Monday, February 7, 2011
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye
Stranger stop and cast an eye
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you will be
Prepare for death and to follow me.
Common Colonial Epitaph
“Death is the mother of Beauty.”
My passion is funerary art. I study and photograph the artwork produced to honor the dead and decorate their graves. My love for this work is not a macabre fascination. The art associated with disposition of the dead ranges from crude, untutored work to the carvings of Bernini and Michaelangelo. The emotions associated with losing loved ones have prompted many to place major works of art on the final resting places of the dead. Unlike most museum quality work, funerary art is left out in the open where it is exposed to the forces of wind, weather, acid rain, pollution, and the attention of vandals and thieves.
Death and grief are universal human experiences. The sculptors of memorial art freeze in stone and metal the emotions and beliefs surrounding these events. Often this is done with world class artistic skill. It is Art with the capital A. I find the entire iconography of funerary art moving and appealing.
My love and fascination for cemeteries has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. As a child I spent most summers in Utica, NY. Across the street from my Aunt’s home where we usually stayed was St. Agnes Cemetery. Many hours were spent running, hiding, and pretending in my special playground. What more could a kid ask for; stones for a fort, a sarcophagus for a truck, and visiting the awe inspiring monument to O’Hanlon the fireman.
Later I learned of death and loss. I learned about death from the good nuns and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Death was to be feared because if you weren’t good then all of the punishments of hell awaited you. Pretty impressive stuff to a kid.
I learned about grief and loss from my family. I grew up in an Italian-American family and culture. I was taken to many wakes and funerals when I was little. The sadness and loss demonstrated by the noisy wailing and shrieking associated with an Italian funeral were burned into my brain. The ritualized mourning and gross sentimentalizing of the dead was part of that culture. . No matter that much of this was strictly for show, what did I know as a kid? The end of the funeral took place in the cemetery so cemeteries were not only playgrounds for me, but a source of some emotional freight too. In spite of this I still find the atmosphere of cemeteries, especially Victorian cemeteries, as intriguing as ever. The emotional, mortuary excess, the celebration of death, which turns many off, is their precise appeal for me. Funerary art is fraught with expressed feeling.
How do I feel when being stared down by an angel? What emotion is the angel expressing? What beliefs are being declared? You feel many things when being stared down by a winged spirit. They remind you of the fact and the promise of death. You undergo a visceral experience of your feelings and beliefs about mortality and beyond.
How successful do I feel the sculptor is in expressing all of this? How do I feel in response? I also bring to this encounter all of my own sentiments and philosophies of mortality and beyond. The sculptor presents me with a tableau and I react to it. How successful can I be in translating my feelings and beliefs to you, the viewer, through a photograph?
Now it becomes tricky. I am trying to create art by photographing someone else’s artwork. This is my purpose and challenge; to present to you my response through photography, not to steal the talent and sweat of the sculptor.
I have another more mundane, but equally important reason for my photography. Cemeteries are outdoor museums. I am documenting as many at-risk monuments as I am able. Many cemeteries and monuments are endangered or at great risk. Natural weathering, pollution, vandalism, and theft are taking a terrible toll. Cemeteries need our help and I hope that I contribute to the cause by making you the viewer of my work aware of what is out there and what is at stake.
Would you stop a group of complete strangers on the street with, “ May I talk to you for a moment? I have something very interesting to tell you. This is so meaningful and important please take the time to hear me out. You won’t be disappointed. This IS worth your time.” Would you have the nerve to do something like that? This is exactly what you do when you display your photographs. If you aspire to artistry then the content of your photographs must say something to the viewers of your work and say it well enough to be a thoughtful, transformational experience.
I am often asked by my students for ways to improve their photography. Indeed this is one obligation of a photography teacher. Most students are looking for technical advice, others for some magic formula or secret they are convinced we old timers know that they do not. Knowing this secret will then make them the photographers they wish to be, showing photos displaying amazing technical wizardry and wrenching content. My recommendations vary with the person and the circumstance, but rarely contains technical advice as that is generally not what most need. After looking at the work of hundreds of students and other photographers, many very talented technically, I have come to the conclusion that rarely is it lack of technique that makes a person’s photographs mediocre or downright boring. Rather it is their content or more precisely their lack of content, feeling, point of view, or anything else indicating that the photographer has an interest or knowledge of the selected subject. Picking up a camera is like sitting down to write. You must have something to say, something for which you have passion.
