Category Archives: art

Finishing Stockton/San Joaquin and Folger Shakespeare projects. Launching the new Lens of Literacy: The Global Library Project!




Finishing Stockton/San Joaquin and Folger-Shakespeare projects.

Launching the new Lens of Literacy: The Global Library Project!


Was it John Lennon that said “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”? We have been making lots of plans for the launch of our upcoming Global Library Project. But all the things that make life happen have continued along as well. Here are a few of the highlights:

Every year in late Fall our friend the photographer extraordinaire Linda Connor throws a big birthday party up in the little Sierra Foothill town of Sheep Ranch, CA. It is always an amazing event and was doubly memorable as it was the last one for our dear friend Doug Muir who died last month. He will be missed!

Sheep Ranch 2015 copy

I continued to give many lectures around the state on the Public Library Project. Here is a photo by Brian Taylor of me at the Center For Photographic Arts in Carmel last January.

Dawson at CPA copy 2

The Public Library Project was the cover story of the Library of Congress magazine this month after their purchase last year of the entire project. Here is a link to the issue:

Also, my photo “Rifle lesson, West Wendover branch library, West Wendover, Nevada” is in the opening exhibit at the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It was great to be in there with the Blue Chips! It was even better to have it hang on the same wall as a photograph by our late friend Doug Muir. Here is a photo of Ellen and me by our friend Janet Delaney at the big event.

Speaking of Blue Chips, here is a photo of Walker and his friend Nick Neumann with the great photographer Sabastião Salgado who gave a recent lecture at Stanford. What an honor to meet him!

Nick, Salgado + Walker copy

To prove that we are not “all work all the time” I’ve attached a few photos of Walker, Ellen and me at Camp Richardson at Lake Tahoe during the Winter, early Spring and late Spring. We can have fun, occasionally….

To finish our project on literacy efforts in Stockton and San Joaquin County we will have an exhibit coming up this November 10th through December 9th at Delta College in Stockton. This will primarily focus on literacy in Stockton and San Joaquin County. A year later we will have a larger exhibit at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. We will send out announcements as we get closer to those dates. We hope to produce a few publications associated with both exhibits. Here are some of the latest images from the project.

The Folger Shakespeare Library project book is also currently being developed. We will have more information as we get nearer to completion. Ellen and I are hoping to travel to Washington, DC in September to finish up the last of the photography. We can’t wait!

Finally, this summer we begin a new project based on my many years of work on libraries and literacy in the United States. Ellen, Walker and I will start our new Lens of Literacy: The Global Library Project by traveling for eight weeks this summer in Europe looking at the importance of libraries in that part of the world. We will photograph in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Moscow. We are especially interested in the role libraries play in assimilating the vast number of refugees in Europe. In Ukraine we will look at how libraries are helping veterans to reintegrate back into their culture. We will also look at the role of history and European libraries such as synagogues being made into libraries after the Holocaust in Poland. In the future the project will explore other regions of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Oceana, South and Central America, and Canada.

Lens of Literacy: The Global Library Project is an Affiliate Project of Independent Arts and Media—a 501(c)(3) non profit fiscal sponsor for artists, journalists and media producers who are producing non-commercial work in the public interest. Follow our adventures here and on The Global Library Project Facebook page. And please make a tax-deductible contribution to our crowd-funded campaign.

Here is the link to our Campaign through Independent Arts & Media.

Lens of Literacy at Independent Arts and Media

Lightroom (IMG_9297.jpg)Photo by Walker Dawson, Monte Azul favela, São Paulo, Brazil


Filed under American Life, art, European libraries, Libraries, Photography, Public Libraries, Road trip, Robert Dawson Library, The Global Library Project



