The Art of Observation – Photography

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Last night I watched ” Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightening,” a PBS American Masters documentary.  The program was created by Dorothea’s cinematographer granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, using some fantastic family film footage.  I was particularly drawn to the program because Diane has been reading “Mary Coin,” a fictionalized account of the story behind the photograph, “Migrant Mother.”   Dorothea took the photograph of Francis Owens Thompson and her children in California in 1936.  Who can forget the haunting look, introspective gaze, turned heads of the two, young tired children.  The image is an icon of motherhood, poverty and the struggle of the 1930s Great Depression.

When Lange took photographs of Florence she was working for the Farm Security Administration.  It was a WPA program that hired photographers to document workers and life during the depression years.  I discovered the FSA photographs in the 1970s when I purchased a book, “In this Proud Land: America 1935-1943 as seen in the FSA photographs,” for the HGP library.  I was blown away by the images.

My personal experience as a photographer began with black and white film and a small Kodak Brownie — a gift from my Aunt Carol.  In High School and College I graduated to an Argus C3 — Carol’s gift to my father one Christmas.  I really didn’t take a lot of photographs, in college I was side tracked into making films with a super 8 Beaulieu movie camera.  This was before video and the tiny 8 mm film was not easy to work with.

In the 1970s, my creative interests turned to film.  I set up dark rooms at our New Hope house and at Holy Ghost Prep.  At HGP I purchased several SLR Pentax cameras.  One for me to use and several to  lend to students.  I ran a Camera club and used photography in my teaching.  I explored the history of photography and created a slide program to teach that history.   The HGP library has a great collection of photography books.  Many date from this period.

I think it was the summer of 1974 when my involvement in photography took a leap forward.  That summer Diane and I lived in Bethel Maine with Melody and Garret Bonnema, friends who had moved to Maine to do pottery.  I thought I would write that summer.    I had been an English major at Boston College and always thought of myself as a writer.  But August came  and I hadn’t done any writing.  I responded to an ad for the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport.  I believe it was the first year of the workshop established by photographer-educator Dave Lyman.

I spent one week on a small island off Rockport.  An Outward Bound instructor gave us a sheet of plastic and directions for making a tent.  I tried to pitch it over a rock the first night and was very uncomfortable.  So I took my bottle of burbon and got to know our sail boat’s captain much better.  For the rest of the week I slept on the sail boat.  Our instructor was a National Geographic free lance photographer, Bill Curtsinger.  Bill wasn’t much older that I was but in my eyes he had a dream job.  For a week we walked around the island and Bill  opened our eyes to composition, lighting, angles — I remember he had an 18mm lens that he let us use.  I loved the rocks, sunrise and sunset, reflections of the water, small plants,  shells and small bits of life in tidal pools.  Back in Rockport we developed and critiqued our images.  National Geographic philosophy was that film, always Kodachrome slide film, was the cheapest part of the shoot.  Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.  I soon adopted the NG philosophy.  Another lessons I remembered from Bill was that there was only so much time each of us had.  You couldn’t read every book, see every movie or do every shoot.  You had to chose carefully.  Your time was precious.  Bill’s speciality was underwater photography but he had recently done a shoot of the New Jersey Pine Barrens (cover shot helped with a bit of weed).  That shoot eventually led to an illustrated edition of John McPhee!s classic, “The Pine Barrens.”  He also had either just returned or was headed for a wolf shoot in Alaska.  Wow.  Only so many shoots in a lifetime.

The following year I took two workshops in Maine.  The first was with another NG photographer, Bruce Dale.  Bruce reviewed my portfolio the first day, “There are no pictures of people,” he said.  My response was that my only people pictures are family which I didn’t consider part of my more creative work.  Bruce said that I had to change that.  In the next week he turned me into a acceptable documentary, street photographer.  I don’t remember exactly what Bruce did but he gave me the confidence and techniques to meet people and photograph them.  Although i am not always comfortable doing this kind of photography I have used it many times — walking the streets of Philadelphia, on my first trip to England (shoot people), in Nicaragua street photography became the way I communicated (since my Spanish was severely limited).

