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Photographer examines American dream

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Vincent Matthew Franco
Arts Editor 

In association with the “Welcome Here!” exhibition showing in the Harris Gallery, the department of art and art history held an artist’s talk featuring Arnold Turnstall, photographer and art director at the University Galleries at Myers School of Art in Akron, Ohio, and one of the 16 artists in the show that closed this week. 

About 30 community members attend Tuesday in the Campus Center Ballroom.

Turnstall took to the podium with a slideshow featuring photos he has taken throughout his career. The first set consisted of photos from his time in New York as a college student, which he made to look like antique photography.

Turnstall said he liked this approach because the pictures looked as if they were taken in the 1940s. He said he used what he described as cheap plastic throw-away cameras from the 1960s to create the images at that time.

“I just keep… photographing American pop culture and looking at who we are as a country,” he said. “And I find it oftentimes frustrating and funny and infuriating and sad – kind of all at the same time.”

The first picture shown in this series was of a blank marquee with an extravagant red sign on top that read “America.” He went on to explain where and why he snapped the picture. 

He said it was right around the time that George W. Bush was elected as president of the U.S. and the blank, sad-looking marquee was a perfect representation of the country at that time. 

The fascination Turnstall had with these cameras was short-lived, he said, mostly because he had such limited control over the process. As an artist who needs to be as hands-on as possible, Turnstall made the switch to a Mamiya camera. 

“As an artist I like making things, and oftentimes people, especially now, don’t think about photography as an act of physically making an object,” Turnstall said. “It’s like this thing that you do on your phone.”

Like many photographers and artists in general, being hands-on from start to finish is key to their creative process. Shooting pictures on an analog camera, as Turnstall does, is a prime example of that. He goes as far as not even scanning his prints once he has gone through the photochemistry of developing them in a darkroom. Instead, he snaps a picture of them when needed to, like for this presentation.  

Turnstall shared the excitement he has for shooting the film and the anticipation of not knowing if the shot he was hoping for is good until the picture is processed.  

He said he is inspired by photographers such as Robert Frank and Walker Evans, who were both responsible for showing different sides of America in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Frank, who was a Swiss photographer, shot photos as an outsider looking into America while Evans, an American, was shooting scenes of the Great Depression in American farmlands as an American.

Turnstall does a wonderful job of documenting the outlandish characteristics and monuments of Americans and human beings as well. 

Turnstall said he asks himself what an alien or someone 100 years from now would find interesting, and he photographs what he thinks that would be. 

As he scrolled through his presentation, one showed tourists lined up with life-sized metal chimpanzees –  and one of the chimps was posed on the floor with its arm reaching out to look as if it were crying out for help. Only a few feet behind this scene was an actual chimpanzee enclosure.

Other themes in his pictures ranged from lettering to reflections on storefront windows. Most of the shots consisted of both of these at the same time. 

“I’m just obsessed with text and fonts and those choices,” Turnstall said, adding that he studied graphic design in college. 

Growing up in the later years of the 20th century in Ohio, Turnstall lived in an area that he believed most accurately depicted the American Dream. 

“That’s … really kind of fake,” he said. “So I always want to continue to question ‘what is America?’” 

Vincent Matthew Franco can be reached at vincent.franco@laverne.edu.

Vincent Matthew Franco is a senior journalism major with a concentration in print and online journalism. He has been involved in journalism and print media in high school, community college and is now at the social media editor of the Campus Times and a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine. He previously served as arts editor.

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