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.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

RIP Bumbershoot, Long Live Bumbershoot

“Bumbershoot” was (is?) an annual festival held at Seattle Center over the Labor Day holiday weekend.  “Bumbershoot” as in an umbrella for a festival of music, art, dance, and general good cheer.
The notion for Bumbershoot was pretty much hatched by Anne Focke — an arts administrator for the City of Seattle — as a morale builder during the “Last Person Out of Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights” days of the late 60s as the City Arts Festival.  By 1971 it had evolved into Bumbershoot, a goofy, volunteer-powered, community event with free admission (later low cost admission) that featured mostly local music in a wide variety of styles, an extensive visual arts exhibition, and a steady stream of impromptu performances.  Each day of the festival there was at least one ad hoc parade of some kind, often accompanied by a lusty if inept brass band.
“The Big Naso” was leading one such parade.
So Bumbershoot remained for perhaps thirty years.  A combination of volunteer burnout, declining individual donations and reduced support from the city during the recent recession precipitated a search for a sugar daddy to pay the bills.  Enter AEG, a national promoter of music festivals, who contracted with the city and One Reel but took over booking and management of the event. 
Over the next several years, AEG morphed Bumbershoot into a high-priced, high-intensity, headliner-driven, music festival that eliminated or downsized areas for dancing, squeezed out most of the visual art, seriously restricted pop-up performances, buskers, and prohibited cameras with interchangeable lenses, ostensibly because the headliners “don’t permit photography during their performances.” 
Three years ago I was denied admission even with a paid daily pass because of my vintage Canon SLR.  (Hmmm, how do the modern pancake 20 megapixel digital cameras with ISO 10,000 and 20:1 zoom lenses fit into this picture?)
I haven’t even bothered to go since then long lines of people waiting to get into the headline venues (all staring at their smart phones) don’t seem like good photograph fodder to me.
The tide may have turned once again.  AEG, noting a precipitate drop in patronage and a national overabundance of headliner festivals, declined to renew their contract with the local One Reel organization and the city after the 2019 event crowds were less than 50% of expected. 
My opinion: good!
One Reel took over once more as the festival organizer and says: “While the details won’t be announced until early next year, we can tell you this: Everyone at One Reel is excited to usher in a new era for Bumbershoot that embraces the festival’s long legacy of multi- generational programming and community participation.  We are currently working with the City of Seattle and Seattle Center, to create a new model for Bumbershoot that honors both the festival’s origin and history, while ensuring the festival is sustainable for the long haul.”
My opinion: hooray!
Best of luck to One Reel, the city and a small army of volunteers.  This will be the 50th Bumbershoot and all of us ol’ timers are holding our breath.
My cameras still work.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Acquiring a tiny bit of art karma

At a place and in a time I do not remember I bought this button.  I thought it was a giggle and I agreed with the statement it makes.  I have worn it on various sweaters and sweat shirts for years.

I have received quite a few comments on it -- most recently from the toll booth at the ferry terminal in Anacortes where the attendant looked me over and said "Ok, I'm not afraid." as he handed me my change.

A couple of months ago at the Pike Place Market the young woman behind the cash register at the tea shop said "Ooooh, that's a Miripolsky!"

Does the name Miripolsky ring a bell?  (It didn't with me.)  But I said "It sure is."  and looked him up as soon as I got home.  Turns out that Andre Miripolsky is a big-name pop artist from Venice California (where else) and this was kind of his break-out piece.  Ok, cool, here's an 81 year old geek like me running around with a pop art icon on his sweater.

Earlier this month I went to the opening of a middle-school student art show at the local community center.  The event was fun, mostly because the kids from all over the school district who had pieces in the show were having such a good time.  The I believe 6th grader who took the first price was a rather shy girl.  Her piece had a cartooney, kind of goofy look that reminded me of Miripolsky so after the awards were all done I asked her if she would show me her piece and tell me about it.  

She was obviously pleased to have a random grown up take interest but told me with a straight face that she wasn't good at talking about it.  Then she treated me to an articulate, well-reasoned explanation of why she did that particular piece and what it meant to her.  I loved it.  As we walked back towards her proud parents she very quietly said "I really like your button."  What would any softhearted parent do?  I gave it to her and she pinned it on her blouse.  I also wrote down the url to Miripolsky's website for her.

That ought to improve my art Karma just a bit.

I also ordered a couple of more of them from the website -- having one to give away suddenly seems like a good idea.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Stendhal Syndrome Anyone?

Once in a while some piece of art or music catches me out and I have a very physical response to it.  I call it the "weak knees and cold chills" response. I love it when that happens.  It leaves me feeling very alive and at peace.

The finale of Mahler's Third Symphony does it every time.  Live performance is better but the CD of the Berlin Philharmonic will do.

As does "In Moses Soyer's Studio" (photograph by Larry Fink -- Portland Art Museum has a copy) does it, too.

So does "Paris Street; Rainy Day" (painting by Gustave Caillebotte -- at the Art Institute of Chicago)

The queen, however, is "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (Painting by Vermeer -- at a show in the de Young in San Francisco).  I walked from left to right in front of it.  When I got to the far right my eyes met the sight line of the girl in the painting.  I stood there dumbstruck until my wife came and dragged me away.)

Turns out a visceral response to art isn't that unusual.

I stumbled across "Stendhal Syndrome" while looking for something else (the only way I find unusual bits of information).  The first definition according to Professor Google:

"Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects or phenomena of great beauty"

I have a mild case of it and I wouldn't want to lose it.

Any other sufferers out there?