Feature: Wednesday, August 15, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Peter Ferestenís Fort Worth

A quarter-century of the cityís soul is captured in his images.

By Sam Hudson

Photographer Peter Feresten arrived in Fort Worth in 1975. He staked his claim to the city at once, setting out to make lasting images of the Fort Worth that still was located deep inside Texas.

Feresten has been bearing witness with his still cameras as Cowtownís intimate spaces of human habitation and communion melt into air and its urban villagers scatter yonder as if slow-motion explosions were blowing their communities apart.

He has taken black-and-white photographs using wooden view cameras loaded with 8-by-10-inch negatives that make pictures so sharp they make your back teeth ache. Now he shoots color pictures with cheap plastic cameras that look like party favors and deliver images that might have come from the brain of a woozy party guest.

Ferestenís first photographs of Fort Worth captured the last days of the Stockyards and the cowboy culture around it, when the bars on Exchange Avenue were filled with customers whose boots were a part of their workday gear and who danced to western swing music because they had grown up with it.

Then he began his large-scale, long-term documentary project here. For a quarter of a century, he recorded the vivid faces and rich lives of the segregated, mostly poor, black people who lived in the southeast quadrant of Fort Worth. He photographed them as they went about their daily business, in their churches when they praised God and prayed for the gifts of the Holy Spirit -- and as they gathered in beer joints and tiny clubs to drink, to dance, and to find the sharp solace of traditional Texas blues.

Nowadays Feresten is a fellow traveler with -- and the recording angel of -- a roaring band of brothers known as the Cossacks Motor Cycle Club, Fort Worth Chapter. To please the Cossacks, he decorated his camera with a tiny plastic skull smoking a cigarette.

Photographs signed by Peter Feresten are in the collections of art museums (the Amon Carter Museum owns 17) and hang on the walls of some sharp-eyed collectors and fellow artists. But Feresten seldom exhibits his work. His most recent one-man show was in Spain in 1991, when he was living and working there. The only place in Fort Worth where some of Ferestenís pictures can be seen without filling out a form is at the Lemon Tree, an antiques and oddments shop in the Hospital District. Shop owner Betty Kelly said two weeks ago that they were interesting pictures of nice black people but she had no idea who made them.

He is all but unknown in Fort Worth, and his pictures are largely unseen in the city on which he has focused his artistic attention and where he is doing his mature work. Feresten pays out of his own pocket for cameras, film, photofinishing chemicals, and printing paper. He has invested years of time and effort for little more than the compensation of making art of a very high order. Moreover, he regards his subjects as exact equals and makes them present in pictures filled with an aching gentleness. Feresten makes his living by teaching photography in the Communications Arts Building on the Northeast Campus of Tarrant County College. He lives in a tiny house on an obscure side street in a barrio on the North Side. With him live a parrot named Amigo, a dog named ZoŽ, and two (or maybe three) cats whose names sometimes slide off them. A girlfriend named Gayle is a constant presence.

Tall and lanky, Feresten stands in the middle of his equipment-stuffed living room, stretches up to his full height, and in the generalized accent of an educated New Englander, he sings out:

"Thereís nothing more dangerous than a successful middle class!

"The bastards will always tear it down if you let them!

"These black people are moving to the plastic suburbs, losing their real culture, and turning white!"

Besides being opinionated, angry, and outspoken, he can be as prickly as the proverbial desert pear, and likewise obtuse, obdurate, intransigent. And at times he is frightened and aggrieved by his subjectsí and his own mortality. He has his reasons.

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Born in 1945, the son of a doctor and his nurse, Peter Helms Feresten grew up on Main Street in Fall River, Mass., a medium-sized industrial city peopled with working-class immigrants from Portugal, Quebec, the Ukraine, and Ireland. These workers lived in ethnic enclaves named for the Roman Catholic parishes that were the centers of community life. After school, little Peter would wander Fall River at will, exploring its self-contained neighborhoods. At the age of eight, he started taking a camera with him. He learned how to develop and print his pictures by reading the labels on the bottles of photofinishing chemicals on the shelves in a camera store. Peterís parents were pleased to see him take up photography because it was science made practical -- and science, they hoped, would lead him to the practice of medicine.

