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Dona Ann McAdams

To Know Someone

From the downtown artists of Manhattan to the thoroughbreds of Saratoga, Dona Ann McAdams gets close to what she photographs

By Jacqueline Keren

Photos By Shannon DeCelle


A photographer has only a few seconds to take a picture. How she prepares for that moment can run the gambit. Dona Ann McAdams spends years “learning the language” of her subjects before she captures an image she’s satisfied with. “When I do anything, I need to immerse myself in it and be responsible, photographically and humanistically,” she says. “I need to understand the language [of what I’m shooting].”

McAdams’ subjects range from performance artists in New York City’s East Village to thoroughbred horses at Saratoga Race Course; immersion has meant understanding, common language and friendship. “I don’t want to be dictated to by my lens,” she says. “I want that rapport.” The result is portraits that are disquietingly intimate.

Born on Long Island, McAdams spent the ’70s in San Francisco studying at the San Francisco Art Institute and photographing the city’s street life. From there, she roamed, absorbed by the communities she photographed—a changing barrio in Spain, the mentally ill in New York City, anti-nuclear activists in Australia. Her work, she says, is about more than the images. “I have to educate. I’m a political activist. Art can be beautiful, but I feel it has to do more than that—educate, enlighten, provide.”

McAdams’ activism has taken many forms. She is one of the founders of Visual AIDS, a group uniting artists and art institutions for activism around AIDS, and a member of the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus, creator of the AIDS ribbon. As a teacher, she has ventured beyond academia to put together several community darkrooms and to work on art projects with the mentally ill.

Her work as house photographer for PS 122, a performance space in the East Village, grew out of her friendships with the performers. “These were my friends,” she says. “I knew how they moved.” Her photographs of the intensely personal and political performances of the ’80s and ’90s appeared in the book Caught in the Act, published by Aperture in 1996. Ironically, the same photos were flaunted on the floor of the U.S. Senate by the late Senator Jesse Helms in a successful attempt to curtail funding for the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts. Helms condemned the work of several artists with NEA grants, calling it obscene. Among those was Karen Finley, an East Village performance artist and friend of McAdams who used her body as a prop in shows that centered on the degradation of women. As with McAdams, her performances are deeply personal pieces in which the boundary between audience and performer breaks down, making for an uneasy experience.

McAdams was, she says, the “triage unit for the ‘obscene ones.’ ” Hounded by the press for the most provocative pictures, she released photos that were less likely to fuel the flames, incurring the ire of both Helms and the media.

While she misses photographing live performance, McAdams admits that the East Village and PS 122 changed over the years, the artistic community decimated by AIDS and the inevitable neighborhood gentrification. The audiences, she says, changed too. “People want to be entertained. People don’t want to live with pictures of mental illness or Katrina. They want to live with things that are beautiful.”

So McAdams, looking for new ma terial, turned to beauty too, moving to West Virginia and then Vermont with her husband, the novelist Brad Kessler, where she found “performance art” in rural life—the elder farmers of Appalachia, dairy and goat farmers of New England. As with all her subjects, she wanted to immerse herself in its life cycle, and she and Kessler became owners of a small herd of goats.

Knowing me, knowing you: McAdams and one of her “divas.”

Horses were the obvious next step. To understand her “new divas,” she took up riding with Amy LaBarron, barn manager of Chestnut Ridge Stables in Cambridge, N.Y. It was, she says, the “most responsible thing for me to do. I couldn’t just go into a stall and have a rapport [with the horses]. I would need to know them.” LaBarron, who rescues retired thoroughbreds, became her muse, introducing her to trainer Glenn DiSanto and the working thoroughbreds of Saratoga Race Course.

Her first group of photos from Saratoga is exhibited through September at North Main Gallery in Salem, Washington County. The best of them, she says, “transfer from documentary to that other place. Something that’s interesting, lyrical, beautiful.” Her portrait of the racehorse Northern Boulevard, taken in his stall, is unsettling in its humanity. “He had to know me and I had to know him. I had to have that understanding [of him] to do him justice.”

She plans to continue to tell the story of the backstretch in a book of her photographs, The Year of the Horse. In the meantime, she has also found another cause in saving retired thoroughbreds from being shipped abroad and slaughtered for food. “I thought I’d take pictures that are lyrical and free and not engaged in an issue,” she says. “But look what happened. They [the retired race horses] get shipped to Belgium or France and eaten. I don’t know what the answers are, but people need to think about this.” True to her activist roots, she is committing 15 percent of the sales of her work to LaBarron’s nonprofit organization, Try Thoroughbreds. “If a horse runs hard and tries hard and isn’t fast enough, [it] needs a place to go and so do the homeless and mentally ill. You pick your battles, and this is mine right now.”

In the winter months when the track is closed, McAdams turns her lens back on the farms of Vermont and New York. But immersing herself in the backstretch is the main focus for the foreseeable future. “This is it. This is my portfolio. How much time do I have left? It will take me a really long time to do justice to it.”

The Meet, photographs by Dona Ann McAdams, will be on view at the North Main Gallery (196 N. Main St., Salem) through Sept. 4. For more info, call the gallery at 854-3406.

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