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 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.

 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!


  1. Gabriella, I must say, I don’t think of you in terms of the kind of photographer, writer, and poet you are or aren’t, but in terms of the kind of person, the kind of human, you are: an eager soul, restless to perfection, at the same time stubborn and proud, standing her ground, offering her gift even as it continues to be revealed to others and to herself, a person, moreover, painfully aware of the culture in which she finds herself, where so few understand the value not only of what she and other artists create and its connection to their well being, and are unaware of what a desolate world this would be without those creations.

    Also, having at one time pulled up stakes and left behind familiar childhood surroundings myself, I would remind you that it can take years for a place to seep into your bones, whether or not it ever feels sufficiently like home. Everywhere is home, of course. But how often have we seen that it takes an “outsider” to show us things we’ve long since ceased to notice? Part of your gift is your vision. Wherever you turn your gaze, the moment you see it through your own eyes, it becomes your “own,” and that is all you, as an artist and more importantly as a human being, need to do.

    These are only some of the reasons I and my wife treasure the creations of yours that we own — your book of photographs; your limited edition printing of poems; the scarf you made with your own hands.

    I think what you are asking, on your behalf and on the behalf of countless others perhaps less courageous than yourself, or who are unable to even frame the question, is to be accepted and appreciated on your own terms. You are your harshest critic, which is necessary, but you must always proceed with the understanding that your best in any given moment really is good enough.

  2. William, you sure know how to post a comment! Now if only I could condense this into a morsel suitable for cocktail party smalltalk!

    Ah well, to hell with brevity. Some things take time, and space, and many thoughtful words, and many wordful thoughts to express. Some things take a lifetime and everything that came before and will come after. All we can do is keep the dialogue going, in whatever form we can, with willing and able partners, of which I thank you for being one of my most eloquent and wise.

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  4. Ah Gabriella, such an interesting post of you today. I have asked, and still ask myself that question so often: "What kind of photographer am I?" William's answer, so eloquent indeed, is impossible to top. What I can say though that like you I often wonder, question, and have debated with myself the integrity of the image, what I shoot with, why, and how it came about, how it would or even how it should be perceived. In regards to the latter, I was wrong I think, we have no saying in what the image becomes once we share it. It's not ours anymore then. For me, this constant inner debate has recently brought me back to shooting with a medium format film camera. For now that is, I don't know what the the future will bring, or not. However, I think that these constant questions that we ask ourselves are essential to the creative process and how we grow and constantly adapt, or have to, to changes in our own lives and in our surroundings, to society, and in art as a medium how we communicate with others.

    You wouldn't be an artist if you were not asking yourself these questions.

  5. Thank you so much, Stasja - it is always good to hear from a kindred spirit regarding these matters! You are right, our work no longer belongs to us once it leaves our hands, which can be both exhilarating and terrifying at once! And the questioning is indeed a big part of the creative process. Have a great weekend, my friend.

  6. Those of your posts and photos that I have seen are poems. Requiring an interaction by the reader/viewer. The obvious leaps to the eye and is as quickly gone. Your work lingers. To be mused over and cherished.
    So, perhaps in crowded compeany shorthand you could describe yourself as an interactive photographer - one who requires input from the viewer to live?

    Or you could say to hell with canape and cocktails requirements and simply say 'it would take too long to explain. You will have to come and look at some of my work.'

  7. EC - thanks so much for your kindness. I swear this post was not a shameless bid for compliments! In fact, I am probably so very hard on myself because I have such a high opinion of myself, and therefore ridiculously high standards! I do like your clever comeback to the cocktail party query. Better yet, I think I'll just nod quietly, leave early and enjoy a drink at home! With company like yours online, I need look no further for intelligent and satisfying discourse. Enjoy what remains of your weekend!

  8. G/TT - where to start? First of all I love every image that is here - they work so well together and give a real sense of place. Second, I loved your descriptions of cocktail parties and trying to explain what you do - amazing isn't it how those situations leave the most eloquent stumbling?...Third, I wanted to say 'snap' to not photographing beauty - to just being and experiencing and Fourth I love you and your muse and how you meet, then Fifth, your sense of self as an urban poet is truly insightful and Sixth - whatever it is you do - keep doing it, it's great!