7/12/12 – Calling the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains the Front Range has always been surprising to me. Coming from California I would have called it the Back Range. The name reflects the Eastern orientation of the first American settlers in the area. Kiowa, CO was located in the prairie of eastern Colorado. Ellen felt that this was where the mid-West ends and the West begins. The library was housed in a beautiful former church. The crosses were still on the steeple and the stonework was magnificent. Walker discovered that the owner of a local store was from Iran but now mostly lived in San Jose, CA. This was surprising in this region of a mostly white state. Colorado Springs, CO is a hotbed for Christian conservatism. Years ago the town leaders wanted to diversify the economy from its dependence on the military. They invited in a conservative Christian mega-church that wound up being a magnet for like-minded people. We met our friends from Minneapolis, JoAnn Verberg and Jim Moore, in a great little café in Colorado Springs. JoAnn was one of the three principle members of the Rephotographic Survey Project along with Ellen and Mark Klett. We went to one of their rephotographic sites in the beautiful Garden of the Gods State Park. This area had incredible uplifted sandstone rock formations that contrasted nicely with the nearby Rockies. JoAnn set up her 5X7 camera by the side of the trail and did a diptych portrait of our family with the red cliffs as a background. As she was setting up the camera and posing us 192 cross country runners from all over the country came by in their multi-colored running gear. As they posed for their portrait we posed for ours. After we left JoAnn and Jim we drove west into the Rockies under a darkening sky. By the time we got to Hartsel, CO it was just about to rain. The old looking library was beautiful in the gray light with the red clouds glowing off in the distance. I made the last shot just as the rain began to fall. Fairplay, CO was located high in the mountains almost at 10,000 feet. I was stunned at the beauty of its tall, old library. I scrambled to set up the 4X5 in the last light of dusk. The automatic lights went on in the closed library as I made my last shot. We drove on in the dark and landed in the mountain town of Buena Vista, CO.


7/13/12 – Ellen lived in Colorado during the 1970s. Since that time many of the quaint, funky mining towns of the area had changed, sometimes drastically. Crested Butte was a case in point. It was almost abandoned in the 70s with dirt streets and tumble down stores. Because of that it possessed a great deal of charm and character. Ellen almost cried when she saw it again today. It really had become a theme park of an old mining town. It was jammed with tourists who were mostly middle and upper middle class and all white. What had once been interesting was now replaced by made-safe-for-the-tourists blandness. The library was one of the few buildings in town that retained its original character. It seemed real as opposed to the fantasy of the rest of the town. I set up my 4X5 outside. Just as I clicked the shutter a homeless guy wandered into the frame, two young women continued what seemed like an endless conversation and a guy on a mountain bike zoomed by. It may make for an interesting photograph. Crested Butte was out of our way so we had to quickly move on to our next stop. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was an outstanding natural landmark in an area full of them. We peered down 2,000 feet to the canyon floor with the fast-flowing Gunnison River looking like a silver sliver. Geologist Wallace Hansen wrote “Some are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls as steep. But no other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness and somber countenance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.” We were overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and spent far more time here than we had planned. After a long drive we arrived in the old mining town of Ouray, CO. Like Crested Butte it had become a tourist town. But as Walker explained it didn’t matter because the setting was so spectacular. On top of that the library with its beautiful steeple was one of the best of the trip. I had a hard time doing it justice with my 4X5 camera. The light was flat, it was starting to rain and we were in a hurry. Hopefully, I got something good. Shooting film means that you never know what you captured until the end of the trip. Then it is like opening presents at Christmas. After Ouray we immediately started up the “million dollar highway” to the 11,000 foot Red Mountain Pass. Sheer drops, granite walls, fading light and a rainstorm greeted us as we climbed up this incredible road. The drive was both terrifying and thrilling producing feelings of vertigo along the way. We eventually made it to the very cool mining town of Silverton. In the last light with long exposures I tried to capture the town’s red brick library. I tried to place it in the spectacular setting but the most interesting photo may have been the Hispanic kids playing on the play structure in front of the library. The fast moving children and my one-second exposures may be interesting. Leaving Silverton we crossed over two more 10,000 foot passes in a light rain. We arrived in Durango, CO late, tired and happy after such a rich day of travel. While eating green chili enchiladas and blue corn tortillas in Durango we felt like we had left the Rocky Mountains and entered the Southwest.


