Photographer with local roots awarded Guggenheim Fellowship

·3 min read

Apr. 27—Prize-winning photojournalist Ron Tarver says creating art from an idea is "probably the hardest work I've ever done."

"It's one thing where I can point my camera at something and I can make a picture of that thing as it exists in the world," said the 1975 Fort Gibson High School graduate and former Muskogee Phoenix photographer. "But to make an image of an idea is difficult. My training is photojournalism."

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation honored Tarver's art by awarding him a $52,000 Guggenheim Fellowship earlier in April.

The Fellowship was established in 1925 "to add to the educational, literary, artistic, and scientific power of this country."

"It cuts across all disciplines, from chemistry to poetry, French literature," Tarver said. "If you look at all the disciplines that Guggenheim covers, it's amazing."

Tarver said major names, such as novelist Saul Bellow and "Harper's Bazaar" photographer Robert Frank, have come out of Guggenheim Fellows.

Fellowships run from six to 12 months and seek to offer recipients with time to work with as much creative freedom as possible.

Tarver said he plans to use the fellowship to continue and finish a book on Black cowboys he started about 25 years ago. He said he photographed Black cowboys in Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois and California. He said his photos have been exhibited at Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan.

"I wanted to get into the culture of people who have this western heritage," he said. "Coming from Oklahoma, I just grew up with it. I had relatives who had ranches and I grew up riding horses. It's always something I did, go to the rodeo, go to the sale barn."

However, Tarver said it was his work "An Overdue Conversation with My Father" that helped him earn the Guggenheim Fellowship.

"It's such a long-shot to actually get it, Tarver said. "A friend was one of my recommenders, and he's one of the preeminent people in photography and design, and he's applied 14 times. He's written 20 books."

In "An Overdue Conversation with My Father," Tarver uses photos his father took in the 1940s and 1950s and incorporates them into art works. For example, an old photo of a woman is burned onto a brown bag.

Tarver's creative work will be displayed through summer at the Oklahoma Contemporary Art Center in Oklahoma City. The "We Believe in the Sun" exhibit runs from May 6 to Aug. 9 and pairs Tarver with Oklahoma artist Ebony Iman Dallas.

According to the Oklahoma Contemporary Art Center website, the exhibit honors legacies of Oklahoma City's Civil Rights Movement. The website said the exhibit "explores both public and private perspectives on Black Oklahomans' past and present struggle for Civil Rights and equal protection under the law."

Tarver said his work looks at how his father lived and worked during the period of discrimination and Jim Crow, "then addresses how that idea of Jim Crow still exists."

"I want to make work that's not didactic but also gets to the heart of what these issues are," Tarver said.

Tarver is associate professor of art at Swarthmore College. He was a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 32 years where he shares a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his work on a series documenting school violence in the Philadelphia public school system. His work has been published in "Life," "Newsweek" and "National Geographic."

If you go

WHAT: "We Believed in the Sun," exhibit with Ron Tarver and Ebony Iman Dallas.

WHEN: May 6-Aug. 9

WHERE: Mary Leflore Clements Oklahoma Gallery, Oklahoma Contemporary Art Center, 11 N.W. 11th St., Oklahoma City.