Of course, there are different kinds of risk. There is jump off the bridge attached to a bungee cord type of risk. There is being on the front line in a war type of risk. Then there is career risk, the kind that makes you jump ahead, stick your neck out, taking a chance on an idea you've had or sticking up for yourself among colleagues. The cliché "nothing ventured nothing gained comes to mind."
Last week I took a risk and yes, it feels good to have done it. Each session at Penland, where I was teaching, the faculty present their work in evening slide shows. Each has 10 minutes to show whatever they like in front of the community of artists and craftspeople present in that particular session of classes. I chose to show the work of mine from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia (Mutter) and the pictures from Reggio Emilia in Italy (Spallanzani Collection) to, what turned out to be, a stunned audience. The two times I'd presented before when teaching there I had shown landscape work and work from older series so there was some shock at seeing pictures of medical specimens up on the screen in the auditorium that when projected were about 16 feet across.
Finally, for the last work I showed I put up slides of the new "Monsters" work. Notice that there's no link to the work on the site? That's because I am withholding posting them for a bit, but stay tuned as some will go up soon. "Monsters" will be shown at 555 Gallery sometime in the next year, dates to be determined, meaning we haven't figured that part out yet. Want to see this work? Let Susan Nalband at the gallery know your feelings: 555 Gallery. BTW: I am pleased to announce here that I will be showing in Boston with 555 Gallery from now on. What's that mean? Want to see works of mine? Contact the gallery. Easy.
It was wonderful to surprise the crowd with this work. Before mine, Mercedes Jelinek showed hew work along with her killer video of her making pictures using photo booth (Mercedes) and then Chris Benfey went, standing in front of the audience, reading a poem he wrote and some wonderful phrases that were observational, personal, quirky and marvelous.
Ah Penland: so much, always powerful and positive and as though two weeks there can sustain an energy level throughout the following year.
(My sincere apologies: the website has been down for a few days, due to technical circumstances I was unable to control. Thank you for you patience.)
A couple of days ago we took the class to the site of where
Black Mountain College had been, not far from Asheville, NC. It is now a boy’s
summer camp but a few of the original buildings remain. My co-teacher in the
class, Chris Benfey, has written about the school, which was started in the 1930’s. Chris
brought us into what we were about to see before we left Penland, then gave us
a little more background when we arrived. Names like Walter Gropius, Joseph and
Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Aaron Siskind, Willem de Kooning, Merce
Cunningham, a young John Cage, Franz Kline, on and on surfaced in the conversation while
we were sitting there in front of a lovely lake eating our box lunches. Evidently Gropius had designed
a master plan for the campus in the 30’s and the primary building that remains is
describes the school’s genesis, history and demise in the mid 50’s:
How do you convey such depth and history in pictures and
writing? How can the work you make resonate with the past richness of a place as
redolent as Black Mountain? Who does this kind of work with photography? Linda Connor comes to mind,
maybe earlier work by Emmet Gowin. I’m sure you can think of others.
The primary building that still stands is the studio building, built so that each student would have their own work space. It was erected by the students and faculty in the mid forties as part of a master plan designed by Walter Gropius. Cheaply made, it is the strongest reminder of what was there so long ago.
At the end of the building, there is a place to sit with a balcony around it with two fans mounted in the ceiling:
that looks like the stern of a ship. I also was struck by how the building, gray with a corrugated skin, looks industrial and German. Walter Gropius was German so this makes sense.
A couple of months earlier Chris and I had met up in Brattelboro, VT to photograph the Rudyard Kipling house.
Kipling had designed his American home in the theme of a ship or an ark in a previous century. Gropius had drawn his building for Black Mountain in the 1930's.
I liked the coincidence.
Yesterday we went to Marion, NC for a few hours to photograph. It felt very good to get off campus, to see new places and have new experiences. We are now building out our initial concept of combing words with images to allow more pictures than one, beginning to use narrative form and sequencing to make a group of pictures.
