Last May I was asked to teach “A Natural Eye” for The Cuyahoga Valley Photographic Society. They are sitting smack in the middle of a photographic gold mine, The Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just south of Cleveland. I seldom have time to make my own photographs during a workshop, and turn that part of me off, but one afternoon we all went to a place they knew had beautiful cliffs and spring vegetation that was just starting to emerge. I said I would wander along a particular trail, and would be happy to look through cameras and answer questions. Most folks split on their own to try new ideas, and after about an hour of helping a few people, I found myself alone. The biggest technical difficulty I was pointing out was that while many people were struck by the beauty of the new leaves above them, they had to be careful not to include the sky on this bright overcast day if they did not want big pieces of blown out white in their compositions. It was a challenge to be sure, since the positioning of the trees, cliffs, and sky was not easy. I rounded a corner and noticed a steeper cliff wall than I had seen before, perhaps fifty feet high. Part way up was a giant rock that had separated itself from the wall, landing on its side like a giant table. And right above it, nestled against the wall, was a delicate young tree with a lace work of fresh green leaves and slender black branches. “That’s it”, I thought. “The right place to get the right angle without the sky. Often when you change your position everything else changes, and great ideas stay just that, but in this case it all worked out. I played with focus, letting the dark rocks fall away, and in printing have kept the rocks a background element, letting the viewer’s focus be on this essence of spring.
It is possible that the most important roll of film I ever shot was of my son in an alley, at midnight, in Avignon, France. Important because it was about family, images from that roll ended up holding weight in the ultimate viewing space of any artist, the refrigerator, but it was also an important roll, because I made so many images I liked. Truth be told, I liked most of the thirty-six images even though I know there is at least a pinch of Dad bias thrown in.
Here was the scene. Our family had recently arrived in France. Two adults were fried, and the fifteen month old was very well rested, and on his very own time zone. It was midnight, and he was going full speed. I took him outside the hotel to the alley running along its side, and let him go. Up and down, back and forth, wherever he was pulled. He was in the penguin walk stage, waddling and often flapping his arms as he explored. At times he seemed more like a drunk little man. I had my camera over my shoulder, and in it was high speed black and white film. I had learned to come back with an image I wanted in low light by not stubbornly clinging to only one kind of film. 3200 film was beautiful with its grain in these old, dark cities, and I knew I could choose a shutter speed I could hold.
When I look back on that roll I wonder why it worked. Was it because I was excited to be in a new place? Was it because I was a fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson, was in his country, and had often noticed how he would find a background first, and then let the subject fill it? Was it because it was my kid and I was very committed to the moment? Probably yes to all.
For the duration of our walk, which I made last for over an hour to help push him into the zone of sleep, I studied how the light fell on him, how he moved in and out of shadows, how the background of the alley helped set the stage, and how it sometimes helped pull the eye into the image. All these ideas had huge applicability to my work in the natural world, and make me often think how important it is to work outside my genre and my comfort range, just to improve the way I respond to what I know most.
Two years ago, during a long delay at London’s Heathrow Airport, I spent a couple hours in a very large magazine store. The selection of photography magazines from across Europe surprised me, and also gave me something to focus on during the delay. One headline on a digital photo issue grabbed my attention. It proclaimed, “Turn Your Bad Photographs into Great Paintings”. Wow, I thought, you can be bad in two things – you can’t take a good photo and you don’t know how to paint – and you can still make something great.
Last year during a workshop I watched a student open a box of prints. The first was of a water lily, but it had been put through a digital filter to make it “look like a Monet”. The next was posterized, sending colors of something, maybe a cat, into psychedelic neon nostalgia. There was one of a rose that was heavily blurred with digital brushstrokes. Each and every print was different, and each was heavily manipulated by the application of a digital software filter. My mind wandered, thinking that if one of these pieces were to hang on a gallery wall, the title card might read:
“Tulip, ala Cezanne” – by Ema Ture and Photoshop CS5, or . . .
“Cute Animal in Blue Period, Underwater” – by Nat Myonne and Acme Special Effects
I was fascinated by the thought of being honest about who really had the skill, and with this idea holding a lock on my mind, everywhere I looked, images had been taken far beyond what could be done in-camera. Okay, you say, isn’t the negative just the beginning? Mr. Adams proclaimed that the negative was like writing the score, and making the print was voila!, the masterpiece, the final expression. You’re right, but Ansel was doing his personal darkroom dance (a great place for private bogeying, but I digress) using his hands and simple tools, deciding that a particular spot over there needed a little more light, and that one needed less. In the digital world he would have been a master of selectively using tools to achieve his vision. And that is the point. Selectively using a tool to finesse the vision. Not scrolling through the choice of filters, and tripping with the mouse on “Ocean Ripple” or “Fresco” or “Mezzotint”, and going, “Cool, that looks great. Another couple sips of wine, and this will be quite an evening!” It is like going into a candy store, not knowing what you want, and getting seduced by the M&M’s, and maybe some Gummy Worms. And look at those Snickers . . . What we are missing is taking the time to become an expert at using the tools. And it is easy to see why, because the river flows strongly in the opposite direction. Many digital software classes teach the flash and not the vision. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s quick. Everything about photography is quick these days, from capture to viewing to publishing. But developing and building a vision is a journey.
