Understanding David Leeson’s photography means understanding his entire philosophy on life.
For Leeson, an ACU alumnus and photojournalist of more than 30 years, it’s not about his photographs – although they are vivid, emotional and unforgettable. It’s not about skill or impressing others – although his 2004 Pulitzer Prize award for photojournalism suggests others are very impressed with his work.
Instead, it’s about the process. The creative “moment.” Transparency and vulnerability, despite fear.
It’s a life view Leeson finds so necessary to a worthwhile existence that he is impassioned to share it with others.
“Creative Alchemy,” which opened this week at the Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Abilene, is Leeson’s way of doing just that.
Leeson unveiled his work Tuesday with an artist’s discussion and explanation of this photographic “experiment.” The exhibit features a collection of self-portraits that greatly contrast his well-recognized photojournalism style (and every style the Arts Center has previously featured), telling a story of expressive freedom and transformation.
“Alchemy” is the first public showing of Lesson’s self-portraiture and a product of over two decades of artistic self-discovery. Through a wide variety of images, complete with baby powder, glitter, paint and real blood, Leeson attempts to encourage others to share his emotional and physical journey – and find one of their own.
Each photo, titled solely by the date and time it was taken, tells a unique story from the others. In one, titled January 31, 2009 (11:23 PM), a green-skinned Leeson spews white liquid across the frame, producing an image that almost looks like lightning. Another photo shows Leeson coated in glitter, dark shadows highlighting his outstretched arm.
He is caked in baby powder; he is bleeding from razor blade cuts on his chest; he is floating facedown in dark, mysterious water. His body and face are twisted, or reflectively calm and smooth – always a somewhat uncomfortable, yet mesmerizing, depiction of movement, darkness, pain and simultaneous joy. And in every photo a skillful use of shadow and light.
Leeson says each photo is minimally edited. Every color, splatter of paint and shadow are untouched in an effort toward complete realness.
Despite each image’s individual impact and personal meaning, the real value to viewers lies in the collection of photos as a whole. Viewed out of context and without Leeson’s passionate explanation, a single portrait loses its meaning and appears simply to be a result of a talented photographer having fun with arts and craft supplies.
Yet Leeson’s intent is that “Creative Alchemy” be more than just a visual presentation. He has recorded videos of his exhausting self-portrait process, in which he flings baby powder violently in front of a splattered cloth backdrop, all in time with a fitting Led Zepplin song. He takes time to describe that rare “moment” when a photographer’s shutter click becomes a shared internal experience with the subject. His emphasizes the importance of the artistic process, with or without a concrete end product.
“Some say art is therapeutic,” Leeson said in his discussion Tuesday. “I don’t know about that. I think it’s revealing.”
And somehow, with thick coats of paint, clouds of glitter and potentially offensive displays of self-inflicted pain, Leeson succeeds in revealing himself.
In what he describes as a 20-year process, he learned to overcome fear of criticism and rejection and simply do what he wanted to do, even if that meant setting up his studio at 3 a.m. to photograph himself in some fairly awkward and even dangerous positions.
These self-portraits, while clearly distinct from his past work, are not Leeson’s first photographic interpretation of human emotion.
As a photojournalist, Leeson has captured graphic and compelling images of numerous wars and social conflict around the world. The reality of the Iraq War is no more accurately represented than in Leeson’s fearless photos of action, pain and desperation of soldiers and innocent people caught in the crossfire. His photography and video work for The Dallas Morning News has earned him the Pulitzer Prize and many other esteemed awards.
Leeson admits that he wants to be known for something more than war. And while his self-portraits seem to represent both an internal war with our own selves as well as with the world around us, “Creative Alchemy” transcends that.
Anyone can pour milk over his head or slather paint over his body – granted, few of us could capture such a moment with Leeson’s expertise and visual effectiveness. But how many of us actually do something like that for ourselves, just to experience it?
Or how many of us take time to soak life in, even if it’s just appreciating a smile from a stranger or a tender moment with another person? How many of us completely ignore self-consciousness and embrace transparency?
That’s the question Leeson asks in “Creative Alchemy.” And his hope is that his own “process” of self-discovery will inspire you to ask yourself the same question.
Leeson’s exhibit will be open all month at the Contemporary Arts Center on Cypress Street. His podcasts, photo galleries and biography are also available online, at www.davidleeson.com. No longer working as a newspaper photographer, Leeson continues to pursue art photography, and has already produced more self-portraits since “Creative Alchemy” opened.