Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Photography

Fredrick Sommer, a photographer known for his minimal shooting output (a few hundred negatives in his whole career) once remarked that most photographers shoot too much, an, as they age go from being artists to someone managing an archive.

8-0097-sticks

Broken Trees, Dover, New Jersey, Spring 1987

His student, Emmet Gowin, called photography “a generous medium”, by which (I think) he meant that when you finally figure out what you are trying to do, you probably already have the images you need.

8-0810-broken-trees

Broken Trees, Fairbanks, Spring 1992

I’m nearly 60, and have been making photographs for nearly 40 years, always as an “amateur”, a lover of photography, always distracted by a “day job”.   I made pictures on weekends or days off, developed film when the weather was bad, and printed what I could in evenings or odd hours.  I always felt like I was leaving a lot of images “in the file”, and that someday I would get back to finish looking at them, and print all the good ones.

8-4406-smashed-trees

Trees Smashed by Thor, Fairbanks, April 2007

I didn’t think it would take this long, but finally, I seem to have time to go back and look at images in the file—to dig through the archive.  I have about 6,500 8×10 negatives, 3,000 4×5 negatives and just under 500 12×20 negatives—about 10,000 large format negatives in all.  Starting in 2004, I scanned every 8×10 and 4×5 negative as a proofing step (rather than contract printing), so I have digital images of about 3,000 negatives on my hard drive.

8-4978-flotsom-and-jetsom

Flotsom and Jetsom, Tanana River, July 2008

I never set out to “do a project”, and I never had deadlines when something needed to be finished, so there was never a reason to put a project to bed, other than losing interest or moving to a new landscape.  I have some subjects I began photographing 30 years ago that I continue to photograph whenever I find a new scene.  I’m not trying to scan every sheet of film, but rather trying to find every image I made from a subject—so far, I’ve completed scans from the Dalton Highway (about 450 negatives), Denali Park (a mere 120 negatives), and my Tanana River Mud series (150 negatives).  I’m arranging these scans into print on demand wire bound books arranged by location or similarity in image content.

I always knew I was leaving some good images in the file, but I always assumed that I had skimmed the cream off the top—that I had identified and printed the best work as I went along.  After all, that’s what I had been taught—shoot film, develop it, proof it, examine the proofs, print the best, and move on.  What I am finding is a surprising number of wonderful images in the files—way more than I expected.

8-5940-wood-4

Wood Scraps, Northland Timber, Fairbanks, June 2010

To be honest, the my weak link in the chain was the proofing step—back in the silver days, I did make a proof of every negative, but they were done quickly—frequently overexposed and under developed—dark and flat—because I was usually guessing at exposure time (too lazy to make test strips).   If I had a show, I would try to produce some “finished prints”—which meant doing a test strip, and making 5 or 6 prints from a negative, then toning them differently, looking for a single finished image.  I could print maybe 5 or 6 negatives in a printing session (my print washer held 32 prints).

8-6171-smashed-wood

Smashed Wood, Oakesdale, WA, June 2013

Digital printing is far more predictable than the trial and error tedium of the darkroom.  The actual scan takes about 5 minutes (including handling the negative) on my flatbed scanner, followed by several steps in Photoshop to adjust contrast and sharpen the image. The most time consuming part is a dust removal step—with grayscale images, always done manually—usually takes 10-15 minutes.   The first print is often “good enough”—meaning that I would be willing to put it in a frame and hang it on a wall.  My standard workflow includes writing the negative number, the title and date of the negative, and the paper type and date of the print—and I sign the print.  I usually don’t number an edition—I usually only make one print from each image.

Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors”—something that makes a lot of sense in the country surrounding our farm.   A fence is a way of dividing ownership of the landscape into what’s yours and what’s mine, clearly defined, visible:  an obstacle that must be walked around, or passed through with a gate.  Fences work both ways: some things are being kept in, so they don’t wander off—things that are ours (sheep, cows, dogs, children), and some things are being kept out—other people’s animals, wild animals, other people’s kids, or strangers.

