Picture the statues of soldiers at the Korean War Memorial. Nineteen stainless steel troops, each one a modest giant over seven feet high, poised and erect, caught in a still moment between the tumult of battle, their faces weary, cautious, but brave. Each figure weighs 1,000 pounds, and their cold weight shows, as if they were heaved begrudgingly up from the earth. They wear full combat gear, dispersed among strips of granite and juniper bushes, mirroring the rugged Korean terrain.
Now picture a gaggle of children playing ‘war,’ dressed up in plastic helmets, wearing oversized shirts and wielding toy guns, urgent and sincere in that way only children can be. Of course, as with all children’s games, it’s not just boys. There’s a girl there, too. The frilly poof of her ballerina dress and flower-laden headband are too tempting to forgo, so of course she wears it to battle. This doesn’t make her any less formidable of a soldier; on the contrary, her eyes are filled with a grave and startling glare powerful enough to face any boy she encounters. She holds her plastic pistol straight, pointing it firmly and directly at anyone who crosses her path.
Imagine these children playing ‘war’ in this field of looming, steel warriors, bounding through them like trees in a forest, peaking their heads around sculpted kneecaps to check for signs of the encroaching enemy.
Haunting? Yes. Grim? You bet. Heartrending? I’d say so.
Jodi King took a picture of it.
Actually, King not only photographed this event, she conceived it, recruited the children, put together the production and flat-out photobombed the Korean Memorial to get the shot.
However, it’s more than just the Korean Memorial she blitzkrieged with her camera. Jodi has been doing this all around the city, selecting historic, cultural and industrial landmarks in Washington and using them as the stage for her no-holds-barred conceptual photo shoots. And she usually gets them done before security arrives to kick her off the premise.
Part photography, part social activism, part artistic battle cry and entirely original, this is the Renegade DC project. Spawned from a number of personal and professional issues she’s harbored with the District’s professional arts scene, King took to its famed public spaces and local mainstays to speak out on behalf of creative expression. “There seems to be a lot of red tape around this city,” says Jodi. “It’s just hard to break into any of the good creative jobs around here. If you’re an already established artist, DC is a good place to be. But there are a lot of young and emerging artists who are struggling and under the radar because of what they want to do. And with a lack of grassroots support, artists grow timid to push the envelope a little bit.”
A commercial and editorial photographer with an enviable resume, King seems to have undertaken this project in some degree to coax the young artistic community out of its shell—to tell them that it’s okay to take risks, to march to their own beat.
A merchandising major raised in Alexandria, Va., King attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and landed a job with the now defunct Hecht’s department store chain. Unhappy as an assistant buyer, she applied for an opening in the photo studio for “an all around assistant—to the producer, stylist, whoever—and started hands-on assisting the fashion photographer for about a year.”
Quickly promoted to fashion producer, her new position found her scouting locations, booking models and crew, setting up shooting schedules, budgets, and everything in between—in effect, supplying her with all the tools she would later employ with Renegade DC.
When Hecht’s merged with Macy’s in 2006, she decided to get back into photography and began working freelance. “My business built as a word of mouth kind of thing,” she said. “I’ve been working freelance for about five years now, all in DC.”
Eventually she got into editorial work with some major local magazines and was hired for fashion editorial shoots by many of the major magazines, including Washington Life. “It’s still more on the safer side,” King says. “And as an artist, it can get a little frustrating, having to do everything the client wants. And so some of the reason we started Renegade DC is because we didn’t want to be told what to do anymore—at least for this project.”
When she talks about Renegade, Jodi says “we,” never “I”—she adores the collective nature of the project, and her team is an invaluable component to its realization. She has been working with Tyler Larish, her Renegade partner and a by-day hair stylist, on editorial shoots around DC for a number of years. “We started working together a lot,” she says, “and had all these discussions about how work in DC goes in this industry. The conversation drifted to how we wanted to push the envelope around here. We decided we wanted to do something that excited us and utilized our creativity. Stuff that we want to do.”
Being in Washington, they decided to use its nationally recognized landmarks and tourist attractions as the backdrop for their creative energies, reinterpreting the significance of these cultural markers and reinvigorating their relevance through a prism of contemporary language and expression.
