Saturday, July 25, 2020

Where did you get the delusion …

Some years ago – to be honest about it a lot of years ago (try 40) – I took a portfolio of my photographs to a review for the first time.  In fact it was the first time that I had the temerity to show my photographs to anyone but my wife and a couple of friends.  I was searching for a direction for my work and for sure was still struggling with technique.  I tried 4x5, doing it until I was convinced that if I stayed with it I could do so with some facility.  In a flash of insight I noticed that I wasn’t having fun so I stopped doing it.  I tried color negative printing, doing it until I was convinced that if I stayed with it I could do so with some facility.  Another flash of insight squashed that idea.  Same with gum bichromate printing.  Same with several other alternative processes.

In that remotely distant past there was a short-lived institution, “The Factory for the Visual Arts”, housed in a repurposed school building in Seattle’s Green Lake district.  It sponsored a variety of classes, rented studio space in wonderful old second-floor classrooms with tall windows, had a small performance space, and even hosted the student company of Pacific Northwest Ballet for a couple of years. 

When they announced a weekend photography event I signed up immediately.  The speakers were from the university and their talks and the portfolio reviews were, well, more than a bit cerebral and not helpful to me either in finding a direction or improving my technical skills.  One of the reviewers, an MFA student at the university, said to me: “Where did you get the delusion that anybody would be interested in photographs of people that they don’t know?  It was also obvious that she regarded those of us without an art degree as na├»ve and underprivileged.  These were bitter pills for a midcareer engineer with a passion for photography to swallow.

Years passed – about 15 of them – with me still looking for a direction for my photography but enjoying what I was doing and struggling a whole lot less with technique.

At that still long gone and lamented time Rainier Photo Supply, a local photographic supplies vendor, sponsored an annual Saturday event at a local community college.  It included a modest trade show and talks by local and regional photographers.  One of my favorite memories of it was a talk by Wah Lui, an excellent portrait photographer, who famously said “One of the less effective ways of becoming a photographer is to go to college.  In college you intellectualize about photography until nobody knows what the hell you are talking about.  I’m puzzled that people go to school to learn photography.  Imogen Cunningham once said that ‘as soon as one learns to print, go off on your own to make pictures.’  There is some value in workshops but after the fourth workshop it’s a waste of money.  The money would be better spent on film.”  That made me feel a lot less self-conscious about my autodidact approach to learning photography and I scribbled his statement down in my notebook as fast as I could.  He also said that one should keep an eye out for books of photography that excite you – and if you have fewer than a hundred of them in your bookshelf to look harder.  Even at that early day the count on my bookshelf was way over a hundred.  His statements made me feel a good deal better about my autodidactic approach to learning photography.

This event also offered portfolio reviews.  The reviewers were mostly photographers as opposed to curators and gallerists.  There was quite a demand for reviews so they were short, as I recall 15 minutes, and you registered for four reviews – who you got for a reviewer was pot luck.  Three of the four reviewers I drew gave me a lot of help with technique – both with the camera and with printing.  To my confusion and later amusement some of what reviewer A said and some of what reviewer B said were mutually contradictory.

But I digress.

Many more years passed but the “Where did you get the delusion …” statement still haunted me – and to some extent still does. 

Arnold Newman photographed the likes of Igor Stravinsky seated at his grand piano.  Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed John Paul Sartre on Pont Neuf on a foggy day.  I may not know Igor or John Paul personally but I certainly know who they are.  Does that count?  Would those portraits lose their significance if the subjects were unknowns?  I think not!

In the lexicon of art a “tronie” is an image of a person but not a specific person.  Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and Frans Hals’ “Merry Drinker” are tronies.  They were almost certainly painted from a live model but not as representing a specific pretty girl or specific ruddy cheeked man.  Yet a lot of people still seem to be interested in these and many other images like them.

It was only after I discovered the work of the likes of Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, and Edouard Boubat that I realized how compelling photographs of ordinary (read: not celebrity) human beings can be.  Yes, a photograph is by its very nature much more specific than a painting.  Can a photograph of a person be a tronie and be of interest on its own without the context of “knowing”?  I hold that I do not have to know who Lella or the winemaker are in Boubat’s “Lella, Brittany France 1947” or Ronis’ “Winemaker, Gironde 1945” to be interested in them.

I don’t know a lot of celebrities (you can say that again) so what I hope for my photographs of people is that they will be tronies.  I recently showed some of my photographs, including this one, to a small group of non-photographer friends and was delighted when one said: “You make ordinary people look so wonderful.  I’ll take it.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Spying on a Memory


The great Henri Cartier-Bresson noted that "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.  You cannot develop and print a memory."

One of the very few nuggets that I mined out of the heap of words in Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida" is this (paraphrased).  Photographs more than any other medium can create a window into the past.  

So while you cannot develop and print a memory, if you have the negative then you can at least catch a glimpse of the past -- spy on a memory. I use this title "Spying on a Memory" for my long-term retrospective (gee, that sounds pretentious) project of combing through my negatives and reprinting.  I'm a bit over 600 prints now.  But I digress.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of an incident of spying on memories that are not mine.

For a very long time my wife and I spent at least one long weekend a year at the Seabeck Conference Center on the Hood Canal.  For those not of the northwest, the Hood Canal is a body of saltwater between the Olympic Peninsula and the mainland.  We had become friends with the then newly installed manager of the center. As part of a very successful effort to build good will between the local population and the center he invited the "old timers" from the community to a spring barbecue on the beach adjacent to the center.  He asked them to bring along any photographs of the village that became the conference center in the early 1900s from their family albums.  He also asked me if I would photograph and copy some of these to hang in the center's buildings.  Of course I would!

The barbecue was a lot of fun and I photographed 60 or so vintage prints from the 200 or so that were there on the spot so that the owners could take the originals home again.  Over the next few months I made 8x10 or so copies of them.  Along in the fall he organized a second barbecue for the "old timers" and I brought along the new prints.  I laid them out on a long table for everybody to see.

When Seabeck was still a thriving village there was a dock at which the "Mosquito Fleet" steamboats called.  These were small coastwise boats that swarmed (like mosquitoes, thus the name) around Puget Sound carrying passengers, cargo, and mail among the many isolated villages.  One of the photographs was of the dock with a boat there, men in flat caps were unloading cargo and a couple of women in fancy dress with umbrellas and a man in a derby were walking towards the camera.  An elderly man with a white shoe brush mustache looked at my print and said "That's the (I can't remember the name of the boat.)  I was a deck hand on her -- that picture was from before 1923 because in 1923 she hit the dock in (somewhere I don't remember) and the pilot house didn't look like this any more."  I got his address and later sent him a copy.

But now the connection to the current pandemic.  Another one of the photographs was taken in a bedroom in one of the village houses that became part of the conference center.  Two small girls in white dresses, perhaps 6 and 8, one with a big white bow in her hair, were seated on a bed.  A tiny elderly lady in a print dress looked at it and tears came to her eyes.  "That's me and my sister.  Our father was the first manager of the conference center.  I remember when this photo was taken.  I knew it existed but never saw a copy of it.  It was 1917 -- I know that because my sister died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic."  I made a copy of that print for her, too.