all of it, all

Let me state what may be obvious: things have gotten busy. While I’m very pleased with how the class has been working, both practically and conceptually, it’s a lot of stuff. I mean, a lot. I had thought I would turn these eight weeks into a decent class syllabus for future job applications, but I’m starting to think there’s no way this could be done in one semester, especially if the class were only meeting a few hours a week… It can barely be done in eight weeks, every day. Technique, History, and Theory, all in one? I might need to reign it in.

Nevermind the general social obligations here (photoshoots, trades, gifts, pieces for the auction, a prize for the Prom…), there’s also been day trips to Boston and Charleston, and a little Symposium thing I’ve been organizing, which turns out to be more than a little work. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to say, but I’ll try to be brief as I catch up.

Resume here.

photography in reverse: day sixteen

blue mountains

I wanted them to have time to work and shoot today, but we needed to spend the morning on an intermediate printing demo, of sorts, moving students up to better fiber paper, if they hadn’t yet, and getting into more detail about burning and dodging and things. There are still times when it’s difficult to balance the needs of the beginners with the needs of the more experienced, although the playing field will be getting more and more level as we head backwards into the 19th Century. Still, it’s always good to get everyone together for a demo, to speak the same language, share the same knowledge.

I spent the afternoon trying to catch up with my Thesis students and just be available to answer questions as we go. There are a lot of questions, but that’s the only way I can imagine this class working: show them everything by description and demonstration; get them to try it and go over it again as they do; answer the questions that come up afterwards; wait for them to try it on their own; answer more questions; sometimes, too, show them again. Time traveling takes a lot of time to get just right.

I could sense some general tensions between people here and there, as Week Three got underway, and friendships, crushes, and work habits began to find their shape. It’s not just us up in Photo, of course; there had been discussions at lunch with several people expressing their personal frustrations about little things, for the most part. This is an intense eight weeks, in the tiniest of tiny towns, really. People just need to get off the mountain a bit from time to time, to see other people, maybe to eat some other food. As it happens, I had already planned just that, at just the right time. One of my favorite musicians, Sam Amidon, was playing at the Mothlight down in Asheville (a good hour-plus drive from here, but worth it.) As always, he put on a great show, and there was something strange but pleasant about sitting in a darkened bar with new faces and bodies to see, drinking whiskey I didn’t bring with me…

photography in reverse: day fifteen

time zones

After a very big weekend out of the studio, I was ready to dive in again. At this stage, Week Three, I keep having to check to see that I am giving people enough to do without overwhelming them, but today it seemed they were ready for more: as planned, large-format cameras. It may seem a bit much to jump in one week from 35mm to 4x5s, especially for the students who just last week shot and developed their first roll of film ever, but the fact is that large-format cameras are in many ways the simplest and most direct apparatus one can use – it’s kind of just a box with a lens. They already understand how to work with f-stops and shutter speeds, so making a decent exposure shouldn’t be too tough. It’s more a matter of figuring out the mechanical details of the cameras we have here, the small details of tray development, and taking advantage of all the new possibilities that so many options – swings! tilts! scheimpflug! – can give them.

Maybe the one thing that really feels like new knowledge to some is using a hand-held meter, especially since we can start thinking about a kind of Zone System approach – not necessarily the full thing by extending or reducing contrast in development, but certainly to begin a deeper understanding of relative values and exposing for the shadows. I had split everyone into three groups of two (in part just to have someone to help carry equipment) and I went out with the two least experienced students. It was a gorgeous day, and they led me out onto the knoll for their shots, each of which was perfect for learning new things. One student was shooting a miniature clothesline she had made, so we could talk about changing the focal plane and perspective using the front and back standards. The other student shot a backlit portrait, which allowed us to discuss zones and making smart exposures. It didn’t hurt that it was a fantastically gorgeous day to be standing around in paradise. We did a lot of standing around.

photography in reverse: day twelve

inspirations

Today was, thankfully, mostly just a work day (for all of us) but of course we started out with our Weekly 100 pictures. Actually, the first thing up was a short film on Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson is, of course, one of those photographers we learn about early on in our student years, and is a giant enough to be overlooked in one’s later years. (After a long enough time and years of overexposure, so to speak, there are just some artists you can’t look at anymore…) However this short film, in which Cartier-Bresson speaks in his own words about his images and his working philosophy, was inspiring in every way. The old famous images seemed more spontaneous, fresh, and exciting than I remember; his ideas were more humanist and optimistic than I ever knew. I just wanted to grab a 35mm camera and go out and see the world anew.