7/14/12 – Last night in Durango we felt like we had arrived in the Southwest. Today we went back to the high Rocky Mountains to visit the little mining-town of Rico, CO. Its Library/City Hall was again one of the best of the trip. Dramatic mountains rose high above us on all sides. The sky was getting darker as I set up my camera. After I took one photo the rain starting pouring down. I scrambled to toss all of my equipment back in the car before it got soaked. Two more times I got out to photograph and two more times the sky dumped. Eventually, I finished with the beautiful exterior and then went inside to photograph the interesting, small, dark library. As I did, I looked outside and noticed the rain coming down again in earnest. The library was built when Rico was a very rich boomtown. After the collapse of the mining industry here it fell on hard times. But it seemed to be struggling back while still retaining its unique character. We drove out of the mountains and back to the southwest. We spent the afternoon in Mesa Verde National Park. This area is home to the famous ancient cliff dwellings. Not much is known about them but the structures they left behind speak with a certain eloquence. They tell of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at making a living from a difficult land. No one knows why they abandoned the area in the late 1200s. Perhaps, like Cahokia in Illinois these Ancient Puebloans overused their natural resources or left because of extended drought. We did a self guided tour of the Spruce Tree House, the best preserved of the ancient structures. Later, we thoroughly enjoyed the hour long, ranger led tour of the Cliff Palace, the largest of the cliff dwellings. We ran out the clock on the daylight, dashing from site to site until dark.


Filed under American Life, art, Libraries, Photography, Public Libraries, Road trip, Robert Dawson Library

The Library Road Trip Goes to Denmark, Tucson and Back

12/2/11 – Greetings to all the new people that recently subscribed to this blog and hello to everyone else. It has been a long time since I last posted here (August 21st) and I wanted to bring you up to date on this project. Much of the last three months have been filled with my academic life teaching photography. When my teaching begins it is a little like being hit with a tsunami where everything gets swept up in the current. I now see the tide is beginning to subside and I can return to the public library project.

Even though I have been working full time quite a few things have been happening with the project. I began by developing a mountain of medium and large format film. I sent the color film out to be processed but all the black and white film I developed in my darkroom. I then began the enormous task of making contact prints of the black and white negatives and digital color photos of the color film negatives. That process took several months. It is slow and tedious but really fun to see the final results. Looking at the contact sheets is a little like opening Christmas presents. It is always exciting because I never know what I am going to get. All the images you see posted on this blog were made with our little digital Canon G-10 cameras. They are perfect for posting on blogs but the real final product are the images made with my medium and large format cameras on film. I have found that these larger film based images are still the best way for me to get the most beautiful results. I have finally picked the images I will scan into digital files. Now I am beginning to undertake the big job of scanning approximately 300 images from the Library Road Trip. I imagine that this will also take several months. With a little break coming soon with my teaching I hope to have this all done by the end of January. I have attached a few images of the process of developing film, selecting and scanning the negatives.

Many of you know that during this summer’s Library Road Trip I was conducting a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the trip. Fortunately, we reached our goal of $8,000. Many of the people that contributed got something from me for their donations. Most were prints of various sizes and books for the larger donations. In addition to everything else, I spent some time this Fall printing, signing and eventually mailing out all of these rewards. The unsung hero in all of this was my wife Ellen who helped enormously by keeping track of the 189 gifts that were mailed. I couldn’t have done it without her. Thanks Ellen! I have attached a couple of images of the Kickstarter work.

Last Spring I had an American Public Library project exhibit at the Main Library in San Francisco. After the show I received an email from Lars Olson who works for the city of Fanoe in Denmark. His daughter lives in San Bruno and while he was visiting he went to see the Library exhibit. He is a city manager in Fanoe and said that they were about to open a new school/community center/public library and wanted to have a permanent installation of my library work there. They also wanted to pay for us to spend a week in Denmark as their guests, give a few lectures and teach a workshop. Ellen and I gladly agreed and spent the first week in October on the beautiful little island of Fanoe off the southwest coast of Denmark. We also traveled to cities on the mainland where the show will be displayed in two other public libraries. It was fascinating to see the Danish public libraries where the work will be displayed.  It has been reported that the Danes are the happiest people on earth. Although they are heavily taxed they do get universal health care and free education through college. And they also have the least disparity of wealth. Do I see a pattern here? We were treated like royalty but when we got back I craved a fresh California salad!