The American mass-circulation picture press was still a powerful medium in the 1950s. Peter waited eagerly at the neighborhood drug store for the delivery of the latest issue of Life magazine. He would cut open the bundle, pull a fresh copy from the middle, and then sit contentedly at the soda fountain counter, sipping a lime rickey and drinking in photo essays by Eugene Smith, Carl Mydans, Margaret Bourke-White, and the other extraordinary photographers whose work was published in Time-Life magazines.

An obstetrician-gynecologist in a city of large families, Dr. Feresten prospered. A passionate believer in education, he sent Peter and his three brothers to elite private academies. Peter graduated from the Belmont Hill School, where he grew to despise the snotty, self-certain sons of Mayflower descendants and Boston Brahmins. Pages: 1 2 3 4 5

ę BACK

Big Ronnie Bivins was singing Junior Parkerís íDriviní Wheelí at Mrs. Allenís Silver Dollar Cafť on East Fourth Street on a Sunday night in 1981, and when an admiring young lady danced up to the low bandstand, Big Ronnie danced right along with her, never missing a beat. Five years later, in a club on Evans Avenue, he stood up, started to sing the blues, gasped, fell, and died on the dance floor.

Peter Feresten entered Columbia University in 1963, majoring in comparative religion with a minor in sociology. He undertook fieldwork in urban sociology, doing many of his investigations as a two-fisted regular in the pitch-dark bars of Manhattan and by making the acquaintance of artists and free-livers. For the first time, but not the last, he fell in with a group of bikers.

Feresten dropped out of Columbia in his senior year and began the serious business of breaking out of the bubble of privilege in which he had grown up. He worked in the garment factories in Fall River alongside the immigrants whose neighborhoods he had explored as a youngster. He made photographs of his co-workers and the worlds they lived in. He was 25 years old and still entirely self-taught as a photographer.

Admitting that photography was his vocation, he applied to the Rhode Island School of Design, the oldest, toughest, and most prestigious school of graphic arts in the United States. He sorted through his files of photographs, dropped some prints into a box, and mailed them off with his application. The great photographer Harry Callahan was the chairman of the photography department at the school. He looked through the box of pictures, and Feresten was in. He received his master of fine arts in photography in 1974. His studies with Callahan and Aaron Siskin place Peter Feresten in the direct line of apostolic succession of photographers that stretches back to the Bauhaus, the modernist school of design in Weimar Germany.

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After a brief detour through Arizona, Feresten settled in Fort Worth with wife number one, joined the faculty at Tarrant County College, and began his documentary photo projects.

When he decided to document the tightly knit black neighborhoods in Fort Worth, Feresten scouted the southeast quadrant of the city and mapped out an area of study that was bordered on the east and south by Loop 820, on the west by Hemphill Street and on the north by East Lancaster Avenue. It also included the area directly east of downtown around Belknap Street and Riverside Drive. These neighborhoods were what sociologists call "vertically integrated communities," which means that all kinds of people lived there side by side: doctors and lawyers near day-laborers and gangsters, preachers and teachers down the street from bartenders and welfare mothers, all on speaking terms with one another and all sharing traditions and a largely self-contained African-American culture.

He started his work in the nick of time. Fair-housing laws had been on the books since the Johnson Administration, but effective enforcement of them didnít begin until the late 1970s. Middle-class black families were beginning a slow, steady exodus to the suburbs. The black neighborhoods on the banks of the Trinity River near downtown stood secure until the Army Corps of Engineers declared the land there "flood-proof" and developers began to buy the land out from under them.

