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Department of Design Professor of Practice Mike Sinclair's photography show documents KC's changing main drag

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

LAWRENCE — Buildings are perhaps the ultimate inanimate objects. But to School of Architecture, Design & Planning Professor in Practice Mike Sinclair, they tell a story of a living thing – the city.

Sinclair will speak on “A Photographer’s Street Guide to Kansas City” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, at the Kansas City, Missouri, Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., where an exhibition of his photos titled “Main Street” continues through July 1 at the Genevieve Guldner Gallery. The talk and the 6 p.m. reception beforehand are free and open to the public.

The exhibition is the second in a series by former Charlotte Street Foundation grant winners set this year at the Central Library in honor of the 20th anniversary of the influential arts organization.

Sinclair said it occurred to him in 2009 that he should be documenting the life of Kansas City’s main thoroughfare.

“I had a studio a block west on Baltimore Street,” Sinclair said. “I could look out the window and see Main Street. Having grown up in Kansas City, I realized how much Main Street had changed, and I wished I had photos reflecting that change. So I thought: The best thing to do is start now. For a year, I made a really intensive effort to walk along Main Street with a camera.”

The shots Sinclair took in 2009 form the bulk of the exhibition, along with groups of shots taken downtown in 2005 and along Armour Boulevard in Midtown in 2000. All of them were taken with his large-format  — that's 4-by-5-inch negative — camera, which, together with the foot-tall prints, gives the images a richly detailed look.

Sinclair captures snatches of saturated color, cubist forced perspective among buildings, misty atmospherics and vibrant lighting. Some of the buildings and signs are gone by now, reflecting the evolving nature of the city that Sinclair wanted to capture.

In his artist’s statement, Sinclair wrote that the photos are of “places where I like to spend time, places that I think have a certain beauty — and places that, at least when I photographed them, were diminished in one way or another. They are also places that I have a long history with: my family's origin story starts with my parents meeting on Petticoat Lane, their first apartment was at the Westport Central on Armour.

“While I'm photographing very public parts of Kansas City, I'm also recording my own personal history. It has always seemed to me like a worthy endeavor, time well spent, to record these places. I like to think that they are places where many of us have stories we could share.”

In the gallery’s guest book, viewer R. H. West wrote: “It was wonderful to see views and buildings I have never appreciated, even after almost 80 years in K.C.”

To see the town differently

A new perspective on a familiar place was the goal of a second Central Library exhibit with which Sinclair was involved this spring.

“Indisposable” was conceived by Emily Luedtke and Jason Pearl, AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) who are working with the homeless clientele at the library this year. They gave the patrons disposable cameras filled with black and white film – “like you used to get at weddings as favors,” Sinclair said.

From the resulting prints, Sinclair and library Exhibits Coordinator Anne Ducey co-curated the exhibit that ran June 2-9 in Kirk Hall on the main floor. Some were artsy, geometric shots of the built environment, while others showed the pathos of life on the street: a man sleeping on the sidewalk by a line of parked cars; residents of a camp in the woods.

“Everything was so sidewalk-oriented,” Sinclair said, “because so much of their lives are oriented around the sidewalk, and in Kansas City, they’re not used as much as in some other cities.

“I thought it was a really interesting take on using photographs as a way to see the town differently,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair said he hopes to work with the library’s VISTA volunteers on their next project — an exhibit of photos created by immigrants that will document their lives and perspectives on Kansas City.