Like my students, like my peers, I find writing about my work difficult. Others sometimes see things unintended, or miss things intended. I guess I never know all of what's really in the pictures. I know some of what I want - a touchstone to reality, a rendering beyond doubt. A comment, an observation about people. A caress-like poke in the eye with a photographic stick. I'm looking at you. I'm looking at me.
I’ll be 70 in June, 2016, (as I do the 4th revision of this essay, that's tomorrow) have been making pictures more than 50 years, and ought to know why by now. I think I do, but you can’t ever be certain. Writing about pictures is like dancing about architecture - the forms and syntaxes are very different, translation is curvilinear.
Good artists write well, understand what they are doing. Frank Stella, one of my favorites, famously said of his paintings “What you see is what you see.” Or as Wallace Stevens wrote about sentences, "The sum of the parts is the sum of the parts."
The groups I picked to accompany these writings are important to me. They taught me something I didn't know before making them. Something about the subjects, something about the way a lens renders space and time, something about yes/color and no/color. Something about what attracted me to make them in the first place. And what they taught me could only come from making them. They fit the visual and cultural literacy jigsaw puzzle taking form in my photo-brain. When I stopped learning from them, I stopped making them. When I stopped making them, I stopped caring about them very much. When I stopped caring about them enough, I stopped obeying them. When I stopped obeying them, I was ready to find another thing to start.
A photograph only becomes a photograph when it's on paper; and when I understand it, it becomes just a piece of paper once again. That apple really does disappear when you close the drawer.
The groups are recent: At Water, the last pictures I shot on film, are from 2009-2010, while Wishing Wells occupied the fall of 2014 and winter of 2015. Berlin Hauptbahnoff is a look at space and steel, color and form. Covered Cars and Keys Trailers are my distillation of the Florida Keys. Berlin Hauptbahnoff took a few hours spread over three or four mornings. Covered Cars and Keys Trailers were done over much more time spent in Key West. Each group contains a hundred to two hundred exposures, resulting finally in about 15 pieces. Groups with people moving take many more exposures, things standing still generally take one, sometimes two. Sometimes from a different angle, sometimes in a different light.
Some capital-A Art background first.
I am a lapsed post-Modernist. I was pretty strict for a long time, I snickered at Weston’s peppers and Strand’s New England churches. I had absorbed the Modernist’s attention to 10 Zone print quality and I still love deep focus, but forgive me Father, I have used my skills in evil ways. Boring, banal, flat, fuzzy, too-large landscapes of two or three average Norway maple trunks, mirror tricks and perspective rambles, anything to make an audience scratch their collective heads. I was serious, man. No interest in pretty pictures. Beautiful, of course, but not pretty; not then, not now, not ever.
A couple of things happened on the way to maturity. And artistic maturity, at least for me, took longer.
First, humor crept in. I enjoy making fun of the seriousness. I like smart humorous photos - Martin Parr kind of smart, Elliott Erwitt kind of funny. My sensibility for that happened in two long running series not included here, Shooters (pictures of people taking pictures) and Pathetic Public Plants, (residential and commercial front lawn gardening disasters).
But those projects grew well past their usefulness to me because they amused, they were easy in their own manner. And because I didn't know what else to shoot, and was frightened about drying up, about never making a good photograph again, about all the stuff that worries you, too.
Second, in 2008 I spent 10 days in Crete in Costa Manos’ workshop, sort of. I just sat in on the workshop but didn’t make any photographs for it. I’ve known Costa a few years thru the Workshops, but never got to spend much time with him other than a meal or two because he spends his time with his real students. That year there was a scholarship donor living in Corsica we wanted to cultivate further. The school gave her Costa’s workshop as a thank you, and I went to meet her and further the relationship. She and the other students took the workshop, I went to the crits and ate and drank ouzo with Costa and Michael, his architect partner. The ouzo, food, sun, and conversation were great. I have no idea if the woman ever gave the school another dime, but I learned from Costa, both listening to him inside and outside the classroom and looking more carefully at his work. (He looked at the two groups I have spent years doing, said they should be published but that they were done, and I should move on.) No one had affected my thinking and my work like him since Carl Toth, my graduate school teacher and friend. Two such people in a life is a great gift.
It was simple, you probably already know all about it, but it changed my photography for the better. The photograph is always of a shape, a volume, like a rectangular, pointed pyramid, extending from the point, the lens, outward into the world. 3D, not 2D. Geometrically a solid, not a plane some distance away.
Within that 3D space things can be organized such that there are spatial relationships to one another so that every object has its space, is comfortable within it and with its relationships to the other objects, and the dimensional space is well used. The relationships gain meaning in the stopped time. Costa’s work always has the added factor of something very ephemeral happening, what he calls a ‘moment’ when the picture comes together and can’t get any better, won't repeat.
That space, those relationships, changed how and where I stood, and when I could push the button. And really, what else do we have to work with? So thank you Constantine Manos, thank you island of Crete, thank you Henri Cartier-Bresson, Costa’s mentor at Magnum, thank you lovely ouzo, growing cloudy as the ice melts and the sun moves across the cafe's street-side table of three men making small talk in the summer, growing older and warmer together.
