Portraitist of the City
As a photographer, Peter Feresten was a lot of things: documentarian, historian, teacher, artist.
He also was incredibly prolific, as befitting a wearer of many hats. Throughout his long career, Feresten, who passed away about a month ago from complications from lung cancer, amassed a mountain of art and assorted ephemera — correspondence, snapshots, field recordings, you name it, in addition to his photographs, the negatives of which, stacked deep, could easily circle the globe a dozen times. “He never threw anything away,” said Gayle Feresten, Peter’s wife. What to do with the storied photographer’s archives hasn’t been determined yet. The Library of Congress, Gayle said, has first choice. In April, the national archive’s Beverly Brannan approached Feresten about acquiring some of his photos and audio recordings. Feresten was in the process of transferring the requested material from analog to digital form when he fell ill for the last time. Gayle intends to pick up where he left off but not until she takes full inventory of his oeuvre, “boxes and boxes and boxes” of stuff, she said. “Thirty-five years of ’em.”
The house she shared with Feresten was “more like a studio,” she continued. “We didn’t have any furniture.” With some help, she recently and back-breakingly spent an entire day transferring nearly everything of artistic value done by her husband from their home to a climate-controlled, high-security storage facility. Tom Kellam represents another institution in line to possibly receive some of Feresten’s work — the Fort Worth Public Library, whose archives presently contain a formidable amount of Feresten material. “[Festeren’s personal] collection is large and complex,” he said, noting that not only is Feresten’s work voluminous and in various media, but it’s also scattered around: in storage, at the library, at AfterImage Gallery in Dallas, and some at Tarrant County College, where Feresten taught photography for many years. Gayle said she may not be ready to discuss what goes where until about a month from now.
She also wants part of his collection to go to a local university but hasn’t begun researching candidates. “I have no idea where to begin,” she said. One reason may be that she’s still in mourning. “There have been a number of people in Fort Worth who have offered to help,” either in a hands-on or consulting fashion, she said. “But it’s been harder than I expected.”
About a week before he passed, Gayle recalled, as he lay in his bed, Peter asked his wife to sit with him. “He told me, ‘I’m ready to go. I’ve had a good life, a very interesting life. I don’t have any regrets. I don’t owe anyone anything, not even an apology. I thought I’d be afraid, but I’m not. … I’m actually interested in seeing what’s next.’”
Not that any other proof was needed than the quality of work, but the local and national import of Feresten’s passion is immeasurable. As Gayle said, “He captured things no one else did,” perhaps most famously the area of Fort Worth that is now the Hospital District but that was once a strong African-American community. A lot of the churches and other gathering places where black Fort Worth congregated — and where in the ’70s and ’80s Feresten did arguably his best, most engaging work — are gone, as are the people who once lived, “churched,” broke bread, and died there. He documented life in South Fort Worth mainly through his camera aperture but also through a reel-to-reel recording device. The images and the sounds complement each other. In an ideal setting, the viewer can gaze at one of Feresten’s images of, say, a bluesman wailing on his guitar or a fire-and-brimstone preacher in full sermon and listen through headphones as they wailed and preached. Kellam believes that Feresten’s Fort Worth-centric work “documents the changing neighborhoods” and as a result has high historical value, especially for Fort Worthians. The documentary material is primarily what both the library and the national archives are interested in — for obvious reasons.-Anthony Mariani