You, Me and Them: Photographs by Thomas Morton
This exhibition is an extended essay on how culture is created, reshaped and attacked in our multicultural society. Photographs by this thoughtful African American photographer represent more than twenty years of his documentation and exploration of culture-making in communities of color in the Philadelphia area. Morton has attended community festivals and celebrations, witnessed weddings, funerals, momentous performances, triumphs and tragedies. Included are images of Korean, Hmong, Vietnamese, African American, Puerto Rican and Jewish people that testify to the ways in which folk arts are important in peoples' lives. (1992)
I don't know why I even shoot, other than I just can't help it. A fundamental curiosity and concern, I think, drives me. This group of photographs was a selected retrospective: 27 individual leaves from a visual journal of thousands of exposures I made off and on from the 1970's to 1992. These particular photographs were selected partly because they were available. (I shoot much faster than I am able to develop and print). They were all taken in Philadelphia. They make up a broad visual cross-section of some of my experiences here over the years. I am familiar with most of the people and with the situations photographed. Where possible, I have photographed the same individuals and or repeated events over a period of time.
I attempt to avoid the stereotypical in my image-making while constantly questioning my own assumptions. I do not consciously document anything. If anything, I attempt to preserve those everyday moments I consider beautiful and full of meaning. I do not intend that either "news worthiness" or "exoticism" have anything to do with these impact of these images. I feel I "am given" rather than "taking" photographs.
The order of the photographs in the exhibition was intended to focus attention outside of more traditional groupings by race, ethnicity, activity or mere chronology. In these notes, I comment on different things that stand out for me about the occasion, people, or photographs. The threads that bind depend on what questions or answers you bring to the exhibit.
1. Chu Hwa's wedding. Gee Sue Kim puts make-up on her friend Chu Hwa Lee. Most but not all Korean Americans in the United States are Presbyterian, Methodist, or Evangelical Protestant. On wedding days, people often combine Christian and non-Christian Korean traditions. Formal portraits are almost always shot both in traditional Korean wedding clothes and in Western wedding attire. Olney, c. 1985.
2. When she was young, So Yun Chun (Gee Sue Kim's daughter - see photos #1, 6, 13, 18) often performed traditional Korean dances at different public and private events. (Here she is nine years old.) It usually took more than an hour just to get make-up on and get dressed. The transformation was always dramatic and sometimes painful. So Yun always showed so much grace: she was the main attraction wherever she danced. When she reached adolescence she decided she wanted to stop performing. Her mother begged her not to stop, but So Yun persisted. Her mother gave in and allowed her to stop - but only after one more performance. Olney, c. 1984.
3. Cookie and her mother lived close to me for several years. There was something in Cookie's face and actions that I always wanted to photograph. For some reason, I decided to use a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera and a tripod: a departure from my usual ways of working. This was a more formal sitting, but still I tried to keep a lot of "them" in the photograph, to keep within their own sense of what they wanted to do. When we set up to photograph, Cookie's mother indicated that she wanted her picture taken also. We did that too. They still call me occasionally. Southwest Germantown, c. 1983.
4. The day I was taking photographs of Cookie, her friend asked to get in. We did that too. The atmosphere was very much like a party. Something more revealing and intense seemed to appear in the photographs. I was afraid they wouldn't like them. They loved them. Southwest Germantown, c. 1983.
5. The Cambodian Buddhist Temple finally had found a permanent residence in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia. There was some apprehension on the part of some long-time residents when they found out the previously empty building was now occupied. Several community meetings were set up to deal with any misunderstandings and problems. However, before dawn on this particular day the Temple was hit by more than thirty rocks and bottles. This monk is holding two of them. This was not the first time vandalism occurred, but it was the first and only time the monks ever complained. The culprits were never caught. The monks were basically bewildered and defenseless. South Philadelphia, c. 1989.
6. (L to R) Young Mi, Jung Woo and So Yun on So Yun's 13th birthday. Several of So Yun's girlfriends and I were invited to celebrate her birthday. I knew most everyone already so we just went from there. I had been an English teacher at a Korean after-school for a semester or two. Glenside, 1987.
