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Portrait more than sum of parts for Oklahoman

BY HEATHER WARLICK-MOORE Modified: November 17, 2009 at 4:50 am •  Published: November 17, 2009
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To Oklahoma writer and photographer M.J. Alexander, the biggest — and most exciting — challenge of photographing artists is thinking about how to distill the essence of their creativity into an image.

Many Oklahomans know Alexander for her moving portraits of Oklahoma’s centenarians during the state’s centennial celebration and through her book, "Salt of the Red Earth: A Century of Wit and Wisdom From Oklahoma’s Elders.”

Some of Alexander’s most recent photographs are featured on this month’s Ms. Magazine cover — portraits of iconic feminist Gloria Steinem and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and activist Alice Walker.

The issue is in honor of Steinem, its founding editor and publisher who this year turned 75.

"One of the ideas I tried with both Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker was to create what I thought of as a cloud of words,” Alexander said. "I wrote out quotes from their writings, using a black marker on a translucent scrim.”

The women draped themselves with the scrim filled with their own writings for some of Alexander’s photographs. Those photos weren’t used in the layout, but "when I showed Gloria the fabric and explained that all the quotes were from her writings, she was visibly moved — and seemed happy when I asked if she would like to keep it,” Alexander said. Walker also seemed to enjoy hers, she said, which were purple (Walker wrote "The Color Purple”).

Alexander, who lives in Oklahoma City, recently returned from Asia where she accepted a 2009 Humanity Photo Award from UNESCO and the China Folklore Photographic Association for her portraits of Apache Mountain Spirit Dancers. Watch a YouTube video of photos by M.J. Alexander Watch a slideshow of photographs by M.J. Alexander