My next workshop was even more amazing.  Dave Lyman was attracting big names from the world of photography.   I signed up for a color workshop with Ernst Haas, an Austrian, lauded as one of the best 10 color photographers in the world — he did the original Marlboro man.  Ernst also did several great books that I eventually bought.  During the first day of the workshop, Ernst sat us on the floor in a room and talked about color and light.  He said there should be a nail in the shutter release button.  When a photographer pushed, he knew he wanted the image.  This was quite opposite the NG philosophy.  Ernst took us on location, to a Maine Fair, around town — early morning, evening — always looking at color and light.  He pushed my photography in new directions.  Still shooting Kodachrome , sometime Ektachrome for a different color base.

In the next few years, I would begin to send photographs to stock agencies.  They sell photographs to a variety of publishers.  I worked with H. Armstrong Roberts in Philadelphia and Shostal in New York City.  I would sent them several hundred slides and they might keep a dozen.  I also did several yearbooks for elementary schools and shot a few weddings. I spent a lot of time photographing in Bucks County and Philadelphia.  Did a few local shows and briefly tried to sell prints at craft shows.   For years my photo business was a deduction on my federal income tax.  After the allowed number of years I made a small profit.  Although my stock images have passed on to different companies, as recently as a few years ago I got a check.  I stopped doing stock work in the 1980s as I became more involved with teaching.  At one point I tried to restart but lost several boxes of slides to the US Post office in Chicago.  They returned my orange Kodak boxes– empty.  Never sent photos to a stock agency again.  I would like to return to stock work but have been told that it is very different and extremely competitive with digital.

By the late 80s and 90s I was a typical home photographer.  Still shooting slides but usually only on trips and family activities.  I also did some slide presentations for the Yardley Historical Association, Friends of the Delaware Canal, and my High School and College teaching.  I did a lot, yes a lot, of photography in the years I went to Nicaragua with the service project, Ayudanica.  Rob Buscaglia, Ayudanica founder, and I often talked about publishing a book of photographs.  But it never happened.  I made the transition from slides (and some color film) after our last  trip in about 2005 or 6.  Never developed the last rolls of film in my cameras — several Nikon bodies by his time.

Now that I am retired, I need to look around the corner and review the role of photography in my life.  Last night I watched Dorothea Lange go through a career of negatives in preparation for an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art  in New York.  She pulled images, discarded, laid aside, selected, paired, removed, trying to distill a life’s work into a museum show.  It was inspiring, beautiful.  Unfortunately Dorothea died in 1965 before the show was mounted.

I know that in the next few months I need to edit my photographs.  I have boxes of “seconds” still in yellow Kodak boxes.  Most should be in the trash.  I have a closet, yes a closet of Kodak slide trays — thousands of images.  I have boxes and albums of pictures, black and white that I shot with the Brownie or developed in the 1970s.  Color prints of family and friends.  And now I have 10 or so years of digital images on computer — thousands I suspect.  I am not going to have a show at the Museum of Modern Art.  I guess my editing need to be more severe that Dorothea’s.  I want to consider doing something with my best images.– maybe a powerpoint presentation, a self published Shutterfly type book. or maybe something more significant.  I need to donate  my Yardley slides to the Historical Association.  Lots of editing.

Finally like Dorothea, I want to continue to shoot.  She turned to family in her last years.   I took a one day course in using a digital camera (I’ve used it as a point and shoot for years),   I’ve talked with  a photo shop salesman (some still exist) about upgrading my equipment.  I may return to Nikon using some of my old lenses.  There are photography projects to keep me busy for the next weeks, months, hopefully years.

In the end I do want to keep exploring the world, meeting people, expressing myself though observation and photography.

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