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Thomas McGovern

Thomas McGovern


Art & Design
Office Phone(909) 537-5849
Office LocationUH-314


I began seriously making photographs in 1977 while a student of John Gossage (2012 Guggenheim Fellow) at the University of Maryland. In 1979 I initiated my first significant project by photographing strangers on the street in Washington, D.C. In 1980 I moved to New York and continued the project, having my first solo exhibitions of this work in 1984 at O.K. Harris (New York) and the Pittsburgh Film-makers Gallery. The Baltimore Museum of Art acquired two of these images that same year.
Street portraits were my primary interest and I photographed in Manhattan and Coney Island, Brooklyn. In 1985 my Coney Island Portraits were in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
I acquired a 4x5 view camera in 1985 and in addition to making portraits, I begam photograph historic architecture throughout the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods of Red Hook, DUMBO, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I also carried a medium format camera on my extensive walking trips around downtown Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and around lower Manhattan. I continued that work until 1995 and donated many prints from this body of work to the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Historical Society in 2010.
In 1986 I learned that my former roommates in Washington D.C. had all died from AIDS. I was devastated not only because we were good friends, but because we had all participated in risky behavior that could lead to infection. I wondered why I had not been infected and started a project on people with HIV/AIDS in 1987, continuing until 1997. Over that period I volunteered with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the People with AIDS Coalition, two service organizations for people with AIDS. I met and photographed and interviewed over 100 people with AIDS and mounted a fund-raising exhibition at Neikrug Photographica in New York in 1988. This exhibition led to me working as a freelance photographer for the Village Voice, mentored by Fred W. McDarrah (1975 Guggenheim Fellow), and this experience expanded my AIDS work to include the cultural impact of the disease- political demonstrations, health care, fund raisers, memorials and funerals. My project spread by word-of-mouth and I gave prints to all the participants. I became known as an AIDS resource and my photographs were mounted in many exhibitions and published in the Village Voice, New York Times, and New York Newsday, among other publications. The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Historical Society, Museum of the City of New York and others acquired some of these photographs. I ended the project in 1997 once combination drug therapy proved successful and published the work as bearing witness (to AIDS) in 1999, with the help of Visual AIDS and A.R.T. Press, and a substantial donation from the Dextra Baldwin McGonagle Foundation (1996), and a smaller one from the Milton Avery Foundation (1997). The full project was exhibited at Art Resources Transfer in New York in 1999 and the Laband Art Gallery in Los Angeles in 2000. In 2016 I reached an agreement with the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York for a combined purchase/donation of my archive and project, bearing witness (to AIDS).
From 1988 to 1994 I worked as an editorial photographer in New York and was the Photo Editor of the Village Voice from 1992 – 1994, where I founded the Voice Photo Grant. In that position I received awards for excellence in photo editing from The Society of Newspaper Design in 1992 and from American Photography in 1993. Besides my work on the AIDS crisis and historic architecture, I photographed at two small African American Evangelical churches in East New York and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1990. Deborah Willis acquired 50 prints from this project for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the project was published in the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine in 1991. In 2010 “Amazing Grace” was published as a monograph by Parker Publishing.
In 1995 I was offered a one year Visiting Assistant Professor position at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where I continued photographing people with AIDS and volunteered with the Northeast Council on AIDS. Simultaneously, I began photographing the vestiges of the Erie Canal and the historic architecture along the Mohawk River. I later donated some of the Erie Canal photographs to the New York Historical Society. While at Union College I received a material grant from Eastman Kodak (1995), a New York Foundation for the Arts SOS grant (1996) and a Humanities Development Fund grant and Competitive Travel Grant in 1996, both from Union College.
I loved teaching and applied to graduate school with the goal of finding a full time professorship. I attended California State University, Fullerton from 1997 – 2000, working with Eileen Cowin, Darryl Curran and studied the history of photography with Tim B. Wride. While a graduate student I received the Julia Cook Mayer Scholarship (1997) and a DAC Grant (1998, for creative work) both from the university. Critical writing has been an ongoing interest and in 1998 I started writing reviews and features for Artweek, Art Issues, Art Papers and Afterimage magazines, which I continued doing until 2010.
Moving to California in 1997 proved a major influence on my photography and I began to use color, initially making abstract images related to architecture and eventually mounting the 48” x 96” photographs on curved steel structures. This work was exhibited in 2001 at the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art in San Bernardino, and Art Resources Transfer in New York.
With the 1999 publication of bearing witness (to AIDS), my growing resume as an art writer, my adjunct teaching in Southern California, and after receiving my Master of Fine Arts degree in 2000, I was hired as an Assistant Professor at California State University, San Bernardino. I was promoted to full professor in 2009, and remain there today.
Once hired, I moved to San Bernardino the summer of 2000 and fell in love with the place. Much like Brooklyn when I moved there in 1982, San Bernardino was a run down city steeped in working-class history but mostly ignored and even feared. In 2012 the city declared bankruptcy.
In 2001 while riding my bike a few blocks from home I came across the School of Hard Knocks: Professional Wrestling Training. Like so many other things in town, I assumed it was long defunct, but entered and found a dozen young men and women overseen by a retired wrestler training for their improbable careers. For five years I attended matches and practice sessions, photographed the wrestlers ‘in-character’ and interviewed them, asking about their motivations for such a challenging and dangerous quest. Like my AIDS work, I always gave photographs to the subjects for their own, unlimited use (I retained the copyright but granted them full usage without restrictions). “Hard Boys + Bad Girls” was published in 2010 by Schiffer Books and exhibited at Andi Campognone Projects in Pomona, CA. I saw this work as a manifestation of youth zeitgeist, a celebrity obsessed generation that blurs fact and fiction, and one that willingly exploited itself for the pain and glory of being immortalized in the media. This was also my first project about the people of San Bernardino.
Other aspects of San Bernardino that I have photographed are hand painted signs and murals, published as “Vital Signs”, a collaboration with poet Juan Delgado, by Heyday Books in 2013 (“Vital Signs” received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2014, and a feature article by Patricia Leigh Brown in the New York Times in Feb 2016); “People in Cars”, folks cruising in their custom classic cars at the annual Route 66 event; “Better Homes of San Bernardino” about a boom and bust and now slowly recovering housing development on the edge of town, and an untitled project about a local Chabad Rabbi as he seeks to bring Jews closer to their traditional religion. These projects have been partially supported with Professional Development Grants from California State University, San Bernardino in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007.
My current photography project is “Swap Meet: This is San Bernardino”, where I combine my love of making portraits of strangers with images of the glorious junk that vendors neatly display and sell. After three years of doing this, I continue to find new aspects to explore. Two of the photographs from this series have been acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2016.
In 2011 I founded Dotphotozine and, an annual magazine and companion website that highlight the best photography and related material from the students and alumni of California State University, San Bernardino. The magazine has received critical acclaim for its fine photography and design, and in 2014 I founded the Dotphotozine Award for Excellence in Photography, a nation-wide grant open to all photographers.
I continue to make photographs, teach analog and digital photography, oversee a university photography program, and publish a magazine and website.


B.A. 1988, Empire State College, New York
M.F.A. 2000, California State University, Fullerton


beginning analog photography; beginning digital photography; intermediate photography; advanced photography; senior seminar; senior project; graduate studio; graduate critique.


Documentary and street photography

Research and Teaching Interests