James Robertson Jennings, usually referred to professionally as Jim Jennings (b. 1951), is an American experimental filmmaker and photographer. His films have been screened at some dozen solo shows in the United States and Europe, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the San Francisco Cinematheque to the Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany, International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the Viennale in Austria. His work has also been included in group shows at the Whitney Museum, The Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant Garde.” Jennings’ work has been shown at major venues since 1973, beginning at the Collective for Living Cinema. His black-and-white, silver gelatin photographic prints have been exhibited in gallery shows in New York City and are included in at least one, major art collection.
Jennings was born in Danbury, Connecticut, and grew up at Tarrywile, the 820-acre estate of his ancestor, Industrialist Charles Darling Parks. The estate includes two houses now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Hearthstone Castle and the Tarrywile Mansion, as well as gardens designed by Calvert Vaux. The grounds of Tarrywile contain 21 miles of hiking trails, a man-made lake as wide as the Housatonic River, and 2 large ponds, one of which was stocked with a variety of sport fish and turtles, while the other served as a swimming hole and skating rink. For many years, the Jennings family operated Tarrywile Dairy, a major supplier of milk to New York City, on the property. Despite the splendor of the estate, the Jennings lived what could be described as a 19th-Century, agrarian lifestyle, and as a child, Jennings did farm chores, such as baling hay and feeding goats. At that time, Danbury was most noted for The Danbury Fair, in which agricultural contests were held.
In the 1950s, Jennings’ parents, Educator John Darling Jennings and Opera Singer Ruth Cunard White, became early supporters of the modern civil rights movement. His parents used the grounds of Tarrywile as a summer camp (“Camp Tarrawalla”) for children from all backgrounds after learning that no summer camp in Connecticut would accept African-American or Jewish children. Notable teachers at the camp included Marian Anderson, a world-renown contralto and political activist who worked with Jennings’ mother to save the Charles Ives House in Danbury. As a child, Jennings was also introduced to other important figures in the civil rights movement, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited Yale Divinity School (Calhoun College) at the behest of Jennings’ uncle, Rev. Dr. B. Davie Napier, the school’s Master and a Yale Trustee.
Though Jennings is the youngest of three children, having an older brother and sister, he also lived with many cousins at Tarrywile, as well as with the children attending the Summer camp. As a result, he developed both a keen sense of community and a desire for solitude.
Jennings’ early cultural environment placed more emphasis on the practical and moral than the intellectual. Much of Jennings’ childhood was spent helping to tend to what was, essentially, an opulent farm, while his elders worked on social causes, often through progressive Protestant and Quaker organizations. At Tarrywile, Jennings developed an early interest in plumbing, having seen workmen construct a building on the estate when he was a child. It would later become a trade essential to his livelihood.
For the 1964-65 academic year, Jennings was a student at the prestigious Joel Barlow School in Redding, Connecticut, but he asked his parents if he could transfer to the less-distinguished Danbury (Public) High School so that he could attend classes with friends who lived in town. At Danbury High, Jennings reconnected with Gregory Rotello, a friend who shared his interest in photography and film. At the time, 14-year-old Rotello was working as the Photo Editor of “The Journal Advisor,” a local newspaper owned by acclaimed photographer Arthur Rickerby.
In the Fall of 1965, Jennings’ appendix burst, resulting in nearly fatal peritonitis. His life was spared by the use of a then-experimental drug, and he was hospitalized for several months, undergoing surgery after surgery to repair hernias. Jennings has often told friends that his brush with death had a profound affect on his view of life. Shortly after his release from the hospital, Jennings began spending endless hours in the darkroom with Gregory Rotello, developing negatives and making prints. The pair often ventured by train to New York City to buy supplies, visit photography and film shows, and shoot film.
In 1968, Jennings’ father was appointed Head Master of Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Jennings became a student there. He began studying photography under the tutelage of John Clements, and started making short films.
Jennings then attended Clements’ alma mater, Bard College, graduating with a BA in Sculpture in 1973. At Bard, he studied under P. Adams Sitney, Ken Kelman, Barry Gerson, Andrew Noren and, most significantly, Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs. During his junior and senior years, he was instrumental in establishing the Department of Film, even though film was still deemed an inappropriate subject of study by most American academics.