When we bought our farm 25 years ago, the fence around the property was in very poor repair, and other people’s cattle had the run of our meadow—as allowed by “open range laws”.  We gained control of the meadow only when a local rancher spent a summer building fence around the property to keep his cattle out—if they could get into the meadow, they would never leave—and he had leased 14,000 acres of forest lands surrounding our property—where he wanted them to spend the summer grazing.  Now, when he opens the gate to our property in October, the meadow is soon filled with his herd—I once counted 160 cattle in our meadow in late fall.  It makes it easy for him to round them up and move them to their winter range.

 

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

The old farmhouse we are using as a cabin is in the middle of the meadow, and was surrounded by a fence to keep the cattle out of the yard.  Behind the house, a deer fence surrounded the garden area.  Another fence kept the cattle out of the pond.  Every time we went to the garden, we opened a gate.  Going from the house to the well  near the pond required going through three gates.

The old fences, Spring 2016

The old fences, Spring 2016

 

Last winter, my wife Rachel suggested that we surround the house, garden, and pond inside a single fence, high enough to keep the deer out.   We love watching the deer, and are glad there are so many, but they do tend to eat almost anything we plant.  The new fence would enclose all the sheds, the new grove of trees we planted to the south of the house (the next generation of shade), the newly planted apple trees, and the place where we are trying to start a thicket for the birds.

Early this spring, we figured out where we wanted this new fence to go, marked corners, and measured distances.  I started building the new fence in early June, starting with pulling out some of the old fence to make way for the new.  I have memories of helping my father build fence, back in Lancaster County, when I was a boy.  It’s hard work—digging holes, stretching wire, pounding posts, pounding nails—dirty, physical labor—not the kind of thing I’ve spent my career doing.   I wind up drenched in sweat and filthy at the end of the day.  And the job is big—each day I work I make some progress, but the job requires many days of work—weeks, months.  The satisfaction, though, is in being able to see my progress, and knowing that I’ve done the job right, and that, with luck, the fence should last the rest of my lifetime.   We are making the fence as transparent as possible, so we can see the space beyond.

I’m about half way done with the job now.  Moving the fences changes the space in many ways—trees that had been outside the fence—in the space belonging to the deer and the cattle—are now inside—in our space.  Even though we legally own the whole property, building our fence is a way of defining our space—where we can plant things—and making the property our home.  We dream of gardens and orchards, with flowers and seeds and thickets for birds, and porches to watch them from.

 

Fence (1 of 1)

Some previous works from my collection:

For Halloween

Collage #1

Collage #2

Collage #2

DSC09917

Abstract #1

DSC07550

Abstract #2

Abstract #3

Abstract #3

The joke being, of course, that most of these works of art were found in the wild–on the street–not in a gallery.  I collected them with a camera–mostly.  There is one in the group above that is a “real” painting, signed and dated by the artist.

The paintings in the previous post from October 16 were all “collected” from downtown Portland.  The paintings above are from Korea (2004), New York (2009), Fairbanks (2000), and Spokane (2014).

While I am a photographer, my first art purchase was of a painting.  Of course, there is a story.  My wife Rachel and I were traveling in Europe, intending to do a bicycle tour of Denmark and Norway–a five week vacation.  We landed in Homburg, Germany (I think the plane tickets were cheaper there), and took a train to Aarhus, Denmark, our bikes in the baggage car.  My bike made it, but Rachel’s did not.  We waited in Aarhus for the better part of a week, waiting for the bike to show up.  To make matters worse, the bike was my wedding gift to Rachel–so there was sentimental value in addition to the monetary value.  While we waited, we walked through Aarhus, looking at stores.  We found a “good used painting shop”–something we had never seen in the US–something sort of like a cross between a gallery, an antique shop, and a thrift store.  Most of the paintings were drab and dreary landscapes of Denmark–the owner seemed to have a fondness for them.  But one painting caught our eye–a painting of Greenland–and the light in that landscape resonated with our recollection of the light over the water in Kotzebue, Alaska.  The painting was priced well beyond what we thought we could afford–but we went back to look at it several times.

Greenland, 1953, G. Thorbjorn

Greenland, 1953?, E. Thorbjorn

When the bike failed to be delivered after a week, the railroad offered to pay us for the lost bike.  We protested the pittance they offered at first, but when the offer rose to something close to the price we paid, we accepted–an amount which was sufficient to purchase the painting.  We took our cash from the railroad station to the used painting store and watched as the proprietor removed the canvas from the stretcher and rolled it in a tube.  We now had our first painting–and a new wedding gift.  The twist to the story–within hours of completing the purchase, we got a call from the railroad station–the bike had arrived–so we went and bought the bike back–but kept the painting.

