We take heart from form in art because in the last analysis it is a convincing metaphor for wholeness in life. Even when life seems broken.
Robert Adams, Art Can Help
The renown photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson, often spoke of the geometry of the picture, which is another way of saying composition or form. For there to be a convincing metaphor of wholeness, the shapes, lines, tones, contrasts, shadows and color must work in concert to evoke truth and reveal the universal in the specific. The best pictures—those worthy of being called art—point beyond themselves.
Photographs, in particular, remind us of what once was and is no more—the loved ones now gone forever, the places we knew now irrevocably changed, and the shared experiences with friends and family we can never repeat. Photographs exist in the now but are always about the past and future. They help us locate who, what and where we are in our journey, and where we may be going.
Art is not utilitarian like a shovel or a frying pan, but it is indispensable to a life of meaning, awakening, joy and beauty, and it helps make us whole.
When I set out for my morning walk the sky was overcast and it was foggy; not the kind of morning most people consider good for photography. But I learned long ago that there is no perfect day for photography, every day and kind of light presents potential.
As I walked the path alongside the Grand River everything was blanketed in grey and dark saturated greens. It had rained earlier and the grass and foliage was wet. Nothing jumped out begging to have its picture taken. Then, as I happened to look down, in the grass at the edge of the concrete, I saw the unmistakable yellow flowers of moth mullein, (Verbascum blattaria) a flowering herb named for the resemblance of its stamen to the antennae of a moth. I walked on, but after a few steps I turned around and returned to those two points of bright color, and holding my camera at ground level I took their portrait.
The result is not my finest photograph but it is satisfying nonetheless, and proof that the most inauspicious surrounding offers potential to the photographer who remains open and attentive.
I have taken many photographs in and around Owosso, the town in which I grew up. And though mine had not been an easy or happy life growing up here, I believed then I knew who I was and how I’d come to be. When I made those photographs I saw them through the eyes of my self identity—confident that I understood the relevance and meaning of what I was seeing, doing and photographing.
My mother died in 2018 but throughout her life she never wavered in her claim that E.M. was my father. He is listed as such on my birth certificate. But my mother and he never married and he played no part in my upbringing. I never knew E.M., and the only time I ever saw him was as he lay in state in the funeral home. I was 23 then, and I am 69 now.
This summer (2019), I took two of the most popular DNA tests, hoping to learn more about my ethnic heritage and my father’s history. I’d hoped to learn who my half siblings, grandparents and cousins were, however, my results showed no convincing connections with E.M., or any of his relatives. But, without going into detail, I was subsequently put in contact with E.M.’s son James and he agreed to take DNA tests from the same companies I had, to determine if we were half brothers and shared the same father. It turned out we are not related at all, thereby proving E.M. is not my father. Moreover, other DNA evidence soon corroborated this. My mother had been mistaken or she had lied.
This revelation was a blow to my sense of identity. And now when I look at pictures I had made in and around Owosso they seem a kind of betrayal and mockery. What other secrets, I wonder, still hide in those images?
Since learning that E.M. was not my father I’ve visited Owosso a couple of times. Each time I brought a camera with me, thinking I might walk about and make a few photographs. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Owosso, has for me, become a ghost town filled with reminders of past lies, deceits and disappointments.
A photograph may be an accurate recording of how the moment/object/subject appeared before the lens but it can never penetrate to the actual truth behind the appearance. At best it may point in the direction of the truth(s).
Before I knew that E.M. was not my father I had taken photographs of his gravesite and the house he lived in Owosso, when he was a boy. Those pictures remain unchanged in appearance but what they mean to me now is radically different. Before, they were a visible connection to the man I believed was my father. Now they have become artifacts that remind me of who I once thought I was, but wasn’t.
The photographer then is well advised to remember that the photograph he or she makes is never the truth that lies behind the image, or hidden in it. Moreover, that truth and meaning is subject to change when new facts become known.
Kate and I were on our way to to dinner at Cin Cin on Quay in Auckland when we stepped into the crossing at the end of Queen street and I seized the moment to photograph the man hole cover in our path.