7. The Overseas Chinese Association of Greater Philadelphia is a self-help organization made up of persons of Chinese heritage mostly from Southeast Asia. Their office and many of their activities are held in the West Philadelphia neighborhood where many were first resettled some 10-15 years ago. This photograph was taken immediately after the first of many Association-sponsored Lunar New Years celebrations I attended. Since there were several different varieties of Chinese spoken at the celebration, most of what was said by the different speakers had to be interpreted into another variety before they even got to English. West Philadelphia, 1987.
8. The 6200 block of Pine Street looking south towards Osage Avenue. The burnt-out tree (center left) was almost directly in front of the house that housed the members of MOVE. West Philadelphia, May 14, 1985.
9. The day after the MOVE bombing and subsequent fire on Osage Avenue and Pine Street in West Philadelphia, while the ashes were still smoldering and the bodies hadn't yet been found, I ran across a man, Sekou, who had lived at 6238 Osage Avenue. He had lost everything and seemed to be in a daze but had managed to save from the ashes the wooden plaque with his house number. I actually asked him to find where he lived and to pose there for me. I felt anger and frustration similar to that I was to experience years later at the Cambodian Buddhist Temple (photo #5). I was recently told by this home's owner that many other residents had also found and kept their house numbers. Still attached to their original mountings, the numbers now hang mounted and framed in peoples' new homes. West Philadelphia, May 14, 1985.
10. The bride, Phu Duk Lee, has a brother, once a Vietnamese journalist, who lived with his family in Logan. I met everyone else in this circle of family and friends through him and people often had seen me taking photographs. I was invited to the wedding and naturally brought my camera. Relatives from the Vietnamese diaspora now living in Italy were there and we all struggled to find ways to communicate, mixing Spanish and Italian. The wedding lasted all day long and had a traditional Buddhist portion at home in the morning (the bride was Buddhist) and a portion in a Catholic church (he was Catholic). Now they are living in California and doing extremely well.
11. During the summer of 1990, people outraged by a series of events protested. In the eyes of the D.A.'s office, white victims of crime seemed to be more important than Latino victims. Latino suspects of crimes against whites were treated more harshly than white suspects of crimes against Latinos. People marched on the D.A.'s office to make known their feelings about the legal system and news media. I am not sure what effects this demonstration had. Anger, frustration, and violence remain. Center City, 1990.
12. Philadelphian Nana Korrantema had recently returned from Ghana, West Africa and organized along with Arthur Hall this Okom Celebration to officially establish the Akan presence in Philadelphia. Here, (L to R) Kwame Opare (Wayne Jackson), Obrafo (Luther Aldridge) and Kofi Asante lead a procession off East River Drive in tribute to the Akan ancestors. Fairmount Park, 1983.
13. Every year the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia celebrates the spring New Year with traditional foods, games for the children, music, and ceremonies. Both religious and secular traditions are observed. During Pol Pot's reign of terror, Khmer dance and music were forbidden forms. Ironically, especially overseas, the need to reinforce traditions is so strong that many now learning the court dances are common folk mostly of rural background who would not have been able to learn dances which, prior to Pol Pot, were practically the exclusive activity of a relatively limited number of urban privileged classes. Now these court dances are popular expressions of Khmer pride and survival of a people. Philadelphia, 1984.
14. So Yun Chun and her father Young Jeon Chun relaxing at home. Glenside, PA, 1987.
15. Attending the Odunde festival without witnessing the procession to the river is, for me, missing out on the spirit of the day. This was the first Odunde that Babatunde Olatunji attended. After the offerings to Oshun, Babatunde (who officiated that day) conferred blessings upon a participant. I think Odunde is Philadelphia's only annual public African American traditional cultural celebration which regularly incorporates an overtly spiritual content. South Street Bridge, c. 1987.
16. The University Museum annually holds an African American cultural day. The local group Spirit of Sankofa, organized by dancer and choreographer Benita Brown, performs Senegalese-inspired West African dance. The drummers and dancers are mostly friends and family.
17. The Spirit of Sankofa performs. The tradition continues with sisters Tanya (leaping) and Twanda (background). Stiltwalker, Kofi, performs while Tanya and Twanda's father Joseph Bryant plays the djembe drum in the background. Philadelphia, c. 1987.
