I have a vivid memory of my first camera.
It was given to me as a Christmas present when I was seven, and the following period was one of the happiest of my childhood. However, it was not until college that photography became a life commitment. One of my professors at the University of Western Connecticut, H. Jonathan Greenwald, was a member of the Heliographers Union in New York City. He agreed to talk to me and look at my fledgling photographs. We are still close friends to this day. Jonathan introduced me to the work of Paul Caponigro and my path was set. Meeting Paul and learning from him about the work of other photographers showed me the path I wanted to follow. This period gave me a basis to build on and affirmed my feeling that there was more to photography than representational imagery, it could reflect my philosophy of life.
The early years, the sixties, were a very confusing and exciting time for me. Coming from a working class family, my introduction to the world of art by Paul Caponigro created a major shift in my view of the world. I worked with Paul intermittently from 1967 to 1973. It was early in this period that I met Edward Steichen. We all lived in the same area of Connecticut. I told Steichen I wanted to curate a show in our small town and he agreed to help. He sent me to the Museum of Modern Art and Grace Meyers helped me find the photographers I wanted to have in the show. All were vibrant, and, except for Steichen, young: Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, Ken Heyman, Greenwald, Steichen and many more. The show was a minor success and was reviewed positively in the New York Times. Steichen’s photographs were two hundred dollars each for beautiful vintage work. The other works were sixty dollars. Nothing sold from the exhibit. I remember this very clearly, and it conveyed to me a strong sense of how undervalued photography was in our society.
In 1969 I moved to New York City
to become the director of Norbert Kleeber’s Underground Gallery. At the time, this well-known gallery was the oldest photographic
gallery in New York City. It was a year of meeting and working with the photographic greats: Andre Kertesz, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Garry Winogrand, the list was endless. The photography world was a small family, everyone knew one another and all pulled together. That same year, this spirit of community was changed forever when the success of the New York’s Witkin Gallery showed that photography could be commercially viable. As photography became a big business, the sense of community I had strongly valued diminished.
I landed a job as Director of Photography for the Photo-Graphics Workshop in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1972. I increased the number of photographic courses from six to twenty-six in one semester and brought in artists from all over the East Coast to teach. It was a very exciting time. It was here that I saw my first platinum/palladium print made. I was intrigued by platinum’s visceral quality and depth, as well as by its purity and the lack of manipulation in the process. I knew in that instant that this was to be my primary medium, and I set about learning how to do it myself.
As far as I can tell, I was the third person
in the United States to begin to reintroduce platinum printing. In those days it was a wide-open field. The old formulas no longer worked and basically everything had to be reinvented. Just as I had begun to understand the process I decided to move to California. I landed in Carmel in 1973. I had read about this wonderful village in a book about Edward Weston, and I thought it was a fishing village. I was
shocked to discover on my first day that it was a tourist destination.
The years from 1974 to 1984 were difficult. Ansel Adams lived and reigned in Carmel. He hated platinum prints, considering them old fashioned and pictorial. He felt that making platinum prints meant stepping backward in photographic evolution, and his opinions were closely followed. So I spent years outside the photographic community, refining my techniques and my vision, and teaching occasionally. Later, towards the end of his life, Ansel came to like my work, although he never admitted it in public, and we had many good times together.
In 1978 I moved to Carmel Valley. It was there I made the first of several large bodies of work. The Carmel Valley Series
is a group of platinum/palladium prints made in my front yard and the interior of my house. I also did a small group of portraits and figure studies. Most of these prints are now scattered in museums and private collections throughout the United States. They were all made with an 8x10 Deardorff and all the photographs were shaped as circles or portions of circles.
In 1980, the house I was renting in Carmel Valley
was sold. Deciding to move to the most extreme environment I could conceive of, I chose Death Valley. In Carmel
Valley you could throw a seed out the window and in a few months it would be growing. I wanted to see the opposite. I wanted to test my ability to photograph a landscape that offered minimal distraction: stark beauty. I needed to test my own limits in picture making. I wanted to know how to photograph nothing.