Nine years later that photo still proffers aesthetic satisfaction and vivid memories of that time and place: what it felt like underfoot, the odor of the sea mixed with cooking smells from nearby restaurants, the beeps and rumbles of traffic, the squawking of the gulls, the waning gold light of the sun about to set and the slight chill of the evening breeze.
My senses were heightened then, as is always so when one is thousands of miles from home and in an unfamiliar place. Everything was interesting: the tallest, oldest, grandest and most humble buildings; the street people; the monuments; the Emirates yacht tied up in Viaduct harbor; the London Transport emblem on the aged, red, double decker English bus parked alongside the curb. Everywhere there were photographs to be made, if I were open to them. Here the gut, heart and eye had to be given free-rein, and I had to know my camera so well that it was an extension of my thought. I was in the flow, photographing what compelled me and showed some essence of the place; photographing details which experience has taught me often result in more personal, revealing and meaningful pictures. This is when I most enjoy photographing and why I do it.
I crossed to the northwest corner at Dewey and Grover streets where sits the house where the Mill’s family had lived in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It had been a beautiful place then.
Mr. Mills restored antique cars and he lavished that same care and attention on his home as he did his restorations. But on this day, more than forty five years later, the place stood vacant. The lawn was overgrown, several of the upper windows were broken and the exterior paint was faded and peeling.
I’d come to Owosso this morning to take photographs of the neighborhood in which I’d grown up. My plan had been to roam about and photograph whatever caught my attention. As I looked at what had been the Mill’s home, I noticed the vintage television antenna on the roof. It was laying on its side and seemed to be reaching up to the tree above it, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel; the hand of God reaching down to Adam.
The tree’s branches were budding with spring’s promise. In contrast the antenna lay lifeless and cold—an anachronism. It was probably the very antenna that once brought into the Mill’s living room the Lone Ranger, Soupy Sales, Sky King, and Roy Rogers, in black and white, in those days of innocence and ignorance.
Looking through the viewfinder I composed to include the antenna, roofline and branches. I made 3 or 4 exposures and was satisfied. But then, I noticed in the distance, the contrail of high flying jet approaching from the east. I thought, if I could make the same photograph, but this time with the contrail included, it would enrich the meaning of the picture.I returned the camera to the tripod and composed for the same scene again. When the long white line came into the frame I made several exposures to be sure I got a good one. And I did.
I made a photograph that day that contrasted the natural and the manufactured, the then and now. I had made a photograph that displayed a pleasing arrangement of shapes, tones and lines—a photograph of good geometry. It spoke to the history of the last century and the one we now live in. It is one of the most satisfying photographs I have ever made. And not once during that process, nor since, did I feel I needed more than the 12 megapixel capability of the Nikon D90 I used.
NOTE: This piece was originally written in 2013 and revised 5 November 2019.
It’s the one that got away; the one that didn’t seem worthwhile at the time; the one you didn’t think of taking then but years later you wish you had. Every photographer knows this regret.
I was raised by my great-grandmother—just the two of us living in the back apartment of a dilapidated late nineteenth century, two story house, that was said to have once been a commercial laundry. We lived frugally. We had too. Nothing went to waste.
But there was one luxury we indulged. Coffee. Grandma had to have her morning cup and so did I. I don’t remember when I had my first, but I’m certain I was still in the first or second grade. I loved the sound of percolating coffee and how it smelled as it was poured hot into my mug. It was at its most potent just before I diluted it with half and half and sweetened it with two teaspoons of sugar. Still it retained enough caffeine to jangle my nerves for the rest of the day.
Our morning coffee was taken at a white enameled steel table in our kitchen. We had no chairs for that table. Instead we sat on metal Farmer Peets 50 lb lard barrels. How grandma came to have them I don’t know. But they served a dual purpose—storage and seating. Each was filled with sundry items and the lid of her’s was covered with a thin pillow and mine was topped with two stacked Sears and Roebuck catalogs.
Neither of us was ever photographed enjoying our morning coffee. Grandma didn’t own a camera, and I didn’t get one until I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. But even if we’d had a camera at the ready it would not have occurred to either of us to take such a picture. We’d have thought, no one wants a photo of an old lady or a young boy perched on a lard barrel drinking coffee at the kitchen table. And we’d have been wrong. How I wish I had that picture.
