“the go to person for street painting photos on the east coast. 50,000 photo in 8 years.”
Craig Houdeshell is one of the best street painting and chalk drawing photographers. Craig was very generous to be interviewed for Drawing on Earth by Mark Lewis Wagner, founder of DoE – thank you Craig!
• How did photography capture your attention?
Before I start I want to thank you, Mark, for the opportunity to answer your thoughtful questions and let my thoughts be known. It was very kind of you to think of me and give me the opportunity. I have been interested in photography for a very long time. As a young boy I was given a camera by a great-uncle. I was probably about eight. The camera was one of the later model Kodak Brownie cameras. It was the mid-1960s, so it was squarely the time of Polaroid and Kodak Instamatic cameras. I am sure I was given that camera to play with because it was old-fashioned. Also, rolling the calendar ahead about 10 years, my first try at college was at Capitol University, a small liberal arts college outside Columbus, Ohio, for a music degree.
The instrumental practice rooms each had black and white photo prints on the wall. I had plenty of chances to study those prints a lot. Also, as part of a music degree you get lots of art history and humanities coursework. In addition, my dad was the family photographer. He always had a camera or 8mm movie camera close by when visiting relatives and on vacation. Thanks to him my brothers and I have a rich documentation of our childhood and extended families. My dad introduced me to Nikon cameras and 35mm film.
• Would you share with us an early image and a photography memory that changed your life.
Several years later when I returned to college for engineering degrees at Colorado State University there hung two black and white prints that I recognized as hanging at Capitol University. I would later learn they were the organic, sensual, well-lit work of Edward Weston. I can remember starring at those photos many times thinking, “Damn, those are good.” While I went on to a civil engineering career. Those photos inspired me and I have carried a camera much of my adult life because of it.
• How did you get into photographing chalk festivals?
Funny story. I was with Jennifer at the Festival of the Masters at Downtown Disney in 2009. I was sitting around not doing much. They needed someone to get photos of all the art and we happened to have a camera along. Somehow I rounded up a ladder and I was off shooting my first street painting event.
• What have you seen on the streets? Would you share with us a few treasured moments?
For me, where ever I go, no matter what I am doing, it is about the people. I have done this enough times that of course there are a few moments I will never forget. A couple follow but I have many more. It seems the “chalk board box” (usually a large wooden box the crowd can write and draw on) has quickly become a ubiquitous fixture at chalk events. Last February, at the Lake Worth Street Painting festival I was standing at one of the chalk board boxes, about 15 feet away. I was trying to figure an angle, for a photo, that told a story. People were three and four deep all around the box, either reading, writing or waiting to write.
Off to my right was an elderly man, small and frail in a wheelchair. I got the sense he wanted in there, up to the box, and I asked him if he wanted to write something. He offered an immediate and urgent “YES.” I pushed his chair to the box asking people to make room. He asked to stand, I helped him stand and helped him stand there – half holding him up. A young girl handed him half a stick of chalk. Then he turned to the box he wrote in a very shaky hand his wish, “I want to see my sister one last time” and started to cry. When I got him back in his chair he looked up at me and said through teary eyes, “There, that is done,” and spun around in his chair and went into the crowd. It seemed a burden he carried for a long time. I will never forget.
Another time I had a street painter write me an email explaining that one of my photos showed her before having major cancer surgery. She thanked me and let me know the photo was important because it showed how far she had come. That blew me out of the water. I had no idea. Then there are always the kids. I once had a young boy ask me why I like to carry a ladder around in the street. I told him I would show him. With his dad’s permission I let the boy climb the ladder. He got to the top of ladder and was looking all around and said to no one in particular, “Oh, you can see all around, real good up here.” It was sort of funny. Maybe you had to be there. One last point. I have had many street painters tell me they started with their kids – to make a connection with them. That is a good thing and in my humble opinion enough of a reason for the events to take place.
