If you’re lucky, every once in a while you get to spend an evening with great artists. You enjoy an up-close look at their work, and learn about their philosophy, inspirations and struggles. You get insight into what their work means to them. If you’re really lucky, you get to talk to them about your own work. The Ojai Photo Club turns this rare opportunity into a regular event.

Once a month the club hosts a free presentation that’s open to the public. In the past the club has hosted talks by rock ’n’ roll photographer Guy Webster, documentary photographer Colin Finlay and surf photographer Elizabeth Pepin Silva. After the presentation, club members are invited to have their own print or digital photos reviewed by the guest, and then everyone chats over refreshments. It’s all very informal, supportive and inspiring.

The members range from high school students to retirees, and include professional and nonprofessional photographers from all over Ventura County. The atmosphere is noncompetitive, but the quality of work is high, and members seek to help each other get better. “It’s a thrilling thing to see a photographer’s growth,” says Myrna Cambianica, the club’s education chair.

The Ojai Photo Club will host its next presenter on Tuesday, June 20, at Help of Ojai’s Kent Hall. Internationally renowned photographer, archivist and educator Lewis Watts will present “Documenting the Cultural Landscape,” which will show the trajectory of his work and depict “how journey and culture are evidenced in the landscape.”

Watts first became fascinated with the effects of migration while visiting France as a graduate student in the 1960s. He began asking the questions: “What happens when people go from one place to another? What do they bring with them? What remains intact and what changes?” These questions still resonate in Watts’ work and have propelled him to travel the world, from the American South to France, Cuba and Greece. He recently visited the Syrian refugee camp in Calais and was struck by what he encountered. “There was a consistent dignity,” Watts recalls. “I heard stories of horrendous ordeals, and yet everyone was very generous. They had nothing, but they offered me tea and coffee.”

Wherever Watts has traveled, he says he’s noticed “traces of what people have brought with them,” and adds that, “there are certain things that are locked in the past.” Even while trying to assimilate to a new place, people hold onto the essential. For example, strongholds of the American South, like storefront churches and jazz clubs, cropped up in San Francisco during the wave of African-American migration west during World War II. The Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco was a thriving African-American community from the 1940s until the 1960s, when urban redevelopment destroyed it. 

In the 1980s, Watts began researching the old Fillmore neighborhood and found photographs depicting the rich culture that had been lost. They were hanging on the wall in a shoeshine parlor, these priceless memories of a magical time and place. During this time, Watts met Elizabeth Pepin Silva, who was also researching the area. They joined forces and uncovered more photos of street scenes and candid moments in barbershops, theaters and jazz clubs, as well as portraits of jazz legends like Billie Holiday. They collaborated on the book Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, with Watts restoring the photos and Pepin Silva writing the text. The book was published in 2005. When it went out of print, Watts and Pepin Silva decided to publish their own updated version.

“More people were willing to be interviewed and share their images after the original book came out,” says Pepin Silva. “So we decided to do an all-new book with 100 more photos and interviews.” Watts and Pepin Silva will be presenting a slide show about Harlem of the West and signing copies of the book at Greater Goods in Ojai on Saturday, June 24. The event will be followed by a live jazz concert.

So, there are two chances to meet the great Lewis Watts and see his poignant work. How lucky is that?

The Ojai Photo Club presents Lewis Watts and “Documenting the Cultural Landscape” on Tuesday, June 20, at 7 p.m. at Help of Ojai’s Kent Hall, 111 W. Santa Ana St. For more information, visit http://ojaiphotoclub.com.