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Camera Focused on Black America

Kevin Everson experiments in filmmaking

“The subject matter is the gestures or tasks caused by certain conditions in the lives of working-class African Americans and other people of African descent,” writes Kevin Everson about his work. Take the drudgery of working at a dry-cleaning company, the bareback riding styles of black cowboys in North Carolina, and workers putting up a Volkswagen billboard intended to appeal to African Americans, and you have a sampling of the inspiration for Everson’s work. He’s an experimental filmmaker who’s been an associate professor in the McIntire Department of Art since 2000. He teaches cinematography classes in which students learn how to shoot 16mm film and video, make their own films and practice editing their footage. His advanced classes focus on making experimental films and installation art.

Everson has five feature films and almost 70 short 16mm, 35mm and digital films under his belt, and a restless drive to continue what he’s doing—capturing the culture of working-class black Americans.

Everson rejects the role of cultural explainer in his work, opting instead to place the burden of understanding on the audience and its own labor.
—Ed Halter, Art Forum, May 2010

Kevin Everson Pamela Pecchio

Early in his career, Everson was admitted to the Sundance Film Festival (he’s been back five times) with Eleven-Eighty-Two, a film about the “new prison economy.” Since then, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival, among many others, have exhibited his artwork and films.

Everson has a novel approach to the creative process. Whereas most artists start out with an idea or impression and then have to figure out how to best execute it, Everson identifies a section of the filmmaking process he’d like to explore, and uses it as a diving board into a new subject. “Every year I come up with a formal issue I want to exercise—color, time, sound and footage, aggressive editing or no editing, and I go from there,” he says.

He shot his recent film, Erie, in northern Ohio and Buffalo, N.Y. Interested in long takes, Everson decided to create the film as a series of single shots that last around 10 to 11 minutes, the length of time it takes for a spool of film to move through the camera. From scenes of Niagara Falls to a young girl staring at a candle, the result is more of a cinematic meditation than a film with a traditional narrative arc.

He also recently completed Quality Control, which consists of back-to-back 10-minute reels of people working at a dry cleaner. “It reminded me of the days I worked in the factories as a student,” he says. “I like the noble effort of the day-to-day grind of doing a good job at work. Taking pride in one’s work appeals to me.”

On set, Everson is careful to use methods that don’t upset the authenticity of his chosen environment. He prefers natural lighting, hardly any crew and few actors; he’ll insert one or two into a situation where everyone else is continuing their normal routine. “Usually the actor is the person I can focus on while the other people are doing their own thing,” he says. “Let’s say I’m on a job site. I don’t want to get in the way. This way I can say ‘cut’ or ‘change the angle’ without disturbing the production.”

“I like shooting,” he says. “I just like the art-making process. I’m out there, figuring things out, being active and composing things. For a while I was doing a lot of found footage, using a lot of archival footage, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to start shooting again.’”