At the end of October Ellen and I gave a presentation at the Center For Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was a panel on our Water in the West Project that is now housed in their archive. This was a collaborative group project with twelve other photographers and the rest of the weekend we participated in a conference on the nature of archives. While we were there we went with writer Rebecca Solnit and Water in the West photographers Sant Khalsa and Geoff Fricker to the Occupy Tucson site. Of course, while I was there I had to photograph their library.

Besides scanning the images from this summer the next BIG part of this project is producing a book and a traveling exhibition. I have begun working with Princeton Architectural Press in New York to publish the book. We are currently investigating possible writers for the book. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. We are also open to some possible connections with other groups to help produce the book. I will keep you posted on the upcoming developments. In the next post I will also include some of the new work from the scans.


Filed under American Life, art, Libraries, Photography, Public Libraries, Public Services, Road trip, Robert Dawson Library

Louisville, KY and Appalachia

Formally segregated Carnegie library, Louisville, KY

Formally segregated Carnegie library, Louisville, KY

Portland branch Carnegie, Louisville, KY

Portland branch Carnegie, Louisville, KY

Memorial, Louisville, KY

Memorial, Louisville, KY

7/17/11 – Louisville is very impressive with its lively street life and beautiful middle-class neighborhoods. It even has Cherokee Park which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. On a slightly cooler overcast morning I photographed the Western branch library. It is a formerly segregated Carnegie library. When Andrew Carnegie built his libraries in the early 20th century Southerners refused to share their libraries with African Americans. So Carnegie had to build separate libraries for blacks. This is one of the few formerly segregated libraries left. The Portland branch is unusual because it was built on a corner and has two entrances with a curved wall. Across the street was a memorial to a man recently killed on that spot. After photographing a third Carnegie library in Louisville we headed through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Shelbyville. It had a Carnegie built in a cemetery. We continued east and entered the foothills of the Appalachia Mountains. We are astonished by the rugged beauty and pockets of extreme poverty of the area. Some of the counties we drove through were some of the poorest parts of the country.

Poverty regions in America

The infrastructure was better here than in Mississippi. People were more isolated due to the extremely hilly geography. This was white poverty as opposed to the black poverty that we saw in the South. The government has obviously put a lot of money into building good roads. Boonesville, KY is located in Owlsley County , one of the nation’s poorest. The library is nice and new. It was set against one of the tall, pine covered hills typical of the area. A very dilapidated car was parked in front with a Dollar General store next door. Dollar General stores are trying to be the Walmart of poor communities. Being such a poor region we were surprised how well kept most of the this region seemed. The poverty was more tucked away into the hallars and back roads of the area. We stop at several small towns and the infrastructure, including libraries was in pretty good shape. We arrived in Harlan, KY and came to their library. Two curious local guys came by and posed for me in front of the library. It was one of the best shots of the day. The day ended with a much needed swim in the indoor pool in our motel. We then had dinner at a very good Mexican restaurant. We were surprised to see one here and happily chatted in English and Spanish with the staff who were all from Mexico. We told them that we felt almost as foreign as they did to this place .

Clip from 1970s documentary, “Harlan County, USA

Walker and Nick in pool, Harlan, KY

Walker and Nick in pool, Harlan, KY

7/18/11 – This morning I photographed in the wonderful genealogy room at the Whitfield Library in Harlan. An old guy was curious about what I was doing and we started a nice conversation about Harlan. Fairly quickly he launched into a rant about Obamacare, the Democrats and taxes. After a while I stopped politely saying “uh huh” and quietly finished my photography and left. We drove east and visited many small libraries along the way. We made it all the way to Williamson, WV before turning back to Kentucky. In Williamson the library is combined with the Mungo County Health Department. After we went through a security check the library itself had some interesting photos and displays on coal, the main industry in the area. We had earlier seen an endless steam of big trucks and rail cars carrying coal. Inez, KY was again in a very poor region of the state. President Johnson launched his War on Poverty here in 1965. Since then, the government has spent billions of dollars in eastern Kentucky on transportation and education, including libraries. The poverty rate has been halved here since 1965 showing that focused government help can make a difference. We leave the Appalachia region and returned to regular America in Ohio. Portsmith had a beautiful, domed Carnegie in what seemed like a pretty depressed town. An amazing display inside was of suitcases for homeless people set up in the lobby. It was an interesting contrast with the picture-perfect library. The beautiful Ohio farmland led us to our last library in Lucasville. To better blend into the surrounding farm country the new library was built like a farm including a silo. Extraordinary. We push ourselves and finally reach Cincinnati. We spent the night with photographer/educator Barbara Houghton and her partner Keith. Although exhausted, we stay up until 1 AM talking with these fascinating friends.

