Today we’d like to introduce you to Curtis McElhinney.
Curtis, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve always been involved in visual communication in some shape or form. It started for me back in junior high with being the editor of my yearbook and continued on from there. In college, it took the form of a marketing degree. After college, I was in the advertising department for Robinsons-May Department Stores.
After all of that, I embarked on a career as a photographer. I had entertained the thought of working for a magazine as an art director, but with very few magazines being produced in Los Angeles, most are in New York, I ended up taking the more direct route towards what it was that I loved doing which was telling stories with images. In some way, I’ve always been fascinated with providing a glimpse into the “epic journey.”
That epic journey is really what we call life, but I think we all have the tendency to lose sight of what is really happening to us on a daily bases as we focus on paying our bills or making that next meeting. I want to reinforce beliefs that help us as a society see ourselves as beautiful, magnificent creatures that have the capacity to do good and achieve results that bring a more stabilized society into existence.
I know that sounds like a tall order, but we all are charged with the same responsibility. It is just whether we choose to act on it. Regardless of one’s profession, making choices that promote a better environment is made every time we choose a product or decide on what to invest in or some business decision that affects its workers.
My fascination with early Renaissance paintings has definitely had an influence on my imagery. El Greco has always been one of my favorites and of course Rubens and Caravaggio. Most of the masters of the past never experienced the successes of their talents. Most died penniless and unappreciated.
I think that part of the equation has at times offered me comfort in my quest to create photography that stands the test of time and hopefully offers an improvement to our world. I used to say that all I wanted was to have my photography hanging in museums long after I died thus securing my impact on society as people viewed my work years after being gone.
I can now say that I have accomplished that goal with one of my images being part of the permanent collection, Becoming Los Angeles, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I was at the museum the other day watching people view my work. It was a quiet, enjoyable, voyeuristic moment. My image that is part of the collection is a portrait of a human trafficking survivor from the very first modern day human trafficking case in US history, The El Monte Thai Garment Workers Case.
I originally shot the piece for the BBC and find it most rewarding to be able to portray a victim that has become the victor. Through our plights, we work to overcome and become successful, and that is what that image hanging on the wall is about.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I don’t think there is a smooth road for any artist. But, one struggle of note came about when I was lamenting over the current state of political affairs during the George W. Bush presidency.
I was complaining much like everyone else when it hit me one day that I was complaining but was doing nothing to improve the situation. It was then that I decided to utilize my photography towards improving life rather than using image making as a way to capitalize upon people’s fears and anxiety. It was time to create photography that uplifted and inspired as opposed to telling people that they aren’t enough.
From that epiphany came my first project towards satisfying that message. It was a fine art photography exhibition entitled, City of Angeles, Bangkok ~ Los Angeles, Two Cities One Name. The City of Angels photographic exposes embarked upon a journey to discover how two cities with distinct cultures share more than just a name. We all laugh, cry, eat, and sleep. No one is that different from each other. This exhibit showed that.
As the divisiveness between countries, political parties, and individuals continue, it is important to be reminded of what it is that we have in common. We are all part of the human race and are more similar than not. This body of work was designed to raise awareness of that fact and to create a dialogue offering insight into faith, friendship, art, love, travel, hope, and camaraderie.
The tagline to the show was… As we learn to embrace our similarities, we can rejoice in what makes us unique. We are all angels sharing our lives. When I was walking the streets of both cities, I never told anyone what I was producing. I wasn’t interested in hearing everyone’s critiques of how I shouldn’t do something. I was doing this project as an exploration into humanity and seeing what I found.
While traveling to Thailand, I was welcomed in as a guest, a long lost friend even though I knew no one. The Thais really did restore my belief that people are inherently good. It’s just that sometimes people need reminding.
Once completed, I was fortunate enough to have the US State Department’s Bangkok Embassy sponsor the show. So, the City of Angels became a traveling photography exhibit in Thailand. You can view the show here… http://curtisvision.com/portfolio-view/visual-arts-initiative/. The Thai government sponsored my pop-up show in Los Angeles once returning from South East Asia.
Since this show, I have worked with various non-profits to promote messages that involve: human trafficking awareness, promoting local farmers’ markets to aid in food equity, fundraising for muscular dystrophy, The Grammy campaign for artists’ rights- Fair Pay for Fair Play Act, the Los Angeles housing shortage, advertising for business incubators that aid immigrants in becoming entrepreneurs, documenting the association of poverty with Tuberculosis patients in Peru and other projects.
We’d love to hear more about what you do.
I learned to take photographs by studying images of monks. There is never a bad image of a monk! It was this revelation that made me realize that the inner peace that monks seem to exhibit is what made each image beautiful. From that understanding, I knew that it was my job to capture that inner beauty in each person I photographed. We all are beautiful but often times it is our masks that get in the way of that beauty.
It is my job to find that personality, that light and capture it. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we aren’t good enough or pretty enough. I contend that we are good enough. My goal and objective is to create photography and videography that enables our society to move forward in a direction of tolerance and acceptance. The divisive messages that pervade the media do nothing towards helping build a community that thrives.
The imperative of making that happen is more critical now than ever as we must come together to solve some very big problems. But, we must learn to accept ourselves before we can even begin to understand our neighbor to accept them. My hope is to provide work that inspires that journey, the journey towards self-discovery and acceptance of that which we experience. Providing photography that offers an understanding of one’s self and others is a way for me to provide work that is meaningful and helps rather than hurts.
One of my current projects is entitled, Harmonious Invocation at Union Station. There is a piano that sits at the ready in Union Station waiting for anyone who is drawn to the keys. It attracts people from every demographic. Perfect strangers sit down to create harmony with the keys while the hall is adorned with the sounds of creation. People United. People sharing. People celebrating love of music and spirit.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I’m just keeping my head down and pushing along as I’m shooting a documentary and a couple of still photography series.
- Website: www.curtisvision.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @curtisvision