An ambassador who happens to carry a camera


The middle room on the first floor of photographer Linda Day Clark's house off North Avenue is chockablock with pictures. They're stacked on tables, piled on chairs, lying on the floor and propped against walls covered by even more pictures.

Things look pretty chaotic but Clark, standing amid the clutter in jeans and sweater, seems perfectly calm as she methodically flips through 15 years worth of images. She is trying to choose which pictures to exhibit in her solo show that will open Thursday at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and run through Feb. 26.

"I've got all these piles of photographs here, and I'm trying to decide what will be in and what will be out," she says matter-of-factly. Every few minutes, she stops what she's doing to shoo a huge black cat named La-la off her artworks.

La-la seems particularly fond of the photographs of North Avenue, which Clark, now an associate professor at Coppin State College, began shooting in the early 1990s while still a student at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art.

Today, Clark has thousands of images of the place and its people. She's also working on a series of pictures from Nigeria, another of portraits of black women in Gee's Bend, Ala., (she's been invited to lecture later this month at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington when it opens a major exhibition on Gee's Bend quilts), and she recently resumed a project on mothers in childbirth that takes her into area hospital delivery rooms to photograph.

As if that weren't enough, she's teaching full-time at Coppin, where this semester she's starting the school's first digital darkroom class, plus exhibiting nationally and publishing her images in books and magazines.

North Avenue project

When La-la gets up, Clark reaches down and pulls out a picture of a 10- or 11-year-old African-American girl wearing a powder-blue Muslim head scarf with gold trim.

Clark photographed the girl in the 1300 block of West North Avenue, near a Nation of Islam mosque, more than a decade ago. Since then, the picture has been exhibited and published many times, becoming one of the artist's most recognizable images.

Clark decides to include the picture in the UMES show.

"I'm trying to survey all the works and see which ones have stood up over time," she explains. "What happens is, you shoot, and then you fall in love with that fresh image. But then you have to go back to see which ones really have staying power. Maybe they are visually arresting or about a key piece of the social fabric of North Avenue, or something else that makes them stay relevant. It could be any number of things."

Underneath the girl's photo there's a shot of two guys in the front seat of a car who are obviously enjoying ogling the photographer as she takes their picture.

The colors seem lurid in the late afternoon light, and the wide-angle lens Clark uses has slightly distorted the perspective, making the leering expressions on the men's faces seem more comical than menacing.

Clark insists that she has never felt in any danger on the city's streets.

"I always ask permission," Clark says. "That's a part of the joy of being out there, to feel human and get to interact with total strangers and build relationships. I'm a very touchy-feely person, so I'm always talking with them, touching them, interacting, and that's part of it. Even the people who say no, I still generally have some sort of interaction or conversation with."

Clark began photographing North Avenue because she wanted to show the human side of a place where many only saw drugs, crime and violence.

When she moved to Baltimore to attend MICA with her husband, photographer Carl Clark, fellow students who didn't know where she lived warned her away from the area. "Everybody said 'Don't go there, you'll die, there's crime and drugs and violence.' And I realized I was already living here!" Clark recalls.

"It sounded like a great challenge, you know, because if they were so afraid of North Avenue, then they must be afraid of me, too. So there was obviously some sort of misconception going on," the artist says. "That's when I thought, 'Let me just try to walk around and show the humanity here, that there are so many decent, everyday people here.' "

A billboard show

The next day, Clark is still rummaging through images, still trying to choose which to show in UMES's Mosely Gallery. Like many artists, she welcomes opportunities to exhibit but wishes her work could reach an even wider audience.

"The best thing ever would be if I could have a show in Baltimore on the city's billboards," she muses. "I love showing in galleries and museums, but I would rejoice even more if I could command 10 billboards and have an exhibition so that people who aren't in the art community could see it, too."

The invitation to show at UMES came only a few months ago, which is not a lot of time to organize a retrospective covering a decade and a half.

"The whole thing has been so exciting, and also depressing," Clark says. "The more material I gather, the more I see how many ideas I wanted to try, how many negatives I wanted to print that I just haven't had time or energy to do yet."

In addition to North Avenue pictures, for example, there are still unprinted images from Clark's trip to Nigeria in 1994, the year she graduated from MICA and won a fellowship that allowed her to travel in Africa with Carl and her son Jameel, who was then 13. (Clark entered graduate school later that year and received a master of fine arts degree in photography from the University of Delaware in 1996.)

Ironically, the Nigeria project started out almost as a replay of the North Avenue series.

"The American Embassy told me the same thing: 'Don't go there, you'll die, there'll be drugs and crime and violence,' " Clark says. "So I went to the Nigerian Embassy and talked with them for a while and they were very helpful. They actually said, 'We need images of black people by black people, of Africans by African-Americans; we need to have some insightful imagery.'

"So I thought, if I was going to die, why not die in Nigeria? I mean, I can die walking out of my house any day of the week. If I'm going to die, Nigeria seems like a good place; why not die in the motherland instead of transplanted here?"

The trip turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of the artist's life.

"It was the total opposite of what the American Embassy had said," Clark recalls. "Nothing but amazing kindness, generosity and honesty from the people I met there. I didn't see any drugs, crime or violence. It was beautiful. Nothing had prepared me for that. So what I did was, again, just try to show the humanity there, the beauty of the people. I'd walk for miles, get my camera and talk to whoever on the street would talk to me; whoever would allow me to photograph, I'd photograph."

Photography's enigma

There are some things about photography that even photographers don't completely understand. The whole process is a kind of gift. Photographs are signs pointing, in Clark's case at least, to a world that is friendlier than one might think; and the camera is a black box, a mechanical apparatus whose operation is a little like magic. Clark compares her own work to an almost mystical quest -- what she describes as her "dance with light."

"Photography is a very spiritual medium," she says. "I mean, I love to get my hands dirty with clay, I love to paint. But it's so different than when I take my camera out and do that dance with light. I have to do a certain little dance to coax that light into my camera -- that light that is actually touching my subject -- and I have to get it to bounce off that subject and into my camera the way I want it to. Talk about having the echo of the person, I think you really do, you have a piece of something that has actually touched your subject that's now in your camera. To me, that's very magical, a very magical, beautiful thing."

The Mosely Gallery is in the Arts and Technologies Center on the campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore near Salisbury. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. For information, call 410-651-6490 or visit the Web site: / mosely.


Name: Linda Day Clark

Age: 40

Where raised: An Army brat, born in Kentucky, lived in Germany, spent teen years in Howard County, Md.

Education: Columbia's Oakland Mills High, Howard County Community College, Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Delaware

Day job: Associate Professor of Visual Arts, Coppin State College

Philosophy of life: "I find overwhelming joy in the challenge of creating images that illuminate and preserve. There is something so exciting and also solemn about finding the place within myself that allows me to know someone in such a way that it echos on film. This is the way I dream of photographing."

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