Things that change your thinking are valuable, and you need to pay attention because you never know where they might come from: sometimes during pleasure, not work.
This magical gift didn’t start or end where I thought. A sign of my Crow-brain, I have been attracted to bright, primary color toys for years at yard sales, playgrounds, and so forth, but they never came to more than a few disparate photographs.
Bright, sunny day, Dora and I on a sand beach somewhere in southern Maine, I'm wandering around with a digital camera shooting toy formations and blankets in the sand, sometimes with people in the far distance. Middle-aged men don’t want to be noticed photographing kids, women, or men in bathing suits too much these days, especially in America where the population of potential perverts, stalkers, andmolesters seems to have reached pretty close to 100%.
At home, looking at the images, I see two things. First, the images with people are more interesting, especially where where the fore, mid, and far ground relate geometrically. Second, the digital images don't have the color or quality that the situation seems to call for — too bright, too sharp, too clear. The images wanted color negative film to become pictures. Bought some Fujicolor N 160, packed the Leica MP and went back to the beach.
People on the beach. At first I looked for my pictures, as we all do, and found a few: a fully dressed guy, including socks and office shoes, laying on his back, no blanket or towel, surrounded by, I assume, his amused or confused family; gulls pulling paper bags of unguarded food apart; two girls carrying a canoe up the beach, over their heads; four teenaged boys, back to the camera, standing with their surf boards looking for waves on a quiet day. Others more random, getting a feel for the place. Shooting was quick and easy — f/11 at 1/250, (that's just the "Sunny 16" rule shifted one f/stop) using hyperlocal distance (28 mm lens, focus at 15 ft, get 8 ft to infinity in focus). It's point and shoot, really, but its what you point at.
I had a local PDQ do the processing because I knew the owner had been through Maine Media’s Professional Certificate program. I know a reasonable amount about keeping film processing machines in tolerance, and assumed he did also. Besides, I didn't want to trust film to the post office. PDQ did the film and scanned it at low res onto a cd. I brought the scans into Lightroom, and took a look. The few of interest I rescanned at high resolution on my Nikon 5000 ED 35mm film scanner.
Among the more random pictures I found a few where some of Costa’s thoughts on composition showed up. Again, because it's important: there were three takeaways from my time watching him critique and teach in Crete.
First, the idea of a moment, something happening in time that makes the picture unique, something that another photographer following you would miss entirely. That decisive moment that descends from Cartier-Breson thru Manos and, a tiny bit, to me. In my image of three girls running on the beach, note that all three have both feet in mid air. Did I see it? No. Was I lucky? Yes, but also I was there, reacting intuitively. My Photo-brain must have been plugged in.
Second, in a photographed space extending in a rectangular pyramid from the lens, objects in the near space will appear larger, more disruptive, and can be in interesting relationships with other objects.
Third, that everything in a picture seems to fit better, more satisfying, when it has its own space rather than be arbitrarily blocked by something ill-placed in front or behind it. Now that could violate the Second, so work it out in your own way. For me, in At Water, choreography of space was very important — its what I think unifies the frame and makes it feel right. It was a combination of subject movement and photographer movement, the dance you do when you are free enough from your camera’s controls that hand, feet, and eye can coordinate around the viewfinder without needing to be conscious.
Berlin Hauptbahnhof is the same, but years later, inside, and wrapped around architecture, sterility, and urban isolation.
We like Berlin, always stay in the same small hotel designed and run by an architect couple, she an East Berliner, he a Canadian. The hotel, th Miniloft (miniloft.com), is a ten minute walk from the new main train station which opened not long before our last trip. We came for several exhibitions around the city celebrating the 80th birthday of the painter Gerhard Richter. Previous visits had provided many images for thetwo earlier series, Shooters and Pathetic Public Plants. This time I came in the middle of Keys Trailers, images included here of immobile trailer homes in the Florida Keys, so I had nothing in mind for Berlin except looking at Richter’s work. We went to see the station at the suggestion of our hosts.
It starts quietly two floors below ground, rising shiny steel and sparkling glass for seven stories. The interior space is huge; glass exposed elevators, stainless steel escalators and stairs, glass upon glass, structural beam gracefully crossing structural beam, everything else stainless steel, polished within an inch of its life. Each level rimmed with stores and neon primaries, crossed by open walkways and vistas. Beautiful and barren, bright and cold to the touch, surprisingly hostile. The color and the space were definitely designed for digital.
I returned for several days between rush hours to watch and photograph the few people patterning themselves in the spaces in the six cardinal directions, each moving to her own necessities. I watched them spatially relate or not with each other and with the stainless, and I photographed with the Fuji X-100 and 23mm lens, using deep focus, leaning on stainless, breathing quietly, in azone of concentration and presence I have never felt for so long or so deeply.
