PPRC looks back at 5 years of St. Louis photos

Editor’s note: Above is an excerpt from an interview with Mel Watkin, director of the Public Policy Research Center Photography Project at UMSL, and project instructors Lois Ingram and Chinyere Oteh on “Cityscape” on St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU. Visit http://bit.ly/bTVMvn to hear the full interview.

Mississippi River barge pilots. Detainees at a juvenile detention center. Survivors of war and torture. Residents of Granite City, Ill., and St. Louis neighborhoods like Old North, Benton Park West and JeffVanderLou. Bosnians. Russians. Young. Old. The participants of the Public Policy Research Center Photography Project at the University of Missouri­–St. Louis all had one thing in common: their connection to the St. Louis metropolitan region. And for five years, instructors from the project taught and guided these amateur photographers so they could document their community and the impact they have on it.

The PPRC Photography Project at UMSL is now celebrating its first five years with a comprehensive new exhibit and book. “St. Louis Point-of-View: Photographs from the Public Policy Research Center Photography Project” features photos from each of the past PPRC Photography Project exhibit and is on view now through Aug. 22 at the Missouri History Museum at Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue in St. Louis. An opening reception will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 6 in the Bank of America Atrium Foyer at the Missouri History Museum. The opening is free, but reservations are required. Call 314-516-5273 to RSVP.

A retrospective catalog, “The PPRC Photography Project: The First Five Years 2004-2009,” was released as a companion piece to the exhibit. It features photos, essays, poems and quotes.

“The PPRC Photography Project grew out of my certainty that photography could be used to explore and celebrate life in St. Louis from the perspective of the public who live and work here, combined with the Public Policy Research Center’s long-standing commitment to photography as a means to assess and improve the quality of urban life,” PPRC Photography Project Director Mel Watkin wrote in the book.

The Public Policy Research Center at UMSL has long been connected to photography. For 25 years, renowned curator Jean Tucker organized PPRC-sponsored exhibits featuring work by photographers such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Berenice Abbott, Joel Meyerowitz, Michael Eastman, Ken Konchel and Quinta Scott. Watkin transformed the exhibition series into the current PPRC Photography Project in 2004. The goal of the project was shifted to mirror that of the PPRC by focusing its efforts on community groups with the St. Louis metropolitan region.

Working with St. Louis-area community groups, Watkin and her instructors — Lois Ingrum, Chinyere E. Oteh, Ron Laboray and Lyndsey Scott — set out to teach the basics of photography to several volunteer citizens who turn their cameras on their surroundings to capture community revitalization, historic preservation, personal enrichment programs, social services and culture. The PPRC’s goal for the project is twofold: to highlight the undertakings of local organizations working toward the greater good, and to inspire people to take a closer look at and get involved with their communities.

In the preface for “The PPRC Photography Project’s First Five Years: 2004-2009,” PPRC Director Mark Tranel points out that when it comes to public policy and the arts, one might not immediately bring to mind the other.

“Public policy is considered the domain of the academic, the statistician, the legislator and the lobbyist. The arts, on the other hand, conjure creativity, emotion and spontaneity — on paper, it’s the mirror opposite of research and laws,” Tranel wrote. “But at the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, our years of experience working in communities have shown us that the two aren’t so very far apart. The photographic arts are a valuable tool for understanding public policy and the way it shapes communities.”

To showcase five years worth of photos, the PPRC Photography Project chose the Missouri History Museum because of its reputation as a community gathering place.

“The Missouri History Museum welcomes the Photography Project as a reflection of what we as a community institution cherish: our region’s variety, our need to understand one another, our perception of beauty and value in each other and in all our places,” said Robert R. Archibald, president of the museum. “These photographs and those who made them enrich our appreciation of one another in all our diversity and stress the importance of our past and what we must do for our future.”

The exhibit can be viewed during normal Missouri History Museum hours, which are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the week. The 110-page paperback companion book is available for $18.95 at the PPRC, Left Bank Books in St. Louis and the Missouri History Museum Shop.

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