Finding Your Bliss

Finding Your Bliss? Where's he going this time, you ask. Well, it all started with this:

Sally Mann's iconic photograph of a dead tree in a river.

A few weeks ago, as I was giving a gallery talk at the Peabody Essex Museum, I paused in front of this photograph at the Sally Mann show and realized I could probably go on for hours about it. In fact, I didn't get to talk about the whole show, partly because, I am sure, I was going on about this one so long. The photograph, I believe, speaks to Mann's essence as an artist. Surreal, ethereal, minimal, powerful and deeply felt, it is one of those works that takes your breath away, yet is so very simple.

Can we channel everything we've got, harness all our power as artists and focus it into one piece, one image? Can the stars, the planets align and the powers that be all come together in one sublime result? What a rare thing that would be. Sally Mann seems to have done just that. 

I believe part of the reason that I connected so strongly with this one photograph is that something similar is embedded in my own artistic past, from a discovery I made in 1976. This is because, as I age, I find I am looking back more, stepping off the treadmill that means new work is needed constantly and settling on past discoveries and even a few epiphanies. Let me give you my own example... and, fair warning, this may take a few posts to really get to it for I need to place one photograph I made in the 1970's in context. 

1976. Where was I? 3 years out of grad school, teaching at New England School of Photography in Boston and I would start teaching at Harvard 2 years later. I would exhibit at the Addison Gallery in Andover the next year. There was much I did not know, but I was plunging along at a frantic pace, making new pictures and discoveries. Heady times, for I was living the dream, it would seem: traveling, photographing, printing, showing. Plus, I had started using black and white infrared film and was fully immersed in the weirdness of never knowing quite what things would look like for it sees things we don't.

But to home in our story we have to go to the island of Martha's Vineyard and the summer of 1976. I have always photographed on the island, ever since starting out in photography in 1969. In fact I have new work made from this past summer on the site (Menemsha).

Our story is intertwined with the recent Judge Kavanaugh hearings,  white privilege and entitlement for the photograph of mine I am referencing wouldn't have been possible without privilege and the right pedigree. My parents were members of a club, a beach club on Martha's Vineyard that allowed access to some of the most pristine and gorgeous shoreline on the island known as the Hornblower land in Chilmark and Gay Head (now Aquinnah). Some of this beach was later where Jackie Onassis bought property but in in 1976 it was still held by an extended family of Hornblowers and their relatives. 

Membership to the club, I am sure, was awarded to the privileged few, having the right pedigree and standing to be allowed on the beach.  No clubhouse, nothing at all but a key to a locked gate, allowing you in your 4 wheel drive vehicle access to the winding sand path and up over a ridge right on to the beach itself. To say the sense of entitlement was large would be an understatement. I couldn't go on my own as it was my parents that were members. But that summer of 1976 I did go with them, to picnic, to swim, to walk what seemed like endless miles of south shore beach facing an open ocean with not a house in sight. 

Earlier that summer, the year of the US Bicentennial, I had driven cross country in a motorhome with a friend making pictures. In 9000 miles, we had adventures both small and large, met great people, and photographed so many new places. It was a "grand tour". I remember after that trip I had a sense of being more open and of feeling the world was at my doorstep, beckoning me to plunge in, to fully immerse in all that my life as an artist could be. 

By late August I was at the Vineyard with my my parents at the family home in Chilmark. One gorgeous blue sky day off we went to the "Associates" beach.

The club was called "Squibnocket Associates" and afforded access to what we used to call "Zack's Cliffs". This is the beach that has the biggest dunes on the island. In 1976 I was 30 years old and leaned towards the  Airplane, Joni Mitchell, CSNY, and the Stones, maybe some Dylan in the mix.  Being a photographer by then I would bring my Nikon F with the 24mm lens, a length I loved as it seemed to agree with the way I saw. I shot a lot of black and white infrared film in those days. Use a 3 stop red filter and the film will "see" into the infrared spectrum. Once we settled in at the beach, got the stuff out of the Jeep, maybe went for a swim and had a sandwich, the long hot afternoon would have me wandering off with my camera to explore and take pictures.  I would head back into the dunes behind us because if you went far enough you'd come across Squibnocket Pond. Ah yes, the pond!

Few houses, completely private, I might take off my suit and swim in the warm shallow brackish water.

And photograph.

Finding your Bliss (1) will stop here. Hope you'll come along as we get to the one picture that popped into my head as I was standing in front of Sally Mann's photograph in Salem a few weeks ago.

The dunes behind the Squibnocket Associates beach on Martha's Vineyard

Topics: Martha's Vineyard

Permalink | Posted October 3, 2018