Janna (rhymes with “Donna,” not “Hannah,” says her website) Ireland is a Los Angeles photographer who has spent the last few years researching and photographing buildings designed by Paul Revere Williams. Her exhibition, Janna Ireland on the Architectural Legacy of Paul Revere Williams in Nevada, is this summer’s featured show at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Renoites might recognize Williams’ name from his iconic Lear Theater on Riverside Drive. He worked from the 1920s through the 1970s and was the first well-known Black architect in the Western U.S.—a fact that the exhibition explores with quotations on the walls. (One example: In 1937, the so-called “architect to the stars” talked about designing “roomy estates, entrancing vistas, and stately mansions” yet being excluded from the neighborhoods they were built in.)
Williams’ left a long list of notable buildings in the Silver State, including the El Reno Apartments on Mt. Rose Street and La Concha Motel in Las Vegas (now part of The Neon Museum).
Ireland talked by phone from Los Angeles about the book and the exhibition.
Before this exhibition got underway, you were working on a book, Regarding Paul R. Williams—A Photographer’s View. How did that project come about?
In the summer of 2016, an architect based here in LA named Barbara Bestor—who is also the executive director of the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University—approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing a new body of work about the architect Paul Revere Williams, and then having a show at Woodbury’s gallery.
In the summer of 2019, I met the publishers of Angel City Press, and they invited me to meet with them and pitch a book to them. So I did. And that ended up becoming Regarding Paul R Williams—A Photographer’s View. It was important to come up with a title that would let people know what kind of book it was. That’s where the “photographer’s view” part comes in— so that it’s clear that it’s not a biography of Paul Williams or a collection of historic photographs of his work, that it’s new work by a photographer who’s interpreting the work as an artist.
When you are doing architectural photography, do you think a lot about what we can learn from people and communities by photographing structures?
I do. But in the Paul Williams’ work, what I wanted to do was really center him and make sure that I was looking at him as a person, which meant a lot of times kind of putting the people who were actually living there in the background and trying to avoid showing too much of the life going on in this space, alluding to it, but not focusing on it, so I could be focusing on the architecture. … If I’m approaching a building that’s abandoned, for example, trying to photograph it with the same respect I would a structure that’s been really well taken care of.
I thought that came out really loud and clear in the exhibition. In photography, there’s often this mystique of old, falling apart, abandoning buildings. And that’s not what you were doing. You were addressing the building itself, not its state dilapidation.
So, how did the commission with the Nevada Museum of Art come about?
A few years ago, I heard from Carmen Beals [the museum’s Las Vegas-based Associate Curator and Outreach Director], whom I didn’t know at the time, but she was interning for the Nevada State Museum. … And she had an idea to do a project for the Clark County School District about Williams. She wanted some photographs for this project, and the project ended up falling through. But later on, she brought me to the attention of the Nevada Museum of Art, which led to the fellowship.
What does the fellowship consist of?
It’s this project, and it’s over the course of two years. So there was a long period of research and actually photographing, and now we’re … reaching the end of the fellowship.
As you were looking at Williams’ Nevada buildings, what kind of decisions were you making?
The process … was actually very different from working on this project in Southern California. I visited Las Vegas for the first time in 2018 and made some photographs for the magazine Art Papers of Williams’ buildings. And that’s actually how Carmen ended up finding me because she was looking into Williams’s connection to Nevada. … But then when I began to work with the museum, I had Carmen doing research. [Historians] Claytee White and Alicia Barber, and Brook Hodge were all doing research support. And that meant that it wasn’t me by myself sending emails and trying to figure out [if I could get into the buildings]. There were people to do that legwork for me, which was amazing.
There is a microsite, alegacyrevered.org. It has all of the photographs on it, as well as the essays and information about Williams.
In Reno, we largely know Paul Revere Williams’ in connection with the Lear Theater. There are probably so many stories about him that we haven’t heard. So I’m glad to hear that a lot of this is becoming available.
Yes. And I’m hoping that it means that we get answers to more questions and hear more stories. Like, where did he stay when he came to Reno, for example? Did he have friends here?
Have there been any surprises for you as you’ve been traveling in Nevada?
Something that I really loved learning about was the El Reno Apartments. … One thing about Paul Revere Williams that I find fascinating is that he was interested in innovative materials, and the El Reno Apartments were constructed out of steel, which meant that when the land underneath them was sold to be repurposed, the buildings themselves could just be picked up and moved because of the way they were constructed. … It meant that so many of them have survived, and are now dotting the city.
What are you working on now?
I was just hired in a tenure track teaching position at Occidental. … I’m also doing some work about my family here in Los Angeles, and in the beginning stages of planning some work about my family back East, where I grew up
Is this a similar project, where there will be historical research involved, and you’ll be traveling and looking at places?
I’m more interested in looking at people for this project.
Janna Ireland on the Architectural Legacy of Paul Revere Williams in Nevada is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through Oct. 2 and will be on view at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas Dec. 3-May 20. You can learn more about Ireland, Williams, and related research by Alicia Barber, Brook Hodge, and Claytee White here.
Cover image: Janna Ireland. Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.