Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The lower 48...Mission Accomplished!!!

December 31, 2014

About 5 years ago  Jackie and I set out to see America, or more specifically, the lower 48 states into which I was born, and in June of 2014, after spending about two and a half weeks traveling through Oregon and Washington State, the last leg of our trip, we did it, ending up in Seattle, and quite pleasantly surprised by the results.  If you were to sit home and watch the 6:00 news and/or read the New York Times or listen to talk radio/tv, you would have absolutely no idea what a wonderful country America is.  It is a wondrous place vast and beautiful, at times other worldly, and filled with warm welcoming people who exhibit none of those stereotypically un-American characteristics the media would lead you to believe about us.  True there is something quite ugly going on in the American airwaves, but I didn't see any of it at ground level.

So as I said, Mission Accomplished!!!  That's more than George W. can say with a straight face.  I retired a few years ago with the intention of seeing America, and we did it.  I don't always follow through with  things, but here we are, sitting in the SkyCity Restaurant at the top of the Seattle Space Needle, celebrating our accomplishment.  Can't think of a more fitting place to do it and all in all, probably would never have done it without Jackie.  This is the view of Seattle from the Space Needle after 3 pretty good martinis.

The dinner was expensive, but also a lot better than than you would expect from a kind of kitchy tourist trap of a place.

That's Jackie at the Westlake subway stop getting ready to head back to the airport and here we are at the airport lugging our bags back to the plane for our trip back to Albany, but since we don't do selfies, you can't see us.  

This posting needs work but I am trying to squeeze it in before the new year, so it will have to do for now.  Its been a year of ups and downs, some important losses, but on the balance, things are well.  So happy new year and all the best.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Arthur Leipzig, A remembrance....

My teacher, Arthur Leipzig, the man who set the course for the rest of my life, uncovering the latent photographer inside of me that I never knew existed, died last week, 12/5/14 at the age of 96.  Among his immesurable accomplishments both artistically, and in terms of his influence on the lives of many soon to become Long Island photographers, was the fact that he took the best photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge ever taken.  No small feat, both in terms of the vast and iconic nature of the subject, and the failure of so many other important photographers who grappled with its immensity and failed in the attempt, case in point Walker Evans.

I include Mr. Leipzig's photograph here with no particular permission, so I hope I am not committing any major copyrite transgression.  It is atypical of his vast body of work which almost exclusively illustrates his fascination with humanity.  In fact this is probably his only important photo without people which is probably why it appeals to me.

A rambling remembrance...

My career as a photographer began as a lark in the fall semester of 1968 at CW Post College.  Having been a few credits short of being able to graduate on time, and with the Viet Nam war raging, a fifth year of college didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Looking back, a sixth year would have been good too, but maybe that’s just nostalgia talking.  Anyway, with only 8 or 10 credits to make up, I was at a loss for what to do.  A friend at the time said he was going to take a photography course up at the art center, and that I should too.  I had less than no interest in photography at the time, but he showed me some b&w 8x10s a friend of his had made that I liked, so I said ok and signed up.  What started as a lark quickly became an obsession.  I borrowed my father’s old Konica viewfinder camera that he bought on a trip to Japan in the late 50's, and immediately began to feel the sense of adventure and entitlement holding a camera in your hands provides.  It was license to trespass, explore, and intrude into the lives of others, something I was known to do anyway, but now I had purpose for being on the wrong side of town.

Day 1 began with great expectations, driving up the road to the back of the campus where there was this old run down mansion that was serving as the art center at the time.  The photography department was down in the basement, right opposite the print studio, and consisted of 1 class room, and a darkroom with 5 or 6 old Simon Omega enlargers, and one teacher, Mr. Arthur Leipzig.  The whole place had the smell of a b&w darkroom, the uniquely pungent aroma of a variety of noxious substances that transports me to this day.  My anticipation quickly turned to anxiety when I looked at this one guy who showed up with a  big Nikon and a camera bag full of SLRs lenses, flash attachments, filters, etc and all I had was this dinky little camera view finder camera with rings and dials on it with numbers that I knew nothing about.  I quickly found out what to do with the rings and dials, and the heavily camera laden guy never showed up again obviously finding it all too basic for him.   

We were given a roll of film, shown how to develop the film, and sent on our way with the assignment “As you like it”, which basically meant take whatever you want, blow it up, and present it  to the class at the critique, which comprised the majority of our class time and became a strong competitive driving force to produce images that were striking, caught the eye of the other students, and won the praise of Mr. Leipzig, who was often demanding and stingy with a good word.  Looking back, this process had both good and bad sides.  It certainly provided the motivation to get good shots, but it also made the focus just  getting good shots, i.e. just looking for what we thought was a good photograph.  For years after that, I walked around with my camera looking for good images, never really thinking about what a good image was for me, or the thread, the organizing principle, that ran through my work providing it cohesion and thereby the understanding that every image did not have to be great, it just had to connect the dots in the thread that was my idiosyncratic take on life that I was trying to communicate.  Being the slow learner that I am, it took years to learn that there was an organizing principle to my work.