  9. TT- the concept "... in snow" has such a quietness and yet stark edginess about it. Vermont is looking beautiful and I look forward to catching up and seeing the landscape etc " snow". B

  10. Gabriella....I so understand those awkward moments of trying to all sounds trite and limited and quickly eyes glaze over and thankfully the conversation moves on. There are so many people making "things", some of which is artful, that it's hard to find one's own voice, especially as you are in a new territory filled with beauty everywhere. I'm just wondering....what about the "morning pages" idea...which I'm just about to go do...every day, snap 10 shots....without thinking about them. Perhaps, as with my little morning page drawings, it will become obvious in short order, just who you are....short circuit that keen mind of yours! I'd be curious to see what happened with such a process....and the patterns that develop. I'm with you in the ongoing search. more thing. I have always somehow used that process of determining what I'm not, what I don't find out more about what I's most informative! Cheers....enjoy the winter!!

  11. Thanks so much Fiona for your catalog of compliments! Much appreciated.

  12. Barry - I've always loved that contradictory aspect of snow - that it has a softening calming effect, but is also bitter cold, bleak and sharp both to the eye and the touch! It does transform everything it collects around! Safe travels to you!

  13. Patti - Funny, I've lately been toying with the idea of a morning exercise like yours. Another blogfriend is now doing a sketch a day thanks to a notebook received as a gift, and I love the idea that after 365 days he will have a sort of visual journal of his year's journey, both in terms of what he saw around him and what was going on inside him! Knowing myself as well as I do, I question my own ability to stick to such a daily discipline, but perhaps I can modify it in such a way as to preserve the spirit and reap the benefits without it becoming yet another thing I feel bad not getting around to! Repetition is strange that way - for me there is a fine line between the comforts of ritual and the pressures of obligation. Must find the right balance! Stay tuned!

  14. Gabriella I also would say that I see these shots as poems, there is somethings silence and great in your works... it always a nice feeling to see them

  15. Thanks so much Laura! To call my photos poems is the highest of praise! Hope all is well with you.

  16. Dear Gabriella,
    i cannot speak so eloquent as William, and all the others also said it so well. Your photo's are like poems, i just love the shadows, dark corners, unnoticed marks and silence in your work.
    And your posts talk to me like haiku's. I must read them several times to notice all you say, and always after reading them i sigh. Because of the beauty of your photo's and the beauty of your words. Because of the wonderful person you are, sharing your thoughts with us.

    Hugs and kisses!

  17. Dear Gabriella,

    Sometimes, it takes time to find out what our visual sensitivity really wants to show . Sometimes it simply changes from time to time. Learning takes time.
    The most important thing is that your photo is from the heart, that you are passing something through it. And you are.

    Send you a sweet hug.

  18. Monica, thanks for your sweet comment about my images and words. I think your work is very poetic too - like a good poem, you have to engage with what's in front of you like a living being, think about it, talk to it, feel your way through it. It is not to be understood or felt in just one glance! Sending my love to you.

  19. Cris - this is so true! The heart must remain constant and pure, and then whatever passes through it may change visually, but is still honest work. I must do a little less thinking about what I do, and just DO. Many thanks, dear friend.

  20. Thanks so much Skizo! Have a great weekend.

  21. Oh Gaby,,the answer is so simply. All that, let´s call it "alienation" you feel when trying to find definitions for you, your soul and your work responds to the fact that you belong to that very select group of people who dont fit in the current rules, concepts, or previously sketched paths to follow, a group of people that get into the most dense, unexplored woods in order to open their own new routes, only following the compass of their instincts, feelings and in your case, inner artistic skills. Going through the wilderness of that what is unknown and where the rest of the common people would feel intimidated at the very first inkling of an "offroad" situation. Your best reward will be, to one day have a look behind you and realize, how a new, young pathway has been formed and that some other person will follow it as well, tracing your steps while looking, like you do now, after his/her own answers.

  22. Thank you Alberto, my dear friend, for putting me in the group of artists who don't fit the rules and must make their own path! There are days I would love to walk where others have gone before, the clear and common way, like a pleasant stroll in a garden - but art isn't a Sunday leisure activity, it's a labor of love, a struggle and a challenge, and I am not going to be satisfied with anything that comes easy! But you are right, one day I will look behind me and see how far I've come. For now, I simply must move ahead even though the way is so uncertain. It's the only way I can call my own!