The proprietor gave us a small slip of paper with information about the painter–in Danish, of course.  A few years later, we had a friend translate the slip of paper–my recollection was that the painter was a man who made a living painting houses.  Of course, now we have the internet–I just did a search of G. Thorbjorn–and discovered that I either have a bad memory, or had a bad translator–the painter is Evelyn Thorbjorn–1911-1985–and a woman.  I managed to find some auction records–the prices paid clearly indicate a lack of interest in her work among the hedge fund set–all the records I found were less than the price we paid for the painting more than 20 years ago.  In other words, not a great investment, at least not from a financial perspective.  But we’ve owned the painting for 22 years–and I’ve looked at it almost every day–it’s been hanging in our living space all that time.  It still brings back the memories of the light and space of the arctic.

Which perhaps leads to what I think the function of art is, at least in my life.  It permits my head to go to places I want to be.   I like having it because I can look at it often.  It makes the bare walls of my house into a space that is mine.

Wild Painting--Graffiti under highway bridge, 2014

Wild Painting–Graffiti under highway bridge, 2014

And I love the act of collecting “wild paintings” off the street using a camera.  I am certain that some of the paintings I have found this way were created intentionally, by artists working with surfaces other than canvas in a studio, put on public display until some “beautification project” destroys them.  My one regret is that I have no knowledge of who created the work, or why, or where to go find more of their creations.    Other “wild paintings” have been created more by accident and aging than intention, like the layering of posters on a wall, or paint splashes on the side of garbage dumpsters.   Either way, I feel like my role, as a photographer, is closer to that of a collector than a creator.  I see something I admire–something I would stop to look at if it were hanging in a gallery–so I frame it in the viewfinder, and take it home.  It is now mine, but only in the way of owning a painting.  It is part of my collection.

In Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” one of the scenes involves a day when it rains when the sun shines, a day when children are advised to play indoors because the foxes have their weddings, and do not like to be seen, but a boy disobeys, and watches anyway, and gets in trouble.

I thought of that scene today when a funny spring storm, with bright sunshine and rain mixed with snow fell just as we were leaving our farm and heading back to Spokane.  We have splendid views of the sky to the west and the south, but both the north and the east are hidden by mountains, so when weather comes from those directions, it feels like it’s on top of us before we can see it coming.

 

Snow and sun, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

Snow and sun, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

I did not see any foxes, and doubt if they were getting married—as a matter of fact, I’m not sure that foxes are common in our neck of the woods—we do see lots of deer and turkeys, and an occasional coyote. But the light of sun shining through rain mixed with snow is definitely strange, magical.

My wife and I have owned that piece of property for almost 25 years now—we bought it while we were living in Kotzebue—a place to buy a one way ticket to when they ran us out of town—a joke that would have been funny if it didn’t cut so close to the bone—but we’ve never managed to live there.   For years, we had a variety of renters in the old farmhouse—they helped pay the mortgage, but they all seemed to be troubled people—at least two died from drug overdoses, and one spent time in jail for child molestation. For the past few years—since our last renter left in the middle of the housing boom in 2007—we’ve let the place sit vacant—we call it “our cabin”—and now that we are living in Spokane, less than 100 miles away, we can visit on weekends—or during spring break. We spent the past few days planting trees (my wife’s task) and fixing the plumbing (my job)—but taking breaks to sit on the porch and enjoy the view. While digging a trench to access a valve, I kept thinking of the Towns Van Zandt song “To live is to fly”

“We all got holes to fill
And them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own

The choice is yours to make
And time is yours to take
Some dive into the sea
Some toil upon the stone

Well to live is to fly, all low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.”

Driving into the farm earlier in the week, we were playing Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere over the rainbow”—the one where he gets the words all wrong but gets the song so right—and when we left today, there was a rainbow over the whole canyon. Who knows how our lives will go—but wonderful things happen when rain and sun mix—maybe foxes do marry—maybe magic things happen—maybe dreams do come true.