18. Yearly, the Won Gaksa Korean Buddhist Church in East Oak Lane holds a banquet honoring senior citizens. It is not until traditional Korean songs are played that folks get up and get down. It gets "very Korean" but seems to speak to something I know. Traditional Korean music is full of complex and powerful percussion. Integrated into everything is the changgo and other drums and percussion instruments. What seems to be a reversed swastika here is actually a traditional Buddhist symbol. It is interesting to note the gut reaction of many westerners unfamiliar with Buddhism when they first see this. Most cannot recognize that it is reversed. Philadelphia, c. 1985.
19. To honor, respect, and show appreciation for a fellow drummer who had passed away, traditional African American drummers come together with a ceremony. The altar consisted of an empty chair, a "conga" and offerings to the ancestor spirit. Priest Charles A. Gay (Minye) prepares flowers for the altar. More than 50 drummers, dancers and other spiritually focused cultural folk attended the ceremony held at the Lee Cultural Center in West Philadelphia, c. 1989.
20. Each New Year most Korean American families get together dressed in traditional han boks (Korean clothes) and bring in the new year (sebeh). Here, So Yun counts her points in a kind of traditional board game often played on New Year called yut nori. However, the highlight of the occasion, especially for the children, is the moment when each member of a younger generation approaches an older member, and on their knees bows and thanks that elder person for the guidance they have been given during the year. The elder then gives the younger person some words of encouragement and some sebeh ton (new year money). Olney, c. 1985.
21. Traditionally in Cambodia, royal court dances were performed exclusively by women. The manner of dancing was very stylized and it was rare that a male would learn, much less dance, any roles. Since 1979 and the revival of Khmer dance, young men have begun to learn, dance, and teach the classical repertoire. Here male master dancer Chamroeun Yin dons his costume and assumes his role: he will dance as a woman dancing as a man. Judge Lewis Quadrangle Center City Philadelphia, c. 1987.
22. The return from the river is a spiritual release and rebirth - a kind of descarga. At ODUNDE, everyone lets loose culturally. No drugs, just drums. No drinking, just dancing. Pure uncut call and response and polyrhythms are the stimulants of choice. Here the bata battery led by Baba Crowder provides the heartbeat and Babatunde Olatunji stops to show his appreciation, c. 1987.
23. In the early 1980s, the locally-rooted (most members were born and raised here) Puerto Rican folklore group Terruno Boricua provided much of the traditional cultural entertainment for a time. Terruno Boricua gave many Philly-born Puerto Ricans (and non-Puerto Ricans) a first chance to witness performances of danzas, plenas and bombas - even if in those days most of the time the music was recorded. Here a couple of the members get personal while waiting for the curtain call at the Lighthouse in North Philadelphia, c. 1982.
24. Piro has since moved from Philadelphia. But while he was here, he showed people something of the African sides of Puerto Rican culture - aspects of history and culture that many are either unaware of or benignly ignore. Popularly, it is still common to hear of this heritage as if it were just some quaint not very significant relic of Puerto Rico's past, or a vague ingredient of Puerto Rico's racial and cultural heritage (Taino, Spanish and African) best spoken about using the past tense. Piro spoke of his African heritage and his Puerto Ricanness with a confidence and pride that was refreshing and powerful to hear. He spoke about learning the drum, dances and songs from the people around him during his youth in Barrio San Anton, Puerto Rico. He fed me okra, San Anton style, as an example of the kind of food that went hand-in-hand with bomba, plena and struggle. Here Piro does what he does often, sharing his heritage with others - if you don't remember the rhythm, you never forget the experience, c. 1982.
25. The New Years' celebrations organized by the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia used to be held at the large National Guard Armory on South 22nd Street. The place was always packed to overflowing. I guess this was one of the few times each year so many Cambodians of all ages could be together at once. The mood was always up, chaotic, and the place seemed on the verge of coming apart at the seams. So much to take in. So much to say. So much to see. The kids all over the place. An opportunity to renew old friendships, meet new people and reinforce one's identity. I usually kept my eyes on the young people. Those with long hair, tight jeans, and black leather jackets drinking beer and hanging around. Those backstage preparing to perform traditional rural folk dances. A lot had happened in the ten to fifteen years that Cambodians have been in Philadelphia in any numbers. It can't be seen more clearly than in the faces and aspirations of the young people, c. 1988.
