Wynn Bullock is one of my all time faves. He was definitely more winsome than Stieglitz.
I picked up a few books at the library on a trip to Bozeman on Thursday to hang out with my friend Becca. Among them are Steichen’s autobiography (a thrilling piece) and various books on Stieglitz and O’Keefe. I’m pretty excited about the books on Stieglitz and O’Keefe, two of my favorite artists in the history of ever, but I’m finding some very interesting bits in Steichen’s biography. First, Steichen was a painter, a high class hob-nobber, and had a knack for getting people to buy his photos. Maybe there’s something to his celebrity photography thing. Second, he appears to be stand-offish in talking about Stieglitz. Not that I blame him. Stieglitz was a user. A genius on a level with Michaelangelo but a hard-nosed, tactless, user. A lot of his closest friends, like Strand and Steichen, ended up not really liking the dude.
Anyway, I found a couple of really beautiful quotes from Steichen. (Interspersed photos are from the above mentioned trip to Bozeman and around my home in Big Sky.)
“During [my] teen-age years, I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches, and foliage that reached up toward the light. But I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself — mysterious and ever-changing light with its accompanying shadows rich and full of mystery. The haunting, elusive quality of twilight excited in me an emotion that I felt compelled to evoke in the images I was making. Emotional reaction to the qualities of places, things, and people became the principal goal of my photography.”
Allow me to chorus this sentiment roundly. I have written elsewhere that my primary pursuit in photography is communication of split seconds that speak to what I call “The Otherworld.” It is light that illumines this place, mythical or real, and it is deeply, wonderfully, seriously, soulfully, mysterious. Thank you, Edward Steichen.
Steichen also speaks of a fellow named Maeterlinck that was involved in the art community during the early Photo-Secession. Maeterlinck had an incredible thing to say about this amazing early 20th Century shift in the world of art.
“I believe that here are observable the first steps, still somewhat hesitating but already significant, toward an important evolution. Art has held itself aloof from the great movement, which for half a century has engrossed all forms of human activity in profitably exploiting the natural forces that fill heaven and earth. Instead of calling to his aid the enormous forces ever ready to serve the wants of the world, as an assistance in those mechanical and unnecessarily fatiguing portions of his labor, the artist has remained true to processes which are primitive, traditional, narrow, small, egotistical, and overscrupulous, and thus has lost the better part of his time and energy…It is already many years since the sun revealed to us its power to portray objects and beings more quickly and more accurately than can pencil or crayon…But today it seems that thought has found a fissure through which to penetrate the mystery of this anonymous force, invade it, subjugate it, animate it, and compel it to say such things as have not yet been said in all the realm of chiaroscuro, of grace, of beauty, and of truth.”
Quite possibly the most powerful statement of photography’s potential then, and potential now, that I have ever read.
Life, Love, Light, and Peace,
I bought Robert Werling’s “Beyond Light: American Landscapes.” To date it is one of my favorite photography books. The dude still shoots 8x10 view camera. Cole Weston wrote the highly favorable foreward to the book. In and of itself, that should tip one off that Robert Werling is worth looking at and reading. Words seem to have graced the Photo-Secessionists and their heirs because both Cole Weston’s foreward and Bob Werling’s single paragraph in the book are powerful. (I really appreciate some of what Weston says, but I’ll leave that for a different post.)
Anyway, I found a couple really perfect quotes in Werling’s lone paragraph in the book.
First, Werling says,
“Whenever we encounter a beautiful scene we seem to want to record it and share our sense of wonder. What we feel deeply is often difficult to put into words, and many photographs are just records of a time or experience. This leads us to the question of photography and reality. Is a photograph real or does it merely inform? Usually, the more information there is and, above all, the more tones there are, the closer we approach reality. Since the objects we photograph exist in the real world, we need to make some sort of departure in order to present subjects in a more poetic way. One doesn’t look at something for what it is, but rather for what it could become.”
Werling’s struggle to properly enunciate something he feels so vividly, so powerfully, mirrors what I am presently going through. I increasingly am coming to see that what I have to say about photography, the world I live in, and my connection to it, can only really be communicated through the images themselves.
