Here on a perfectly tranquil snowy Saturday morning in Vermont, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have come to be surrounded by endless unparalleled beauty I have no natural desire whatsoever to photograph, about what kind of photographer I am. One thing is certain, if I’m spending more time holding inner debates than holding a camera, something’s wrong. Maybe I should start with trying to pin down first what kind of a photographer I was. At the very least this might provide me with a brief simple impressive statement I can try out at my next social opportunity, in place of the vague embarrassed ramble now in use when such questions arise, the one that begins with how I mostly shoot black and white film and then runs through everything I don’t do until I start gazing down into my drink hoping I will be alone when next I raise my eyes.
The Library Next Door in Snow
Shooting black and white film isn’t really a good answer to questions of kind. It reminds me of my similarly inadequate response in the days when I introduced myself as a poet. Then I would lead with how I write mostly in formal verse, and by the time the words “personal experiences” and “intimate moments” were halfway between imagining and utterance, the topic had mercifully been changed. It turns out that being a formalist in writing is even more of a buzzkill than being a traditionalist in photography, and that people mostly don’t care about technique, format or materials, they want to know about subject, which becomes problematic when your work isn’t about what you capture but how. And when, I would like to know, did every artist in every medium have to be working on a specific project with a subject, theme and purpose that can be described in two sentences or less? Not that there is anything wrong with that. One of my favorite photographers, Todd Hido has created an impressive body of work shooting nothing but houses at night. Check out his site if you can. They are not only beautiful but remarkably unique and moving images. I admire his work; I envy his ability to present it in a phrase that takes less energy and thought than nibbling a small but satisfying canapé. To be fair, I’ve heard him speak at great length, brilliantly, so I know there is far more to his philosophy and process than the phrase “houses at night.” He is that rare exception of an artist who begins with a specific set agenda and also manages to maintain complete uncompromised freedom and joy in his work. This is the kind of photographer I am not.
Tree in Snow
With very few exceptions, I don’t do portraits or set pieces of any kind, in which the photograph is both conceptually and physically arranged first, captured next. I don’t even like to leave my house, camera in hand, thinking “today I will shoot trees in snow.” I will take this aversion to its extreme by purposely leaving my camera at home if I know I will be in particularly picturesque surroundings. It all feels too staged, too forced. My muse and I have connections that resemble occasional chance encounters in dark alleyways, not romantic rambles through postcard-perfect landscapes. Any hint of the urgent, obvious or controlled and my cynical muse won’t return my calls for months. I’ve become a kind of hostage to spontaneity. Maybe that’s the kind of photographer I am.
When you grow up in a crowded lonely sparkling dirty depressing exciting city like New York, you develop a very complex and often contradictory aesthetic sense. When everything is too big and too much, you turn your attention to small things, be they objects, spaces, moments. You start looking for the beauty amidst the ugliness, light in the darkness, humanity in the inanimate. Most of my poetry came from this source, a need and a desire to isolate and capture something small, individual and beautiful, not just to share it, but to preserve and protect it. You could say I was an urban poet, even though a lot of my poems had nothing to do with city settings or characters. But even my poems about natural landscapes are clearly written from the perspective of a city girl. I wouldn’t love the country the way I do, if I had not been raised in the city.
Cars in Snow
It’s not surprising that when I first started to take taking photographs seriously, I would produce the visual equivalent of my poetry, preferring the less obvious subjects, and letting them find me rather than seeking them out. I would purposely avoid the kinds of shots I knew anyone with a camera could take. I chose black and white so as not to be dazzled by color, to force myself to seek something in the image that was not visible to the naked eye. When others looked skyward to an imposing building on a cloudless day, I would crouch and photograph a crack in the sidewalk. When others captured the faces and activities of Manhattanites in all their wonderful strange variety, I would be drawn to their shadows, or the empty spaces they had just occupied. To me, city life was more about what was happening in the corners, in the absences, in the places everyone else passes by.
Rooftops in Snow
Which brings me to Vermont, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Perhaps too much so. I am so accustomed to being on the alert for beauty in the least obvious places, I don’t know what to do with it when it is everywhere I look. Or I do know what to do – experience it, enjoy it. Taking a photograph seems utterly unnecessary as there is nothing I can do to bring out something beyond what is already there. In my recent visits to galleries, it does seem that most Vermont artists take inspiration from these stunning surroundings, but perhaps take it a little too literally. Landscapes and animal portraits abound. They are beautiful, yes, but also, for me at least, mostly unmoving. I still believe that even with the most beautiful of subjects, artists ought to transform or present their subjects in such a way as to transcend life, otherwise, why art? So the question remains, for photography perhaps more than painting, how do you take that sort of camera-ready material and make it your own, make it unique, make it say something someone will slow down to hear? One recent exception was an amazing photographer whose work I saw in his own gallery in Weston and then later at a group show in which his work stood out in a room full of others’ photography. Wayne Nobushi Fuji is indeed the kind of photographer who shoots trees in snow, but what he then does with the images is a marvelous marriage of Eastern and Western aesthetics, creating triptychs from a single shot image and printing them himself in limited editions on special paper, adding that original one-of-a-kind value often lacking in endlessly reproducible photography, which is one of the reasons I am not reproducing any of his images here. The sequence, sizing and subject of his work are meant to imitate both the form and theme of traditional haiku verse, but also remind me of an altarpiece. The piece I saw was hanging right next to an uncurtained window with a magnificent view of snow covered mountains bristling with trees, but I could not take my eyes off his work.
The Great Divide
I never imagined that in a place like this, it would take almost two months to shoot one roll of film, which is now sitting in its canister on my desk waiting to be taken to a faraway film processing store that can still process traditional black and white film. The images sprinkled throughout this post were of necessity all taken this morning with my digital camera from indoors through screened windows, providing an unintended but apt visual obbligato to my ongoing inner debate. It took so long to complete one roll of film, the results of which will appear here in possibly a week or two depending on how long my faraway film shop will take to develop it, because everywhere I look I pause and think “this is not the kind of photograph I want to take. This is not the kind of photographer I am.” Every image required my full unqualified commitment to my subject, and those moments were few and far between. The fact that these images took time to capture and will now take time to release from their tiny prison, that they are there as I saw them, but may as well not exist until developed, is part of the wonderful mysterious fragility that keeps me using film. While I’m waiting, my challenge will be to shoot more film until I somehow bring together my urban sensibility and this natural landscape, and like Nobushi and Hido create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. For now, the parts remain on either side of a great divide, and I know better than to force a meeting. Next time someone asks me what kind of work I do, I’ll have my own short phrase ready -- “I don’t know yet.”
Happy weekend and many thanks to all my followers, especially Number 100!