Where I’ve been.

 

Where we’re going is more important than where we’ve been.

Yet, we all come to be the people we are from somewhere.   Life has a serendipitous way of landing us places we never expected, much less planned.  One thing leads to the next and suddenly we’re doing something in the far left field of our original life-plan.

I participate in a mentoring group at Stanford called The Product Realization Network.  Once a month graduate students present their ideas for new products and based on our individual talents, we offer free and often valuable counsel.  Last year there was a young woman, majoring in electrical engineering, who proposed a web business that tracked the circuitous routes of successful people.  Her idea was to encourage students to forget straight-line career trajectories by looking at the zigs and zags most of us have traveled to arrive at where we are today.

My own life has been no exception.

During my freshman year at Bowdoin, I took a photography course from the college’s photographer-in-residence, John McKee.  John had recently held an exhibition at Bowdoin’s Walker Art Museum called As Maine Goes… and had developed a cult-like following of admirers and would-be photographers.  I learned darkroom techniques, the zone system and basics of composition, all within John’s spare and elegant framework.  He was a spare and elegant man himself, living a Zen inspired life alone in an austere 18th century Maine farmhouse, which he kept unheated and nearly empty.  While his photographic vision and passion for “the print” rubbed off on me, somehow his personal aesthetics did not.  The beauty of an empty room is something I admire, and perhaps even long for, but have never achieved as evidenced by every cluttered space I’ve ever occupied.

While at Bowdoin my photographer friend John O’Hern and I spent many, many days driving up and down the Maine coast taking pictures, from Olsen’s Farm where Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World, to Popham Beach, to wild asters in Rockport, to the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point.  It’s where my taste in painters and painting was formed.  Winslow Homer (his paint-box and kit housed in Bowdoin,) Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, John Marin, Fairfield Porter and Rockwell Kent…these remain favorites today and have led to my own pursuit of watercolor painting.

All of this was preparation for one of the formative experiences of my life, working at Aperture, the photographic foundation founded by Minor White and then under its (in)famous publisher, Michael Hoffman.  Arriving back in the States from having obtained a graduate degree in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, Dublin, I had written to Michael expressing my desire to work at Aperture.  From the moment we met at his Manhattan apartment on East 36th Street it was assumed I would.  For the next three years I was Managing Editor, living in Duchess County, New York, where Aperture maintained its headquarters to be near Michael’s immaculate late 18th century farmstead compound in Pine Plains.

Such extraordinary experiences!  Aperture gave me the opportunity to meet every famous living photographer, from Paul, and his wife Hazel, Strand, to Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brett Weston, to the mysterious Frederick Sommer and the chronicler of the Ghosts along the Mississippi, Clarence John Laughlin.  We would visit Dorothy Norman at her house on Farewell Lane in South Hampton and talk about Alfred Steiglitz.  And rummage through boxes of prints by George Platt Lynes at the house where he died.  Having the opportunity to handle prints by all the great 19th century photographers—Frederick Evans, Julia Margaret Cameron, P. H. Emerson, Samuel Bourne, among others—was a rare privilege.  (I gave away an Emerson print to someone I once loved and wonder what’s become of it.)

On weekends Michael’s house became a destination for photographers and visiting artists of all stripes.  I listened for hours to Paul Caponigro playing Thomas de Hartmann’s haunting music from Gurgeiff on the piano.

As Managing Editor I was involved in the selection and publication of Aperture’s monographs and the quarterly magazine.  I spent nearly a month working daily with Marvin Israel, the designer and Diane Arbus’s last lover, in his tower overlooking lower Fifth Avenue, as we edited Aperture’s landmark Arbus monograph.   Then, there was selecting and editing The Last Empire: Photographs of British India, which involved convincing very private collectors like Sam Wagstaff to lend their treasures—Queen Victoria’s Empress of India and Dehli Durbar albums– and Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy, to write the introduction (we had breakfast together in Manhattan.)

A close friend at the time was a young photographer, Mark Goodman, who on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, was recording the people and everyday life of Millerton, New York, the mostly blue collar Dutchess County town where Aperture was based.  Mark’s Millerton portraits capture a time and place, now gentrified out of recognition, as poignantly as Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange.

