I learned today that Willie Middlebrook, one of my fellows in photography from decades ago, has died. Willie and I were not close, but we knew each other; he went to a couple of my exhibits, I went to a couple of his, and he frequented the photo shops where I worked at various times in sales and web design, and in giving seminars on advanced techniques in darkroom work. I commuted to those jobs by bike, but that had nothing to do with Willie. He was a big man in every sense of the word--big in spirit, big in passions and angers, and physically big; he weighed between 350 and 450 pounds for most of the time I knew him. Much of his work was big too--he specialized in heavily manipulated photo murals, most centered on themes of the Black experience in America--he was a Black man. I don't know how long his website will remain available, but while it remains, you can see some of his images here. He died of a stroke, so I suppose the weight killed him, though in some ways it also defined him and helped him structure his work.
He was deeply involved in political and community issues as well, which also structured and informed his work. Though his life was often tumultuous--at least when I knew him--he was not only respected but much loved in the various communities that knew him--the photo and art worlds, the Black community, even the city administration. He had received several grants from Los Angeles and other governmental and non-proft entities, not just because he was a powerful artist but also because his art explored the meaning and function of community--and often, of course, its failures. One of his last commissions was the artwork at the Crenshaw station of the newly-open Expo Line light rail branch to the Westside.
Tomorrow I'll be riding to Long Beach to join the Far West Milano Cycle Club in a birthday ride honoring Ted Ernst, one of the old guard of the Southern California bike scene. He will be eighty years old--and will be along for the ride. Ted owned a bike shop but was also involved in political and community issues, and became a defining force in the evolution of our local cycling culture. Here's an article about him published last year. I've never met him face to face, so I'm looking forward to seeing him on tomorrow's ride. But I can't forget for now that I won't be seeing Willie face to face anymore, and that he could have done much more had he lived on.
I plan to ride by the Crenshaw Expo Line station tomorrow to see one of Willie's last artworks on my way to Long Beach.
Willie was fifty-four.