Feresten used every available kind of still camera to make hundreds of photographs of the worlds of black city-dwellers in Fort Worth. He paid special attention to what he called "ceremonial spaces" -- special places where members of the community came together to pray, sing, talk, drink, dance, pass the time with one another, and celebrate a communion of mortal souls. In Ferestenís photographs of church interiors, fraternal halls, and beer joints, these spaces are densely inhabited -- sanctified, in fact -- even when they appear on first glance to be empty of people. Over the years, Feresten made an invaluable record of a way of life that was vanishing even as he documented it. He continued to teach photography at Tarrant County College. The students with talent encouraged him, and in turn, he tried to to impart to all of them a zeal for good craftsmanship and the skills to achieve it.

Wives one through three moved through Ferestenís life without doing much damage to his artistic output. Then in 1993, his fourth wife vacated his house under a court order and in leaving made off with his archive of negatives, prints, tape recordings, and field notes -- his lifeís work. She told him that she had destroyed every bit of it, even his cameras and lenses. Peter Feresten was heartbroken.

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Fortunately for Feresten and for Fort Worth, wife number four was lying. She had thrown Ferestenís work and equipment into a rented storage bay. After expensive and wrenching court battles, he finally retrieved them in 1996 -- a jumble of images, paper, and metal parts, some damaged by heat and humidity. Slowly Feresten began to put his work back in order and to restore his equipment. He continued to make pictures, but often had to talk himself into shutting his darkroom door behind him to print his negatives.

In 1978, Feresten noticed that he wasnít feeling very well and went in for medical exams. Diagnosis: polycystic disease, -- hereditary and the cause of his motherís death. It was destroying his kidneys. Kidney transplants were not commonly done then, and, ever since, Feresten has heard death rattling behind him. He worries about what will become of his work if he dies suddenly. Where would it go? It is his attempt to add to the body of art and knowledge, the collective memory of humankind. Would future historians and scholars be able to find it? Would he have the time and resources to catalogue and annotate it? Would it rot away in a basement, never seen by anyone but an occasional researcher? Feresten was not hopeful. His experience with academia and museums has been that they usually misspell his name and generally are uninterested in photographers who are unfamous.

Ferestenís pre-owned kidneys were finally installed in 1996. Having recovered his negatives and prints, he took heart and began to make photographs again. He stores the negatives carefully, but prints very few of them. Who wants to see them? Living people in Fort Worth? Art lovers in Spain? Posterity?So the next question is inevitable: Where is a competent museum, seat of learning, or historical archive when Fort Worth needs it? Within easy driving distance of Ferestenís little house are two museums that collect American photography: the Amon Carter Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Downtown is the Central Fort Worth Public Library, where the archives of the Fort Worth Black Historical and Genealogical Society are safely stored. The special collections at Texas Christian University and the University of Texas at Arlington collect documentary materials. There is empty space aplenty in the shiny library at Texas Wesleyan University, which sits on East Rosedale Street, smack dab in the middle of Peter Ferestenís study area.

Putting Ferestenís negatives and notes in a safe place and in good order will take a nice chunk of change, of course, but Fort Worth still has a class of wealthy citizens who can and do make substantial donations to preserve and exhibit art that is a permanent record of the life and history of Cowtown, U.S.A. What will be harder will be for some very different kinds of people -- museum curators, archivists, historians, and, not least, Feresten himself -- to do the job right.

Meanwhile, there are the 10 Feresten documentary photographs in a loose file amid the clutter of the Lemon Tree antiques shop. Betty Kelly said that she canít remember who sold her the gallery prints. She said that she wouldnít sell them anyway, because she has no idea what they are worth or to whom.

Like all photographers, Peter Feresten collaborates with the world in front of his camera, using a simple contraption loaded with a light-sensitive emulsion that records the play of light on surfaces -- and that is where most photography stops. In English, the types of images Feresten makes are called documentary photography. Spanish says it more exactly: fotografŪ;a testimonial --photography that gives honest witness to the world, about the world.

The world about which Ferestenís pictures give honest testimony is inhabited with living souls. Like the wind and the Holy Spirit, human souls are invisible and make their presence felt indirectly. But Peter Feresten has made still photographs that caught the fleeting shadows some of those souls cast as they passed through Fort Worth, Texas.


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