In earlier days I worked with an earth education organization that was trying to do vital and different work in helping kids and adults build life long relationships with, and understandings about, the planet. It was good stuff, and as you might imagine, it was pushed away by mainstream education. At the end of those years a friend in the group went off to make a difference in the way Alaskan adventure companies ran their businesses; he started down a path of green tourism before it was a word. I was beginning my journey in photography, and the two of us fell out of touch. I can’t remember what brought us back together, but in the mid-90’s he asked if I might come up to Alaska and photograph one of their camps in Denali. Get myself there, no pay, a tent out back, and food. It was an easy choice. I had a blast with his like-minded staff, but many days of rain were frustrating given my “assignment” of showing the lodge and cabins in sunny, blue sky light.
While I still felt new to the photographic journey, it was all I did. I was a new instructor at The Santa Fe Workshops, had just moved to Santa Fe, and photographically was still in the tradition of everything being sharp from front to back. By chance, right before I left for Alaska, I heard Keith Carter give a presentation at The Workshops. His work at the time was deeply rooted in the east Texas communities close to his home. Technically he placed shallow focus on his subjects, giving the rest of the image a dreamy, magical quality. He mentioned that he used one camera and one lens.
In Alaska, on a particularly wet, cold day, hunkered down in the tent, my spirits sank a bit, wondering if I would even make a good image for my friend, let alone for myself. That afternoon there was a slight break in the weather, the clouds started to part a bit, and uncharacteristically I grabbed my medium format camera, one lens, and nothing else. No tripod, no camera bag, but I am sure, I brought along the words of Keith Carter. And off I wandered in the woods around the camp. That is when I found the mushroom. It was huge. It’s presence called out to me and I sat down in front of it, placed the camera on the ground, pushed the lens into vegetation, opened the aperture, and made an important photograph, different than my sharp front to back photos. I have often said that I had a choice of making an image that might go into a guidebook on mushrooms, or making a photograph of a mushroom that seemed like a leprechaun might come and rest under it. That day, wet, cold, and empty of images, I pulled out a story from a photographer in a very different genre, and made something new. Something important.
Breakthroughs and moments of clarity are precious. “Aha” moments can catapult us further in our art and our understanding, and yet they can be elusive and infrequent. We wonder “How come mine don’t look like that?”, and sometimes look in the wrong direction, like towards software. Truth be told, a commitment to the journey is the first step, but then comes the nebulous idea of paying attention, being awake when the time is right. You might get nothing out of a line in a movie, whereas the person next to you just had an epiphany.
“Iris” may be the first image I made where a couple light bulbs went off. Up until then I was pretty much taking landscape photographs that had no soul, that felt compressed and inaccessible. The setting was an Artist-in-Residence experience on Isle Royale National Park, a fifty mile long boreal forest island in Lake Superior. Three weeks alone in a cabin to write and shoot. I took this opportunity very seriously. I was going to a place I loved, to immerse myself in a dream about expressing myself about the natural world. I was new to photography and writing, but seasoned in exploring, wandering, and thinking about the natural world. On one hand I was well read, with John Muir, Also Leopold, Alan Watts, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olson, and Ed Abbey assimilated into the way I thought. Mentors in ecology and education instilled a thoughtful, holistic, and journey-focused, not destination-based, mindset. Yet photographically I was weak. My historic appreciation was shallow, my vision young, and skills mediocre.
My first several days on the island were pummeled by a powerful Northeaster. The cabin rocked, the old pane windows shook in their gutters, and the fire crackled. I love storms, and I ventured out several times a day, without my camera, and explored the water inlet and rocky peninsula that the cabin was perched on. One afternoon I noticed a little pond sunk in the granite, a stone’s throw from the lake. Along one edge was a little clump of irises, not yet in bloom. The rocks were covered in beautiful lichens and lavender harebells, and I made it a point to pass by each day during the storm. On the morning of the fifth day I awoke to silence. No wind, no rain. I wiped the sweat off the window above my bed, looked out, and everything was enveloped in fog and stillness. I grabbed my gear and walked over towards the rocks and the pond. And there was the iris, in bloom. Now a familiar stop, I hunkered down in front of it and smiled. But here is where I responded differently than ever before. Instead of coming in so close to only get the flower, or pulling way back for a snapshot of too much information, I walked into the pond and made a photograph that for the first time captured the feeling of where I was. The essence. I remember moving up and down to get the iris by itself, not colliding with the distant background rocks. My years of wandering into water, lying down on the forest floor, and scrambling over the world, eliminated the hesitancy I have since witnessed when people stand away and zoom in, keeping intimacy at a distance.