• You met your partner Jennifer Chaparro @ Amazing Street Painting, who is an awesome chalk drawing artist while photography events, can you tell us about this, how you met, how it has been working together, what you learned and what works with how 2 artists live and love together?
We have been together a long time. We were each married and divorced before we met. I always say that I wished I would have met her earlier so I could love her longer but the reality is we each needed our experiences so when we finally met is was right. Jennifer is the second greatest thing that ever happened to me, second only to my daughters. All the girls (four between Jennifer and I) are raised and on their own so it is just the two of us. It would be hard for most people to understand how often “chalk” is dinner table conversation at our house. It is usually because there is a new project on the horizon and we are brainstorming concepts or discussing the logistics of an upcoming festival or event.
We don’t actually work together too much. If it is about a street painting – Jennifer definitely makes the decisions. I get input into the concept and helping with the warping of the art, if it is an anamorphic piece. Also, with my construction and engineering background I also get to help with layout and griding on the street. Once the actual “art” begins I step away and let her beautify a piece of the street. I do get involved with proposal writing, the cost analysis and logistics of commercial street painting projects. Interestingly, Jennifer doesn’t like me to photograph or video her. She claims is it because we are so close that she has a hard time being natural in front of the camera.
• You have a unique perspective on the chalk drawing festivals, what’s your hit, what’s happening, why is it important if it is?
My style is a combination of two generally accepted photography ideas: documentation and photojournalism that both bend toward street photography. The artists and the event obviously want a record – a good document – of the street painting – this is ultimately important. The photojournalism comes in through a sequence of photos that tell the story of the event or festival through the series. Many people who follow me on Facebook know me for my near-real-time, or at least daily album uploads during the street painting events. I have innumerable artists thank me for these albums as they don’t get around to see other art because they are working on their own piece.
How the street photography gets into my work is I am constantly looking for the “decisive moment,” let it be humor, a twist of the face, a unique perspective or amazing light. I believe the best, and most successful photographs tell a story – something more than a simple document of art. It is what tells the story of the festival. It is the story that is important to me. Anyone can walk up and take a photo of the street painting. I think it is very important to have the documentation of the street paintings too. It shows the progression of how the techniques and sophistication of the medium has evolved dramatically over a short time. It shows one artist how their own style, technique and conceptualization evolved and of course there is the photographic record of the street paintings themselves. Without the photos, this ephemeral art would be lost to the rain, the gutter and the street sweeper. It has been said, “A photograph is taken in the present, to be looked at in the future, to remember the past.” There is no truer statement about this temporary art form.
• Artists traveling to festival usually get a hotel room, plane fare, supplies, but no $, and they do so much hard work. Have you ever had a sense that the artists are being used?
This is a very unique and important question. Dedicating to photography during the street painting festivals has given me the opportunity to meet many fantastic people. Some people are artists, some are festival promoters. I get to hear all sides of the issue regarding festival budgets, artist payment and sponsors willingness to pay. It is a difficult issue and each festival is unique.
I have heard a range of statements and argument such as:
1) There wouldn’t be a festival if the artists have to be paid
2) The festival is not about the artists
3) I (we) just worked for three days, the work I just gave away is worth “$x”
4) I do this for fun, it is how I express myself
5) I am just glad I don’t have a huge canvas to store
6) I don’t care that I don’t get paid because I get to do this and around my friends
7) I use the festival(s) to promote my other art.
My point there is are wide ranging viewpoints on the value of the art and getting paid. Having spent many years in the consulting engineering arena, it is hard for me to understand dealing with the travel, conceptualizing and executing the art for two or three days and not get paid enough to make a profit. On the other hand, many of the event promoters have a difficult time pulling sponsorship money together for an event. Given the economic times, I can appreciate that. I do have a dream. I would like to see an event or festival that is cash rich enough so each artist gets enough of a stipend or payment to not only cover costs but to actually get paid and make a profit for doing the street painting art. I look at it this way.