Unfortunately Mr. Leipzig was still new to teaching in '68, and took it for granted that all of us college students were smart enough to know how to load a camera so he didn’t show us.  After shooting the roll, getting back to the lab, and spending 20 minutes in pitch darkness trying to put the film in the spool,, I was ready to develop the film.  Five minutes in D-76, water rinse, 8 or 9 minutes in the fixer, and I was ready to wash my film and take a quick look at what I had.  Nothing, zilch, nada.  A blank roll of film.  What happened?  Of course I didn’t load it properly so it never advanced, which I didn’t realize as I was rewinding my first roll of film and couldn’t feel that nothing was rewinding.  So Mr. Leipzig was wrong.  I was not as smart as I looked, but that never happened again. 

Luckily, my first roll of film, much like my most recent roll of film, was devoid of people, just inanimate objects that don’t move or change over the course of a few days, or even a lifetime, so this time, with a properly loaded camera, I revisited my locale and basically reshot the roll.  Great relief at developing a roll full of negatives this time around.  The dark room assistant, Ricky Tropp, with whom I became instant and best friends for years after that, showed me how to use the enlarger, develop the print and get it into the wash.  Over the years since this first darkroom experience, my life has gone through more that the average number of moves, some voluntary, some not, a few upheavals that left scars, and the occasional escape by the skin of my teeth, but somehow, I am still in possession of my negatives, that very first print I made, as well as some of my other earlier work.  Looking at that print made in 10/68 and shots I have taken in the last few years, I realize that I have been taking basically the same photograph for the past 45 years.  If I had only come to that realization sooner!!!  Another realization I wish I had come to sooner, was that if you make a print that you like, make a few copies, because getting it right the second time is not as easy as you think.  And if you are an OCD perfectionist like myself, it will never be quite right no matter how you try.

I often think we photographers are outsiders, somewhat alienated people with our noses pressed up against the plate glass window of life looking in.  Somehow, the camera is a kind of psychological prosthetic devise that that enables us entry into the swirl of life that surrounds us.  While I did find Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography” somewhat overwrought, she did make the observation that photographers are tourists in other people’s reality, and that made sense to me. 

Mr. Leipzig was definitely a tourist in other people's reality.  He was a NYC street photographer, a photojournalist, and a member of the Photo League, an important collective of mostly Jewish, liberal leaning, socially conscious people who labored under the belief that photography could change the world by exposing the evils that resided there in.  Mr. Leipzig almost always took pictures of people, in fact if there were no people in the picture, for him it was not much of a photo.  Therefore Mr. Leipzig did not think much of my work, devoid of people who I saw to be nothing but a distraction, he tended to favor the budding photojournalists in our class.  He was crazy about Henri Cartier Bresson, the master of the decisive moment and possibly the world’s greatest photojournalist.  But Mr. Leipzig also introduced us to Edward Weston, in whom I found a true kindred spirit.  In spite of all this, Mr. Leipzig did take the best picture of the Brooklyn Bridge I have ever seen, and that’s saying a lot.                

As I mentioned, Mr.Leipzig was a member of the Photo League during the 1940’s as he began to actively pursue a career in photography.  There’s lots written about the League which operated from the mid 1930’s till the very early 1950’s when their quite liberal leanings, some might say socialistic, led them to run astray of the status quo during the McCarthy witch hunt era when these do gooders with cameras with names like Grossman, Hurwitz, Libsohn, Engel, Bernstein, Goldstein, and Leipzig, et al, came to the attention of the HUAC  and had the sense to quietly slid into obscurity, to continue their socially conscious do gooding sub rosa.  Interestingly, I graduated CW Post College without having ever even heard of the Photo League or knowing Leipzig was a member.  It was only years later that I began to see his photos showing up in articles and shows about the League that I put 2 and 2 together.  And it was years after that I realized that the reason for his sin of omission was that lingering, visceral fear of persecution both real and imagined,  something very real in the Jewish psyche that told him to keep his mouth shut.  He had seen careers destroyed, and while McCarthy was dead, his spirit lurked as the cold war droned on.

Because we were so different in what we saw as a good photo, I’m not sure exactly what impact  Photography 101 and 102 had on me or how it encouraged in the pursuit of my own ideocryncratic vision, although it did.  Mr. Leipzig could be a harsh critic at times, but here I am 45 years later still shooting and sitting in my little gallery/print shop at 321 Hamilton Street in Albany NY, surrounded by walls full of vacant people less photos symmetrically organized around a well defined central point of reference that please me greatly and provide a serenity and coherence I can live with.  About 5 years ago I went digital, although I swore I never would, and it resurrected my career, although I do miss the smell of the darkroom.  And, I am grateful for the enduring, life changing passion that Arthur Leipzig obviously instilled in me.