's directed the photojournalism program at UT for years, his is more of an artist's background and approach. Sure, his images have appeared in Texas Monthly, Rolling Stone, Discovery Magazine and Modern Photography, and he has published two books of his work, "Desperate Pleasures" (1987) and "Chameleon with Camera" (1989).

A native of upstate New York, he studied at the noted Art Institute of Chicago. "I had never been to journalism school until I arrived to teach at one," he says.

And whether it's with pixels or a paintbrush, creating compelling pictures is born of the same discipline.

"I teach how to make interesting images," he says. "The same principles of composition and of proportion apply now as they did hundreds of years ago."

And besides, for Darling it seems the process is the prize.

"With a camera, it's a magic carpet. You can go anywhere," he says. "And if you've got a halfway decent story about why you want to take someone's picture, people are very accepting about letting you do so."

Darling trains his lens on those usually at the margins of the mainstream: snake-handling preachers, punk rockers, circus performers, motorcycle gang members.

A Mexican wrestler is just as likely to be one of Darling's subjects as are Amish teenagers or a neo-Nazi husband and wife. He doesn't pass judgment on those he finds fascinating.

"I don't take pictures of people to show what makes them tick, I just show them ticking," he says. "I don't have an agenda other than to take pictures."

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to characterize Darling's approach to his subjects as entirely dispassionate.

For the last several years, he has photographed Holocaust survivors of Terezín, the Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic.

"It seems important, exploring this history. (The survivors) are a window to the past with their firsthand experience of the Holocaust," he says. "And there aren't many of them still alive."

Some of Darling's most recent photos will go on display at UT's Bass Concert Hall in October in conjunction with "Creativity in the Face of Death: The Contemporary Resonance of Terezín," a three-day symposium.

As for as his email retrospective project, his initial plan was to keep it going for a year, though he's considering extending it.

"As time goes on, I've become aware of the lightness of things. And it makes people I know feel special that they're receiving something," he says philosophically, before switching to a more quotidian tone. "But I'm not taking it too seriously."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699