Speedway gives fuel for thought in doc project

Often when one thinks of documentaries, a film by Michael Moore comes to mind, but the art of the documentary consists of more than just movies. At the Center for Documentary Studies, Short Track: Photographs from the Asphalt Oval, an exhibit by local artist Clifton Dowell, explores the Wake County Speedway.

Located in southern Wake County, the Wake County Speedway was built in 1962 by the Simpkins family. Its subsequent half-century history is the subject of Dowell's project.

"It's under the radar," Dowell said. "It's not a very fancy track or anything."

The Speedway's status as a non-corporate entity is part of what drew Dowell to the subject. Additionally, the fact that the Speedway is still owned and operated by the Simpkins family offers Dowell a chance to look in depth at a close-knit community and the underlying social fabric.

"My goal is to find things that are interesting and make pictures that are beautiful," he said. "[I] also want to make a community portrait that is comprehensible to people in the future."

Dowell was a student at the CDS as a member of the Continuing Studies Program and he attained his certificate in December 2007. This exhibit was his capstone project.

"Someone who is pursuing a certificate in documentary studies has to take two required courses out of six," CDS exhibitions director Courtney Reid-Eaton said. "The capstone course is one of these, taken at the end, and includes a [final] project."

For Dowell, Short Track is the culminating product of his work during his time as a student at CDS.

"I stretched out my time for four or five years, so I was in no hurry at all," the artist said.

The time spent is echoed in the exhibit, as the photographs cover several years of history.

Another feature of Short Track is that it is completely in black and white. Although the format that has interested Dowell since he was a boy, his passion for this particular medium was relit when he inherited a box of black and white negatives dating from the 1940's and 1950's.

"When I got those negatives, I went ahead and developed a darkroom and learned how to develop them," he said.

The vintage photographs revealed portraits of his family from the time of World War II. They inspired Dowell to focus on the characters of a place, not just the geography or temporal setting. And it is this humanistic aproach that informs his study of the Wake County Speedway.

"It's the portrait of the people that I'm interested in-a multifaceted community portrait," Dowell said.

This style of intimately focusing on the identities of the people involved contrasts with that of German photographer August Sander. A source of inspiration for Dowell, Sander's works captures people as archetypes (a soldier, baker, etc.) whereas Dowell is more concerned with individual identities.

Other photographers Dowell cites as major influences are Eugene Smith, an American who worked near Pittsburgh, and Eugene Atget, a French artist.

"Eugene Atget had this sense of timelessness in his work and that's what I like most about him," the artist said.

For Dowell, photography is a hobby. His regular job is working as a general manager of the Insider, a state governmental news service owned by the News & Observer. After his years as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Dowell worked in the publishing world for five years. Following that he pursued his CDS certificate and helped his wife Frances, an author, with photography for her magazine Girls. Through this journey Dowell has stayed true to one philosophy.

"I don't wear myself out," he said. "I've kept photography where I just do what I want when I want to and I don't let it become a job."

Short Track is on exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies until March 9.


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