Another really fantastic quote from Werling was this one,
“The landscape, perhaps more than any other subject for photography, requires patience and a sensitivity that goes beyond light. To be constantly observing, to be there, to experience and record and later present to a viewer that which, in some mysterious way, connects to our lives…to me, that’s photography.”
I hope this guy wrote a ton more. I doubt it but I sure hope so.
Also, I took a short skin up into the mountains today. It was glorious. Skinning is the only way to get anywhere in the snow.
Peace and Love,
I’m not sure what, precisely, it is about unfettered and unbothered solo walking that is so inspiring but I find myself repeatedly lit on fire when I wander.
Two things. First, it appears that the act of wandering is fulfilling because, in one way or another, that’s what we’re all doing. We’re wandering. Searching, looking, absorbing, seeking something. The wandering itself isn’t entirely fulfilling. It is what one gets from the wandering that is important. It could be anything. A clearer thought. A moment of peace. A connection to a greater something. A little bit of all of the above.
Second, a friend pushed me to something the other day that I found enlightening. He more or less demanded that I tell him a bit of what I felt as I wandered around. No one really presses me to tell them what I’m feeling, but it made me think about why I do feel such a draw to just wander around the forest making photographs.
Here it is: I wander because every time I go into the wilds, whether it’s the perfect little footprints of a squirrel in the snow, a ray of light that pierces the undergrowth and sets a single tree apart from the forest, the way a certain stand of trees blows in the wind or the way the tundra falls, for a split second I feel like I can see Narnia. Like the animals will start talking and the trees will start dancing and adventures will be had. If only for a split second, I see another world. A pure world. A world of everlasting glory.
Here in this world, we see only brief glimpses of that world. For the most part, the forest and the mountains and the weather and the winds are groaning in tribute to the fact that they are not a pure world. But here and there, snatches of a separate, perfect, purity can be found. The more you connect with what is around you the more you see them.
My wanderings with a camera are merely reflections of this feeling.
What do I feel when I’m out there doing photography and seeing the wilds? I feel like I want to record those split seconds so that I don’t ever forget them and, in the end, after thousands of photographs, perhaps I will have a faint image, a vague imprint, a portrait of what that other pure, mysterious world looks like. And then, when I’m longing for that pure Otherworld, I can come back to the images and look at them and for a little bit feel like I live there now.
Peace and Love in the Pursuit of the Otherworld,
I wandered through the forest today. Winter hit us hard and the stoke is high. I was relieved that I could go out there to shoot for commercial purposes and still…feel. It is really hard to shoot commercial and retain your person. It ended up being a stellar morning for both art and commercial purposes.
It’s snowing pretty hard today. Besides the fact that this means I will soon be floating through wide expanses of powdery goodness and flying through glades of beautiful pines strapped to two pieces of wood, it also makes for very surreal forests. Winter makes the earth look like a different planet. So I took a walk. It was stunning.
I also decided to spend some time reading the opening to John Fielder’s book, “Photographing the Landscape.” The book was more or less my photography Bible when I was in high school. I did notice a few things I don’t think I would have picked up before while meditating on the images. I think that Fielder and another of my heros, Robert Werling, were the last true heirs of Photo-Secessionists. With some shining exceptions, like Tim Cooper and my friend and mentor Craig Tanner, digital and HDR have more or less turned landscape photography into a desolate wasteland of technological unreality. (Bear in mind, I know there are a slew of good landscape photographers out there, just none that I think really convey a classic “Straight Photography” style).
I’ve actually met Fielder and interacted with him at length. I was 16. He wrote a very kind note to me and encouraged me to seriously pursue photography as well as riffed with me for about an hour on the topic of landscapes for business when I met with him in his gallery in Denver.
Fielder wisely says,
“Always get to know a place first before you photograph it. Don’t be anxious to make images of it immediately. Leave the camera in the car, hike around for a day or a week observing, absorbing. Only then set out to put it on film. And don’t assume you’ve seen it all. From year to year, season to season, day to day, and morning to evening, a place is never the same. If you grow to love a place, your perceptivity will grow, too.”
