Check out today's Sunday New York Times and the back of the Week In Review section. There you will find four wonderful panoramic photos of Banda Aceh by Tyler Hicks, printed four columns wide. They have the telltale notch in the black film edge on the upper right corner, meaning they were taken with a Hasselblad Xpan. And they're taken on film. Lush, creamy, real black and white film. Wow, do they have impact.
I've started printing some of the color panoramics from Venice. They startle me. Venice has, since the trip, become a black and white city. I have passed through that interval between the end of a trip and before I have seen the photos, where the memories of the experience are stronger than the presence of the photographs from it. The photographs are beginning to subsume that memory. Susan Sontag would have had some trenchant commentary about this state.
I was recently interviewed for the SPGA Seattle Graphic Artists Guild newsletter (link here) where I made mention of one of my influences, Frederick Sommer. This initiated an email exchange with the Frederick Sommer Foundation for recollections of this artist and philosopher, who died in 1999.
In 1977 I was in a workshop taught by Sommer at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. I was an impressionable 21 year old, immature for my age, (though maybe impressionable and immature are redundant adjectives to describe a 21 year old male), and much of Sommer’s philosophizing in our small group went over my head. But something stuck. And I think it has affected the way I have made photographs for the subsequent 28 years.
Sommer is a difficult figure to understand, both photographically and philosophically. His work is dense and coolly formal, yet rich with a subversive, psychological depth. The surrealists claimed him as one of their own. I’ve heard him described as the anti-Weston, his still lifes the antithesis of Edward Weston’s formal sensuality, yet I look at Sommer’s cut paper abstractions as among the most beautiful and sensual photographs ever made.
At his workshop I bought a copy of "The Poetic Logic of Art and Aesthetics," which I still have. For years I would ponder the nearly impenetrable philosophical poetry that makes up his writing, milking what meaning I could to illuminate my own approach to photography. An example:
"Position is the prime element of form and from position are derived all aspects of structure and form.
"Elegance of form is the product of elegance of choice within specific limitations.
"Quantitative and qualitative choice of positions in space and choice of occupiers for those positions define the logic of form…
"In a generalized condition of space, the sum of all occupiable positions is the potential for creation."
It is highly distilled drink, this material. Every word is so densely packed with meaning, you feel you should just sip a few lines, then put the book back on the shelf for a year.
What sense do I make from these words, nearly 30 years later? It matches my formalist sensibilities of the medium, and I don’t doubt that something from that encounter with Sommer made it into my dense head. I take these words to mean that every element in the frame, and its position and tonality, have meaning by their very presence in the frame. You must ignore nothing. That excruciatingly subtle adjustments make a difference. I remember a printing workshop with Sommer’s assistant where we spent hours making minute adjustments to a single image of ours. Never had I had such scrutiny while making a print.
Here is a website to learn more about Frederick Sommer: www.fredericksommer.org. The Art of Frederick Sommer: Photography, Drawing, Collage is due out from Yale University Press in May 2005.
(Photos at top by Doug Plummer, photographed at Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Idaho, in 1977) (Cut Paper photo courtesy of the Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation)
Well I’m inundated with black and white Venice work prints and sorting through which images to work on. I have a workflow for my fine art black and white that goes like this: I develop film and make contact sheets, which sit around for a few days while I scan them (with a loupe) at various times and in various moods. The images that seem to have potential I mark with a yellow dot. I rarely pick more than 2 or 3 from a sheet (of 21 images), but the Venice material had a bunch of images I wanted a closer look at. So a day and a half in the darkroom has generated a couple hundred 4½" x 10" RC work prints,.
These I post on a cork board in the kitchen, and let simmer for a few days. I need to have them in my peripheral vision to see which ones are demanding more scrutiny, and which ones I’m done with and don’t need to see again. I edit and rearange and sequence, and winnow the pile down. The survivors are the ones that will become my initial large paints, on 10"x24" fiber paper.
In the next couple of weeks I will block out a multi-day darkroom session. This is the easy workflow, the one I know how to do. Now then, the digital pile.
With the recent passing of Susan Sontag, I thought it time to reread "On Photography," her 1973 explication (or rant, depending on your point of view) on the mediation of reality through the medium of photography. When I read it in 1978, it had such a profound impact on me that I gave up my camera for two years.
As I remember my conundrum back then, it had to do with Sontag's view that the photographer, by the nature of the medium, is incapable of being other than predatory and acquisitive towards his subject. At 23, my struggle as a photographer, and as a person, was how to be a participant, instead of a witness, to life. I was lonely, depressed, and socially inept, and my photographs from that era document my mood starkly. It's actually some of the strongest work I've ever done, But I did not like the stark choice that Sontag seemed to portray. I still had a burning need to make images, so I turned instead to printmaking--intagliio and lithography. Here my search for a relationship with reality through an image making process became an all consuming reality about the act of making images. If that sounds circular, it was, and the images reflect that.