My general thesis for this week – being as we are in the mid-Twentieth-Century, shooting black-and-white film, looking at the changing world – was composition: arranging the world within the camera. We are still in Sontag territory here, of course, but I was less concerned with theory this week than the marriage of syntax and content. We talked about the size and speed of a 35mm camera versus the steady, imprisoning frame of a 120mm square. We discussed a seemingly objective view masking the personal viewpoint of the photographer. I contrasted Cartier-Bresson’s tightly composed humanism to the beautiful but bleak looseness of Robert Frank’s The Americans. We looked at Helen Levitt, Gilles Peress, and one of my all-time favorites, Roy DeCarava.

Looking at the use of photography with performance art, we talked about the authenticity of a grainy B&W image and how it compares to the 4×6 color snapshots. That got us into Nan Goldin, and Larry Clark’s recent offering of his small snapshots for $100 each. I showed them these amazing recreations of famous images. We talked a little bit about creating fantastic worlds, with Robert and Shana Parke-Harrison, and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen. Somehow, we found our way to talking about Stanhopes, I think in reference to some ideas we had about making eggs for Easter… No matter what, I think everyone (myself included) walked away from this morning’s discussion feeling pretty inspired. I’m looking forward to the weekend, and some time to relax and enjoy this gorgeous mountain Spring.

photography in reverse: day eleven

a life in plastic

I love giving presents, and today I was directly mimicking my first Photography Professor, Christopher James, by giving each of my students a brand-new Holga and a roll of Tri-X. The weather wasn’t wonderful – in fact it was cold and rainy and sleepy – but I wanted to send them off with a roll of 120 film to shoot and then come back and develop it. I opened up an old expired roll of color 120 to show them how the roll is assembled so they can process it without surprises, answered a few questions – everyone looked pretty confident, I’m happy to report – and pushed them out into the rain. I feel a little bad that I didn’t buy my assistant a camera, but I know she already has a Holga, so I loaned her my old original Diana and urged her to shoot a roll of the old Infrared film she brought with her. After our good discussion yesterday, it’s clear she needs to go play and find something surprising in her own work. I have total faith in her, of course…

I figured most of the rest of the day would be answering questions as they arose, switching lenses for those who get to printing their larger-format film, finding solutions to their new ideas… I did have to carve out some time in the afternoon to re-do the printing demo for one poor student who was awfully ill the other day, but it was a good opportunity to do a re-hash for the students within earshot. There were a lot of ideas being tossed around today, and the creative energy is high. I’m glad they’ll have a whole day for this tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the rest of my day had to be spent sitting on the computer, putting together the 100 images I wanted to show them tomorrow. It’s my own fault, of course, since I was the one who decided to show them pictures every Friday, but I know they’ll be inspired and we’ll have more to talk about each week. The problem is that I’m starting to feel that all this time sitting at a computer or other connected device is ruining some of the magic I usually feel on this mountain. Certainly something is keeping me from connecting to the deep inspiration I always count on finding here. I wondered at first if it was just from being here so often for short visits in the last couple of years, or just the psychic residue of the last six months or so, a chaotic time to say the least. No, I’m gonna blame the Machines. I need more peace, more freedom to be untethered, more time to think.

photography in reverse: day ten

getting personal

Wednesday is our day to critique work and to discuss ideas, or just to sit around and talk, if we like, and today we moved from the studio to what will now be our weekly meeting place: my house. I always request the same housing at Penland, if I can get it, mostly for the large living room on the main floor (though the porch is pretty great, too!) My assistant and I removed a large bookcase from one wall, then rearranged the couches so we could sit around and look at work. I made coffee, set out some snacks, and we were set.