With Renegade DC, King and Larish have employed members of the DC arts community and produced an invigorating perspective of our nation's capital. It is a blend of architecture, landscape and fashion, placing models and performers in specific historic environments to create daring, fun and imaginative scenarios that do not conform to conventional expectations. Among the locations Renegade has enlisted are the Washington Monument, The National Cathedral, The Korean War Memorial, Ben's Chili Bowl and the Wonder Bread Factory.
But don’t expect these to be your standard tourist snapshots—these photographs look like alternative realities of Washington, ala Planet of the Apes, a Humphrey Bogart flick or a psychedelic post-apocalypse. You might have trouble recognizing the locations at all.
A lesbian Goth wedding outside the Cathedral. The DC Rollergirls taking over the roundabout in front of the Capital. The Baltimore Aerial Dancers defying gravity outside the Wonder Bread Factory. Dancers from the Washington Ballet adrift amidst billows of cherry blossoms.
“We had about 15 locations over the last two years,” King says. “We wanted to do something with each location that brought it out in a unique way. Some are straightforward beauty, like a fashion story. Others are quirky, a little bit strange.”
“Tyler comes up with things so outrageous that it’s almost foolish,” she laughs. “And I would scale it to fit a fashion-oriented concept. For instance, he came up with Muscle Beach on the National Mall, and I produced a very vintage, retro body builder -type image. We wanted each picture to tell a story with a concept that went along with each location.”
Of course, it was a slow process because of all the preliminary work that had to be done. First, King and Larish would mock up inspiration sheets, figuring out makeup and wardrobe. Then they would book the models, “or whoever we could think of to fit the characters—friends, family, even each other. It really became more about the characters we were creating than anything else.”
King and her team would go to the location, do a quick test shoot to figure out the physical positioning of the models, and then rehearse and choreograph it in King’s apartment. With the scene in their minds, they ran up to the location of each shoot—literally—and shot pictures quick as bandits.
The children in the Korean War shoot had to hop a fence to get in among the statues. “They stepped over the gate, just enough to get them in the scene,” says King with an air of caution. Despite the ‘outlaw’ nature of the shoots, King does not disrespect the locations where she works. “I looked online, and tourists hop that fence all the time for photos. Just Google it. I didn’t do anything that everyone wasn’t already doing—I just did it with costumes and makeup.”
“Everyone volunteered,” says King of the project. “We had virtually no budget. We had to make our own props, and we had food and beverages for our team, but that was the only thing we put real money into. Everyone who worked with us just wanted to be involved. I think that fresh, penniless mentality really turned the project into something special—we were focused on the art, not the job.”
To exhibit the Renegade DC portfolio, King found a perfect collaborator in Theo Adamstein, founder and executive director of Foto DC, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to make photography accessible to audiences through provocative and inspiring exhibitions and collaborations with the local and international community (which is just the icing on the cake of a ridiculously cool guy with a hell of a fascinating resume).
King already knew Adamstein, and when she approached him about showing the work—and showed him some of it—he jumped at the prospect of exhibiting it. “But this show is off the record,” King clarifies. “This really isn’t a Foto DC event. Theo is more supporting us as a friend by letting us use his space. And we seriously appreciate it.”
For the future of Renegade, King has some big thoughts. “We were thinking we really love this so much, we might take it on the road, sort of see where it goes. We’re really open with it. Obviously, New York City would be a clear next step, because there’s so much there. Tyler and I also had the idea to do all 50 states, and hit one major landmark within each capital or major city. Vegas might be fun. But imagine what we would do in Fargo…whatever it is, it would probably be awesome.”
Any place that keeps the Renegade saga going is where King wants to take the project, as long as it stays true to her original message of creativity and cultural expression. “Wherever there is a story to be told,” says King, “we’ll be there.”
Renegade DC will be available for viewing Thursday, May 10 from 7–10pm, at Foto DC’s FotoSpace, 1838 Columbia Rd., NW.
Event Features Full Renegade Cocktails by Atlantico Rum, Sounds by DJ Keenan Orr, Napoleon noshes, and after party sounds by DJ Adrian Loving.
For more information, email Jodi King at JRKingPhoto@gmail.com.