My time at Aperture also led to formative associations with a number of other non-profit small presses, whose publications we distributed.  Chief among these were The Jargon Society, published by the North Carolina poet and polymath Jonathan Williams, and The Eakins Press, published by the kindest man I’ve ever known, George Leslie Katz.   Through Leslie and his writer wife Jane Mayhall, I became friends with Lincoln Kirstein, then the chairman of The New York City Ballet and noted arts patron.  Parties at Lincoln’s brownstone were events from another world.  He kept Serge Diaghilev’s calling card on his front hall table, as though the Russian ballet impresario had dropped by yesterday.  Leslie introduced me to an effete New York world of another, nearly extinct, generation. (Today it is no more.) We would have lunch with Monroe Wheeler at his apartment and once took tea with Father Flye, of James Agee fame, at St. Luke’s Rectory. (Father Flye was the only person I ever knew with an ear trumpet!)

I became Secretary of The Jargon Society, and with that role became friends not only with Jonathan Williams, but also with his authors, patrons and many, many artist friends.

Of lasting importance was my friendship with the writer Paul Metcalf, Herman Melville’s great grandson, and his wife Nancy.  Their house in the Berkshires became a haven for me, as it did for so many others.  Paul’s mother Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter, was an important fixture among Melville scholars, and herself the discoverer of many Melville manuscripts, including Billy Budd, stored in a bread box by Melville’s daughter.  Paul had grown up in the Berkshires near Melville’s home Eagle Hill and was a Melville authority himself, as well as using his heritage as a springboard to his own wonderful, highly creative writing.  Spending a day with Paul at Eagle Hill, listening to him tell the family stories, was unforgettable.

Then there were the Jargon Society annual meetings in Winston-Salem and Highlands, North Carolina.  Always hosted by Philip Hanes, the meetings were adventures in art and literature and nature and Southern hospitality—whether skinny dipping down rock slides in frigid mountain streams of the Southern Appalachians, to visiting the grave of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales, with English poet Basil Bunting in tow, to dinners at Philip and Joan Hanes elegant anti-bellum house, lovingly disassembled in tide-water Virginia and moved to Winston-Salem as a wedding present from Philip’s mother.

The love of fine printing and small presses along with classic photography has stayed with me ever since.  I bought a small hand letterpress a few years ago—having taken courses in typography and printing at the New School in Manhattan—but have yet to set it up.  Maybe next week.  Photography has been a closer affection, both collecting and taking pictures.  Even here, though, I’ve been selling more prints than buying, and am more likely to make photo books on Snapfish than drop off film at one of the few processors left in San Francisco.

What were the photographic aesthetics that these key influencers engendered?  Originality of vision, composition, quality of the print, grandeur, commitment.

Novelty alone does not make a photograph great.  Technique alone does not make a photograph great.   Subject matter alone does not make a photograph great.

Why does Diane Arbus succeed when her many imitators fail?  Why is a landscape photo by Ansel Adams magnificent and one by, say me, merely pictorial?

While an amateur photographer, I do know what makes a photograph great.  I got myself in many sticky situations with agency art directors who didn’t want, or respect, the opinion of some account guy.  Today I just keep my mouth shut and pursue my passion on my own.  Plus the craft has changed so much, from dark rooms to computers.  I think the advance has been spectacular. And, there’s still a role for traditional photographers—not commercially, but still a given for the art photography market.  Even I take far more pictures with my little digital Leica than with my old SLR’s and rangefinders.  I gave away my wooden 8 X 10 view camera  years ago.  Talk about a lot of trouble—but oh the detail and resolution.  I also gave away my Polaroid, another antique from another era.

This reminds me of a favorite Pepsi commercial created by BBDO.  An archeology professor is excavating an ancient tomb and finds a peculiar object encrusted in dirt and grime.  He carefully removes this covering to reveal a Coca-Cola bottle.  One of the students asks what it is and, bewildered, he answers, “I have no idea.”

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2 Comments

  1. Truly is a great commercial

    Yet I have never understood that era’s fascination with Blade Runner.

    Reply
  2. Thanks Adam for posting the Pepsi spot. It’s one of my favorites and a terrific testament to BBDO’s creativity. As to “that era”–it wasn’t exactly the Middle Ages! In evolutionary time, it was a second ago. Maybe less.

    Reply

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