It’s still early days, of course, and people have just started printing their own B&W pics, so the morning was filled more with general discussion than actual critiquing. We did finally get our “One Hour” photos back last night (only 78 hours later!) so we had lots to look at and discuss. It really is fun passing around these glossy four-by-sixes, and we got to talking about the differences between the Personal experience of photography and the Art experience. If, as I believe, Art can be made about anything and, in fact, is especially suited for the emotional, irrational, and meaningful parts of what it means to be human, then can good work be made that even comes close to the experience of passing these little things around? The minute you take one of these images and blow it up (and there are many artists who seem to do just that) something is lost. Yes, I can be made to understand that the artist’s work is about the vernacular use of and personal relationship to family photos, say, but shouldn’t artwork be able to go deeper somehow, to make a complicated and powerful connection to that simple handheld reminder of our lives as they pass?

Almost every photo we looked at this morning was much less about what was held in the frame than as a spur to memory. “Oh yeah, that’s the wall of teacups at the store we were in. That guy was such a weirdo!” “That’s when you were telling us a story about your friend.” “Look how happy I was!” I took one disposable camera and decided to have fun, shooting touristy snapshots around the campus and the woods here, but making sure my thumb or finger was in every frame. Photography may indeed replace memory in the end, but it summons it too, at least for us here. We’re hoping to get our slides FedExed back to us in time for the afternoon. That will be a whole different experience indeed.

Snapshot of the Weaving Cabin, Penland, NC.

Snapshot of the Weaving Cabin, Penland, NC.

After lunch we took some time to talk about everyone’s first negatives and prints, and I’ve begun urging them toward a project idea – anything, really, just a place to start. I asked them to take a few days and see what struck them. We’re going to push our Large Format demo from Friday to Monday, so we can have a day this week just to work. I think they could use it…

The slides did arrive, and my assistant managed to track down one of the only slide projectors left on campus, so they spent some time loading up a few trays while I searched for extra blankets and things to keep out the late afternoon light, now looking right in on us. This would be better in a darker room, but it’s still a wonderfully old-fashioned experience to get the projector whirring, the carousel clacking. Everyone shot at least a few photos of the lovely landscape here, but there were goofy shots of all of us, nighttime experiments, documentation of some of the Mavica moments, explorations in the towns nearby. One of my students drove a couple of hours each way the other day, just to shoot some animals at a zoo. I’m actually surprised that everyone has a memory of their family doing this very thing, and I’m reminded suddenly of the back staircase from my room to the kitchen where my siblings and I would set up slideshows of our own – must have been an old servants’ passage, I guess. Was it at Bourneside Street, in the ’70s?

My brother, my sister, and I on Bourneside Street, ca. 1975

My brother, my sister, and I on Bourneside Street, ca. 1975

After dinner there were slides again, this time by the Resident Artists (minus the two who are teaching this session), who are all awesome. Kind of a shame they only had about 5 minutes each, but they’ll be doing an Open House thing on Friday, so we can see a lot of the work in person. Later a few of us gathered for Art Talk, where a bunch of the staff and residents meet weekly and talk about issues of theory, teaching, studio practice, etc. – whatever gets lost in the day-to-day work and maintenance here at the school. Most of these people are my friends now, and I’m so lucky to be welcomed by them into the fold.

photography in reverse: day nine

cookin’

Today was our day for Printing 101, and the real beginning of what I consider the handcrafted side of Photography. I was surprised that four of my six students had never really printed much in a darkroom before, even the ones who’d had some experience with photography. Printing was always my favorite part when I first started, and I’ve collected a lot of good solid ways to explain it to students, so it was a pretty straightforward morning. (It helps to have students as quick and smart as these…) In fact, I’d had so much coffee that I sped through the whole demo – from chemistry to contact sheets to cropping to contrast – all in about an hour. Thankfully everyone seemed to get it, and were all soon printing remarkably well. It’s been so long since I actually printed in a darkroom, but I guess over so many years the knowledge and practice does add up. I kind of miss it, in fact…

I feel like we’ve finally hit the “craft” part of photography, here at the Craft School, and we’re moving away from the lovely balance of Playtime & Theory that we managed to strike last week, and on into the students’ own work, their own concerns. I do still want them to play (and to think!) but I’m going to start pushing them toward a project, and toward building a body of work. Heck, we have a show to do in just six weeks!