I lived for two years (1980 - 1982) in a small town called Death Valley Junction, population six—until the handyman moved to Utah to herd sheep. I worked with my 8x10 each day for two years, photographing the people and landscape. This work has been shown often and is in many collections. In 1982 I received the Friends of Photography’s Ruttenberg Grant for this body of work. Of the eight hundred negatives made in Death Valley, only a fraction were originally printed. Recently I have gone back to these exciting negatives and begun printing them again.
I left Death Valley at the end of 1982, moving back to Carmel. I rented a storefront and made it into my darkroom and studio.
For the next several years I worked, printed and exhibited.
Museums were collecting my work and galleries were calling on the phone, but ultimately I was unhappy with the compromises they wanted of me. Galleries demanded that I continue to make the same images, warning me not to change my style in any way. Curators were taking my images and using them in ways I never dreamed possible. I felt very strongly the pressure to conform to other people’s standards in order to survive. It became very apparent that for me the issue of maintaining my personal integrity was more important than success - if success meant I had to conform to someone else’s idea of my work.
So in 1986 I dropped out. I took all my work out of galleries, stopped having shows, and disappeared from public view. I continued to photograph while I regrouped. A Point Lobos series entitled A Passage of the Heart
was finished in 1986, and Fallen Roses
, a series dealing with the sense of isolation I was feeling, was completed in 1987.
In 1989 I moved to a small cabin on Garrapata Ridge, just south of Carmel. There, one thousand feet up a winding, dirt road, views of the ocean, the inland mountains, and the sky itself trade places as the road twists upwards. I built a studio under the deck of my cabin and began to work. The first large body of images was called The Jennifer Desmond Series
(1989 - 1993). After being exhibited at the Fresno Art Museum, the works in this series were purchased and donated to the Fresno Art Museum and the Houston Museum of Art. I made this work during the three years I spent photographing young friends I met while teaching at Cabrillo College. They were people who were questioning everything and beginning to find their own way in the world. Their alternate lifestyle and positive nature made for a great body of images.
At the same time I was doing the Jennifer Desmond Series,
I was the artist in residence in Yosemite. I lived there, off and on for two years. The Ansel Adams Gallery published a portfolio of this work in 1993. In 1989 I also began to study digital printing. I feel that the new printing styles, especially Iris prints, are a fine compliment to my platinum prints. The field of digital printing has come a long way in the last ten years with prints now being completely archival and rivaling any platinum print in subtlety. I have shown digital prints side by side with my platinum work in many of my recent shows.
Next came a series of portraits and figure studies I call Women in Black Velvet
. I have just finished this work and it has been shown in bits and pieces for the last several years, although I have yet to show the complete group.
In 1995 I was given the opportunity to curate a show of Edward Weston’s work. I called the show Edward Weston at Home - the Carmel Years.
It was a show of images he had made during his many years in Carmel. The show was hung in a beautiful hotel space a few hundred yards from his home at Wildcat Hill. The images were chosen from the collection of his original work held by the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was a beautiful show and drew visitors from all over the world. For me, the exhibit was an opportunity to look closely at Weston’s photographs and to study his life in detail. This close examination of Weston’s personal evolution through his photography allowed me to affirm my own sense of vision.
In 1998 a series of storms decimated the Big Sur coast
. I lost my studio and its contents to the rain
and the one hundred and fifteen mile an hour winds. I was devastated. But through this cataclysmic event has come something important. The depth of my loss changed me. It is as though the devastation stripped away some layer of my deepest self and enabled me to see in a new way. This change is reflected in my work of the last two years.
In the period since the storms, I have striven to find the dimensions of that change through my photographs. Circumstances forced me to see more viscerally, and that has changed my work. I do not allow myself the distance from my subject that I allowed before. These new photographs have a presence, a dynamic, and a clarity that I have been searching for all my life. At the age of sixty-two, I feel I have all the pieces in place to do the best work of my life. It is a new beginning and I shall make the most of it.