Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Unlikely Subjects

Made in Vermont

At long last, after a protracted tragic-comedy of errors (most of them admittedly mine), here are a few images from my much discussed and anticipated first roll of film as a Vermont artist that took weeks to shoot, and then more weeks to get processed thanks to the scarcity of Vermont resident machines that can still handle traditional black and white film.


Sometimes, I outwit myself. The trouble with looking ahead and making detailed plans and preparations is that the resulting lists and notes are only as good as the mind that remembers to consult them after the fact. Which is to say, months ago, when I still lived in Somerville, I had a cordial and informative email correspondence with the manager of the photography shop in my new Rutland neighborhood, in which he confirmed exactly what kind of film they could and could not process. I even bought some of the right stuff and set the wrong stuff aside. Of course, I forgot this correspondence when I loaded the wrong stuff into my empty camera on arrival, and then I forgot it all over again when I smilingly handed over to the man (whose identity I failed to recognize) this unprocessable roll of film, thus suffering the twin disappointment of knowing 38 beautiful images were now imprisoned in a tiny canister indefinitely and that the person who shot them is an idiot. 


One week later, Brian and I went to Bennington and entrusted the miniature prison to the one shop that could release its captives. The shop is over an hour away by car, but they, not surprisingly, do a brisk affordable mail order business. Today the mailman handed me an envelope containing my processed negatives, and all’s well that ends well. Unless there’s something else I’m forgetting.

 Show Don’t Tell

Last time I wrote about photography in this space, I subjected my readers to a self-indulgent self-interrogation as to what kind of photographer I was, am and will become. In honor of the eternally beneficial injunction “show, don’t tell” here are some of the images that caught my eye in my first weeks living in Vermont surrounded by so much natural beauty I felt so unequal and unwilling to photograph. I think I now have my final answer to cocktail party questions of kind. I am the kind of photographer who prefers unlikely subjects. 

 Room at the Top

But more importantly - how did January end already? Wishing you all the best for a happy healthy February - and beyond! I truly appreciate your kind words and continued support.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Not Just Another Pretty Face

Driveway in Snow

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 canapĂ©. 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.

 Space Heater

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!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Win Some Lose Some

Turning Over a New Leaf

Last month, Vermont College of Fine Arts, whose praises I have many times sung in this space, sent out a call to alumni for artwork to use on an invitation to their annual Spring Open House to be held March 31st 2012.  Having always felt a reverent and grateful connection to the amazing life-altering and life-affirming capacity of this institution, I promptly sent them the image above for consideration. You may remember it from my September 20, 2010 post by the same name. I’ve come a long way since then!

 From an Email Dated December 23rd

Just before the holidays, the announcement went out that my photograph had won the contest! This was probably one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received, and especially significant coming within weeks of my relocation to Vermont. Way back in 2010, when I was still in the first uncertain months of establishing myself as a working artist, Vermont College chose the Two Tigers photograph that now serves as the logo for all my creative endeavors to grace the cover of their Winter Newsletter. At the time, it felt like a pat on the back from an old friend, a sure sign to proceed with confidence on my chosen albeit challenging path. And now at another critical juncture in my journey, I feel that friendly encouragement yet again.

 All Journeys Lead Homewards
It seems ironic, to say the least, that my reward for winning the contest (as if having my image used in this way was not reward enough!) was the lovely duffle bag pictured above, available for purchase in the VCFA Store, and not likely to get much use now that I am living in a place I never want to leave, even for a weekend! But when I do use it, I will remember when I was a student, traveling to Montpelier twice a year to experience what VCFA had to offer. It will be a tangible way of taking Vermont with me wherever I go, even as the Green Mountain State and my experience at VCFA continue to enrich and expand my life in intangible, unexpected but utterly timely and apt ways. It means more to me than I can express that they chose to use my work to represent their message and mission as they reach out to prospective students.  To the College I say thanks. To future students I say – prepare to be changed.

From a Letter Dated January 7, 2012
You may have noticed that the title of this post is “Win Some Lose Some.” I wish the second half of that phrase described ten pounds miraculously shed from my body since last I wrote, but, alas, it refers to the contents of the letter pictured above.  Days before the end of 2011, I dropped off a submission of six of my favorite, and, arguably, best black and white images for consideration to be chosen and exhibited as one of five women artists featured at the Chaffee Art Center’s Women in the Arts festival being held next month.  I spent an entire day agonizing over which images to select, in such a way that they would constitute a coherent and compelling body of work, which is not a bad exercise to put yourself through from time to time, regardless of outcome. It would have been a lovely way to begin the new year, with a semi-solo show mere blocks from my new home. On a lighter note, anyone who has received their share and more of rejection letters will appreciate how quickly my eyes ran right past the “thank you” to the “but.”  I think I saw it before the letter was out of its envelope!  Not to worry, I already have other projects and opportunities ahead, not to mention lots of film waiting to be put to use towards expanding a collection of work worthy of submission and exhibition, so I am looking ahead to that instead of wondering whether I would do better as a Vermont artist if I did more landscapes.
 No More Landscapes
Just kidding about no more landscapes. It's hard to resist them around here! Until next week, best wishes and thanks to all my followers, near and far, old and new. You truly keep me going!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

On the Edge

Cutting Edge

I've been here in Rutland VT for almost six weeks now and can no longer claim that I am "settling in." I am in. For what promises to be a good long time. Brian and I have been working tirelessly both to establish a functioning household and to find our place in the thriving arts community of this area. We are also facing the reality of one or both of us returning to some kind of traditional paid work that will allow us to remain working artists while also remaining housed and fed. No one said a life in the arts was going to be easy, and we are both absolutely committed to making whatever sacrifices are necessary, while still keeping the creative fires burning. Which explains why the photographs I've managed to find opportunity to take are still sitting inside my camera, and the image above dates back to last summer!

Purple Llama

This week I did find time to finish a new scarf that I began before the holidays and had to set aside unfinished. As you might imagine, one of the first places I visited when I arrived here was the local yarn shop, Green Mountain Fibers. I arrived with my usual alpaca-centric agenda, and was disappointed to find that they did not stock some of my favorite brands, to which I have become accustomed. They did however have some beautiful fiber that was one hundred percent baby llama. Fiber shops encourage their customers to use their hands as well as their eyes to make their selections, and with one touch of this stuff, I knew I had to have some. With no idea of what design or item I would be creating, I bought five skeins in the colors you see above, started at the beginning, and let my instincts carry me through. I have always thought of llamas as the more mean-spirited cousins of my beloved alpacas, and assumed their fiber would be just as abrasive as their personalities, but apparently if you get them while they are young, their fiber is just as soft and luxurious. I'm looking forward to adding this new fiber to my repertoire of favorite materials!

 Gradual Clearing 

Which just goes to show you that sometimes you are looking for one thing, and something else presents itself, and you end up with the right thing after all. I have plenty of ideas about the directions my life will next take, but I am well aware that life has its own plans, and I must remain open to suggestion and opportunity even as I prepare for what I think should happen next. This has been a brief post, but I hope to have a longer one for you next week. I am definitely on the edge of something big, and as soon as I know what it is, I will let you all know! Maybe I will even finish the roll of film now languishing in my camera and have some new images to offer, other than the ones I have been taking through my living room window. Until then, I hope that every one of you is having an auspicious start to the new year. Or at least a great weekend!