Many new and even seasoned photographers appear always to be looking for new technical procedures, but not at all interested in the subjects of their photographs. To be blunt there are no secrets in photography. If you know your camera and have a decent knowledge of exposure and then read fifty more articles on exposure what will you gain from the reading? - a quarter of a stop or something equally useless?
Having taught for over fifty years I have seen many earnest students floundering instead of producing good photographs. They wanted their work to deserve the label Art with the capital A yet they continually produced commonplace work. Neither they nor their viewers were really interested in their photographs. They produced technical exercises rather than engrossing pictures of people, places or things that they loved.
Imagine you are going to write a book or article. In what subject are you truly interested? What about this subject do you wish to share with others? These are two simple questions often overlooked by both new and used photographers. Instead they become caught in one of two traps fatal to their goal of producing truly significant photographs. Both of these traps tend to make you miss the whole point of being a photographer, which is that you must have a subject you feel worth communicating to others.
The first trap is equipment. Photography is the only art form that I know of in which the practitioners worship their equipment. I know many artists, yet have never known a painter to brag about his brushes or serious writers to spend hours comparing typewriters or word processors or sculptors spending hours discussing their chisels. Yet most of my time spent with photographers is spent listening, ad nauseam, about this or that make of camera or lens or tripod, film, paper, etc., etc., etc.
Indeed if you want to impress your fellow photographers you never have to show any work at all. Just show up at any gathering of photographers with a very expensive camera hanging around your neck. You will immediately be revered by half of the crowd. If you walk into a group of painters with a two hundred and fifty-dollar Kolinsky brush expecting to be fawned over you will be very disappointed. Carry a Leica or Hasselblad around a photographic gathering and you don’t even have to boast of your skill, many will take it for granted. As a result some new photographers spend more time worrying about the size of their wallets rather than learning necessary skills. They become convinced that if they could only afford the latest megabuck machine they would certainly be able to take pictures just like the big guys.
Of course the ad agencies that sell camera are only too willing to exploit this. Because of this many potential photographers never achieve anything because they are convinced that they can’t afford to be a good photographer. They don't realize that many of the photographs in museums and being sold for outrageous prices were made with simple, non-precise, old wooden cameras, with shutters that probably never gave the same exposure twice and with lenses that by today’s standards would barely qualify as the bottom of a Coke bottle. How in the world did Ansel and Edward do it? While we are at it how did Lord Byron manage to write his poetry without a Pentium IV computer and Microsoft Word?
The second trap is technique. Do not misunderstand me on this point. You do have to know how your equipment works, how to arrive at a decent exposure, and how to print, but learning technique is like learning grammar. You can bore a person to death with perfect sentences. You can become an expert grammarian and never ever come close to being a writer or poet. I am sure you have seen beautiful photographs, gorgeously printed, that were tedious. Too many have made technique the end-all of their photography. They become superior technicians, not photographers.
Many of these technicians, when they actually do some photography, become positively anal in their working procedures, refusing to do anything unless all conditions are “perfect.” I remember one such person telling me with great pride that he put his finished film in Photo-Flo for exactly twenty-seven seconds. In point of fact if it stayed there for thirty seconds he would have been very distressed. He rarely had any work to show instead was worrying constantly about the technical perfection of his work.
The photographic world has a very large group of people I call oral photographers. They know everything about every piece of equipment, film, paper, the arcane chemistry of the photographic process, lighting, composition, etc. They can talk about all of this for hours. Oral photographers have the same effect on many new photographers as being in the presence of someone wearing an expensive camera. The new photographer becomes intimidated by all of this exotic knowledge they feel they must learn. Being an oral photographer is a great way to impress the troops but the end result for a student photographer can be the same as being intimidated by equipment; they pursue technique and knowledge as if these were the ultimate goals or they just become discouraged and quit.
Both of these obsessions are insidious in another way too. They are great cover for hiding from yourself the fact that you may have absolutely nothing to offer the world as a serious photographic artist. Worse, they prevent you from addressing and overcoming this correctable state of affairs. As long as you lack the proper equipment and the necessary knowledge, who could expect you to produce great photographs of artistic merit? You will be fully supported in this thinking by many fellow photographers who have the same feelings or by the jealous, egotistical ones who do not want anyone else becoming more accomplished than they are.