Carnegie library built on cemetary, Shelbyville, KY
Library, Booneville, KY

Library, Booneville, KY

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Filed under American Life, art, Greatest Hits, Libraries, Photography, Public Libraries, Public Services, Road trip, Robert Dawson Library, Uncategorized

Leaving Austin, Waxahachie and Dallas

7/5/11 – The George Washington Carver branch library in Austin had an astonishing mural on the outside by John Fisher. It was dedicated to “Those That Did Not Survive the Middle Passage”. It is one of the first library murals depicting African slavery that we have seen in the Old South. We were sad to leave Austin after just one night. Driving northeast we encounter the pine covered hills of East Texas for the first time. We came to another “*” library in Bryan. It had a spectacular Carnegie that was a gem. While photographing the inside I asked the very polite African-American librarian what she thought of all the Confederate  memorabilia in the library. She said that she was very interested in history and that it was a part of history. Her guarded answer was fascinating. We tried to find a Carnegie library in Franklin but for the firs time our iPhone Google search failed. We have become dependent on this technology and we are astonished when it doesn’t work. We look for another library in Bremond and again our iPhones couldn’t locate the library. I pull out the list we had created earlier doing our research and found the correct address. It’s good to have an analog backup. The Hillsboro library is also a gem but the light was totally wrong. By waiting a few minutes for the clouds to cover the sun I get the shot and can slightly cool off. We end the day in Waxahachie , south of Dallas which has a beautiful old library. We luck out by arriving during the one evening a week they are open. After my usual introduction the librarians direct me to see the large auditorium upstairs. I step into a big room and all the the heads turn. It turns out it is a meeting of the Toastmasters Club. These are sometimes shy people that will have to do public speaking and the club helps polish their speaking. I feel very awkward setting up my large camera in front of these nervous people but everything went well and after I take the photo I quietly slip out the back.

7/6/11 – We decide to sleep in a little today. The non-stop pace is catching up with us and our sleep is more like passing out. We are still drinking our Marthas Coffee from San Francisco in our motel rooms. Best coffee in the universe. We drive into the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. It is one of the largest cities on our trip and we head straight to the Ft. Worth airport and pick up Walker’s best friend Nick Neumann. From here we drive to downtown Ft. Worth. I hadn’t connected earlier with this library but the librarians are very helpful and give me complete access. The library and the art gallery are very beautiful. But this is also the library that took the work “Public” out of its name to “keep up with these times”. As writer David Morris wrote about the Ft. Worth Library “Ft. Worth, you leave me speechless. You’re certainly correct about one thing. The public library is indeed an institution that has not kept up the the times. But given what has happened to our times, whey do you see that as unhealthy? In an age of greed and selfishness, the public library stands as an enduring monument to the values of cooperation and sharing. In an age where global corporations stride the earth, the public library remains firmly rooted in the local community. In an age of widespread cynicism and distrust of government, the 100% tax-supported public library has virtually unanimous and enthusiastic support. This is not the time to take the word “public” out of the public library. It is time to put it in capitals.” We leave the downtown and drive to the Ft. Worth Stockyards next just in time to see a made-for-tourists cattle drive. Nick comes from San Francisco and one of the first things we show him is a cattle drive in the 105 degree heat. Then, back to Dallas for a delightful dinner and stay with old friends Kenda North and Wilson Meader.

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Filed under American Life, art, Greatest Hits, Libraries, Photography, Public Libraries, Road trip, Robert Dawson Library

It’s hot out here!