He goes on,
“Finally, never assume that a photographer cannot create just like a painter. A painter can either paint from reality or from his or her imagination, in which case the artist fathers and composes subject matter in the mind. Photographers can paint within the mind too, even though they are forced to work with reality. Creative photographers often make images by allowing certain features in the landscape to appear more conspicuous in the photograph than they might be to the eye. A skillful photographer controls the outcome of the image — the art.”
I find that this quote correlates excellently with my investigation of O’Keefe. I think I’m starting to realize that the camera can be used quite as effectively as paints. As a result, I’m going to continue these occasional tributes to her. I can’t get her work out of my mind. It’s there every time I take photos now.
I used to be appalled at the very idea of an intentionally blurry photo. I’m changing my mind now. I think with an appropriate nod to the Impressionism that influences them and a reminder that unsharp photos can convey a sense of universal form over and against an insistence on particular forms they carry a very real beauty. I feel like the photos above are open to visual interpretation by the Viewer. The Viewer can make his or her own story when there are nothing but universal forms present and no stress on particulars.
I’m thinking that may just be one of the reasons I like O’Keefe so much. The Viewer is free to discover himself or herself in the work, rather than having the meaning of the work bluntly dictated to them. It’s an experience I’ve come to enjoy.
Peace and Love,
I wandered around the forest a bit this evening proceeding an afternoon I spent looking through a giant book of O’Keefe with essays. I was pleased to discover that much of what I had independently concluded about her work was seen and commemorated in the essays throughout the book. Namely, that she was battling to communicate universal forms with a very non-European method (though I sense European Impressionism in a lot of what she did anyway). Once you get past the initial “so what?” that pervades the present public consciousness (including mine) in relation to painting and art, some very interesting things arise. Her consistent use of duotone, soft light, and deeply sexual themes pervade and define a vision that has obviously set out to record and investigate…something. She said it was her life. I tend to agree as I read about her involvement with Stieglitz and the Southwest. Regardless, her painting is reaching me on a “properly basic” level. I made this top photo as a tribute to her painting, “Black Line.” I’m sure I’ll continue to be influenced in one way or another by her.
Of course, the Photo-Secessionists continue to dominate my thoughts. I’m not interested in copying them, not at all, but I’m certainly adopting many of their techniques, their understanding of previsualization, and their constant mediative sense in the landscape of the connection of living things with living nature.
I did surprisingly see a couple of photos in color. Maybe it’s because I grazed on some Galen Rowell and David Muench tonight as well. I really like the quote I found from Muench in Rowell’s Retrospective.
“Nature photography is the capture of a rare moment in time. Rendering the intangible, the transitory, a heartfelt gorgeous moment, the camera brings in eternity to the viewer.” - David Muench
Peace, Love, and Light,
I decided to take a brief break from the photo-secesisonists today to look at some O’Keefe and read a bit in Galen Rowell’s Retrospective. First, I was surprised at how unimpressed I was with Galen’s work at the beginning of his career. It seems fairly documentary at a very basic level. However, as his work progresses it started to take on an almost impressionistic, dream-state, kind of feel. Second, I found a really compelling story about a trip he took with Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Rick Ridgeway. Ridgeway recounts it in an aside in the book entitled “The Difference Between Looking and Seeing.” I copy it below interspersed with a couple photos from last week.
“We stopped in front of a large print of several basaltic rocks with smooth, faceted faces. The black rocks were huge gemstones rising Stonehenge-like out of the flat hardpan. We were silent for perhaps a full minute before we began to comment on how this image, unique among the others Galen had made during our expedition, seemed somehow to capture the wild power of the northwest Chang Tang — the only remaining corner of the Tibetan plateau as yet unoccupied by human beings. We also noted how quintessentially a Galen Rowell photograph that it was recognizable as his, in the way that a painting by Picasso or Miro doesn’t need to be attributed to the artist.
