Monday, August 3, 2009

A Clarence Chicks Portrait by Tom Lindfors

Tom Lindfors is a professional photographer who made a name for himself in Chicago working for thriving businesses and prestious institutions. If you look at his website, you'll see that he even took Michael Jordan's portrait. He took this photo of Clarence Chicks a number of years ago and asked Clarence to write something about himself to go with it. Below the photo is what Clarence wrote back then:

My name is Clarence Chicks. I am a member of the Stockbridge Tribe of the Mohican Nation. I was born on July 27, 1917 the eldest of nine children. I attended public and parochial schools in the Town of Red Springs, Wisconsin. I went on to attend Haskell Indian Institution in Lawrence, Kansas. There I completed High School and also a two year business course graduating in 1937. I was employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, served four years in the United States Navy during World War II and retired from General Motors in 1974. My recollections from early childhood was that I knew I was Indian, but it was some years before I fully realized the uniqueness of being a Native American and the development of intense pride in this fact. Life has been good to me with three successful children as well as a grandson I am proud of.

As we approach the 21st Century, I look forward to life as a Native American, as well as, an American citizen doing my part to fulfill my responsibilities as both. I am confident that in the coming century we will continue to enjoy the benefits of our democracy.

I probably could have devoted a whole post to the work that Clarence did fixing up his church - Immanuel Mohican Lutheran - and the old school building next to it (see photo). The bottom line is that the two buildings are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Clarence certainly has mechanical ability and he's worked with Habitat for Humanity for a long time. That is how he got to know the photographer, Tom Lindfors.

Now a resident of northern Wisconsin, Tom Lindfors told me (in an August 4, 2009 e-mail) about how he first heard about Clarence. Neither man could tell me how old Clarence was at the time, but a reasonable guess is that he was between 70 and 80 years old when, while using the Stockbridge tribe's firetruck to paint the upper reaches of the school building's exterior, there was an accident. Clarence was one of three men in the bucket and one of them wanted to go back down to the ground. Believe it or not, in the process of lowering, the bucket somehow broke. Perhaps even more unbelieveable was that although old Clarence fell out of the bucket, he sustained no serious injuries. When Tom Lindfors' father told him about that event, he felt destined to meet Clarence Chicks - and, of course, it goes without saying that he would take photos of Clarence. I asked Tom if he remembered taking those photos and I got a lot more than I expected. Here's some of what he told me:

I would consider Clarence a very good friend and one of the wisest people I know. He is someone I really admire. I have learned a great deal from him not only about Native Americans but about life in general.

The image Clarence sent you was the result of a rare reshoot, one of a handful I can remember in my career. I was working on an exhibit entitled, "Faces Within," and Clarence had agreed to sit for a portrait. We chose the church property for a variety of reasons, personal, historical and spiritual. The morning of the original shoot, was, one of the most memorable mornings I can recall. A very cool, exceptionally clear early autumn night, left a ghosty fog, moving like smoke in and out of the woods. The half hour drive to the church that morning was completely surreal, forest scape of intense color, masked by the serpentine fog knifed by distinct shafts of sunshine. It was truly breathtaking. Clarence had selflessly agreed to meet me early in the morning. The camera I had chosen was the perfect tool for the vision I had conjured, but unfortunately I was very unfamiliar with it. It was not one of my standard choices. Envision the same image Clarence sent you with brilliant leaves on the branches behind him, traces of fog mixed with dramatic white clouds against a deep blue sky and Clarence in his sharp black shirt. I was so caught up in the moment, I failed to properly pay attention to the framing constraints of the panoramic camera and ended up with Clarence out of focus in most of the frames. It was some of the most disappointing film I have ever had to look at and I'm left with only mental memories of that morning . . . and Clarence's patience and understanding. We remade the image as you see it, a week or two later. It is one of my favorite images in my collection maybe because of all that transpired in its making but also because of the perspective it demands of me, my own shortcomings and Clarence's friendship. We've had some long conversations since then.

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