In 2003 I went to Venice, Italy to scout it out as a possible location for teaching photography in the summers for Northeastern, where I ran the Photo Program. My idea was to combine forces with Holly Smith Pedlosky to teach photography for a summer semester for the school. Holly had gone to Venice frequently ever since her honeymoon when she was younger so she knew Venice very well. She also had been teaching workshops for many summers in Venice and, on alternating years, in Varenna, a village on the edge of Lake Como. Sadly, Holly died in 2012 of cancer (obituary here). Holly and I spent a week or so that summer traipsing around Venice, speaking to locals about how it all might happen: working on where we would house students, where we would teach, what we would teach, where we would house the faculty, the various logistics involved and so on. Little did I know that upon my return to Boston there would be a nightmare of bureaucracy and obstacles thrown up by Northeastern in the process of trying to make it all happen. Suffice it to say it took two more years of sitting in meetings with amazingly inept people, filling out forms and explaining the concept to pull it off. Argh! It gets my blood boiling just to think about it now. I was successful, though, and ran the course in Venice for three years myself. In fact, it is still running every summer.

That summer in 2003 I wasn't only there to plan a future study abroad program, I wanted to photograph. One of the areas that caught my eye was at the arsenal, (arsenale in Italian). Arsenale is a vaporetto stop (water taxi) and is the walled fortification where the military was housed to defend Venice throughout much of its long history.

But my interest was along the back side outside the walls of the Arsenale where it was, frankly, a mess. To get there I had to get off the vaporetto at an obscure stop on the other side of the island that really led to nowhere. There were some overrun gardens nestled up against the arsenal's walls. I might have had to cross a fence to get access. One of the advantages of increased age is that I can't remember.

What I loved about this place was that it was what the locals created away from the crowds of tourists. Venice is finite, an island in a lagoon with way too many people all the time. It is a sort of bizarre Disneyworld in that it is a place that is in existence to present itself to hordes of tourists from all over the world. And to get their money. But on the outside of the back side of Arsenale locals had a few tables, grew a few vegetables and escaped from the relentlessness of thousands upon thousands of people tromping through their city like in a siege. This place was an escape.

As I began to photograph it seemed odd but I was on familiar ground for I had made a series of pictures in a manner much like this many years before. The project was called Solothurn and was from a small town in Switzerland where the series unfolded in a sort of jigsaw puzzle of sequenced pictures. My series Arsenale is like that.

You can see that here everything is the same but different from frame to frame. I wrote a little about this way of working, referring to the Solothurn portfolio, made in 1983:

Solothurn CH to be precise. Having gone to a European photo festival in the town I set out with the Hasselblad SWC and several rolls of film down the back side of these row houses on a mid afternoon mid week in mid summer. Bang! These things so interconnected and intertwined as I walked down the street, something frame left was showing up in the next one, frame right. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the challenge was to see that, search, find the connection, the thing in its new location, and move on. This was a new way of working, of course. I’d never connected pictures to pictures this way before and this one hit me hard. There are also several frames where I push the lens right into something, more than I’d done before. It was this series that showed me how good the SWC was close in.
Let’s not forget that this is very early series days and this is maybe the third one I’d done (I started making tightly sequenced series work in 1981). It was a big period of learning for me as I was now in the work, so to speak. Not trying to get to the work, not hoping to be in the work, not wishing for anything except another shoot as good as the last shoot. “In the work” means I am in the project and consumed with it. Story of my life, really.

So there I was on the backside of the wall of Arsenale in Venice, Italy, making these pictures, sliding along to place something that had been on the left now in the center and/or perhaps next on the right

with the wall the glue that held the pictures together and made them compre-hensible.

So here, twenty years after I'd made the Solothurn pictures I was  back in this process in front of this wonderful and complex place and knowing I had a way, a method, a strategy by which I could make pictures. You get that, I am sure. That there needs to be a framework around which you hang your pictures, some sort of logic or process by which you work.  At least in this manner, this way of tightly sequencing the work to strive for a whole. 

I can't really go through all of them here as the post will be too long but will place them all on the site on the gallery page soon so you can see the full set.

At any rate, the project moves on in its incremental way and arrives here

to one of those "aha" moments, this rule breaker, this foundation shaking picture which is, all modesty aside, simply gorgeous with its structure, softness, its breaking away from the back wall to establish itself as no longer dependent upon the wall for visual support. It is a core picture in the series, one that many of the other pictures pivot around and one that hits close to home for me emotionally.