Expensive equipment and loads of informed photographic chatter will bring praise and ego stroking, but to actually show a photograph you then open yourself up to (Heaven Forbid!) criticism. My goodness, someone might not like your photographs. Your cover is blown. Now you are just some poor goof with a camera producing lousy pictures. Much safer to hide behind the logo on your camera or telling other people that putting the tripod leg in their sock and developing in a mixture of Dektol and cucumber dressing would have produced the master print.
Why this depressing and seemingly pervasive state of affairs? Part of the reason is understandable. We work in a visual art that depends on cameras, light, and chemistry. There are certain aspects of photography that are pure chemistry and physics. If the numbers are right then the negative or print will be well exposed or well printed. Also there is a learning curve. First some basic exposure must be learned. Light and lighting must be learned. Composition, maybe studio skills, and darkroom skills are also necessary. Lately we have to add computer skills too. Yet with reasonable effort these skills can be mastered quickly enough so that you will be producing fairly competent work on a regular basis in about six months to a year. Maybe not master level work, but launched and on your way. It is during this stage that the siren song of equipment and technique weave their spell - so beware.
Having mastered the basics of technique where should you go from that point - the point of this essay? Answering the following questions is important. What are you trying to accomplish with your camera? Is there something in your life that you are passionate about- some consuming interest – but not photography? What, if anything, are you trying to communicate? What do you wish the people looking at your photographs to come away with? If you were to sit down to write a book what would you write about? That is what you should photograph. You need a subject for your photography. To be only interested in photography probably means you will be a poor photographer. Remember the grammarians?
My favorite subject is funerary art, especially Victorian cemetery artifacts. I aspire to interpret the statuary based on my feelings about death and my perceived feelings of the sculptor. This interest has involved years of reading and research and hundreds of hours trekking through as many cemeteries as I am able. I even belong to an organization dedicated to the study of gravestones and have written for publication on the subject. This informs my photographs.
My other loves are - in no particular order – architecture, machinery, the moods induced by fog, and the human body in motion, the latter consisting mostly of pictures of hockey players and dancers. These are the subjects for which I am both passionate and knowledgeable. These are the subjects that I photograph and show to strangers. I know gravestones and cemeteries well. This is reflected (I hope) in my work.
Some subjects don’t require special knowledge. I love foggy days and nights. I know what fog is though I am not a meteorologist or scientist. But I have observed and thought extensively about what fog does to a scene. I have watched the effect of fog on the light. I have written about it in my personal journals. I have learned which seasons, what kind of weather, and where and what time in my geographic area to go when fog is expected. So even though there isn’t a large knowledge base I still have the edge over the photographer who has given no thought to the subject at all.
We sometimes try to become like our photographic heroes. Many photographers try to emulate St. Ansel or St. Edward traveling with their cameras to deserts and California shores. Most gloss over the fact that the best photographs these two gentlemen made were of subjects with which they were deeply involved. Adams did not just visit Yosemite; he lived there and knew it intimately. He saw more sunrises over Half Dome than the average grizzly bear. He photographed what he loved and that which had meaning for him. Weston did the same. His passion and eye for for good design made his peppers and potties pop. His love of Point Lobos and his love for the models he photographed are there to see in his pictures. None of their photographs were just technical exercises. The subjects they depicted were important to them. The same can be said of any meaningful photographic work.
What are your subjects? What do you feel that you can show the strangers on the street that will be worth their while? I am not talking about the occasional lucky shot, the marvelous or horrible thing that occurred when you just happened to be there with a camera. I am talking about a body of work that you develop over a period of time, maybe a lifetime. What do you have to show for the time and money? Your work needs a subject. You need to have passion and love for that subject. You need to be able articulate that subject verbally. This implies knowledge and thought. It does not matter what your interests are. Anything from Aardvark Husbandry to Zebra Watching will do. When you raise the camera to your eye you will bring so much more to a photograph when the vision is informed.
As a visual artist you need an internal life to draw upon for your art. No amount of money spent on cameras and accessories, not even a Ph.D. in Photographic Science will make you a successful photographer. My definition of success? When people stop to look at your photographs, in effect to hear you out, and they walk away thrilled, informed, and changed in their perceptions; glad they took the time. Seeing your photography has been a worthwhile experience. However incremental, you have made a difference in their lives. That is as good as it gets.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
The Importance Of An Idea In Your Photography
We have all done it at one time or another. Thrown our camera into the car and started out for a day of taking great photographs. Away we go searching for the perfect photograph. As usual it proves elusive. We look and look, but nothing quite seems to meet our high standards. Everything is too plain, too dull; not the stuff from which legendary photographs are made. Not wishing to waste a day we finally commit something to film out of sheer desperation. You already know the end of the story. Boring pictures and a wasted day.