 

Rainbow over Dead Medicine Road, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

Rainbow over Dead Medicine Road, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

My son is a high school student, participating in the debate team.   I recently volunteered as a judge at a debate tournament, with one of the events being a “dramatic interpretation”, where high school students performed a piece that someone else had written, but that they had memorized and performed.   My first round involved five high school girls, and the readings they gave were shocking:  child abuse, sexual molestation, murder, suicide were all covered, in passionate detail.  Fortunately for me, my wife was in the room, and after the last girl finished, my wife asked them where they had found the pieces, were they in any way autobiographical?  And the girls started to giggle—no—they were not autobiographical—they were selected, perhaps because they were effective emotional stories.    A few weeks later, I judged another event where students read a piece of their own writing, and mixed in with some first crude attempts at fiction were at least two clearly autobiographical pieces, one dealing with the effects of a crippling emotional disorder, the other with the death of several high school friends in car accidents.

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Life is not fair.  While a few lucky individuals seem to skate through life unscathed, there is no denying that sickness and death are part of life, and must be confronted.  More troubling is the suffering we bring down on each other, or on ourselves.

What is the connection between suffering and art?  It is very apparent that suffering can and mostly does happen in the ugliest of ways:  the history of the last century is full of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and the news is full of mass shootings.   The rational response to events like these is despair:  why does the world need to be like this?

Of course, suffering is a topic that arises in religion.  The atheists strongest argument against a benevolent supreme being is suffering:  how can a god that loves us permit (or cause) so much suffering?  And perhaps the greatest example of art arising out of suffering is the example of the Christian church—if the hand of god cannot be summoned at will to relive the suffering of the people, perhaps pictures of miracles from the mythical past can convince them that it is their own sins that cause the suffering.   Art has been used by the church to render the old miracles into physical forms through painting and sculpture.

Robert Adams, in his essay “Beauty in Photography” published in a book of the same name discusses the connection between art and suffering, between truth and beauty.   He argues that beauty is based on Form, and that Form is beautiful  “Because it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”   He also asks the question, “is art a sufficient consolation for life?”  and goes on to point out that art can help, but it alone is not sufficient, that we also need human connections—“an anecdote, a jumping dog, or the brush of a hand.  All these things are disorderly, but no plan for survival stands a chance without them.”

What strikes me about Robert Adams’ essay is how he argues that art has a critical function, to convince us that our suffering is not without meaning, and are lives are not better off simply being ended.  In the end, art must be an affirmation.

Of course, the “art world”, still abuzz from the record price paid for a Francis Bacon triptych, seems to be interested in something else, namely, money and power.  There is no question that Bacon’s paintings reflect anguish of the 20th century, that his popes are images of powerful men in hell, but the question remains, why do collectors value his work so highly?  On the other end of the spectrum, the mass market seems equally committed to the work of Thomas Kinkade, who died recently of a drug and alcohol overdose, who called himself “the painter of light”, painting sentimentalized images of homes and churches bathed in unnatural glows.   Both men may have suffered, neither seem to have arrived at a truth that is affirming—Bacon fails by painting monsters, Kinkade though eye candy.

But there are examples of people who have suffered and transformed that experience into great art.  Shostakovich, the great 20th century Russian composer is one—his music is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.  Timothy O’Sullivan began his career as a photographer on the battlefields of the civil war before heading west to make sublime views of the landscape.  Frida Kalo suffered an unfortunate accident as a young woman, and a difficult marriage, but made compelling paintings.  All of them made great art.

John Szarkowski noted that the pictures that command our attention the longest are the ones that seem to hold some mystery.  Eugene Atget made amazing photographs, but it’s hard to know how much he suffered—he may have been a failed actor, but he made a living as a photographer.  He did have a very productive period at the end of his life, after his wife died, when he was facing his own mortality, but he made many great photographs before then.

Suffering is part of life—to live is to suffer—and life is not fair—but there are things that help, including art.  High school kids dealing with sickness and death are looking in the right place–sometimes, looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music or encountering a poem can convince us that we are not alone in our suffering, and allow us to experience moments of grace—where the suffering remains real, but finds a balance with beauty.