Covered Cars and Keys Trailers. A March and three Aprils in Key West make for lots of photographs, many of them simply, frustratingly, in search of how to see it, what to think about it, how to find the essence of the place in my terms. You need to be easily amused if you spend time in Key West - it is not a serious place. The sun is bright and hot, the lizards are small and fast, and the chickens are wild and up before dawn. Since we are there not quite at the end of a Maine winter, everything makes me smile. As in many tropical and semi-tropical places, colors are lively, life is outdoors, and time is looser. And the houseplants are outside, and taller than you.
It is a town of convertibles, open Jeeps, and cars that are either costly and new, or old and decorated. Either way, the sun fades the paint and the interiors, and blistersbare skin. I’ve never seen so custom fit covers or jerry-rigged tarps.
These are serious images only insofar as I have made them thoughtfully - angle, situation, time of day, quality of light. As I’ve said, my camera is a tool for working, not a play thing. I make pictures on purpose, with intent. Even if the intent is to amuse or poke fun, any comedy writer or performer will agree - funny results don't imply a fun process.
It took a year or two (meaning a month or two, with a year between) to learn from the images, to find my photographs. There were other possibilities, Front Porch Furniture, which hasn’t been seen by anyone other than Dora, still intrigues me, but I've not yet figured out what the pictures should look like. We all have these almost photographs. Part in, part out. You need to keep them, and keep looking at them.
Wishing Wells is part of my long-standing obsession with the American taste, good or bad, in particular the parts of our taste that we choose to share with others: front yards. As always, it took a while. I slowly became frontal-lobe-aware of the plethora of wishing wells around rural Maine, commented on them with Dora, we even counted them on road trips around the state, but didn’t take a picture for a couple of years. Finally I started in summer, 2014, but didn't get anything I liked. If I was back enough to get the house and yard to situate it (contexturalize, in ArtSpeak), the wishing wells seemed to just blend in, but up close they were just inventory pictures; no apparent intent, no reason to be interested.
At some point one of us realized that all the green was overwhelming the objects.
“Shape is the enemy of color”, Joseph Albers said. And I say color isn't very kind to shape, either. I switched a few color photos to black and white and the structure of the wishing well and it's accompanying objects became the plane of notice.
So off I went, camera set to raw, B&W (neutral). Raw still captures images in full color, of course, but now my back-of-the-camera preview was B&W. Handy, and since I both see and "see" in color, I looked more than few times. Once in Lightroom I would initially see B&W, then the image would go to color in Develop, where I would convert it and start working.
Note that a RAW image or a JPG taken in color and converted, but not a JPG taken in B&W, retains the color information beneath the B&W view, and you can alter the tone of selected colors, i.e. darken the (blue) sky, lighten or darken the (green) lawn, without changing the rest of the image. Finally (actually it doesn’t make the slightest difference when you do it) I added a selenium toner, the one that comes in Lightroom, but at ½ strength, to make the grays a bit colder and more neutral. You can do that because you’re always making a color print, even of black and white, unless you use the printer’s B&W setting, which limits that sort of thing and removes any toning.
Somewhere in these essays I've written that photographs have different meanings to different viewers, and that you as the maker have to let the photographs go and allow/encourage/tolerate others to bring their own histories/education/viewpoints to them. You can guide, ever so lightly, but avoid a heavy hand (especially descriptive or directional titles except for captions with documentary photos). Viewers become bored if not insulted if you thrust it at them. The viewers you want are the viewers who engage, not the passive masses who are sending your images to their Facebook page while trotting thru the exhibit. They themselves will look later, maybe.
Well, a pickle. To me the wishing wells, in various states of being, are a comment on taste, their strange ubiquity in Maine. And also thoughts about decoration, references to mythic histories, and the wondrous variety of human expression. But Dora, and then others, pointed out the metaphorical desire for wish fulfillment inherent in wishing wells, and opined that they could, would, be seen as my own wishing for my health, given that the bulk of them, and the exhibit, came after my cancer diagnosis.
Are you kidding? Me? They are not personal or autobiographical in the slightest. None of my work has been. Well, not other than because it is stuff that I think about. I almost cancelled the exhibit (June, 2015) in fear, but I wrote an artist’s statement that sent viewers (those who read) in another direction, more in line with the wells' history and modern connotations. But it was close.
It's always close. Autography? All pictures are pieces of ourselves because we make them so. We think about the subject matter we might use, and the content it is able to convey. You don't, maybe can't, shoot meaning directly, so it has to work that way. Content, inference, ideas to dance about, might stay the same for your entire career, but subject matter changes often, and often without notice.
Documentary? All pictures, all writing, all creative acts, reveal something about the subject and something about the medium, as well as something about the author and the culture in which the author and images are made. It was there at that moment and it did such and such as I hit the shutter. What's in the background was in the background. The light was the light. Within the bounds of photographic materials, the colors were the colors. The people were the people, the disguises were the disguises. Does that make a documentary photograph? I think those things are necessary, but not sufficient. Intent is the big player.
• What is the artist trying to do?
• Did they do it?
• Was it worth doing?