Ron Anderson is a 58-year-old photographer who has just wrapped up his thesis project. And though he’s been a professional photographer or photography instructor for about 35 years, he still feels the weight of this final assignment.
“Assuming that my thesis exhibition went well," he says, "I should graduate with a 4.0."
It was his position at Lenexa’s Art Institutes International, where he's taught for about seven years, that spurred him to earn a master’s in photography; full-time faculty members there are expected to have an advanced degree or be working on one.
The thesis exhibition, “Layers of Time,” is now up at UMKC’s Gallery of Art. It's a study of how time has affected Longview Farm, the once-magnificent and sprawling estate that was home to Kansas City lumber baron R.A. Long. Since Long's death in 1934, the land has slowly been parceled off to various interests — a neighborhood replaced a barn, for instance, and a lake replaced a field.
Anderson depicts the passage of time in layered images so that a ghost of what was is as present as what's there now.
A few years ago, Anderson says, he was in between projects and spending time photographing abandoned buildings. Noticing the layers of paint where the surface layer was cracked, he says, caused him to feel the presence of time in a new way.
“Most people think of time as being a linear progression: the past to the present to the future, and that once the past reaches the present, it no longer exists," he says. "It occurred to me, being in those spaces, that that wasn’t necessarily the case — that it exists more in what I call layers of time; the past is here with us right now, which is shaping the present and affecting the future. It’s still here even as we’re speaking.”
As he searched for a subject rich enough to use as the focus of his thesis — a project which in his case was not simply a necessary step toward graduation but more a culmination of his life’s work, or the top layer of his personal journey through time — he began collecting information about Longview Farm.
When it was established in 1916, the 1,780-acre property in Lee’s Summit was home to a 22,000-square-foot mansion, a chapel and one-room schoolhouse, a clubhouse, hotel, summer camp, and three large horse barns, according to the R.A. Long Historical Society. Now, much of the property has been distributed to the community: Longview Lake Community College, Longview Farm Elementary school, along with commercial and residential districts.
That is, time has drastically altered the property.
But Anderson discovered photographs taken in 1916 that tell a story of rural opulence, every structure new and ready to be used. He also found a series of photographs from 1978, taken just before the Army Corps of Engineers purchased a vast tract of land as part of the Blue River Flood Control Project.
“A lot of my work was leaning toward printing in different layers, so I started combining some of those images with my images,” Anderson explains.
He printed all of the work on metal, acrylic, or fabric and layered his images onto the existing ones.
“In some cases the buildings don’t even exist anymore. In those circumstances I went back to the places as they exist today and photographed, like, a cul-de-sac where there used to be this marvelous barn.”
Photographs used to be regarded as documents of moments in time — something factual, Anderson notes. But he says digital photography has changed that, and photographic fiction is now common. Anderson doesn’t alter the what or the where, but he has tampered with the when.
“Mine are all photographs of things that existed, but you’re not really sure when they existed, especially when you look at the layered combinations," he says. "The photographs from 1916, everything was brand new, so the photographs of (those structures) look new. My background photographs may end up looking older than those. The images with the cul-de-sac I photographed with a Polaroid camera from the 1960s, and they’re printed on an aged piece of metal. So that kind of looks older than the photographs from 1916.”
This series is different from his previous work, Anderson says, because it’s about recreating moments rather than waiting to capture a moment as it’s happening, as traditional photography requires.
And he sees his thesis work, largely based on this newer incarnation of photography, as an extension of his 30 years in studio art as well as a return to his roots — Anderson’s own layered, rather than linear, relationship with time.
Layers of Time: Longview Farm Memories, through December 9 at the UMKC Gallery of Art, Fine Arts Building, 203 5015 Holmes St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64110.