Japanese Garden, Manito Park, Spokane  October 7, 2012

Japanese Garden, Manito Park, Spokane October 7, 2012

From this morning–my wife and I were taking a very short walk in a park not far from our new home in Spokane–there is a lovely Japanese garden that someone has been working on for the past 50 years–it is quiet, balanced, beautiful. I love to walk in the garden.

But it also is an example of the Asian ideal of beauty–every tree, every shrub, every rock, is carefully chosen, and allowed to participate in the visual beauty of the place–but nothing is wild–it is all controlled by some plan bigger than the individual, everything is kept in it’s place…

There is a sign on the front of the park I love almost as much as the trees and the bridge–“no commercial photography–no tripods, no reflectors”–something that made me nearly laugh out loud–I can see how this place could be overrun by eager wedding photographers–and I’m glad they need to be fast and discrete…

There was a brief rain shower–this photo was made while waiting out the rain in a small shelter–which may be why there were no other visitors in the garden during our visit–a stroke of luck–part of my gratitude for the garden.

With the government shut down over a certain group of people angry about paying taxes, I’m grateful I found a place to live in a community where some of our taxes go towards the maintenance of beauty.  Oliver Wendel Homes once noted that the only bill he didn’t resent paying was his tax bill–“our bill for civilization”–and I’m happy to contribute to the keeping of this garden.

A few years ago, I read a book called “I Bought Andy Warhol”—a book written by an art dealer who had bought and sold many Andy Warhol paintings over the years, but eventually decided he wanted a Warhol to keep.  A lot of the book had to do with the “almost Warhol’s” floating around the world—bad prints, or unsigned proof prints lifted by assistants—all available on the edges of the art market.  Eventually, he decides that he wants a real Warhol, and travels to a warehouse where Warhol’s estate is kept and buys a painting, which is then stamped by the executor of the estate, and the transaction carefully recorded—making it a “real” Warhol.

Real” Ansel Adams prints are currently selling for several thousand to several tens of thousands of dollars per print, well beyond my comfort level as a collector.  So for a long time, I assumed that I would never own an Ansel Adams print—I’ve seen plenty on the walls of galleries and museums, I know the power of his printing, but I don’t find his mythical wilderness to be a vision I want to invest heavily in.

However, a few weeks ago, a group of small photographs by Ansel Adams appeared for sale on e-bay, all stamped on the back “From Virginia and Ansel Adams, Operating Best’s Studio, Inc, Yosemite National Park, California”.  Several of the images were inscribed on the back in pencil in handwriting that may have been from Ansel Adams himself, although none of the images were signed.  I managed to purchase one of the images.

Ansel Adams had many assistants who worked for him over the years—and has sold many prints made by these assistants at very low prices—they were intended to be low cost, high quality prints for the general public to purchase.  In 1938, when his wife inherited Best’s Studio, he sold small ones for $1.00 or 3 for $2.50—larger ones for $1.50  or 3 for $4.00, printed by his assistant Ronald Partridge, the son of Imogen Cunningham (information from Ansel Adams, A Biography, by Mary Street Alinder, 1996, page 140).  Based on the stamp, it seems likely that the print is of that vintage.

Ansel Adams, Yosemite Park, 1930s?

I like the image I purchased for several reasons—it is a well crafted image—the exposure of the negative and the print are extremely well controlled, the time of day and the angle of the light, the presence of the cloud above the cliff, the framing with the two trees, and the power of the flow of the waterfall all indicate the care with which the image was made.  But I especially enjoy the foreground—a road with a single line painted down the middle, a small pull-out for a car to park, a road sign, not to mention the fact that the road is designed to provide a dramatic view of the falls.  Many of Ansel’s pictures were made from the road, but few include it’s presence.

I have no idea if I paid too little or too much for the photograph—nor do I really care (although my wife might).  I’m happy to have an example of his work in my collection, even if it isn’t signed, and probably wasn’t printed by him.   I’ll frame it later today, and hang it in my home, maybe next to the Walker Evans prints from the Library of Congress.

The digital revolution of the past decade (or two) has had profound effects on photography in general, and my photographs in particular.  Wikipedia defines photography as “the art, science, and practice of creating durable images by recording light”–

Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

For photographers of my vintage—I began making photographs fairly seriously in 1977—the preferred route to “durable images” was through the use of black and white materials—the color papers and films of the time used dyes of dubious durability—but (at least some) black and white images had persisted for more than a century (and many became more interesting with age), so that was the medium of choice.   A finished print was a silver print, usually small.   Once started, I persisted in making black and white images, until the advent of digital printing, which I began to experiment with in about 1998.