And, of course, it goes very well with this:

where things have really gotten a little out of control, growth-wise. The series concludes with a little more logic, a little restoring of things to a sort or normalcy. I am not usually a cynic and this series, made in 2003, came back around to the wall again and also to some of the tools used in keeping a garden.

I will finish soon, I promise, but bear with me for one more point. While I have discussed this way of working, this sliding down something to form a whole through composite parts (not so dissimilar to what what I did with Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz, in the current show at 555 Gallery up until Oct 17 of my Monsters work which I really hope you go see) there is another concept at play in Arsenale. Is the seminal picture of the concrete pyramid made as it was found as I moved along the back wall, in essence there as if come upon as a surprise? Or are the other pictures made to hover around the pyramid because it was known and made first? To bring you into this one core image? Is this one picture made by calculation for perceived effect or by intuition in an emotional response? There are two different motivations as possibilities at work here and there would be two different results, I believe. For the record my process in making the Arsenale photographs was the former, for I didn't know the pyramid existed until after I'd made the earlier images in the series. So, yes, I came upon the pyramid. I love that, that the artist has made discoveries just as you do as you look at the work, picture after picture. That's in there, I believe. The joy or amazement in discovering an exceptional something in front of me and all it takes is the quality of my practice and the smarts to know it is exceptional. Finally, it is a contextual thing. No way would the pyramid photograph have any interest or relevance if the other sequence hadn't preceded it. Igor Stravinsky's melody and harmony make little sense and have little impact unless there is dissonance and stridency before them.

I find it ironic that the series of photographs of Arsenale is about the outside and back of the structure and this blog has been about the inside of the series.

We are done with Arsenale and its meaning and implication. What this is, of course, is explication. The explanation of the meaning of something. In large part it is what this blog is for. In the case of my work, to bring you into it and to help you understand it better and clearer, at least from this one person's perspective. Good work? Bad work? Can't really say, I just can relate it to you as I worked it, saw it then and see it now through the perspective of many years distance.

Care to respond? Feel free. As always, easy. Email me here

Topics: Italy,Black and White,vintage,Foreign

Permalink | Posted October 2, 2015

Simply Elegant

Last winter I got a request from Aline Smithson (Lenscratch) to contribute to a Kickstarter project to help fund her new book Self & Others. I didn't hesitate.  Although I have never met Aline, she has written frequently about my work, written  pieces about various shows over the years and done her part to promote my photography (here).  I believe it is safe to say that Aline is Lenscratch, the daily blog about photography and photographers. Hers is a widely read and important blog as many follow it to hear what is good, what is new and to see who deserves attention. And here she was asking for my support. Quick Pro Quo. 

So I threw some money into Kickstarter to show my support and promptly forgot about it. But I returned from being away recently to find a cardboard box and in it her new book.

This is what it looked like before I opened it:

(note the sticker holding the blue tissue paper wrapper closed)

with a card on top that said:

While it is always nice to receive a book I had little idea what to expect. But looking at it sitting there, before I opened it, I could tell I was in for something special.

When was the last time you saw gold leaf on the edge of the pages?

I opened it up to find that Aline had signed itand that my friend and museum director Paula Tognarelli had written the introduction

and to find that the book was arranged in sections in the most beautiful colors,

with a rich reddish orange at the start and the end.Now this would all be for nought if Aline's photographs weren't good but they are, in fact they're exceptional. Why aren't I showing you her actual work? Because it would do a disservice to her photographs to see them in this format, tiny little thumbnails on your smartphone. You will need to get this book yourself to see them. But trust me when I say they are exceptional: beautiful and profound but also funny and poignant.

What a pleasure; a book created with real care, beautifully printed, made to be delightful, sensual, colorful, lasting and something to treasure. So wonderful. 

Forgive me for going off topic slightly here but I need to speak about community and being within one. Although art photography has become very large there is the sense that we are united within a single discipline and at times need to support each other in the endeavor. Besides quid pro quo there is a need for this kind of mutual support. Without it we will have competing interests, one upmanship and back stabbing. That's why it is importsnt to go to a colleague's opening, a friend's book signing, an artist talk. To show your support and to continue your membership in a community as things can be very lonely and unforgiving if you don't. And, after all, wouldn't you like to see people coming to your event, showing their support for your work and for your efforts? Quick Pro Quo.