26. An unidentified Cambodian boy wanted me to take his picture with a chicken that used to roam the yard in South Philadelphia. South Philadelphia, c. 1990.
27. The number of Hmong residents in Philadelphia decreased dramatically during the early eighties due to real and imagined hostility. Some, however, chose to hang. Knowing Pang Xiong as the fighter she is, I didn't find it difficult to imagine why she made the decision to stay. Not only is she a very giving and artistically talented person, she is an extraordinary communicator of Hmong culture, pride and self-respect. (L to R) Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, Ka Xiong, Chakaphong Sirirathasuk, Mai Xiong and Phoua Xiong after performing a traditional Hmong dance at Loganfest International, a neighborhood celebration of ethnic diversity. Logan, c. 1985.
You, Me, and Them: Photographs by Thomas B. Morton is one in a series of annual ethnographic photo exhibitions organized by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a locally-rooted folk cultural organization that supports the efforts of grassroots traditional artists and community groups. For more information about this exhibition (including essays on the show) and about other PFP programs, please pick up our publication Works in Progress 5:3 (Fall 1992), also available in this gallery, or call 215.726.1106.
With the exception of two 4 x 5 formats, all photographs were taken either with a 35mm "point and shoot" or a single lens reflex (Nikon) camera. All were taken in available light. All were printed on Agfa Portriga Rapid paper by Thomas B. Morton and W. Blaine Pennington. Thanks to Jane Levine, Lanny Bergner, Thora Jacobson, Cheryl McClenney-Brooker and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for their help. This exhibition is a project of the Philadelphia Folklore Project which is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts-Folk Arts Program, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia Foundation, the Samuel Fels Fund, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, CoreStates, members' donations and others.
The Philadelphia Folklore Project documents, preserves, and presents the folklife traditions of Philadelphia. From 1986-9, the PFP undertook research into the background and present state of the arts and traditions of Italian Americans in Philadelphia. This work culminated in a major exhibition (from which this traveling show is drawn) curated by Dorothy Noyes and organized in conjunction with the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial.
Photographers represented in this exhibition include Philadelphia Folklore Project staff researchers Dorothy Noyes, Jan Greenberg, James Abrams, and Stephanie Kane. Work of other Philadelphia photographers is also included. Joe Solowiejczyk is a working photographer; his photographs of people from the Philadelphia Cambodian community were exhibited at Level Three Gallery. Vicki Valerio is a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pat Armenia and Ed Seiz (patented photos) have been active in documenting the local performing arts community. Exhibitions of their works have been displayed at the Port of History Museum, the Painted Bride Art Center, and the local banks and restaurants. Will Brown has been a photographer since 1973. He is widely and extensively published; major clients include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Art, Rizzoli, Time Magazine and more.
We are happy to thank those lending to the original show, or pictured in this exhibition: Raymond Allegrini, Joan Arthur, the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Joseph and Louis Boccanera, Pietro and Natalie Carolfi, Marie Cascenza, Trish Ciliverti, Vincent Clerico, Dennis Creedon, Vincent Dell'Osa, Margaret De Luccia, Kathleen Familiare, Aurelia Folino, Anthony and Joanne Gatti, Sarkis and Angela Alberto Haykel, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, Betty Ann Mongelluzzo, the parishioners of Our Lady of Consolation parish, Robert Pandola, Frances and Barbara Roccia, Jennie and Carmen Rosaldo, Yola Savastano, Joseph, Vincent, and Barbara Termini, Emanuel Utti, Mary Ann and Brian Vile, Phyllis Virga, and Clare and Marian Yellin.
It gives us pleasure to acknowledge those funders whose support made this project possible: the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pennsylvania Historical Council. This travelling exhibition was originally funded by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
A book by Dorothy Noyes, also titled Uses of Tradition, provides more detailed examination of themes and artists represented in the exhibition; videos about palm-weavers and mummers are also available. See our store for these titles.
This exhibit currently shows six photos from the exibit.