Welcome to you all following our epic, cross-country library road trip. Walker drove all day yesterday from San Francisco to Needles, CA. We made it there around 8:3o last night when it was 105 degrees! The most interesting thing was when I was checking into our motel a guy was checking out saying he was going to work. Makes sense when it’s that hot out.

Walker drove again today. Stopped in Flagstaff, AZ and he was amazed by the great college and good coffee. The first library that I photographed was in Winslow, AZ. The librarian went to UC Berkeley and when she read my business card she emphasized Leland Stanford JUNIOR University. It’s a Berkeley thing. I picked up Walker standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ and we drove on to the Navajo Nation. We got off Highway 40 and stopped for some Navajo fry bread. We saw lots of dogs, sheep, horses, cattle strolling by the highway.  We drove through an amazingly beautiful landscape to Window Rock, AZ, capitol of the the Navajo Nation. I photographed my second library there. Finally, we arrived in Gallup, NM, a very indigenous town. I photographed a beautiful mural on their library at sunset and then had dinner at Earls, a Gallup landmark.

We’re tried and going to sleep. More later.

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Previous Field Work (1994-2011)

Library, Yosemite National Park, CA (2008) - The Yosemite Valley Branch Library is part of the Mariposa County Library system. It has two public internet stations and is housed in the Girls Club building near Yosemite Village.

Library, Mendota, CA (2004) - A new library replaced this San Joaquin Valley library in 2005.

Librarians, Tool Lending Library, Berkeley, CA (2011) - This Tool Lending Library is part of the regular Berkeley, CA, library system. It is an extremely popular branch library.

Katrina damaged library, New Orleans, LA (2008) - When the levees broke, all of New Orleans’ thirteen public libraries were damaged, eight so badly they could not be reopened. More than 300,000 books, CDs, and other items were destroyed—nearly half the collection. With the devastation of the city and the crippling of city government, NOPL was forced to lay off 90 percent of its employees. All libraries were closed for over two months. The 19 remaining staff members, when they were able to re-enter the city, began surveying damage and salvaging assets. The devastation was an opportunity to rebuild a better library system.

Interior, Woburn, MA (1994) - After a large bequest by Charles Winn to the town of Woburn in 1876, the famed American architect Henry Hobson Richardson was selected to design his first library. The Woburn Public Library is now a National Historic Landmark.

Heartland Four Corners, VT (1994) - The library was assembled from two office rooms from a local sawmill in 1944. It had no heat except a wood-burning stove. At the time I made this photograph it had just been closed and its entire collection of 70 boxes of books had just been sold to a local used-book dealer for $125.

Childrens library entrance, Los Angeles, CA (2008) - The Globe Chandelier is part of a model of the solar system. A translucent blue-glass globe with hand-painted continents hangs in the middle. Planets and a crescent moon can be found in the chains that suspend the globe and the sunburst on the ceiling directly above the globe mirrors the sunburst on the pyramid top of the Library outside. Signs of the zodiac ring the globe along with 48 lights around the rim, which represent the 48 United States in 1926 when the building opened.

Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, CA (1995) - The remarkable life of Allen Allensworth began as a slave in Kentucky in 1842. He later became a petty officer in the US Navy, a Baptist minister and a Chaplin in the US Army. He founded a California Colony in Tulare County that continued for several years during the early part of the 20th century. The library is a re-creation of the original in what is now called Col. Allensworth State Historic Park.

Ceiling, Main Reading room, New York, NY (2008) - Often referred to as the “main branch”, the Beaux-Arts landmark building was initially formed from the consolidation of the Astor and Lenox Libraries, and has evolved into one of the world’s preeminent public resources for the study of human thought, action, and experience. It houses some 15 million items including priceless medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, contemporary novels and poetry, as well as baseball cards, dime novels, and comic books. More than 1,200 languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections.

Library, Death Valley National Park, CA (2009) - This remote library in a trailer is the only library for hundreds of miles. The roof is shaded to lessen the intense summer heat of one of the hottest places in the world.

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More examples of earlier work, 1994 – 2011


Filed under American Life, art, Photography, Public Libraries