Marion was wonderful:
After an excellent lunch at "Bruce's Fabulous Foods" where we were seated in the banquet room in back, we returned to Penland. Bruce offered us a choice of about 13 different flavors of cheesecake for dessert.
Class? The students are doing really well now. Motivated, working hard, interested and interesting.There is still a great deal to do and next we will move on to working collaboratively.
Each night at Penland, after dinner is "Slide Night" where faculty and studio assistants present slides of their work for the whole community, about 200 people. So far we've seen work by metal workers, which includes iron, and wood and clay.
Photography, which will be myself, Chris Benfey and Mercedes Jelinek, will present next week.
Yesterday's class started off with a look at any revisions students may have made to their writings from the day before. Chris (Benfey) read a passage from his book, "Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay" and then we moved on to a very big topic, which was the assignment for the students to first make a photograph then write about that photograph.
Think about this: the power and specificity of the concept to make a photograph and thinking that you will write about it after making it. This then informs the photograph you are about to make, loads it with significance far more than it may have had initially. Imagine the weight you can place on particular parts of the image through your words. Envisage how you can direct the viewer's eye to something in the photograph, predict the outcome and drive the image to its conclusion rather than leaving it up to the viewer. Haven't you been frustrated by the cursory glance people give your photograph when you've spent a great deal of time on it? Isn't it upsetting when a viewer "doesn't get it" when looking at your work?
Combining words with your pictures can crush the problem by telling the viewer what your point was, or answer a riddle you've posed in the picture, or explain the circumstances in which the photograph was made. But it also can make you a better photographer for it will cause more deliberation, consideration and thought about the pictures you will make. Almost always, intentional pictures are better pictures.
What was our reference text? What examples did we use to explain the principle? Why, John Szarkowski's "Looking at Photographs, 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art" of course. Nothing better. Szarkowski is perfect here, illuminating and explaining clearly and with great insight, various photographs from the collection, some famous, but some obscure too.
How'd the students do? Well, they struggled with letting it go, with realizing that this was a fundamentally new way to make pictures, one side, the visual, informing the other, the literary. And finally, there is the concept of subsequently writing about the picture, predisposing the picture to be more fully realized. No blame here, as this isn't easy.
What is happening, however, is that we are beginning to see an occasional exceptional photograph and are finding there is some wonderful writing. This is only the second day of classes and so I am very encouraged. This is a very exciting and motivated group of students we are working with.
If you've been following this blog you know I have been headed to Penland in North Carolina to teach for two weeks. I arrived yesterday and after unpacking, settling in and having dinner went to a local rodeo in a Burnesville nearby with friends.
Where we saw locals and their families having a good time. One of the highlights was to place a young child on the back of a sheep and see how long your kid could stay on as it tried to buck them off. The answer is: not very long.
Mercedes was there with us:
This is the third year I've taught at Penland and Mercedes has been my studio assistant each time. She has a way of making all things possible and is simply the best. I wrote a profile of Mercedes a while ago: here. In September she will start a three year artist in residency at Penland.
This morning we headed to Spruce Pine, which is the nearest town of any size, down in the valley where the the freight trains rumble through. For the past two years I've photographed in town every morning before teaching, sometimes bringing a few students with me and sometimes not. Those series are here: Spruce Pine 2012 and Spruce Pine 2013.
Mercedes and I photographed in the most industrial and commercial part of the town,
where, on the one hand you could say that it was a visual desert, devoid of value or aesthetic. On the other: that it was an honest place devoid of anything but function and necessity, where beauty snuck in and prevailed despite the best intentions.
I was able to get above the one or two story shops and buildings to point down.
And came across an old pickup truck that was decorated....
and where Barbies never die,
and where I found, finally, a little bit of Southern Christainity:
Sometimes the job seems clear to me. Just photograph something cleanly, without too much pretention, assumption, art or contrivance. Often our job is to impose as little as possible. Get in, get out and move on.
Structurally, I am going to try to post a blog a day while here, counter to what I said before I left home. The effort is to try to bring you into the class a little and to share with Penland students this process of combining pictures with words as description. We'll see how I do, as it will get very busy as soon as students arrive.