Early digital printing (anything pre 2001) was an ephemeral experience—prints could color shift and fade in hours if left in sunlight—but digital technology solved one of the major problems with traditional chemical methods—photographs and texts could be printed on the same sheet of paper.   It became possible (for the first time) to make simple books—something I had been struggling to do for decades.  So I began scanning negatives with gusto, even though the quality of the products were often less than satisfactory.

Fairbanks, January 18, 2012

In about 2001, third party ink sets became available that claimed to use pigments (metal oxides used in paints) rather than dyes, which I began to use (at least in part because ink cartridges were exorbitantly expensive in the quantities I was using them to print books—I was spending about $500 per month just on ink).  Eventually, the ink jet manufacturers developed pigment based ink sets that offered much better stability.

I bought my first digital camera in June of 2001, a 3 mega-pixel Nikon Cool-pix 995, with an articulated body so that I could use it at waist level—and I began to shoot with gusto—and print in color, for the first time in my life—wallowing in color.  In the time since, I’ve had about a dozen digital cameras, mostly the “pro-sumer”  level—relatively compact with fixed lenses, cheaper than the SLR models—pocket cameras that I could keep in a coat pocket or a computer bag, almost always having the camera in reach—at home with my family, when traveling, or just out and about town.   I’ve taken something like 100,000 pictures in that time (so many, it’s hard to count).

Walmart, Fairbanks, November, 2011

Why so many pictures?  Part of the answer is that digital has made it so cheap and easy to make a picture—a single chip costing a few dollars can hold thousands of images—you never have to change film in the camera.

(One wonders what photographers of the past might have done with this tool:   Gary Winogrand noted that “all the good stuff happens when you’re changing film”—and left a freezer full of undeveloped film when he died.  With digital, there is simply no reason to stop shooting.   But John Szarkowski noted, in reference to Winogrand’s frozen legacy that “to expose film is not quite to photograph”  (in Winogrand—Figments from the real world, pg 36)—a reference to Winogrand’s deteriorating technique during his last few years—including his apparent inability to even hold the camera steady in bright light—“It is as if the making of an exposure had become merely a gesture of acknowledgement that what lay before the camera might make a photograph, if one had the desire and energy to focus one’s attention.”  )

Hong Kong, August, 2005

The question becomes, though, is what to do with all the pictures.  Most photographs made now are never committed to paper—no prints are ever made—people view the pictures on their cell phones, or (if they are ambitious) on a computer screen.    I began by making ink jet prints of images I was interested in—I have more boxes full of them than I care to admit.  But prints in boxes are not very satisfying—they are never shown to an audience—even I don’t look at them very often.

In late 2005, I discovered a solution—on demand printing of books—and took to the medium with a vengeance.  Once a pile of digital photographs are selected, it takes only a few hours to arrange them into a book format, write a short description for the body of work (usually the writing is the most time consuming task), then upload it to a distant web site.  In a few days, a complete book arrives in the mail, and the work is at least somewhat finished.  It’s more like a bound stack of prints than a real book, but it is a physical object that will survive a hard drive crash.

But I’ve done several groups of photographs that are much bigger than reasonable for even these little book projects, and so I’ve been thinking about other ways to display them.  New digital TVs often have a USB port that can do slideshows from memory cards, but smaller digital picture frames are also available.  I’ve had a couple of digital frames for the last year and a half (I bought the first one for my 82 year old mother—but it’s too complicated for her), and enjoy watching pictures come and go, something new every time I walk past.

I have a show in a local gallery, and in in addition to the 4 large canvas landscapes made from scans of large format negatives, I  plan on hanging about a dozen digital frames, with a total of 23,000 pictures loaded in them, changing every 5 seconds.  Next to each will be a  single framed print—the 20th century meets the 21st.   One of the points being, of course, there are just too many pictures to look at.  And it isn’t just me—every photographer I know has some version of the same problem.