By the time we were back in the studio after lunch, everyone was pretty clearly in a groove, listening to some Miles Davis (thanks to Robin Dreyer loaning us some key CDs… I really should have installed a turntable in here, for the right Mid-Twentieth-Century vibe!) My assistant and I were on the board to show our slides tonight after dinner, so we spent some time organizing things in Powerpoint and making sure they made sense. I wanted my lecture to be under 20 minutes, but also wanted to show enough of my work while making a clear argument about technology, the future, and the past.

In the end I think slides went well, though I’m embarrassed to admit how much I wanted to chat to people afterward – you know, to have someone say, “That was good.” I’m generally pretty confident giving a talk on my work, but every now and then, well, I need a little whiskey beforehand, and a pat on a back afterward. It’s really absurd being an artist sometimes…

photography in reverse: day eight

rolling

Our first weekend brought us the first party (in the glass studio), our first dressing up & dancing, our first solid hangovers… I had spent Saturday down in Asheville, running a few errands, seeing a few friends, and generally wandering around, but made it back up the mountain in time to join in the fun. Clearly everyone else had a pretty full-on time, if the morning after was anything to go by. Sunday was gloriously sunny, if a bit cold and windy, and completely quiet. I think an awful lot of people were hiding out, sleeping, and nursing themselves back to normalcy. Me, I had a wonderful wander of the woods, a little dancing around work in the studio, but not much. It was a true Day Off.


Monday we were all right back in it, now moved over to the main darkroom area, the only place I ever really knew of as the Photo Studio, from the first day I came to Penland in 1992… I’m so happy to be heading back into the Handmade, and away from relying on business and corporations (e.g. waiting for our film to be developed by someone else in some other city, then shipped back to us.) Today we did good ol’ Black & White 35mm film. I figure that puts us in the heyday of the 50s or so, and some jazz or Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook were excellent on the soundtrack.

The students seemed pretty confident with their 35mm cameras, after spending the weekend using them to shoot chromes – even the ones who’d never shot film before. (I continue to be pleased at the organization of our days, although I often think that stems more from dumb luck than good planning on my part.) Today the plan was to shoot a roll of Black & White in the brilliant morning light, then develop it this afternoon. I handed them each some film and… we all just sat there a bit. Honestly, I think everyone just kinda wanted to hang out for a little bit more this morning. I have to say this group of students is so kind to each other, so funny with each other, so supportive and helpful. I already love them so much, it’s almost heartbreaking…

When we met up again after lunch, I gave them lots of time to practice rolling their film onto the developing reels, really the only thing difficult at all about processing one’s own film; the rest of it is just following the recipe. Of course, we did have to print out a better “recipe” to post on the wall, since the one that was here looked like it’d been written by a drunken toddler on his last crayon. I described the process to them once through, getting them to start thinking about what’s happening chemically to their film as it goes through each step (happy little halides!) Once they were ready with their own reels loaded, I had them follow along as my assistant developed her film, then had them dive on in. In the end there were only a few minor mishaps – a little film stuck together in places from wonky rolling – but everyone ended up with some well-exposed negatives to use for printing tomorrow. A solid, successful day… Onward and Backward!


That evening, as I sat around after dinner, the campus was treated to another tawdry sky. At first I was just amazed at the early evening light – a cool yellow, decidedly not Summery yet, but hinted at, like a boy who looks like his father… I loved how it came through the trees to my porch, all brilliant and blurred, like. But soon, as the sun fell, all through the valley was this wild color – orange clouds with pink bellies and blue haloes touching the hilltops, spreading in every direction. When you thought that was enough, the color would riot, the whole sky a smeared rainbow, pinks to reds, the blues deepening. Okay, Penland, I hear you; you’re beautiful, I know.

photography in reverse: day five

the carousel

One of the key points to our discussion of Color Photography, on this our last day before we move to Black & White, is that for the most part these technologies are out of the hands of the solitary maker, and purely the products of industry. It takes large machines carefully calibrated to make color films of all kinds. The processing, too, is complex and uncompromising. It’s just not something some guy is going to keep alive in his garage (or revive it when it’s gone). In my opinion, most color photography – at least on the shooting side –has been truly supplanted by digital imaging. I don’t know which is stronger, my DIY handmade heart or my old anti-capitalist punk-rock brain, but I’m happy to have the rest of this class move towards Things We Can Make Ourselves.

