Photographer Cottman explores dance as a family legacy

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Photographer Bill Cottman has been exhibiting his work for several years throughout the Twin Cities and nationally—at the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis City Hall, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. In “Choreographic” he uses both print and video imagery to explore movement in a group show at the Minnesota Center for Photography, 165 13th Ave. NE, which is on display through Aug. 13.

“Dance is something that has been a part of my family for the last 30, almost 40 years,” said Cottman. “Over the years I made photographs of [wife] Beverly in dance situations. That was early in my photographic life, when I was learning about making pictures and learning about dance. It has been a reoccurring theme in my work.”

The parallels in Cottman’s personal life and artistic medium make him a natural fit for “Choreographic.” In this show he displays a series of four black and white prints, two in each frame, of Beverly and daughter Kenna. The photographs were taken in the mid 1970s and depict Kenna, a toddler at the time, perched at a second-floor window, mimicking the dance-like movements of her mother who poses below at street level. In front of the prints are two video monitors that scroll through a two-hour montage of dance-related pictures. Most of the imagery is a series of stills, but some of the video is footage shot during a dance performance.

At first glance Cottman’s work seems like only a small part of this group show, which includes five other artists. But lingering in front of the video monitors reveals dozens of images from his portfolio.

“These are primarily still pictures, but I’m using video-editing techniques and transitions to simulate movement, which is more of an illusion than reality,” he explained. “I’ve also become interested in photography in performance, as much as, if not more than, prints on the wall. So recently my presentation method has been through projected images as a part of a performance that might include a dancer, musician or spoken word artist. In ‘Choreographic,’ I’m attempting to put it all together.”

Cottman said the theme of this show is not only about the movement of dance, but also about the movement of data and information. “I’m trying to use dance as a placeholder for the movement of information from one generation to another. From mother to daughter, from Beverly to Kenna,” he said.

“I also have this idea about data—we are bombarded by data, but it only becomes useful information after we apply a filter to it. We all have our own filters—daily life, prior knowledge, biases, you can call them a lot of things. Part of my thought process in putting the exhibition together this way, with all this data coming at you, [reflects] how life comes at us and how parents pass on information to their offspring.”

Cottman said he likes to work quickly. “I don’t have a lot of patience with much of anything, so most of what I do, I do quickly,” he said. “One of the things that attracted me to photography was that it could be done quickly—in 125th of a second. I never went through this view camera stage, where a single spectacular image was the objective.”

Instead, he has an affinity for artists such as Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander—street photographers interested in capturing everyday life. For the last several years Cottman has drawn inspiration from his family, in particular the women in his life. “Four Women,” his collaborative show with writer J. Otis Powell, paid homage to his mother, Evelyn, his mother-in-law, Patricia, his wife, Beverly and his daughter, Kenna.

“I wanted to preserve moments of the life that I am living through these four women’s stories so there is evidence that I was here,” he explained, “ because no one else is doing my story.”

Continually inspired by his family, Cottman literally and figuratively adjusts the focus of his lens according to life’s natural flow. “I don’t feel fulfilled yet in terms of having fully explored who I am through [the four women] because every day you’re a little bit different. But the mix changes because of the ebb and flow of life and death. Evelyn and Patricia are no longer alive.”

As a result, the theme of “Four Women” is being transformed into “Four Children,” an artistic concept for Cottman that includes himself, wife Beverly, daughter Kenna and granddaughter Yonci. “Old rhythms making new sense is a visual theme,” he said. “It’s just another way of saying that things repeat themselves.”

“The four images on the wall in the ‘Choreographic’ exhibition are the relationship between Beverly and Kenna. Today that old rhythm is repeating itself between Kenna and Yonci. As recently as a month ago I was able to photograph Yonci watching her mother doing some movement . She was mimicking and learning from it, receiving the information that was being passed to her through dance. That’s an old rhythm repeating itself.”

Asked about leaving a photographic legacy to his family, Cottman said this: “I can’t look too far back in my history and see any evidence of my ancestors. I would like for my daughter and granddaughter and the ones who come beyond to at least be able to start with my generation and say, ‘here’s what they did, and here’s how they tried to look back to where we believe we came from in West Africa…the traditions and things that were important to us that we never had an opportunity to practice. They tried to look back and leap frog all the horror, to start traditions and go forward. I want to start the thread that weaves the tapestry.”

“Choreographic” runs through Aug. 13 at the Minnesota Center for Photography, 165 13th Ave. NE, 612-824-5500. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; and Thursday noon-8 p.m.

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