Where do you find inspiration? Sometimes you walk right into it. Yesterday I was arriving to give a talk at Eastman House on my recent book “Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda” (published by Beaufort Books, NY and which is still for sale with all profits to the children: “Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda”) and was delighted to see the exhibit “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art 1845-1945” which features the work of the secessionists led by Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, F. Holland Day and other well known practitioners of pictorialism. Their goal was to elevate photography to be considered art equal to painting or sculpture and distinguish their efforts from mere craft or hobby.
While assisting in my teens in a studio in New York I was given a book of Steichen’s work and fell in love with the mystery and beauty of the work. This led me to discover the work of the others mentioned above. I spent a lot of time walking in woods in rain after that looking for images that could trigger the sweet melancholy, sadness tinged joy, and longing I felt when looking at the work of these artists.
Our creative lives go through phases of course. My very first impulse to create was triggered by seeing the work of Picasso, Matisse, Mary Cassatt, Manet, Cezanne, Degas and that gang. I wanted to be a painter. Then I was given a camera and a few years later the book “The Concerned Photographer” and it was like an explosion in my brain, my rocket ride took off. I began learning to be a documentary photographer. This was at 12. So the discovery of Steichen at 15 was a revelation. Thus began a kind of psychosis, a break in my mind between art as the pure expression of the artist and discovering the world and reporting the world as a documentarian. I was torn. When I was 17 I met W. Eugene Smith who was very concerned with his legacy and wanted very, very much to be considered an artist. At the talk I saw he read a letter from Ansel Adams to Smith assuring him that Adams did indeed consider Smith an artist of the highest rank. What I saw in Smith was the very real possibility of merging the two impulses, to create and also to report. Years later I felt this expressed very clearly in the work of Sebastião Salgado.
(I spoke to Smith afterward while he drank two coffee mugs of scotch and lectured me on craft as the foundation of art. He described spending five days in the darkroom making a single print and said that if I ever felt in my gut that some area of the print could be even slightly improved I had to start that print over.)
I was reminded of Dennis Stock’s comments about composition (see earlier blog “Clocks for Seeing”) when I saw this image below by Alvin Langdon Coburn, and of Gene Smith, who Dennis happened to assist in the 50’s, because it encompasses both worlds. It seems it must involve some documentary skills, some timing and luck as anything happening on water surely does, while also serving as an illustration of classical composition that Dennis and I were discussing. But clearly the driving force behind this group of artists was to find the beauty in the world.
After touring the exhibit I spoke about the amazing oprhans I had met who had transcended their difficult lives through education and dance to create new lives for themselves. It was a relief to find good news from Africa. In my years working as a photojournalist I had to cover some difficult stories. Over time the effect of seeing so much misery in the world caused me to question the value of what I was doing. At some point, the pictures of intimate moments of suffering began to feel exploitive and an invasion, despite my desire to bring awareness and hopefully change to the situation. This line of thinking led to many changes in my life and work.
A huge part of what we do is dependent on serendipity. We all have our own ways of being lucky and being in the right place at the right time. F8 and be there. This is not just about the pictures for me but part of how I look at life and the way I try to live. So getting to see this particular exhibit at that moment was one of those key moments of serendipity and encouragement from the universe. As part of my talk I was planning to explain how my efforts to move from covering the disasters and tragedies of the world to trying to find tangible stories of positive change, partly as a way to create meaning in my own life, had led to doing this book. Seeing the results of the secessionist quest to express the beauty they found around them was both inspiring and disturbing in that it reminded me of my early inspiration from these artists, and the lifelong creative schism between pure expression and documentation it triggered. Ouch.
This is mostly unresolved for me. My background as a photojournalist cautions me against trying to do anything but simply record and report the story. My early training in art school gives me license to express myself. My Uganda book and my prior book on Mexican culture and tequila, “Heaven, Earth, Tequila,” are explorations in what I’m describing as “subjective documentary” in that I am now interpreting the story as an artist would to express my personal take. Objectivity on it’s face is no longer interesting or useful for me. So my steps to resolve the schism naturally lead me in the direction Smith described, in a sense to make art from documentary source material. You are still telling a story, it just comes out in ways driven as much by the unconscious as the eye.
If you are going to be in Rochester soon definitely stop by Eastman House and take time to see this fantastic exhibit.