Fine Art Photography Daily

Thomas McGovern: Vital Signs and Hard Boys & Bad Girls

Continuing to look at some of the presented portfolios from the 2010 West Regional Conference for SPE…

At the conference, there were three presentations about documenting life in Southern California, by three photographers that were equally engaging and enthusiastic. Douglas McCulloh and Thomas Michael Alleman have both had their work featured on Lenscratch, and the third, Thomas Mc Govern, stuck me as the kind of person I would want to share a beer with. His excitement about his work and the community in which he resides was infectious. San Bernardino is an inland empire city that while struggling ecomonically, is rich with California and Latino culture.

After working as an editorial photographer in New York for ten years and holding the position as the photo editor of the Village Voice for two years, he moved to San Bernardino as a Professor of Art at California State University. The work Thomas presented was from his series of hand-painted signs, Vital Signs, and I am also featuring his work, Hard Boys + Bad Girls, about young people who aspire to be professional wrestlers. I photographed people who were struggling, sometimes literally, other times metaphorically, to survive. It is their struggle that I relate to, their need to stand up and say with an authoritative voice that they do exist and that they do matter. The subjects do just that and I hope, in a small way, so do I.

Vital Signs is a documentary photography project on the hand-painted signs and murals throughout the Inland Empire region of Southern California, starting with the city of San Bernardino. The great Mexican muralist tradition has an obvious influence, but these signs and murals also suggest the economics of a poor city where immigrants and established locals alike set up shop and try to provide for themselves and their communities.

Images from Vital Signs

The signage is mostly about local businesses and while a few of them are masterfully done, most are crude and some barely legible. Advertising is an age-old tradition and as these pictures attest, if all you have is a brush and some paint, you make the most of it.

HARD BOYS & BAD GIRLS is a photography project about young people who live their fantasies of greatness through professional wrestling. Working mundane day jobs as truck drivers, cashiers and secretaries, these men and women seek to realize their goals of fame and super-stardom within the economically and socially depressed city of San Bernardino, California.

As youngsters who grew up with MTV, tabloid journalism and 24-hour news cycles, the subjects collaborate with me in the conscious construction of their chosen personas. They inherently understand how photography creates a public identity and blurs fiction into fact. As performance artists, they preen and strike poses for the camera that mock famous TV wrestlers while simultaneously admiring them, all for the magic of being captured in the pain and glory of their chosen alter egos. They eagerly await the pictures and use them to critique their characters, striving for a convincing manifestation of their fantasies of greatness.

Professional wrestling’s choreographed scenarios, contrived characters and violent, sexual themes have an obvious appeal to this short attention span generation. But Look beneath the surface of their bravado and there are signs of the vulnerable and slight young person, trying desperately to find his or her way in a world where image rules.

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