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Clark Worswick: Millbrook Gem

Tue Sep 20th, 2016

Longtime Millbrook resident Clark Worswick, whose amazing career has carried him through one adventure after another around the globe, is a village treasure.  Born in Berkeley, California, he was well positioned to photograph San Francisco when it was the epicenter of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll scene of the late sixties.  He traveled throughout Afghanistan and India, collecting late 19th century photos taken by non-Westerners at a time when the Western art world was transfixed by Orientalism. 

Already an established filmmaker, Worswick journeyed on an ethnographic expedition to Ethiopia, documenting Neolithic tribes both hostile and welcoming.  Worswick watched as the international art market embraced photography as a fine art at a startlingly late date; he owns the largest private collection of Walker Evans photographs in the world. 

His books have been named “Best of the Year” by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Time magazine.  This photographer/filmmaker/collector/author/adventurer has just come out with his most recent book, Art Machine, now available with its companion volume, The Orchid House:  Art Smuggling and Appointments in India and Afghanistan, at the Merritt Bookstore and on Amazon. 

The Millbrook Independent sat down with Worswick and his wife and artistic partner of fifty years, Joanie Mitchell Worswick, an artist and adventurer in her own right, to look at some large format photographs and hear tales of a land wildly different from the Hudson Valley.


TMI    So where did you guys meet?  

Clark  I walked into the Peabody Museum [of Archaeology and Ethnology] in 1966, and there was this lovely girl sitting at a desk.  We were both working at Harvard.  I was doing films at Harvard and she was working at the Peabody sorting catalog collections at ground zero of the ethnological world.  Joanie was one of the first American women to go to Courtauld, which is the big art history institute in England.  We started dating and I taught her how to take photographs, and she proved to be a wonderful student.  After a few weeks she went off on her own and began to be a photographer.

TMI    Where did you learn to photograph?  

Clark  In those days there was virtually no place to learn photography, you had to kind of teach yourself.  I come from California and a lady named Dorothea Lange was there and we were going to do a big project on California but she died and so I did the project myself.

TMI    How did you know Dorothea Lange?!  I used to deliver newspapers to her.

TMI    How did you end up in Ethiopia?

Clark  I had been doing ethnographic films and living with tribal groups in India and photographing in India and the Middle East and Europe.  I’d gone off to India to do a film on a group called the Rajputs, a warrior caste in the western desert.  And the person who was my sponsor at Harvard, a man named Robert Gardner, was the big ethnographic filmmaker in America, and so he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be in India, I may have some troubles in getting people to work with me in Ethiopia.  Maybe I’ll send you an airgram and tell you I need you there.’  So Joanie and I were in Bombay at the American Express and we got this strange airgram, and he said, ‘Please come to Ethiopia, everybody’s quit.’

TMI    Were conditions too rough?  Why was everyone quitting?  

Clark  They were beyond appalling.  And I’d been in some very difficult places and some very rough places before we went to Ethiopia.  I said to Joanie, ‘Do you want to go to Ethiopia?  I’ll take photographs and you’ll take photographs and we’ll do Robert’s sound.’  We got to Ethiopia, and Joanie went off to this place called the Omo River, which is the original home of mankind.

TMI    Is this before Leakey got there?  

Clark  We were there nine months after Richard Leakey left.  

TMI    Did you meet him?  

Clark  No.  Never have.  The reason why this whole area opened up was because his father, Louis Leakey, had gone to a dinner party at the Nairobi Club and sat next to the emperor.  This is in 1965.  The emperor said during the dinner, ‘You are finding all of these fossils in Kenya, why haven’t people found these fossils in Ethiopia?’ And Louis Leakey, the father, said, ‘That’s because no one will allow any foreigners into southern Ethiopia.’  That was forty percent of the country that no foreigners had ever gone into.  And so Richard Leakey appeared at the Omo River in 1966 and tried to cross it, where they have crocodiles that weigh a ton and are longer than that twelve-foot table.  These are twenty-foot crocodiles—huge—they’ll eat elephants.  Leakey and his archeologists tried to get across the Omo but the crocodiles ate their boat.  They were very lucky to get back.  They never got across the river.  Finally, the National Geographic Society stepped in and lent them an aluminum boat.

Joanie And I got across it in a canoe!

TMI    Did you know about the crocodiles?  

Joanie No.  Why would I have done it?  I had to lie flat on my back in the dugout canoe with two Ethiopians paddling.  I never thought about the dangers.

Clark  Six weeks after they’d been digging, Richard Leakey discovered this fragment of what he thought was a skull.  They picked it up and did some analysis of it and they thought, in 1970, that it was the oldest Homo sapiens from about 200,000 BC, which is way back if you think of the Neanderthals in 20,000 BC.  That’s 6,500 generations of mankind.

TMI  Your brain can’t even comprehend that.  

Clark  No. They established in 2004 that it was the oldest fossil of Homo sapiens and that this area where we were is where mankind originated.  We were the first ones to get in there to take photographs.  We landed in Ethiopia just off the Omo River and then went to a place called the Danakil Desert, where the Afar people live.  Little did I know when we were in the Danakil Desert that no Europeans had ever walked in and come out alive.

TMI    What killed them?  

Clark  The people who lived there.  Day and night in the Danakil Desert was a near-death experience because all of the Afar have these little charms around their necks.  Those charms are the desiccated testicles of the people they’ve killed.

TMI    Oh my goodness.  How did you not become a charm around someone’s neck?  

Clark  When we went there we were told you don’t even go take a pee unless you have an armed guard with you.  I hadn’t realized exactly how perilous this was.  Later, when I was researching this whole area, I found out that in the 19th century, three large expeditions went into the Danakil Desert and not a single person came out.  So you live in this perpetual feeling of terror.  It’s really not a nice feeling.  