If an artist were to complete a painting and sell it to a private individual perhaps a couple hundred people or maybe a few thousand would see it. Some of the events claim many tens of thousands of people see the street paintings during a weekend event. It seems there is an unrecouped monetary value by the artists and the event promoter. I could write a very long article on this, but I will leave it there.
• You also are an amazing nature photographer. Would you share a few sweet moments about this with us.
Thank you, I appreciate your comment. I truly do. Living in south Florida, I live in one of the best bird photography locations in the world. Nature photography is remarkably time consuming. It takes a lot of time to get into position for a good shot and of course there is the waiting for the action moment. When it happens you have to be ready. Also, it is an expensive habit. It takes big, heavy, expensive lenses that cost many thousands of dollars. I use the nature photography to escape people and find solitude and serenity. More recently, I have begun leading workshops and photo trips into the Everglades.
Nature is remarkable. Its gentleness and its destructive force. One moment of gentleness was watching a mother otter push the pups up the bank of the canal. On the other hand, I have watched alligators lay in wait and attack a Great Egret or a Great Blue Heron wading looking for a meal. There is always an impressive explosion of water. While those large birds are certainly more than a mouthful, the alligator wins this fight every time. One last point. I am a huge believer in giving back and educating/mentoring.
One thing I do is volunteer at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge as a photo instructor where I work with troubled high school students to show them nature through the vehicle of photography. I will never forget one young woman thanking me for showing her the birds and trees. She said she had never been to the Refuge before even though she lived close by.
• Any other insights, things you’d like to share, anything that you haven’t said yet? Anything technical that you’d like to geek out on?
As I said earlier in the interview, it is all about the people. I cannot express the joy and gratitude I have for all the great people I have met through this art form. Everyone is a kind, thoughtful, sharing person if they are a festival volunteer, an artist or an event promoter. The willingness of the artists to share between themselves without petty jealousy is something I have not experienced elsewhere.
There are a few projects I would like to undertake for the street painters and the events. I would like to shoot some of the art with a medium format digital camera, a Hasselblad or a Phase One camera – shooting from directly overhead from scaffolding. Then print for a gallery show at half-life size or perhaps two-thirds life size. I think it would be very impactful and bring the idea of street painting inside to people who would never see it otherwise. I want to shoot medium format for the quality so the printing large is of extremely high quality. Of course large prints could be used by the event promoters and the artists.
I recently got an email from an artist looking for specific photos. In her email she called me the “go to person for street painting photos.” That is not exactly true because I don’t get to the west coast festivals, but I do have a lot of image files. I recently reviewed my street painting photo archives and it numbers more than 50,000 photos over eight years and that is not how many photos I have taken, but how many photos I have kept. I am happy to provide the photos to the artists because they give their time. Because they are giving their time, it is hard to charge them for the photos. However, I have worn out two cameras shooting street painting events. Therefore, before the beginning of the autumn street painting festival season, I will be offering a crowd-sourcing page for dedicated funds to replace those two cameras so I can keep documenting the ephemeral art for posterity.
This would not be the typical crowd-sourcing experience but something a bit different. An opportunity for patrons of street painting, the events who have gotten free photos and artists who have never gotten their photos to take what they want, then offer what they feel is a fair value for what they take. It will happen in the next couple of months. I am working on a photo show and a book. Announcements about this will be made by the end of the year. I would like to be able to put together funding to get to the west coast chalk festivals. Let me throw out one crazy idea. I have one more dream.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a week long (or longer) street painting festival at, say, an abandoned airport somewhat close to a population center so there is a crowd to see the street paintings. Art could be created, when the pavement gets covered, it can be hosed off and the artists can go again. Artists, friends, and art patrons could camp out, have fun, there would be music, etc. Sort of a live-at street painting festival, sort of a chalk Burning Man.
Mark, again, thanks for the questions. They are very thoughtful. They really made me step back and think. I appreciate that. Peace.
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