Before we got too far into all this, though, I gave them a quick slide show of all the artists who had come up in coversation this week, mostly from the discussion of the students’ own work on Wednesday: Lothar Osterburg, Leslie Dill, James Bishop, Gordon Matta-Clark, Helen Frankenthaler, Sadie Benning, Rineke Dijkstra, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, James Van Der Zee, August Sander, Edward Muybridge, Nadar, and Anna Atkins. I think we’ll do this every Friday, like a Random History of Art. (We did much the same the last time I taught a Concentration here…)

Since it’s raining and cool again today, I’ll let them have the (supposedly sunny) upcoming weekend to shoot the rest of their disposables, and the two rolls of slide film I gave them today. Giving them some 35mm chromes means it’s time to bust out the 35mm cameras, and there are at least a couple of students who need a refresher course on using an analog camera, and one student who’s never touched one in her life! This is all well-planned, if I do say so myself, since on Monday we move to 35mm Black-and-White film, which they’ll spend a couple of days shooting, developing, and printing themselves.

But I digress. It’s back to, say, the 60’s now…

photography in reverse: day four

family photos

Today I’m placing our Yesterday around 1976, an important year for color chemical photography. I chose the year for the controversial William Eggleston exhibition at MOMA – which almost instantly moved color photographs from the ghetto of the commonplace into the, well, ghetto of the artworld – but really we’re talking about family albums, one-hour photo places, and drugstore prints. My odd sleeping pattern worked weirdly in my favor last night, as I had been searching for a few quotes from Sontag’s On Photography that I knew would be useful, and just ended up staying awake until 2:30 re-reading the whole book. I’ve always said that this book has been one of the fundamentally most important texts to the way I’ve understood Photography. I was amazed to find how true this still is, and just how much she manages to pack into only 200 pages.

There are so many passages relevant to me, and to this course, but I chose this as one of the things to read to the class:

“Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. It hardly matters what activities are photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished. Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family — and, often, is all that remains of it.”
-Susan Sontag, On Photography

I’ve been using the material history of Photography to talk about the technical syntax of each process, i.e. how it says what it says. When I think of the color print, the most obvious way it has existed in the world is as the classic 4×6 glossy print. You’d shoot a roll, bring it to the drugstore, and pick it up a little bit later. Almost every household, even today, has some of these (if not tons) kept in albums and shoeboxes, living rooms and attics. Since the second half of the Twentieth Century, it’s how we told the story of us. (If you want to get lost in this history, take a look at the Internet K-Hole blog. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) So, for class today, I gave everyone two disposable cameras.

We talked a lot about Sontag, regarding the special power that these small prints can hold:

“…we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects.”
“Few people in this society share the primitive dread of cameras that comes from thinking of the photograph as a material part of themselves. But some trace of the magic remains: for example, in our reluctance to tear up or throw away the photograph of a loved one, especially of someone dead or far away.”
- On Photography

From there it was a quick step to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, the other pillar in the contemporary theory of Photography. If Sontag is the stern and brilliant mother of my thought, Barthes is the kind and critical father:

“What did I care about the rules of composition of the photographic landscape, or, at the other end, about the Photograph as family rite? Each time I would read something about Photography, I would think of some photograph I loved, and this made me furious. Myself, I saw only the referent, the desired object, the beloved body…”
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

It was an incredibly beautiful day out, sunny and 60’s. I handed them their cameras and sent them out into the sunshine…


As for me, I actually got out of the studio for a while. One of the odd local dogs that hang out at Penland picked me up at the School Store and walked me around the loop, through the woods. After lunch, I took a hike on Paulus’ Path up to the top of the knob, a mile and a half each way. The rest of the afternoon, however, was spent sitting at the computer, finding and organizing 99 images from various artists to show to the class tomorrow. Glad to have spent as much time as I did outdoors today.

Local dog, Fred, takes me on a walk

Fred takes me on a walk.