So my advice to every photographer is don’t be quick to dismiss the simple, humble, mundane, discarded, broken, and common. You may miss the picture and regret it.
A little after 2:00 p.m., on 15 December 2005, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I photographed the front window of Evangelo’s Cocktail Bar. It displayed a melange of images taped and painted on the pane, including: a partial events calendar, a cash only sign, an ice blue and yellow hand-painted welcome star or flower, a spindly yellow painting that appeared to be a Christmas decoration, and two Xeroxed copies of photographs originally taken by the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith, during the Second World War, of Angelo Klonis, the founder of the bar. Behind all this a table, or some other piece of furniture, leaned against the glass.
This was not a window dressed by a professional. It was not conventionally beautiful, pretty or appropriate to the season. But it was an intriguing assemblage that called out to be photographed. And for me it was a pleasing find—a Christmas gift.
I find windows fascinating aesthetically and for what they reveal about the people who made them and those who live and work behind them. Windows are historical, cultural, social, political and artistic statements both in their form and by whatever appears on and behind the glass.
The fundamental purpose of the window is to allow light in but some emit enlightenment. They are portals for vision and imagination. They can be promises, gifts or disappointments. They demarcate the here from there, the then from now. They show, tell and inspire.
It was a quintessential San Francisco morning, moist and grey. The perfect light in which to photograph the Sentinel Building, also known as the Columbus Tower.
I sought a vantage point and soon discovered a position on Kearny Street from where I could align in the viewfinder part of the Transamerica Pyramid, which until 2017 had been the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, with the Sentinel.
The result was a composition bringing the new and old together. And there was a bonus—a chunk of yellow in the lower left— the top of a billboard, with the only words visible reading, “parking sucks.”
All this made for a satisfying picture, but it told little of the Sentinel Building’s story. A photograph can arrest our attention and assert beauty. It can hint and arouse our curiosity. It can encourage us to get, as the broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “…the rest of the story.” But the photograph alone cannot tell us why it was made or what was happening outside the frame when the shutter was released. It cannot tell the inner thoughts and feelings of the people pictured or those of the photographer. The photograph can only show what was before the lens.
But this very limitation makes photographs and photography valuable and fascinating. They capture moments that bridge time and serve as evidence and aids to memory.
Looking at photographs I have made, weeks, months or years before compels me to see them in a new context and in light of newly acquired knowledge and information. Looking at them anew I may recognize and question, biases, beliefs and values I once held—aesthetic, social, political and personal.
So, in brief, here is some of what my photograph of the Sentinel Building does not tell.
The construction of the building began in 1906, just before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Only its steel frame survived the flames. But, in 1907 construction was resumed, the building was completed and the notorious Abe Ruef—political boss, lawyer and crook—saw his dream realized. In subsequent years the building was owned by the Kingston Trio and it was also the original location of the fabled “Hungry i,” nightclub. Today it is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and houses his Zoetrope Studios Headquarters and the Zoetrope Cafe.
Line is fundamental in the visual arts. It is a principle element in design. Yet there is no line in nature. It is an epiphenomenon like the shadow—something perceived as being but which is actually the byproduct of something else.
The simplest definition of a line is a mark that stretches between two points and has the properties of width and height (thickness). But in our daily lives and conversation there are many kinds of line. We hear and speak of: bus lines, party lines, border lines, crossing the line, firing lines, lines of fire, fire lines, starting lines, finish lines, family lines, assembly lines, toeing the line, tow lines, timelines, clothes lines, battle lines, sight lines, blood lines, and shore lines. But never is there a specific, physical thing that is a line and nothing else. A line is always determined and perceived in context.
It is not for me to decide the value of my art except in regard to my personal standards of art and art making. I will know what I think of the work—whether or not it satisfies me. But I cannot perceive what other people perceive. I do not see with their eyes. I cannot feel their feelings. I have not lived their experience.
So it is pointless to think of myself as a success or failure as an artist. Perhaps one day, after I have died, my work will hang in prestigious collections and museums. Perhaps it will all end up in the landfill. I won’t be here to know and it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that my art making is a testament to my decision to mean—that it asserts my existence and brings me solace.