Try to slap a label on Bruce Jackson, and you’re bound to miss the picture.
He is a veteran University at Buffalo professor, an accomplished photographer, an author of dozens of books and articles, a merciless media critic, an activist, film programmer and general provocateur. He comfortably inhabits the high-minded sphere of the modern American academy, where he is something of an elder statesman. But he is just as comfortable expounding on local and national controversies in the pages of Artvoice or presenting public screenings and discussions of classic films with his wife, Diane Christian, as part of the long-running Buffalo Film Seminars.
Jackson, long a commanding presence on Buffalo’s cultural scene, is being honored with an exhibition opening tonight in the towering East Gallery of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
The show, “Being There: Bruce Jackson, Photography 1962-2012,” is an attempt to capture some of the multifarious activities of one of Buffalo’s busiest and best-known writers and thinkers.
Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon has described Jackson, a longtime friend, as a “public intellectual,” one of the few labels Jackson can bring himself to accept.
“I am [a public intellectual], but I wouldn’t want to limit myself to that,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “With my own interests, they don’t stop at the border of the university, and the people I want to talk to aren’t just the people in the university. I want to talk to people next door to me. And so that means going public.”
“Being There,” originally suggested by Buffalo State College professor Albie Michaels and organized by Burchfield Penney curator Scott Propeak, features some 300 photographs from throughout Jackson’s long career, which range from stark portraits of prison workers and inmates in Arkansas’ infamous Cummins State Farm (now Cummins Unit) in the early ’70s to portraits of his often famous friends, and finally to his recent landscape photographs and scenes of the grain elevators that line Buffalo’s slowly reawakening waterfront.
Jackson’s interest in photography grew out of his academic work, as well as a fondness for the technology, and slowly blossomed into an artistic pursuit.
“When I started out taking pictures, I was doing ethnography in Texas prisons. And I was taking photographs mainly as a way of taking notes quickly,” Jackson said. After he visited Cummins State Farm in hopes of writing an article about the conditions there, photography became a much larger part of his work.
“I took about 28 more rolls of film [at Cummins], and when I got home, I realized that I wanted to document it visually rather than in words. I think that’s when I date my relationship to photography as really changing,” he said.
After that, Jackson incorporated photography into much of his work, including the more than 100 articles he wrote for Artvoice about the struggle to build a new Peace Bridge and various other academic and journalistic pursuits. Jackson is a constant presence, for instance, at Just Buffalo Literary Center’s prestigious Babel reading series, from which some of the portraits in this exhibition are drawn.
His most recent book, co- authored with Christian, is “In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America,” which features some 100 pictures of life on Texas’ death row. The upcoming book “Inside the Wire” contains another 106 of Jackson’s prison photographs.
“The range of his subjects is breathless in the exhibition and challenges any attempt to connect the dots,” Bannon said in a release. “As with those public intellectuals who came before him, Jackson feeds on the public life and its celebrity. We hope that ‘Being There’ will make connections that will continue Jackson’s feeding frenzy for ideas.”
For Jackson, it’s all about finding the right tools to strike a chord with the public and to illuminate important contemporary issues – not merely to impress his academic colleagues. He points to the work of his late friend Leslie Fiedler, the widely read literary critic and University at Buffalo professor, as something that continues to inspire him.
“Leslie’s books, there’s no jargon in them. You see his ‘Love and Death in the American Novel’ on the shelves of people who aren’t in the academy at all. It’s a profound book about American literature, but it’s written in English that anybody can understand,” Jackson said. “And to me, that is a very high achievement, and that’s the sort of thing I strive for.”
What: “Being There: Bruce Jackson, Photographs 1962-2012”
When: Today through June 16
Where: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
Admission: $5 to $10
Info: 878-6011 or www.burchfieldpenney.org.