On this important morning I learned about going back to a place, I started to embrace the idea of essence, I immersed myself, and I had a moment where I saw the relationship between a subject and a background. It was a morning that would have profound importance as long as I made sure to stop, take notice, and do it again. I needed to make these insights part of my new photographic work habits.
I head to museums hoping for insights and ideas, to be shaken or enlightened. Sometimes I find solace in pretty art, and sometimes I leave riveted with the unexpected, perhaps challenged to think way outside my box. That’s what happened a few weeks ago in Amsterdam. I had booked a night and a day on my return home from Tanzania, hoping to slow down the toll of international travel, and planned to walk over to the museum district. I wanted to see The Van Gogh Museum, and friends said I should also check out The Rijksmuseum.
I have been a fan of Van Gogh’s color, his bold brush strokes you can only see standing in front of the work, and the energy bursting out of his paintings, but I was limited in what I knew about him. I had no idea that almost all his work was done in ten years from 1880 to 1890, and that he had almost no formal training. His early work surprised me, and compelled me. Take a look at “The Cottage, 1885”.
Dark, moody, rich in feeling. And get this, he was actually turned off by what The French Impressionists were doing with color. Five years into his ten year career he moved to Paris, briefly lived with his brother Theo, an art dealer, and was introduced to the likes of Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and Camille Pissarro. And his work took a radical change. Place and who you hang out with matter. Every piece of work we know of Van Gogh’s was painted from 1886 to 1890. He experiemented with color and with how he painted, and in turn, profoundly affected peers and the future of painting.
My next stop, The Rijksmuseum, shook me. I have never paid much attention to 17th century Dutch paintings. They seemed like so many stuffy portraits of aristrocratric families. I had seen a Rembrandt or two as a child at Chicago’s Art Institute, but the subject matter never grabbed me. Wow, have I been missing something. Take a look at “The Jewish Bride”. http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-C-216?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=
The subjects rise beautifully out of the rich, dark background. In person, the application of paint gives the light areas a shimmering quality that sparkles and separates it even further from the background. The same is true with “Maria Trip”, http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-C-597?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=
She also rises up and out, and the detail work in her white shawl is hard to imagine. Almost four hundred years ago. No wonder Rembrandt was in high demand as a portrait artist. He also revolutionized portraits by bringing in motion to his subjects. Consider “The Night Watch” as an example. (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nieuwsenagenda/nachtwacht-ontrafeld?lang=en) A blank canvas, a brush, and paint.
And I was not finished being wowed. Johannes Vermeer, also from the 17th century finished me off. He painted everyday workers, and his treatment of gentle light, and subtle color blends was both peotic and breathtaking. The use of subtle color is hard to see away from the source, but the quality of incoming daylight is still easy to see. Have a look at “The Kitchen Maid” (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-A-2344?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=) and “Woman Reading a Letter” (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-C-251?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=).
I left both museums estactic and moved. In the case of Rembrandt and Vermeer it was not the subject matter as much as their use of light and color. Photographically all three painters have a great deal to teach me. Van Gogh’s celebration of wild color and interesting perspectives encourage me to push boundaries. The Dutch painters made me think of a comment Sam Abell made to me years ago when I was printing for his retrospective, The Photographic Life. Sam often wanted his subjects to rise out of the darkness in the background. It was a beautiful idea, a photographic aesthetic that has a lot of power. Vermeer’s use of daylight gently filling a room and his subject, together with his attention to the blending and shifting of gentle color palettes speaks so importantly to paying attention to the foundation of light.
Books about Van Gogh and Vermeer sit in front of me now in the studio. Paging through them during breaks will keep me swimming in reminders, encouragement, and new ideas.
Ten thousand. That’s what got me listening. I was in a workshop, during a break, and a group of students were chatting in the corner. Someone said he had been on a winter photo tour to Yellowstone National Park recently, and in four days, shot three thousand photographs. Okay, I think it was at that point I started to listen. But then he went on to say he wasn’t the winner. (Gotta love that choice of words, because it completely reinforces the idea I am approaching here.) The winner, he said, shot ten thousand photographs in four days. I froze. My god I thought, who is going to look at all that . . . and then I realized I had to turn that number into something I could touch. Ten thousand clicks of the shutter is seventy rolls of film for four days. Wow. And in winter with short days up there in Wyoming. That’s a lot of visual diarrhea, to borrow a phrase from a buddy who heard Ernst Haas use it years ago. If you have hung around photographers using digital cameras recently you know they are making a ton more photographs than they did several years ago. Consider the workshop world. Five years ago if someone turned in five rolls at night you knew they had some serious eyeball work the next morning. Ten was almost unheard of. Seventy? And here’s the thing. Are those two hundred and eighty rolls pushing out of the box into new and experimental ideas? Are they really nailing the finished, thoughtful image that comes from working it, paying attention to the moment, grasping the essence of the place, and thoughtfully pushing down the shutter to say “This is the moment, yes, this particular moment.” Or is it, and I can only guess from seeing it first hand time and time again, a lot of visual diarrhea?