TMI    But that didn’t stop you…

Clark  No.  Robert and I went off and filmed the Danakil for about two weeks, three weeks.  We finally came back to Addis, and Joanie came back to Addis from the Omo with a terrible eye infection.  She almost lost one of her eyes.  Fortunately, there was a Czechoslovakian doctor, I think—

Joanie  He was American.  It happened because I let people look through the lens of my camera.  People were curious, they wanted a look.  Eventually, I got an eye infection, which he gave me medicine for.

TMI    What happened after you photographed the Afar?

Clark  There were six or seven tribes living in southern Ethiopia.  The last Europeans to go down there were in 1931. Nobody had ever gone down there since then.  We were told there was a road down there, but it was barely a road.  We spent about two weeks, night and day, trying to get down this road in two more or less new Toyota Land Cruisers, that after two weeks were junk.  When got to the end of this road, these vehicles were just absolutely shot.

Joanie They were ruined.  Robert sent me back to Addis with a list of parts on this little flight that came in once a week.  There was no runway, it was just a strip on the grass.  I took the flight, and we ended up halfway to Addis.  I got off the plane and found what was supposed to be an inn, but it was a whorehouse.  I just put chairs and an old bureau in front of the door.  The next day I got to Addis and got all of the parts and hired a pilot to fly me back to where Clark and Robert were.  The pilot had a map—it was the rainy season, it was just pouring—so I pointed out where we were headed.  We got back to were the Toyotas were and I gave the box with all the parts to Robert, and it turned out that half of them weren’t the right ones.  But I remember you threaded the pieces together…

Clark  We put them together ourselves.

Joanie You used a thread and a needle and put them together under the car, and it worked.

Clark  I was later at a dinner party on Park Avenue for some reason, sitting next to somebody, and he said he’d been in Ethiopia.  I described this trip that Joanie made and he asked what was the name of the pilot and when did she do this?  He said that the man who flew Joanie down there is the greatest bush pilot in the world.  These are fifteen thousand foot mountains, and he was flying at eight and nine thousand feet along the river courses with the mountains and the clouds above.  This was during rainy season.  The man said that there was no one else in the world who could have made that trip except for that pilot, John Blower, period.

TMI    Did you find other tribes down the road?

Clark  The local chief of police said, ‘Just go down that road, that’s where they are.’  We drove for an hour and a half through the jungle and the translator said to stop and head up a river, maybe we’d find some people.  Joanie and I went up the river with the translator and there were two naked men painting their bodies.  This was a group called the Hamar.  No one had ever seen them, no one knew anything about them.  They lived fifty miles away from where Leakey had made his discoveries.  These are people who speak a language that is now going extinct because no one speaks it any more.  They were a slightly post-Neolithic people, they were a bit agriculturalists. Their domestic instruments were a few gourds and literally four stones, and that’s what people cooked with for thousands of years.  There were very few of these tribal groups left when we photographed them.  They were very friendly, very open.  We lived with them and could photograph everything they were doing.  We photographed their dances, we photographed their harvesting, Joanie photographed a group of them going off to war with their rifles.  The only thing they had in terms of the modern world were a few rifles.

Joanie And one of them had a red terry cloth bathrobe.  He was very proud.

Clark  And one pair of sunglasses.

TMI    So they did have some contact with the outside world…  

Clark  They did have very, very minimal contact.

TMI    But they were completely shocked to see you.  

Clark  Oh, yes.

Joanie But they were always very generous.  They never felt threatened by us and we never felt threatened by them.  They could have been very angry, not knowing what we were doing with our cameras.

Clark  But they didn’t know what a camera was.  One of the things about the photographs we took is that they just look through you.  They were just totally un-self aware.

Joanie They saw their own reflection in the lens of the camera I was pointing at them and they were just amazed.  They could see their own reflection in the river but this was different.

Clark  It’s so incredible that we photographed the original habitation of mankind.  And it was totally happenstance that we ended up taking photographs in a place that was significantly less traveled than forbidden Tibet, the least traveled place in the world.  And this was ten times less traveled.  Nobody had been there or photographed any of these tribes.

TMI    What is it like in that area now?  

Joanie Quite modern.

Clark  It’s a tourist destination.

TMI    Have you been back?  

Joanie No.  I actually have no desire to because it’s so changed, but I’ve looked on the Internet and they’re all wearing different necklaces and clothes and hats.  They’ve been infiltrated.

Clark  Now all the men have AK47 machine guns.

TMI    Do you miss this type of crazy adventure?  

Joanie  I could never find it again.  There is nowhere else that I could go that would be new and unexplored.  There is nowhere.  And no one has invited me!  But I don’t know whether I would go again.  When I look back on it, I was so young and I took so many risks.  I never thought of them then and I wasn’t scared.  Now I’d be scared.

Clark  Even just the snakes that were there.  Robert Gardner found a nesting East African spitting cobra that he wanted to photograph—this is how I end my Art Machine book.  I told him that I’d been in India and didn’t play with snakes, but if he wanted to go film spitting cobras I’d stay right here resting against this jeep.  But Joanie thought ‘Oh!’ and that she’d be interested—

Joanie  I went to look.  But then he poked a stick and there was a nest of snakes swirling around.  He wanted to agitate them so he could film them.

Clark  I was watching from far away and eventually all the babies were tangled around his camera tripod legs, and he’s holding his camera way out and trying to shake them off.  He eventually went running for his life toward Lake Rudolph.


Below are four of many photos taken by both Joanie and Clark during their time in Ethiopia.