The problem was that we hadn't the faintest clue why we were out taking pictures. We had forgotten the most important element of photography, the difference between photographer and snapshooter. Picking up a camera is identical to picking up a pencil. You have to have something to say or you will merely scribble gibberish. You need an IDEA.
Most people begin their experience as photographers both fascinated and intimidated by the numerous choices of equipment and processes. They hurry to find and purchase the perfect camera, the finest lenses, the best they can afford in lighting and accessories. They study, searching for the obscure knowledge that must be somewhere; that magic trick, hint, or deep, dark professional secret that will send them into the world as a truly fine photographer.
Yet superb equipment and interesting processes are not what photography is about. Photography is a visual art like painting and sculpture. There is only one important thing and that is the final product- in this case the photograph.
Are you ready for this? The world looks at your photographs, not at your camera or techniques. You have to learn to stand back and look with them or your goal to be a really first rate photographer will be lost.
When people look at your pictures they neither know nor care which camera was used or of your trials in the darkroom. Why should they? Do you know the make of the typewriter or word processor that was used to produce the last novel you read? Would it make any difference whatsoever to your understanding or enjoyment of that novel? As hard as this may be to accept, the exact same relationship holds true between your camera and your photographs.
I know. I know. You worked so hard to become a superb technician it is so unfair that no one seems interested in your pictures. Your first efforts were fuzzy, low contrast, boring photographs. Now they are tack sharp with eye-catching contrast, rich lighting, luscious tonality, and beautiful composition. You feel cheated that they are still dull and boring.
Most human response to photographic technique is psychosomatic. Composition is rooted in psychology. Your preferences for accurate focus, high resolution, contrast, certain color schemes, and even correct exposure in order to reflect some semblance of reality in your print are all physical responses. All of your technical training leads only to psychosomatic gratification. The intellect and emotions are still left wanting. Remember your beautifully composed, well-executed, dull, boring photographs? Ideas are what make the difference. Superb technicians are a dime a dozen. People with highly creative minds, able to translate their thoughts into concrete media expressions are quite rare. We call them Artists. They are successful because they contribute three precious things to the general body of art: originality, imagination, and communicable ideas all delivered with consummate technical skill.
At the beginning stage of your photographic career you should start asking yourself some very important questions. Why am I taking pictures? What do I wish to express to the viewers of my work? What are my short and long term goals as a photographer? The answers to these questions are not only important, but are essential to the strength of your work and your success as a photographer.
Remember the pencil analogy. Would you try to write a book on a subject that you have no interest or knowledge? Why try it with a camera? Are you a person with a camera just aimlessly snapping pictures? If a your only interest in life is photography you will probably be a terrible photographer. You need a subject for which you have a passion. Have you no idea why you pick a particular subject or what you are trying to communicate to an audience about that subject? This usually leads to the possession of a large body of very mediocre work.
Many new photographers make a common, but creatively fatal mistake. They become equipment addicts spending their money and their lives trading one camera for another in a vain search for photographic substance. Others become oral photographers. We all know at least one. They can talk knowingly for hours on end about equipment specs, processes, this film or that paper. They rarely actually take pictures or show any current work, if they show any at all. Other people just give up photography entirely. They may really have had something to say yet didn't realize the main purpose of photography was to say it. The whole point of learning technique is the same as learning English grammar - a means to an end.
" I just paint or photograph whatever I happen upon." We often hear that from people who aren't very good painters or photographers. Very creative people are focused and articulate. They may not speak or publish, but you can bank on the fact that a lot of thought takes place before camera, brush, or chisel is picked up.
How can you come to grips with this serious problem? For starters you must begin thinking about the answers to the previously posed questions. You have to become comfortable working with your ideas, and you must begin to write these thoughts down on paper.
Nothing in your creative life is as important and fragile as an idea. Initially they are fleeting and elusive. They must be recorded as soon as possible after conception or they will be lost forever. How many times has a new idea crossed your mind and then later been completely forgotten? You knew it was a terrific idea, but try as you might you are not able to recall it. Another opportunity lost.
