Introductory Essay – Uncle Charlie

Untitled, Uncle Charlie series by Marc Asnin. Medium: Digital print from scanned negative. nd.
Marc Asnin

Like a dark prism, the black and white photographs in Uncle Charlie presents a richly textured portrait of a disturbed and complex man, Charles Henschke, the uncle and godfather of renowned photographer Marc Asnin, whose photo-essay, Uncle Charlie opened in February 2016 at the QCC Art Gallery. The exhibit is the first presentation of his full body of work on Uncle Charlie, one that spans some 30 years.

“I am glad to share this deeply personal retrospective with aspiring student artists and all members of the community,” said Asnin, who has worked for such publications as Life magazine, The New YorkerThe New York Times MagazineFrench GeoLa RepubblicaLe MondeStern, and the Village Voice. He has received many awards for his photographs, including the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography, the most prestigious honor in documentary photography. Every year the award recognizes photographers who have demonstrated an exemplary commitment to documenting the human condition and who, in their own way, exploring and reporting upon aspects of the contemporary world that are of significant importance.

Never has anything affected me on every level as my uncle’s devastating mental illness. I strongly believe that it is essential to develop awareness and empathy for those suffering from this disease and also to reach young people who are not in the arts. Nursing students and future social workers need to look at the unflinching honesty of this exhibit.

Asnin grew up in Brooklyn at a time when those on the fringes of society were considered cool. Being surrounded by a culture that included gangsters and drug dealers influenced his early work and set the course for his innate ability to capture the harsh realities of their daily lives.

He studied and became an instructor at the School of Visual Arts then later worked at the Village Voice, where his subjects were controversial, but his depiction of their struggles gained increasing attention in artistic circles. Around this time, his Uncle Charlie began to slowly descend into mental illness, poverty, and eventually drug addiction.

I was 18 when I started the portrait of my uncle. It includes the story of my family; of our friends and others who had a lasting impact on our lives both positive and negative.

Lisa Scandaliato, the Assistant Director of the QCC Art Gallery, said that Mr. Asnin’s body of work serves as a remarkable, in-depth study of a family caught at the nexus of poverty and mental illness. Ms. Scandaliato is the Principal Investigator of a $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant, awarded to Queensborough last spring to support the exhibit.

As part of the exhibit, an enclosed area will be constructed that represents Uncle Charlie’s room. Viewers who enter the space will experience an interactive digital installation that allows them to illuminate wall quotes and play audio clips from interviews with Uncle Charlie.

Faustino Quintanilla, Executive Director of the QCC Art Gallery added that “Our goal is to consistently offer the highest caliber of fine art that engages and challenges visitors on an emotional and intellectual level.”

One facet of the exhibit is to reach across the Queensborough campus by way of guided tours and projects developed by the QCC Art Gallery staff and faculty members from the Sociology, Nursing, and Art & Design Departments.

Beyond the college campus, a collaborative program with the High School for Arts and Business in Corona will extend the project’s reach to this underserved Queens community. The goal of this program is to develop high school students’ observational skills and artistic expression while recognizing and respecting their classmate’s families and traditions. Marc Asnin will serve as a teaching artist by instructing a six-class lesson plan on how to analyze, document, and understand family culture through photography. Cameras will be provided to the students and at the end of the semester-long program an exhibition and catalog will be produced by the QCC Art Gallery that presents the students’ work at the Gallery.

The exhibit is accompanied by a book, Uncle Charlie, a 400-plus page volume of reproduced images that is co-published by the QCC Art Gallery and Contrasto, a house-based publishing company, located in Italy.