I love coffeehouses. I’m sitting at Homage Bakery, with my laptop, a pot of soothing green tea and a posset. This old house has been a regular hangout of mine since it opened five years ago. It has the perfect vibe — a fusion of great coffee and tea, delicious treats, people chatting in the three cozy rooms, and compelling art on the walls.
I was especially excited when Vernon Alumbaugh, father of the establishment’s owner, began curating the walls with absorbing, artistic photographs. Whether color or black and white, landscapes, portraits or photojournalism, the images always draw me in, take me on a journey to some exotic location, or stir an emotional reaction. I must admit that on several occasions I’ve been so absorbed by a photograph that I’ve not been engaged as much in a conversation as I should have been.
Being a former journalist who has covered protests, I was especially captivated with Alumbaugh’s protest photographs. It really didn’t matter which protest it was, I felt the emotion in the messages, texture, light and composition.
Photography is in Alumbaugh’s blood. He grew up scrolling the pages of Time, Life, National Geographic and Look magazines, wondering how those photojournalists captured those incredible images. When he picked up the Nikon, he said his goal was to capture all that you wouldn’t have seen even if you had been there.
“We miss so much without that camera,” he said in a recent conversation. “You’re not going to take it all in.”
It’s so true. I even find it difficult sometimes to take in all the details in a strong photograph. Alumbaugh’s series on the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests is a good example. The faces, the signs, the reflections, the grit and grime — so much to see and feel. Although the images were taken six years ago, they could have easily been shot at the recent marches in Reno. I attended the Reno March on Washington and, with more than 10,000 people participating, I’m pleased that photographers, both amateur and professional, were capturing it. We must see it all — that which makes us laugh, cry and squirm.
So, I was surprised when I heard that a woman who visited Homage voiced her concern about one of Alumbaugh’s photographs that has the word “fuck” scrawled on the sidewalk with chalk. Not only did she demand that they remove the photograph, she then went on a social networking site, complaining when they asked her to leave the coffeehouse.
“We’re not going to take anything down,” Alumbaugh said. “I don’t feel that any of the work here is over the line. We’ve had full nudes and no one has complained.”
I applaud his stance. What’s at stake here is more censorship of art. The protests are bound to continue and photographers must be able to document that.
“We’re coming to a point in time we haven’t had in a long time,” he said. “We’re going to see some incredible work. Protests are going to turn into conflict and I think it’s extremely crucial to capture that.”
Howard Goldbaum, who teaches photography in the Reynolds School of Journalism, said that while a publication might have its own editorial policy that could cause the omission of a certain photograph, the photographer should always go after the shot.
“As a photojournalist, I am responsible for taking the photographs, obscenities and all,” he said. “While we must remain sensitive to the feelings of those who are experiencing trauma and tragedy, we should never censor our shooting. As W.E. Smith said, ‘let truth be the prejudice.’”
My concerns about censorship go beyond photographing protests and its messages. It’s visual art, performance art, theater and literary. In the past two years, I’ve seen it happen at two major local arts institutions — the Nevada Museum of Art and Artown.
In May 2015, the museum cordoned Erika Harrsch’s exhibit that included a room with around 60,000 printed Monarch butterflies blanketing the floor because someone complained that the body of the butterfly was the image of female genitalia. Now, I have one of the butterflies in my bathroom and know that whoever complained really had to examine it up close. But, instead of using it as an opportunity to have meaningful conversation about procreation and genitalia, museum administrators decided to limit the impact of the exhibit by restricting access.
In that same year, one of Franz Szony’s images was selected to be the Artown poster. Szony was alarmed when he was asked to modify the image, removing the nude nymphs. Luckily, the original image was on display during July at Sierra Arts Foundation and limited-edition, signed copies of the original poster were sold. Local institutions and business should not be fearful offending someone. Thank you, Vernon Alumbaugh!
If I walked through the rooms in any of the major museums in the world, I would see works that were once considered scandalous and immoral. I treasured glancing at Gustave Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, painted a century and a half before Brazilians became popular.
Artists must continue to practice freedom of expression, and I hope they are not limiting themselves and their artwork for fear of being offensive. Author Henry Louis Gates said, “Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
Recently, a University of Nevada, Reno art student told me he censored his art project, which included homosexual content, so he wouldn’t have to deal with the criticism. My soul wept. We must not unnerve our artists. We cannot have them playing it safe.
Art is a vital component of a healthy urban ecosystem. And that’s what our city wants. We must continue to look at, hear, and read works of art that make us uncomfortable. Let’s truly be a creative community and use the arts as an opportunity to confront the uncomfortable issues, not censor them.