Upon graduation from Bard, Jennings moved to New York City, where he became a member of an active Arts scene that included Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr, as well as Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Richard Serra, Gregory Corso and other “downtown” artists, composers and poets. During this time, he performed as an actor in Richard Foreman’s play, “Vertical Mobility,”1 appearing on stage at the newly built Kennedy Center with Kate Mannheim and Stuart Sherman.
In his first years in New York, Jennings worked at low-paying jobs–as a stock clerk at a bookstore (Weiser’s), a taxi driver (until robbed at knife-point by a passenger), and a laborer at a plant nursery (selling Christmas trees). He also worked for several years as an administrator at the Filmmaker’s Co-op.
In the 1970s, many artists were able to find affordable, though barely habitable, places to live in New York City, and Jennings resided in an almost-abandoned office building popular with artists in his social circle. Jennings’ fellow roommate, German Filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, describes the conditions:
“The (construction of) The World Trade Center caused a vacuum in the old office spaces. All the tenants moved to The Trade Center, and then there were all these beautiful old office buildings. They were no longer needed so the landlords brought in artists. Many artists relocated around The World trade Center at the time. Hudson Street 100 was crammed… I had a huge, burnt-out office floor, without water, daytime heat only, and no heating on weekends or at night. But it only cost $125 rent. That was very little back then. Jim Jennings and Sheila McLaughlin were there too….We were all thrown out at the end of 1974/5 and we moved to Brooklyn.” 2
Many artists entered “the trades” in this period. Indeed, composer Philip Glass gave Jennings’ his tools when he gave up plumbing to devote himself to music full-time.
After moving to Brooklyn, Jennings worked as an apprentice to a licensed, Master Plumber for 10 years, often performing difficult and dirty tasks for modest wages. Jennings, however, obtained his own New York City Master Plumber’s license in 1990 and established a plumbing company, Time Mechanicals, later that year without financing from family members or banking institutions. In a single decade, the company completed 601 plumbing jobs requiring building permits. The company closed in March, 2017. During its 27 years in operation, Jennings’ company performed plumbing renovations in the homes of actors Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts; models Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington; artists Kiki Smith, Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg; Photographer William Wegman; Restaurateur Keith McNally, New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Philanthropists Teresa Heinz Kerry and Christophe De Menil. The company also installed plumbing in some of New York City’s most renowned restaurants and landmarks. His office, however, was located in a relatively quiet part of Manhattan that attracts many homeless people.
Because water is essential to all human beings, the plumbing business exposed Jennings to people from all elements of society, from glamorous celebrities renovating luxurious apartments to elderly shut-ins living in dilapidated, rent-subsidized units. As the owner of a construction-related business in New York City, he developed relationships with undocumented immigrants, City workers, fellow tradespeople, merchants, architects, landlords, lawyers…. Jennings often carried his 16mm Beaulieu and Pentax or Rolleiflex still cameras with him while traveling from job site to job site, and filmed on subway trains and on the street. At times, he shot film from the vantage point of his work truck.
In 1985, following the death of Jennings’ grandmother, the Jennings family offered the Tarrywile estate to the town of Danbury, with the stipulation it be used as a park. Today, more than 75,000 people visit Tarrywile Park each year and enjoy 535 acres of meadows, forests, mountains, lakes and ponds, as well as the 19 buildings on the property.
During most of the 1980s and early 1990s, Jennings’ artistic output was limited. During this period, he served as cinematographer and editor of narrative, silent 16mm films made by his then-wife, Christine Piazza. In late 1990s, however, Jennings became active again in the experimental film community, screening films worldwide and serving as a juror at international festivals. In 2007, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his contribution to film.
Jennings’ films, most often silent, 16mm, black-and-white works, are principally known for the beauty of their formal compositions, use of reflections and shadows, and mastery of camerawork. His films offer expressive views of New York architecture and sensitive depictions of working people. In recent years, his photography, which possesses similar characteristics, has been the subject of two shows at New York City’s Phatory Gallery.
He currently lives in the New York City borough of Queens with his wife, Karen.
1. Richard Kostelanetz, “Soho: The Rise and Dall of An Artists Colony,” Routledge Press, 2003. “Rather than knock his head against a wall, (Playwright Richard) Foreman decided to produce and direct his texts himself, drawing upon his experiences as a set designer and actor… he befriended Jonas Mekas who had founded the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque… Most of his performers were better-known avant-garde fimmakers Bob Fleischner, Ernie Gehr, Andrew Noren, Stuart Sherman and Jim Jennings among them.” ↩