Whenever and wherever an idea strikes, while it is new and fresh in your mind, you should immediately write it down. Don't let the moment pass. Your mate may think you strange if you leap out of bed at 3:00 AM to grab pad and pen, but those precious thoughts come unbidden at any hour and will disappear as quickly as they arrive if you don't record them.
After your ideas have been written down they must be mulled over in order to fully develop. This thought process is critical to your creativity so please - ponder in print. The act of writing is vital. I cannot stress the relationship between your verbal abilities and your camera strongly enough. I know, I know. You are a visual person; you don't like words and aren't too skillful with them. I hate to tell you this, but if you are unable to verbalize your thoughts in reasonably coherent English then you probably will not do much better with your camera. Ideas are language based.
However successful or famous they are, many commercial and fashion photographers work with a person called an art director. The art director is the person responsible for everything in a picture - how it looks, the colors, costume, mood, everything, but most important the art director is responsible for the concept and ideas expressed by the photograph. They are generally the highest paid individuals in any commercial creative project. When working alone you the photographer have to assume this responsibility. If a client is footing the bill it is of the utmost importance that there be communication. The photographer must understand exactly what is expected, the concepts involved, and should be expressive enough to intelligently add his/her own ideas to the project. Few people are going to pay you large sums of money just because you are a " visual person ".
Your own fine art or personal photography also has financial aspects. Unless you are wealthy enough to have a steady supply of film, paper, inkjet ink, other supplies and money for travel expenses all of this has a cost. As I age I find that time also becomes a very precious commodity, often more than money. Aimless photography is very expensive.
Robin Perry, a renowned and highly inventive photographer, stated in his book on professional photography that at least half of his working day is spent just reading. What does he read and study? Anything and everything; some of it with purpose the rest sheer serendipity. Realizing that ideas do not come out of thin air he is constantly feeding his imagination. He considers this time and activity essential to his continuing success as a photographer.
Look at the wealth of superior photography around you. You will find it in many places, but look carefully at magazine advertisements. Not only are the technical skills of the photographer displayed, but also the creative thought and planning that went into each photograph. Compare that to so much of the " fine art " photography that is shown to the world. No, you are not mistaken; most of it really is as tedious, vapid, and pretentious as it seems. Once a year we should dig out our kid's book of fairy tales and re-read the Emperors' New Clothes. Much of this "art" is generally supported by volumes of polysyllabic incoherence and is usually produced and appreciated by " visual people ". A great deal of the personal photography you see shown has the same problem.
Why did you take your last photograph? What were you trying to accomplish? Ideas thoroughly examined and expressed with clarity are one secret to being a fine photographer or artist in any visual medium. Utilization of the rich resources of language is one of the most important skills that a photographer can possess.
Let us discuss the practical aspects of recording ideas and planning the resulting photographs. As stated before start by taking your ideas seriously, no matter how frivolous or weird they may seem at first. Write them down as soon as you are aware of them. Do not worry about grammar and punctuation. Just write it down. Later, as you have time to think about it you will refine both the language and the idea.
After some thought try to write your idea up as specifically as possible. Avoid generalizations and ambiguity. A poorly articulated idea will result in a poor photograph; one that does not communicate the concept that you had in mind. For instance, " I would like to photograph beauty." Sounds terrific. Now define beauty-in visual terms. What specifically do you want me, the person looking at your pictures, to see in the way of beauty? Do you want me to appreciate it or do you want me to define beauty along the lines of your own perceptions? Different purposes breed different photographs. You have to know exactly what you are after first conceptually and then visually. By the way, defining beauty is an instructive project for every photographer.
Take the time to develop your ideas. The initial concept may enter your mind tonight, but you may need to think about it for a week, month, or even a year. You may write and refine it ten times before you are satisfied. Be aware that an idea is a very fertile thing. One may lead to another and another. The original may change from one thing into something completely different. Ten projects may be born with one idea.
Consider your audience at all times. Never forget the people who will look at your work. Who are they? Do you have a firm conception of what you want them to see in your photographs? What questions do you normally ask yourself when you view other people's photographs?
I recommend doing all of this writing in a bound book. Accountant's Record books are excellent as they come in many sizes from small gadget-bag size up to legal size. Get the size that you are most comfortable using. Do not use loose-leaf notebooks or pads. Pages have a way of getting lost or used for other things. This book selecting may seem silly, but the bound book is far more durable and safer.
