Dona Ann McAdams' series, The Garden of Eden is a lesson in compassion, collaboration, and commitment. Beginning in 1983 she has spent nearly every Friday morning running an art workshop, sponsored by the organization Hospital Audiences, in Coney Island for a group of individuals who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses. Most of the workshop participants have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and range in age from the early 20s to late 70s. McAdams' task was to interest the workshop participants in a variety of art projects in order to provide them with some creative stimulation and a break from their daily routine.
Besides trying to engage the participants in different art activities McAdams made photographs of the workshop participants, and the surrounding neighborhood. After a short period of time her photographs became the focus of the group's interest. During one session when McAdams was showing her pictures around the communal table of the art room, a woman in the class began drawing in crayon on a photograph of herself as if the picture was in her own private coloring book. Many of the other workshop regulars began to follow suit and a routine was established for how the workshops would proceed throughout the following years.
About three years ago McAdams went looking for writer who would be able to develop a narrative that might accompany the pictures that both her and the workshop participants were producing. McAdams was introduced to Brad Kessler by a mutual acquaintance and after reading some of the articles Kessler had written it didn't take long for her to decide that Kessler was the right person for the job. Both McAdams and Kessler had relatives in their respective families who lived and died with severe mental illness, so perhaps it was destine that they would work together on this project. McAdams' familiarity with mental illness through her own family experience can not fully explain why she would spend nearly every Friday morning for the past 14 years with a group of individuals that most of us would cross the street to avoid. But family influences run deep and revolution, struggle, and change were common topics of discussion and action among several of her relatives and family members. McAdams is related to the revolutionary Che Guevera, and other relatives remain staunch supporters of the Irish Republican Army. McAdams took activism to mean community support and has always recognized that responding to, and becoming part of a community was the first step in fostering change. Her camera has been her entree into very diverse communities from barrios in Barcelona, Spain to farming communities in West Virginia. Communities aren't always defined by a particular place and McAdams has used her camera to unite with communities fighting for women's rights and communities protesting nuclear power.
Another example of the importance that McAdams places on identifying and working within a community is her commitment to performance artists in general and the performance space P.S. 122 in particular. As the self-appointed and then formally employed photographer for P.S. 122, an artist-run performance space on New York's lower east side, McAdams has almost single-handedly created the most complete visual record of the performance art genre, one of the liveliest, most eclectic, and controversial forms of creative expression of the past two decades. While photographing nearly every performance for thirteen years at P.S.122, McAdams became an integral part of an organization that was formed by artists to support other artists. This past year Aperture published over 200 of her performance pictures in a monograph titled Caught in the Act. Even though there are great individual photographs in the book where McAdams completely understood and captured the nuance and flare of the performers in a split second, the cumulative effect of her persistence and commitment, combined with the performers trust in her work, resonates as her most important contribution, and the quality that endures long after one has turned the final page.
In the Garden of Eden McAdams' commitment runs like a companion throughout the series playing off the images and text in a persuasive rhythm. Her pictures show us that the workshop participants are far from the publics perception of Schizophrenics as violent lunatics who receive sinister messages from their neighbors pets, but are individuals who respond to attention, are able to express themselves, tell jokes, feel emotions, and participate in a community.
In some of her other projects McAdams was clearly intent on changing laws or public policy, but in The Garden of Eden it is clear that she is responding in a very human way to provide a balanced and informed understanding of what it means to live with a mental illness. In Coney Island she didn't have to look far to measure the publics opinion of individuals who fall outside of the bounds of acceptance. Just a few blocks from the workshop, up on the boardwalk, aggressive barkers still fill the seats at the Freak Shows with curious patrons.
Photography is a powerful form of representation that can be easily manipulated to misrepresent individuals who fall outside of the mainstream. In the Garden of Eden McAdams has made it possible for a group of individuals, who could easily be the targets of ridicule and curiosity, to participate in how they are represented. Her insistence on finding a writer to add still more insight into the lives of the participants of the workshop shows that she understands that photographs alone aren't always enough to make a difference.
In The Garden of Eden McAdams has used her skill as a photographer like a megaphone drawing anyone interested into her circle of enthusiasm and action. For the past 14 years she has worked to create an honest and impassioned look into the lives of individuals living with mental illness and in the process has shown us that the compassion and commitment of a single individual can create a community and make a difference.
Jeffrey Hoone 1997
Dona Ann McAdams has been working for over twenty years as a documentary photographer and her work has been reproduced in countless newspapers and magazines. As the sole photo-archivist of the performance space PS 122, her Performance Series chronicles a 15 year history of performance art in New York City. The photographs from this series were recently published by Aperture in the book Caught in the Act. In keeping with her practice as photo-archivist, McAdams began the Olympic City series in 1988 when she first visited Barcelona. McAdams was interested in documenting the city's preparations for then upcoming Olympic Games, particularly in the Barrio Gothic, Barrio Chino and Barcelonetta regions of the city -- those areas of the city which would be most affected by the planned developments for this event.
Over the next four years McAdams would make several trips back to Barcelona adding to this series. Realizing that this area was in a state of rapid transition, the artist photographed a divergent array of subjects on each consecutive visit with the intention to edit the images at a later date. McAdams' photographs of the deserted streets, buildings, storefronts and construction sites of the Barrio share a sense of calm with Atget's photographic record of the Parisian streets. In this segment of her Olympic City series McAdams presents a distinct record of the physical transformations which have taken place in the Barrio. But these silent pictures of the Barrio only comprise the surface layer of the lives that have been changed in this community.
In her street photographs of the Barrio, McAdams presents an intimate portrait of this community reflected in the day-to-day activities and personal interactions of its residents. In one tangent of the Olympic City series, McAdams spent considerable attention photographing women of all ages under different circumstances. McAdams as observer, and sometimes voyeur, recorded these moments in passing as we would have witnessed them ourselves, as in the case of the image of a couple engaged in an argument on the street corner which draws the attention of all passersby. In the photograph of a prostitute standing in front of the shell of a demolished building McAdams perhaps best illustrates this transition in the Barrio, a once thriving metropolitan area, now caught between the onset of urban blight and the coming urban renewal.
The Olympic City series has less to do with the Olympic Games than it has to do with change in the face of gentrification. City planners and developers who set out to revitalize urban areas for major events such as the Olympic Games, or who attempt to create new centers of tourism and rehabilitated living communities for the young and affluent populations, often have little regard for the inevitable displacement and transformation of the communities in place. In the Barrio, the existing neighborhoods were removed to make way for a temporary community of athletes, game officials, spectators and the world press Ñ leaving stadiums, temporary enclosures and parking lots which have little or no use now that the games have passed. Today traces of the Barcelona Olympic Games exist only as statistics in a sports almanac, however the face of the Barrio region has changed forever to make way for this event which brought the attention of the world to Barcelona for one summer in 1992. As the consummate archivist Dona Ann McAdams has succeeded in preserving this photographic record of the Barrio and its people during this transition.
Gary Hesse (c)1996