 

Trash, Tanana River, April 29, 2012

So maybe this is the dead end that Winogrand hit—when everything looks like it might make a photograph—and there is no reason not to trip the shutter.  Or maybe it’s the beginning of some new kind of photograph—less considered, more fluid, something that’s lasts barely longer than the flash of a lightening bug.

I purchased a copy of Robert Adam’s book, Beauty in Photography:  Essays in Defense of Traditional Values in the early 1980s, one of the first photography books I ever bought (when I began a database to track my book collection, this book was the first book I entered).   I have probably read this book at least 50 times, and my copy is far from pristine—a soiled and torn dust jacket, multiple underlinings, and notes scrawled on the insides of the covers.    The book discusses not only photography, but Art, beauty, truth—all the big ideas—in a way that makes sense, but requires careful attention from the reader.   In Adam’s two additional books of essays, Why People Photograph and Along Some Rivers, additional ideas are added to the core created in Beauty in Photography,  but the earlier book is central to his thinking.  And the most central essay is that titled (surprise) “Beauty in Photography”.

8-0551 Selawik River, 1990

Adams argues that the proper goal of art is beauty (page 24), and that the beauty he is most interested in is Form.  “Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…”  and then goes on to ask “Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, ‘What is Heaven, anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.’”

I grew up in a culture that did not value Art (a farming community) largely, I think, because art was not seen as being useful—the coherence and structure underlying life was imposed on the community in the Sunday sermon, and the fields and pastures of the farms provided enough visual pleasure for anyone.

I no longer believe in the sermons, though the form of the fields and pastures of that landscape still give me pleasure (there is something entirely sensuous about the green of a cornfield in evening light in May—why would one want to waste money on a painted canvas?).    I began making photographs right about the time I left the farms, and I remember thinking that what I liked about photography was that I could discover things without struggling with words—I wouldn’t have described it then as a search for Form, but now I think that was precisely what I was after—some way of describing coherence and structure.   Photography was, for me, very useful—a tool to help figure out the world.

The question remains remains—is Art enough?  Adams speaks in other places of the consolation offered by pictures, but when faced with suffering, pictures seem so ineffective.   But I offer them anyway.  Visiting my mother is easier when I turn on the digital picture frame I left in her room—sometimes the pictures will stir her failing memory.  And I have, on occasion, offered prints to family and friends going through rough times—I’d like to think that the pictures help.  I’d like to think I’m doing something useful.

With Mother’s day coming up, it seems a fitting time to pay tribute to the first photographer that had a major influence on me—namely, my mother.

My mother as a young woman

As a child, I remember my mother’s camera, a twin lens Argus that took roll film—a snapshot camera with a very crude lens—but I remember the care with which she arranged herself when she took the pictures.  Making pictures was a serious enterprise for her.

Noami Witmer, "Dennis With Easter Egg, 1959"

In the 1960s, my mother switched from black and white film to color slides—a wonderful medium, but one requiring more care in storage than my mother seemed capable of giving her collection.  Many of these slides are now warped, scratched, and dirty—but they are the most direct access to memories that my sisters and I have of our childhood.

Naomi Witmer, "Sue at Easter Egg Hunt, 1970"

I’ve been thinking a lot about these pictures, as I’ve spent the last two weeks going through my parents house, sorting through the papers and artifacts that seem to accumulate over a lifetime—and mixed in with these papers were photographs.  Albums put together 60 years ago have largely fallen apart, and the slide collection was scattered into several locations—pictures I remembered seeing years ago have reappeared, along with many photographs I don’t recall ever seeing before.

Mother, April 25, 2011

My mother is still living, almost 82, but her memory is mostly gone, ravaged by Alzheimer’s.  She is now living in an assisted living facility where she can get the care she needs.  My father is still alive also, but failing, and the clearing of the house was to facilitate his move into a smaller apartment in an independent living community.

I’ve put together a digital picture frame of family photographs for my mother’s room at the home—when I visit, we watch the pictures together.  On good days, she names those she can remember—and guesses at others—often there are stories and laughter over the memories.  But I wonder sometimes if the pictures help her connect with her past, or make her feel inadequate –knowing that she should know the people in the pictures, but unable to connect the images with names or memories.   But I am grateful for the pictures she took of our family, and the memories she left us with.