Once you have your book immediately put in your name, address, and a note guaranteeing return postage should it be lost. The contents will be both valuable and irreplaceable. Allow three or four pages for a table of contents, then number each page. Write any format information on the inside front cover.
Format can be anything you wish. In my books I use numbers to label what I am entering. Anytime I write in the book I start with a number. They are as follows:
#1- Number one indicates that I am expressing the idea. These entries can be anything from hasty description to complete re-workings. Each time I add something I date it. This is for my own curiosity.
#2- Two is the place to take the stated idea and tell how you are going to visualize it. Who or what is going to be in the picture, how, when, and where? What do you want in the foreground, background, what colors, moods, expressions, props etc., etc., etc.? In short what do you want the picture to look like? Concept pre-visualization.
#3- Three is for production details. Models to be used, which camera, film, lighting, other equipment needed, site visits, permissions and releases required, transportation, money needed to complete the project, personal needs, etc. Whatever is needed to get the job done and a picture produced.
#4- Organization. If you are working on a complex project or one with a hard deadline, what has to be done, when does it have to be finished and delivered? When are the models to be ready to shoot, where are they supposed to be, who else is to be there, when is the polka dot paint supposed to be ready for the still life, etc., etc., etc.?
#5-Worksheet. This specifies who is responsible for what and when. I list each task, who the person responsible is, the date assigned, estimated time of completion and/or deadline, and the date completed. This is more than just a record. It will be useful in future ventures when you are required to come up with a realistic estimate of the time required to do a job.
#6- Proposed final use. Even in the beginning, try to think of the eventual use of the photograph. Will the pictures be a slide show, gallery display, captioned prints, book cover, illustration, or advertisement? Who should be contacted- editors, curators, businesses, etc.?
Much of the above sounds as if it is only important to photographers who are in the business, but they are equally important to the fine artist too. As a fine art photographer you spend a great deal of time and money on equipment, supplies and traveling to your favorite places. Many of these trips are not repeatable. Many scenes will not happen again the same way and many won't even be recognized unless you know what you are looking for.
When you have had an idea and have entered it into your book there are other things that you can do. You might want to give the project a title. Some people do not like to do this, but it can help to structure your future thinking. This goes into your table of contents. Date it and give it a production number. The production number is more than a convenience. If it is very complex and you are working on more than one project the number will save you the time and labor of writing and re-writing the title on other paperwork that the project may generate, a storyboard for instance. Do not use the page number for your production number. As time goes on you may have more than one idea book and that would be confusing. Try to guess how much room you will eventually need. Some ideas require one page others may need a whole book. This will depend on whether you use the book for drafts or just your final writing. I find that keeping journals a handy way to expand on any idea or just a place to keep the thoughts in play, but the idea book is separate.
Many people balk at the idea of putting their ideas into writing. They feel that the time would be better spent working with their camera or learning new techniques. I have had students become very upset at the thought of doing so much pencil work. Yet in a medium with such a high communication factor the practitioners should be able to communicate quite well. If a budding photographer finds this difficult or impossible, it is a good bet that his/her photographs will be quite poor. Possibly the most important photography course you will ever take will be titled "Creative Writing 1" or Expository Writing".
There is an old saying in the theater about the vital importance of written thought. It applies to photography as well. "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." For the good of your creative life - take heed.
Monday, April 2, 2007
Why I Turned Amateur
The wedding had gone very well with perfect weather, a sober and cooperative bridal party, no equipment problems and a relaxed pace. The bandleader gave me a nod. I acknowledged it and began to search for the bride's father. I found the father at a table and politely whispered into his ear that we were ready for him to dance with his daughter. The band seeing me do this began to play "Daddy's Little Girl". The father, now very drunk, lurched out of the chair and came at me screaming; " I told you I wouldn't do this. Don't you ever listen ???"
Bewildered, since this was news to me, I backed off quite shaken. I went to the band to explain that he obviously did not want to do it. A few relatives came up apologizing saying that he tended to become a bit strange when drinking. I was there for three more long, uncomfortable hours before I finally could pack up my gear and go home.
A few days before this incident I was reading an article on printing by John Sexton in Darkroom Photography (June 1990). He was describing in elaborate detail how he starts with a work print of very low contrast. He then makes smaller pieces of various print areas with different contrasts. He then lays these on the work print for comparison to help in his decisions about contrast, exposure, dodging and burning in the final print. It was a laborious process. I think he sensed that it might be a bit much for some readers so he threw in a little statement, " Remember, photography is supposed to be enjoyable!" That may have been a minor statement in the scheme of the article, but it had a profound impact on me.
