Local photographer and Corcoran School of Art instructor Colby Caldwell recalls how, as captain of the Mills River, N.C., high school football team, he led his classmates to the state finals. Soon, Appalachian State University offered him a football scholarship. Surprisingly, he turned it down. Declaring an early retirement, he turned to European history and photography. And before long, he was taking hazy pictures of gorgeous people in diaphanous gowns.
What happened? “I started listening to Joy Division and the Cure,” Caldwell offers.
Whether it was his inner goth taking over or one too many concussions that got his aesthetic wheels turning, by his third year in college, Caldwell had moved to D.C. and transferred to the Corcoran, where he got his photography degree in 1990. After school, the artist, now 34, worked odd jobs at local record stores and artists’ studios to support his vocation.
Now the quick change and the struggle are paying off. Caldwell just finished a commission for AT&T Wireless headquarters in Los Angeles, where his installation joins work by D.C.-based sculptor John Dreyfuss and, if negotiations go as planned, sculptor Richard Serra. Back in the spring, Caldwell buzzed out to L.A. to study the site and present his proposal to corporate chiefs. “They were totally into it,” he reports.
His L.A. installation—16 photographs arranged in two horizontal rows of eight—is about communication. Below abstract color images, Caldwell has positioned hazy black-and-white photographs alluding to old-fashioned forms of exchange—a bird, a horse, a phone. Beside them, two black-and-white frames shot from silent film narrative cards say “just connect”—an erudite riff on E.M. Forster’s phrase “Only Connect” and the perfect advertisement for AT&T.
Here in D.C., Caldwell has installed some of the same hazy, vaguely digitized images—of wheat fields, hunters, and flying birds—in his show, “Groundwork,” at Georgetown’s tony Hemphill gallery. The show’s recent opening drew lots of hungry collectors and aficionados.
But Caldwell’s artsy lifestyle hasn’t cost him his interest in the Game. He’s a big fan of the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium, where he just saw the home team duke it out with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Turns out the stadium is the perfect marriage of Caldwell’s goth and football sensibilities: Before the game, screens flash excerpts of verse by Baltimore’s Prince of Bleak, Edgar Allan Poe. According to Caldwell, “Some of those lines from ‘Nevermore’ really get the crowd fired up.”—Jessica Dawson
Caldwell’s “Groundwork” show runs to Oct. 23 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd Street, NW. (202) 342-5610.