Sontag's first essay in the book, "In Plato's Cave," can be read as largely a polemic against the objectification inherent in the act of photography: "A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it--by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. "
Oh, so that's what I was doing in Italy.
"On Photography" is a rich book, only partly mired in its era, and to be recommended. A working knowledge of photographic history is a prerequisite for understanding many of the references. There is much to dispute in her point of view, however. The point I want to argue is from my own recent experience.
Was my eight days of wandering Venice an acquisitive act? In part, well, sure. I would say that artists have been mining Venice for images for far longer than photography has been around. This is one of my main points with Sontag. She separates the spheres of painting and photography too cleanly, and too oppositionally. I saw the same impulse to represent a felt experience of Venice in paintings spanning five hundred years that I felt too. Coaching the impulse in the pejorative, and blaming the medium for the problem, is not accurate and not terribly useful.
My goal in Venice was to make images of the city that portrayed its exotic and sensuous qualities. That hardly makes me unique. Whether my photographs will be is yet unanswered. I wanted to have a long enough stay in the city to chart the progess of my changing reactions and relationship to the environment.
As a photographer I am using the medium to have experiences I would not otherwise have. It allows me to be a participant through a highly structured act of witnessing. It is how I understand a place, and my stance in that place. Sontag would say that I am committing a kind of aggression in my trophy hunting. My response? I can think of no better way to respect the place I am than through the act of making these photographs.
PS. Speaking of trophies—I found the lost digital files from Venice. About a thousand of them are now transferred to the home computer.
Last night I downloaded my images from the digital camera onto my Nixvue-lite 30gb portable hard drive, just like I do every night. Just for fun, I wanted to see how many images I had shot. But I couldn't find anything other than what I had just downloaded (I know what you digital geeks are thinking. Yes, I have programmed the camera to assign unique ID's to all images.) I fear that I have lost nearly all of my digital captures. I have no way to confirm this until I get home.
This only encourages my mistrust of this technology. I know exactly how many rolls of film I have shot (34), and I am confident that they will produce images, just as they have for the past 40 years of my photographic life. But digital--I have a lot to learn before I'm ready shoot a professional job on it.
But back to Venice. Today was museum day: the Accademia and the Modern. I liked the Modern more, but that's because I know that period of art. Not that the Accademia was not a thrill ride of its own--I marvelled at execution and impact, but without understanding a whit of context. Tintoretto--a proto El Greco, near as I could tell. Most of medieval art--the immediate antecedent to surrealism. In fact, Italy has always intimidated me as a travel destination because I know so little about Renaissance art. I felt I'd need to study for a year first.
Venice's Modern is a weird little museum. Their eclectic collection spans early 19th to mid 20th centuries, with a strong provincial bias. they had gobs of Italian painters I'd never heard of, but also a few French impressionists, some Spaniards, even an American, Mark Tobey. The curation was odd--gang all the paintings by age, never mind subject matter. It made for some odd juxtapositions, like this: three sexy, naked ones (Tito, "Birth of Venus," Bressani "Modesty and Vanity,"--I'll take Vanity, she looks like more fun--and Laurenti, "New Flowering," a take on the Three Graces) next to Marc Chagall's "The Rabbi of Vitebsk." Head spinning.
I have passed that sad milestone of a trip: my last washing of underwear and socks. It means my spares will see me home in two days.
The espresso bar staff were Chinese-Italian, and they were fascinated with my camera. Now, I should point out that I have been shouldering my tripod and camera through Venice all week, and I typically just lean it up against the counter when I order. It never gets a comment or raised eyebrow.
It't not exactly a normal looking camera. I shoot my panoramics with a Hasselblad Xpan, which looks like an old fashioned rangefinder camera, but bigger. It is a distinctive looking instrument. Last week I spied one, across a piazza, around the neck of a man stepping out of a hotel, and we drew towards each other as if by gravitation. He was a Norwegian wedding photographer in town to oversee the produiction of his custom albums (apparently another Venetian specialty. I have been seeing some amazing bookbindery shops.) He had a Xpan, and we had a common bond.
At any rate, in this bar everyone wanted to look through the wide-angle viewfinder. It made making portraits of the baristas a snap.
OK everyone. Leave me some comments. I know how many of you are visiting, and it’s a considerable number. Feed my ego.