Epiphany via a Playboy cartoon. The cartoon was quite old, part of a collection I have saved over the years. I was thumbing through it when I came upon Santa Claus. Picture tropical beach with white sand, turquoise water, a warm humid breeze and palm trees swaying. A thatch-roofed bar is doing a brisk business. Standing with a tall cool drink in hand and surrounded by a group of beautiful bikini clad women is an elderly gentlemen with white hair and a huge white beard. He is dressed in a sleeveless undershirt, has big red pants held up by suspenders and is wearing big black boots. He is telling the women, " There I was; stuck in a chimney in Des Moines, when I asked myself, ' Who needs this shit?'
That hit home.
Between the father of the bride, John Sexton, and the Playboy cartoonist whose name I do not know, I had to ask myself some pointed questions. Did I wish to remain a professional photographer? Did I want to become "just" an amateur photographer, lose my "Pro" status, and be a mere dilettante? I had to lose a lot of mental baggage before I could answer with a resounding, joyful - Yes!
Christmas of 1947. I opened my present and there it was. You pushed a button hidden under the leather skin, the front cover folded down pulling out the lens and bellows. Dad showed me how to look through the small reflex viewer and how to gently release the shutter while holding your breath so as not to shake the camera. Inside the box were two rolls of 620 Ansco film. We loaded the camera. I ran around the house dragging anyone outside who would come with me. I soon had people squinting into the sun while I snapped away.
Then came the excruciating wait, the first of a lifetime of waits. Dad took the film somewhere to be processed. I met him every day at the door asking for my pictures. It probably took a couple of weeks, but it seemed like years. Finally they were done.
They were blurry, fuzzy, gawky pictures of the family, but to me they were the most wonderful miracle. Dad brought home a huge album with black pages and a bag of corners. Each photo was lovingly placed in the album and dutifully labeled. Every roll of film after that was as exciting as the first; every wait unbearably long, and every set of prints as big a thrill.
My father also had a small German press camera, with which I was allowed to play. I would carry it all around the house and yard (I wasn't allowed to take it anywhere else) and focus on everything near and far. No item was too mundane. People, flowers, trees, the house next door, anything on any tabletop, bureau, kitchen counter, and especially all of my toys. I would spend hours just focusing on something and enjoying the thrill of seeing it in focus on the glass. This is still one of the most visceral thrills of photography for me today.
I obtained my first great camera in high school, a Rolleiflex with a 75mm Xenar lens. I then began to study photography quite seriously. My poor mother never understood the obsession. She felt there were far more important things in life than photography. Thus began the litany from my mother, repeated almost to this day (she is ninety-four and cantankerous), "If you paid as much attention to your studies as you do to that camera...etc., etc., etc."
There was such joy being a photographer. The satisfaction of producing something visual, from my head, using technical means with the added bonus that I could also get attention and approval. If I made the effort and produced a photograph I achieved something. I could get the satisfaction and applause or whatever I was or am seeking. The icing on the cake? The effort is definitely fun.
There are other lures of photography. There is a certain feeling that comes from looking at the world through optics. It is as much a thrill now as it was 50 years ago. I love the looking, composing, the control of lighting, calling on my knowledge of exposure, processing and printing that one uses to make a picture come into being. I find irresistible putting the puzzle together, and then the capture has meaning and gives satisfaction. This is the main reason I love architectural photography.
A portrait adds the element of capturing my feelings for the person on film and is the reason I now only do them now for people that I know and care about. My main love is gravestone monument photography, which combines the two subjects that fascinate me most, photography and funerary art.
Whenever I put an image on film, no matter how pleasurable that process, nothing compares to the darkroom. Here I am in my artistic home. Here is where I feel my creative urge satisfied. Making a large print- and I do love really large prints - to the highest standard possible, with whatever emphasis I choose. This for me is the performance, as Adams said, in photography. The mental routine in printing is very important to me. If I am going to be an Artist with the capital A, this is where it will happen. I absolutely love the whole darkroom operation. It is exciting and satisfying.
I did all of the usual photographic things in college. I took pictures for the yearbook, spent all of my free hours studying this wonderful subject, devoted much time and money taking pictures, and listened to my mother's complaints.