“But where did he take it?” Jimmy asked. ”I was wondering the same thing,” Conrad responded. ”I don’t remember seeing those rocks, do you, Rick?” ”No, and I’ve been trying to retrace the trip in my mind,” I said. ”I can’t place them.” ”It’s not like we didn’t all walk by them,” Jimmy added. ”We were together the whole trip.”
“That’s the thing isn’t it,” I replied. ”We all walked by them.”
Conrad said, “But only Galen saw them.”
Just some thoughts. Photos are from the last few days.
Wynn Bullock continues to be a giant inspiration to me. It’s interesting that Bullock was so far detached from the Photo-Secession (or at least, detached from the high school drama that was Stieglitz/Strand/O’Keefe/Steichen/Weston/Modotti) yet had some of the greatest things to say about the rapidly changing medium and its artistic abilities.
For instance, one of the things I like most about Bullock is his emphasis on learning from the photos instead of trying to force yourself on them. I think this jives brilliantly with Ansel’s saying that his photos were an end unto themselves, and Weston’s statements about doing “straight photography” where one did not impose one’s “emotional or philosophical headaches” onto the image. Bullock said,
“I was just photographing what I was seeing on the surface, and then I began to have feelings about the things that I knew existed beneath the surface. I began to examine more about what I was—were things really what I thought they were.”
Barbara, his daughter, said,
“The emphasis became one of learning from things themselves through photography rather than on using photography to develop and prove something already determined.”
Of course, it’s hard to miss the logical fallacy here. Can you see it? It’s called “cutting off the branch you are sitting on.” (Really technical, I know.) Just say it: “We’re against telling people what to think in our photos. Now stop thinking about what to think in our photos.” AWK-ward. It is a philosophical and artistic statement in and of itself to adopt “straight photography.” However, in their attempt I think they hit on something very important, Bullock especially. Rather than galloping around like a bull in a china shop when it comes to photography it may be better to slow down and feel what the subject is telling us. I’ve started a practice that I think is really valuable in this respect, whether I’m shooting digital or not. It’s a crazy idea. It’s called: not pressing the shutter button. Wait. Take some deep breaths. Feel what is happening. Sense my surroundings. Then, maybe, possibly, press the shutter button at the right moment. It isn’t easy, especially in a digital age, but it aligns me more organically with my subject.
But who cares, right? I actually have no issue with someone attempting to remove “doctrine” from their photos. I may not do it (I have some hefty statements I intend to make photographically), but I see some pretty intense figures in the ‘20’s - ‘70’s doing exactly that and doing it successfully. Doing it brilliantly. I wish more people did it and thought about it.
Bullock had this way of talking that just makes me want him to keep talking. He says,
“I have always loved light…Its manifestations serve as symbols of the greatest secrets of the unknown. Creativity has enabled me to probe and reveal step by step the unknown. Even though I know I can only travel a short distance, every step in that direction is a transcendental experience.”
Last quote from Bullock (though I could go on quoting that dude for days),
“The camera is not only an extension of the eye, but of the brain. It can see sharper, farther, nearer, slower, faster than the eye. It can see by invisible light. It can see the past, present, and future. Instead of using the camera only to reproduce objects, I want to use it to make what is invisible to the eye, visible.”
Peace, Love, and lots and lots of Light,
I was browsing through this book (which I am seriously buying the day I get $40 spare dollars) and found a story Stieglitz told on one of his superlative and formative early photographs, Winter on Fifth Avenue. I think it is highly instructive on the endeavor of making a photograph. I kept it in mind as I recorded the interspersed photos.
“There was a great blizzard. I loved snow, I loved rain, I loved deserted streets. All of these seemed attuned to my own feeling.
During the blizzard I stood at the corner of Thirty-Fifth street and Fifth avenue with Post’s hand camera. I had been watching lumbering stagecoaches appearing through the snow, the horses, the drivers, the driving snow - the whole feeling - I wondered could what I felt be photographed.
The light was dim - at that time plates were “slow,” and lenses were “slow,” but somehow I felt I must make a try.
Wherever there was light, photographing was possible…” - Alfred Stieglitz