BTW: Aline Smithson's work will be shown at the Griffin Museum of Photography in May 2016.

Want to get this lovely book? Go here

You won't regret it.

Topics: Books

Permalink | Posted September 30, 2015

Artist Talk

I will be giving an artist talk this Saturday, October 3 at 555 Gallery about my work on view at the gallery called "Monsters".

Here's what 555 says about the event:

Saturday, October 3, 5 – 10 PM, in conjunction with ArtWeek Boston, 555 Gallery will celebrate on the street outside the gallery with video projections on the surrounding buildings and artists talks in the gallery.

I'll see you there.

Permalink | Posted September 28, 2015

Inside Aerials

Sometimes writing comes easily. I've got something to say and this blog is my vehicle to say it in. I think this comes from my profession as a teacher as I can remember dreaming up some new course, or curriculum, or a lecture for a specific class where I believed I had something of value for my students and wanted to share it. That was usually pretty straightforward. But writing about my own work or others isn't always easy.

Other times, when preparing a blog to post, it comes hard. Right now, I have got something I am wrestling with conceptually and I am outside my comfort zone as an author to get it out. This is where I admire so much those that write for a living.

At any rate, I am going to take a stab at writing on the inside of the aerials I make, in an effort to address the motivation behind working this way and what the resulting photographs mean to me. This may be answering the question that wasn't asked but hang in there as there may be something coming that you might find useful. Hopefully, by sharing this with you, I can a) inspire you to try it or b) help you understand the pictures a little better or c) help you understand how one professional artist thinks and works.

I am gong to sprinkle various aerials in here to help make my point.

Near Pullman, Washington, 2014

When asked about my aerial pictures I often answer that I believe I am in a some-what unique position in that I go up in a plane to photograph simply to make art. I am reliant on what we fly over, of course, but I believe I am doing something a little different with the pictures I make. Most photographers that work aerially are on assignment, shooting real estate, surveying, etc. Not me. I just want to make pictures from above.

From the Mass Marshes series, spring  2015

I feel like I am late to the party. Let me explain. While I was awed and impressed as a young man with Paul Klee and Franz Kline, Kandinsky, Stella, Pollack, de Kooning, Barnett Newman and others I was also confused and disoriented by their large works; so impulsive, at times so angry and loud. I lined up with Mark Rothko early due to a one man show of his work at the Guggenheim  in New York in 1978 six or seven years after he died that seriously rocked my world. Rothko imposed a kind of orderliness to his work, the vehicle of the rectangle a constant while working for many years within its structure. I could relate to that, or find logic in his pursuit. I also loved what he was doing with color for I was in the language of black and white from my early days in the 60's on up until the early 2000's, while at the same time looking over my shoulder at the Joseph Albers studies, so important to our understanding of color.

But make pictures within the sensibility that is abstract expressionism with my own work in photography? Not bloody likely. I was too indoctrinated and entrenched in the kinds of photographs that worked off the palette of the real world. By that I mean I was anchored to being out in it and depicting in a manner consistent with the mediums' modernist precepts: clarity, fidelity, depth of field, tonality and yes, even print quality. All the modernist boxes were checked. I was fulfilled and enamored by what the medium could do in front of real stuff, subjects if you will.  Still am. In fact, I had no issues of photography not being enough, or too literal, or not expressive enough. Beginning to work aerially has changed some of that, of course, as there is some really wild form, content and color when photographing from the air. I think that's why my most recent aerial work doesn't depend as much on a real typography as it does with what nature and mankind has done to the land. I don't know if I can write this clearly but my interest is less in physical depth and more in markings, both actual and imposed upon the landscape.

Mass Marshes, 2015

Iceland, 2013

While the aerials embody much that is conventional photography (sharpness, color, etc.) they are separated from it too by scalessness, the denying of foreground to background readability and the sheer abstraction of things.

This is going to sound a little obvious perhaps but I believe I have a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the works of those seminal abstract expressionist painters through making aerial photographs. Bang! That's it, isn't it? So, how did they get there without the aid of hovering over the landscape like I have? I have no idea, but this clearly points to their brilliance and my lack of, I suppose.

NOLA shoot, March 19, 2015

So what does this way of working, photographing from the air, fulfill for me? I do believe I am using aerial photography to serve a different purpose than most. Quite simply, it is to make abstract art.

