Carl Clark: photographer with a purpose

DRAWING UPON genius and despair, Carl Clark brings hope to his people, his neighborhood and to himself.

At the corner of Linden Avenue and Ducatel Street -- once called Dodge City in honor of the many shootings there -- they call him The Picture Man.

He is that and more.

At 67, his graying hair in dreadlocks, Mr. Clark is a highly regarded and widely exhibited photographer whose work affirms the humanity of inner-city African-Americans whose lives approach invisibility.

His work is a weighty counterbalance to so much of American culture, in which black people don't exist unless they're athletes, entertainers or drug dealers.

His photos bring dignity and acknowledgement to the ordinary, even the mundane aspects of African-American existence in Baltimore.

Thus his artistic focus falls somewhere between Ralph Ellison's novel, "Invisible Man," and the poem "My People" by Langston Hughes. The Hughes verses ("The night is beautiful/ So the faces of my people...") are pasted on the inside of his glass front door on Linden Avenue.

The faces are celebrated in the images on the walls of the photographer's living room, framed and stacked inside the front hall, piled on bookshelves and, now, on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Recurrently suicidal long after tours in the killing fields of Korea and Vietnam, Mr. Clark saw ending his life as escape from the torment. Even now, he begins each day with a desperate self-urging: "Hold it. Hold it," he commands himself upon waking until he remembers his life has meaning he can believe in.

Certain he was insane and oddly pleased to be so -- sane people who kill are murderers, he says -- art suddenly made him a giver and not a taker of life. He thinks others will be able to see and follow his path.

The gifts of black Americans, he says, have been creative and yet in poor environments people necessarily focus on the concrete: jobs, food, safety. They can't afford to dream and when they are ignored, their humanity comes into question.

Without self-image there is no self, no identity, no place or purpose. Through the discerning lenses of his camera and his life, he tries to supply what is missing: an imagery of self and community that reflects substance back to those who may have doubted their place in the world.

What he does demands an interplay between willing subjects who release their essence, whose expressions and postures declare the meaning of their lives. His pictures define pride, independence, loneliness, beauty, pain and defiance, never surrender.

In warm weather, he sits on his marble steps taking Polaroids of neighbors who've never been photographed, who have no family albums, some of whom wonder why he would want to photograph them.

He has done series of pictures showing women in flamboyant hats; people in the haunting confines of subways; children at play; and young black men in street-corner society.

Disbelief greeted him often. "Your pictures are just like Life magazine," a woman told him, "except the people are black."

His artistic universe extends to Nigeria, where he recently spent two months, but more immediately just down Linden to North Avenue, which he calls a place of pure beauty.

He flips through a portfolio of images he recorded in Baltimore and stops, arrested once again by a man in a ragged straw hat.

"I love his eyes," he says. That love glows in every face and frame.

He finds character: old men enjoying each other's company on a sunlit bench, inner peace witnessed by strong hands; loneliness: an old woman rising by escalator from the inner earth; disappointment: three young men on a corner, buffeted and bewildered yet still looking expectantly; exuberance: a drum majorette completely uninhibited, totally immersed in the rhythms of her band, an artist of movement; glamour: women in hats of breathtaking architecture and ribbony flamboyance; innocence: black and white children seeing no differences in each other's faces.

His wife, Linda, also a photographer, says pictures so revealing come from a quiet dance, a patient questing by the artist for something to reveal itself, something almost tangible released from the core of another being. As an African-American, he says, he expects to find what he's looking for in the spirit of the life before him. Everyone, he says, wears a mask. But the camera can get behind it if the photographer has the subject's trust.

"They trust him," says his neighbor, Franklin McDougald, an actor and city worker who investigates allegations of wage-law violation. "They like him."

Without doing it consciously, Mr. Clark believes, his father, Edwin, the son of a slave, showed him his essence, taught him to look for and guard it. He remembers his father's daily departure for work. He cleaned toilets, but every day he went to work in a suit and tie. He carried a little briefcase with his work clothes folded inside. That image informs what he does today.

His father had a college education, but it did him no good as a provider. He couldn't find suitable work.

But he never lost faith, never gave up on his country's ideals, made hope a legacy for his son. He lived to be 92, long enough for the civil rights movement to confer this much: At least I don't have to step in the street any more when a white person comes along.

Now his son's art amplifies and enshrines his lessons. It liberates people in the bondage of circumstance, frees people imprisoned by lack of opportunity, by ignorance and fear. It finds them triumphant and haughty and perfectly willing to live life anonymously, if necessary, on their own terms.

One sees Carl Clark's pictures and knows again how discrimination separates and diminishes us all.

A veteran of 30 years in the U.S. Army, he found his gift at Camp Meade in the last year of his service. A crafts teacher entered some of his pictures in a contest and he won. The teacher had friends at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Mr. Clark's application was quickly accepted and he spent five years there, perfecting his art.

When he left the Army, he moved to Randallstown and then to Rosedale in Baltimore County.

He wanted a more vibrant neighborhood and began looking for a house in the city. He stopped at Linden and Ducatel one day at the sound of children splashing in a public pool. Then he turned around to find the house at the north end of the block for sale. He bought it.

Now he hopes he can be a teacher by merely living there, by showing the alternative of his own life and those he photographs, including his neighbor Frank, an actor as well as a city employee.

"Kids have no hope," he says. "they have very little contact with people so they don't know there's an alternative to the street life.

"I want to make them dream."

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