Then followed graduate school, marriage, and poverty- basically in that order. I began teaching in a small New Hampshire village and took up my love affair with photographing gravestones about the same time, but my camera was mainly used to record the first years of my children's lives. Four years later we moved to Central New York. I began working in a school producing educational visuals. I started teaching photography at a local community college. At the same time I began looking at my free summers as a time to earn some cash with my camera. Now the thoughts of being a pro became somewhat of an obsession.
Why the obsession? Well, at the college it became apparent that students took the professional photographer/teacher more seriously than the amateur counterpart. I chafed, as some of the people I taught with were not all that good as either teachers or photographers. Yet they were pros so one had to fight for the student's attention and respect. I decided I would become a professional photographer. I studied the business aspects with passion and began to take small portrait jobs. The big day was my first wedding. Armed with a Graphic Century with a roll film holder, Graphic Strobo-500, and a fifteen-pound battery pack ripping the lining of my suit I started on the wedding/portrait path to being a pro.
This was in the early 1970's. I tried to meet some of the local pros. One of them was a friendly face, but the rest treated me as though I had the plague. I heard of the PP of A and subscribed to their magazine. The 70's were also the time when the "99 centers" were sweeping portrait photography and putting about half of the studios out of business. The PP of A journal discussed these people and the "weekenders", namely me, with the same tones one reserved for highly contagious lepers. To say that the wedding pros didn't welcome newcomers was gross understatement, but I persisted and stayed in business over twenty years.
As Rome, NY is a small town I did a bit of everything. Wedding/portrait was the bulk of the business, but I sought out whatever architectural work and studio product photography I could find. I even did a three-year stint as a game photographer for a pro hockey team. Rather than becoming more exciting and pleasurable my photography became a blur of doing the work, hustling more work, mounting prints, sorting negatives, chasing commercial accounts for payment, in short all of the usual hassles. Every job becomes a job and slowly the thrill of photography was replaced by drudgery. The camera was no longer this thrilling creative tool. It was just a tool. I found myself thinking that if I saw two more people say, "I do." I would retch.
So yes, John Sexton's question really hit me where I lived. The answer to his question at the time I read it was a very definite and disturbing NO. How did something so central to my life become this disagreeable? Somewhere along the way the photography became less important and the business became consuming.
Prior to the father of the bride, John Sexton, and the Playboy cartoon I attended a portfolio seminar at RIT given by Elaine Sorrel. Ms. Sorrel is a rep for some of the top photographers in the business. Her seminar was a mixture of very practical advice interspersed with some rather wrenching emotional insights. She wanted us to ignore all of the previous ideas we had been taught about picking work for a portfolio. Her basic message was photograph and show what you love and the money will follow. This to people whom had been taught and believed that you tailored a portfolio to the potential client. She said pick your clients with care. Give the art directors credit for brains. When they need the kind of photography you do best they will remember you. I really had to think about what was it I loved to photograph.
I began to think about why I wanted to be a professional photographer. Was it love of photography or love of ego? There are obvious profound differences. Did I really need to be a pro to be validated as a first rate photographer? Did pro status even guarantee that I was a first rate photographer? I had to deal with the ego issue first. Yes it is nice to be known as a "pro" among your photographic peers. Many pros are very accomplished photographers. The term professional means that one does something well. Amateur according to my dictionary can mean that one does something with less skill- amateurishly. To give up the aura of one for the other would be a blow to my ego unless I was really secure with my skills and talents. More than that I thought about Ms. Sorrell's advice and wondered if I would ever be able to earn any or enough money as a pro photographing what I loved. What did I want to do with my camera? With very mixed emotions I finally gave up my tax number, tossed the letterheads in the trash, and turned away the calls for wedding services.
My dictionary's other definition of amateur is one who does something for the love and pleasure of it, a lover of the activity. I remembered the thrill of taking pictures with my first old box camera. I remembered the joy when I would take out the Rollei. I turned amateur to get as much of that back as possible. I followed Ms. Sorrel's advice and decided to just photograph what I love. Money has not followed, but I have had many one-man shows many in some of the better museums in the area. Most of all my camera, and time spent with it, is a delight again. I spend many hours each week just photographing that which I wish to photograph. The darkroom is again a joy. For getting all of this back into my life I will be forever indebted to Elaine Sorrell, John Sexton, the father of the bride, and of course, Santa Claus.