NOLA shoot, March 19, 2015

NOLA shoot, March 19, 2015

The contrast of knowing this is something 1000 feet below the plane spread out and displayed relatively accurately verses the final piece looking like it is marks on paper or canvas, not literally rendered and contained only within the artists' mind is almost to much to bear. 

That's why.

Near Moab, Utah 2010

                                                             • • •

Want to see prints of my aerial photographs? The best way to do that is to contact 555 Gallery and ask them. It would be helpful to tell them what bodies of work you'd like to see as not all the my aerial work is at the gallery. As a start, you might take a look at the gallery page of my site, as much of the aerial photographs are represented there. 

Topics: Aerials,Aerials in Louisiana,Utah,Iceland

Permalink | Posted September 24, 2015

Artists Work

When I was teaching full time one of my often repeated phrases was "Artists Work." By that I meant that making art is physical work because artists make things. Sally Mann in her lovely autobiography Hold Still writes about long hours spent in the darkroom, slaving away on this or that image. She works in 8 x 10 so I know first hand what that is like. It often took 15 or 20 tries to get to a final, using byzantine manipulations and heroic efforts to get it right. 

The principle of hard work and long hours was, throughout the years of my time at Northeastern, hard for students to grasp. They often would expect greatness from their photography with very little effort. I remember thinking that this sense of entitlement they had was probably because they were brought up in a privileged place  and by doting parents. I can also remember critiquing work in intro classes (I spent my whole career teaching Intro to Photo most semesters) with students being upset that I wasn't impressed with their "masterpiece" . 

Making art is very hard work. Besides requiring isolation and concentration, it seems to need much failure before any success arrives. This can be hard for people to understand. Making bad ones to get to good ones, making things that are flawed in the pursuit of perfection is the norm, at least for me. Professional artists, therefore, know a great deal about failure in pursuit of their discipline. I can remember long sessions, sometimes teary ones, during office hours with beginning students just not understanding why I didn't think this or that photograph was the best ever. I would, with as much patience as I could muster, explain that this negative opinion of mine wasn't directed at them as a person but at the piece of paper held in their hands. Finally, my good friends have heard this from me often, "perfection's illusive". I'll say.

In the analog world it meant making print after print to get to the final. In the current digital world this means working, often for hours, on the image on screen, making a print in the hopes that it will be a final, then finding that it is not, and making another one. And sometimes on and on. Based on my most current efforts to make prints for the "Monsters" show, this also meant making cropping decisions and size decisions too. By the way: cropping isn't something I've done much in my career. Why? Because the intention was always to shoot it as I wanted it printed as well as the subsequent print being blown up more now, would be lower in quality. For the current work this was something of a revelation to me. Because the files were so extraordinarily good I had tremendous freedom to make acute crops and to blow up the photographs quite large without the image getting noisy or breaking down. 

Artists work. Not for fame or for money or even to show, but, for most, there is a need to create, to express thought and ideas through some visual form of expression, musical form or written result. I am a visual artist. Know how I know? Because most of my career's been spent making my pictures for no one, made just because I had to, having made stacks of finished prints that sat there, complete and ready for whatever, with no one knowing or caring one bit. We all know those that make art for the wrong reasons, for the approbation, sales and fame. But those aren't the ones we would choose to emulate, are they? Photography's no different. 

Work. With experience work becomes a process, a ritual if you will. I've written this before but watching the great American artist Frederick Sommer cook hamburgers on a small four burner gas stove in Prescott, Arizona was a revelation. Ritual. 

Fred Sommer

Hauling out the 8 x 10 from the trunk of some rental car, setting it on its tripod, unfolding it and mounting the lens, extending the front standard, zeroing the camera using the bubble level on top, opening the lens, sliding under the dark cloth and so on--- all such ritualized activities as to be almost without thought in the doing, being done thousands upon thousands of times before. Value in the repetition, in the ritual of trying to make something far more than the thing made, this through the physical work expended to make it. 

So, when in doubt, held up by some excuse manifested in getting the kids to school, or making that deadline at work or getting the groceries for that dinner party coming up, make some pictures. You're an artist? Great. Now go make some work.

Artists work.

Topics: Working Conditions,art,Don''t Sell yourself short

Permalink | Posted September 21, 2015