I seem to be the authority on directions lately, which is about the most ironic state imaginable. It started on Friday night when a trio of college girls asked me, in American, “Do you know anyplace around here to eat?” I walked them by Taverna San Trovaso, which had a line out the door, then directed them toward where I knew were some wine bars. “Wow, thanks. Do you live here?” Some college boys then approached, “Do you know where our hotel is?” Today it reached the point of Italians asking me critical local knowledge, like how to buy a Vaporetto ticket and where the train station was.
What are they thinking? I believe it has to do with my new-found comfort level here, and that I present as an open, non-threatening type. I regard it as commonplace that I am the person a couple will turn to in public when they want a photo of themselves with their camera (maybe the multiple ones around my neck suggest I might be up to the task.) It happens at least daily wherever I travel.
A partial explanation (or further confirmation) of my disorientation. I just discovered that where I thought my hotel was is a piazza displaced from its actual location. They overbooked my room and situated me in an apartment (for the same rate) just steps from the San Samuele Vaporetto stop. Armed with this information I deduced where my hotel actually was.
I find where I need to go solely by landmark. From the Rialto Bridge I cross the piazza with the view of the tower that’s leaning, go right before the blinking light of my net cafe, left at the gallery with the nude in the window, the one with the cherry red nipples. My door is one from the end of the orange building. When I turn my key, I imagine people imagining that I am one of those lucky Venetians with an apartment just a few yards from the Grand Canal.
The day broke clear and sunny. Even though the temperature had not changed, with the drier air it felt ten degrees warmer. So my purchase of the long johns had an effect.
Anyone who knows me knows that sunny weather is my least favorite to photograph in. Or to be in, for that matter. Give me overcast, drizzle, atmospherics. Time, finally, for a museum. I’m glad I waited to see the Turner in Venice show at the Correr until I had a perspective of the city of my own. I looked at one sketch and thought, I know that spot. I set up my tripod in practically the same viewpoint.
Turner made three visits to Venice in his career, between 1819 and 1840. He spent only three weeks total here, but Venice was a touchstone for his entire artistic output. His sketchbooks show an unexpected deftness of draughtsmanship, the paintings the expected preponderance of light and color over all else (a cartoon from the time shows an artist at an easel, with a mop and a bucket of yellow paint. “Turner makes a painting,” reads the caption), but his watercolors were the gem of the show. You could see how he consistently contrasted a cool blue and a warm green as the opposing poles. Then there’d be a yellow and pink one. All were performed with a spontaneous gestured stroke that foreshadowed John Marin and the abstract expressionists of a century later.
The moment I pull out my Palm Pilot and fold-up keyboard I have a crowd. My exuberant waitress comes over instantly, as does the rest of the restaurant staff and several customers. I demonstrate the folding keyboard again to great acclaim. So much for low-key anonymity.
The woman at the wine bar saw that I dearly needed direction. I tentatively picked out a wine. “No, no, this one!” I pointed at something that looked vaguely green. “Here, you need meat with that,” piling on the sausages. “And some of this.” Eggplant. “And a tomato.” Done? No. “Some bread!” “Sit. There. Eat.” She ordered.
Today is the day I fell for Venice. I found myself in the Cannarregio, in quiet, residential neighborhoods. Boats were parked at the curb the way cars would have been. Most were small wooden boats; maybe one in ten was fiberglass. There was nearly no traffic, so the water’s reflection was calm and reflective. I kept stopping and saying to myself, this is so beautiful, and then I’d turn a corner and be struck dumb with an even more generous dose of beauty and proportion and grace. And then it would happen again. And again.
I have concluded: Venice is the most beautiful city in the world. I am told there are parts of Kashmir, in India, that rival it in beauty, but I can’t speak to that. For now, Venice has my heart. It is odd to come to this opinion about a place that is perhaps the most deeply urbanized spot on the planet. There is not a blade of grass and hardly a tree to be found on the island, and the avifauna is limited to rock doves and house sparrows. And it is one of the more crowded places I have ever been in. I am nearly to my limit in tolerance of the jostling crowds, and this is the slowest season. But, there it is. I still am in love.
I spent much of the day in the shopping districts on a quest for thermal underwear. It is getting colder and, although my acclimatization is nearly keeping pace, I could use another layer. The search took much of the day—commonplace necessities are among the least available items here. But it made me pay attention to the shop displays.
Being a tourist city (and with four centuries of experience in that role), there is no shortage of art or glass or shoes or suits to choose among. Except for the waterfront outside of Piazza San Marco, there is not a lot of tourist trash. It is mostly tasteful and frighteningly expensive. The window displays are compelling and often artful, and worth a serious perusal. My favorites have been the various antique-ish displays of chandeliers and lesser master paintings, and some of the more extravagant carnivale masks. If I am lusting after any object, it is for one of those baroque, whimsical Venetian glass chandeliers in green and pink for over the dining room table. But I don’t think it would fit in the carry-on.