Photographers, or artists of any kind, are probably more aware than most people are of fortuitous coincidings, of happy or regrettable appearances and disappearances: “I could kick myself for not having shot that scene the first time I saw it, and now it’s gone!” Or: “I sure am glad I photographed that building with the graffiti last month, because they’ve knocked the whole thing down!” And, especially around Halloween, both great and popular artworks engage us with unseen forces, unexplained happenings, intimations of malevolent or benevolent magics.
Earlier this year, a bit of such elvish fortune occurred (as it does from time to time) in my photographic life. Certain friends of mine who know my work would not be surprised that it would happen, as it did, around evening, in the woods. (Evidence for such a view might be taken, for instance, from my website’s “To See in the Dark” portfolio.)
In late winter, the ground was beginning to thaw. I was walking near twilight in a small wood near my home, when I happened on an abandoned livingroom couch. It lay at the edge of a dirt path, flat on a wooden pallet. I snapped a few pictures, as notes, thinking that perhaps I could have made something from it if at least I’d had a couple of flashes with me. Even so, I thought it somehow fell short.
But walking back that way a month later, I found that someone or someones had, whatever their intention, arranged a gift for me. The couch had been dragged about twenty feet from where it had been, onto sloping ground near the base of a tree. Its bottom raised up more, the bulky couch tilted at an angle had now struck a livelier pose. The biggest surprise, though, was my discovery that neighborhood spooks, vandals, or photography sprites had painted in big black letters on the fabric skirt below the seat this single word: “FLYing.” Had I missed it the first time? What did its author intend? No way to know, but it was certainly good fortune for me.
I hurried home and returned with three Speedlites and a couple of light stands. Dark woods, digital darkroom, and here it is:
The felicity continued. I wanted to submit the photograph for an exhibition, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas was soliciting entries for a juried “Habitat” show. What could be more homey than a livingroom couch? (Although, of course, mine was not in a comfy frontroom.) Almost without thinking about it, just recognizing that I needed a good title and didn’t want something as obvious as “Couch in the Woods” or “Flying,” it popped up as if from behind a tree: “At Home in the Secret.” (I hope that you like it, too.)
A little twilit magic in it all — which continued when the “Habitat” juror, Julie Blackmon, chose the photo for the exhibition, and the Gallery’s owner, Amanda Smith, gave it a Director’s Honorable Mention.
My friends and fiends, in case you don’t hear from me again before Halloween, I’ll wish you happy hauntings now and hope that you like my darkling photograph. And I won’t warn you not to walk in the woods at nightfall.
[Although this first post is addressed mainly to my fellow artists, I hope that this site will interest anyone who loves art, anyone interested in the topics that I take up here, and anyone whose singular curiosity or wayward impulse draws him or her to this corner of the Web. This first post will continue to be available under the “My Purpose Here” tab at the top of this site’s home page. I hope that you’ll join me here again – and join in – soon.]
Yes, in some ways what you’ll find here will be like what you find on other sites: descriptions of gear and techniques that were used to produce a particular image, reviews of exhibitions and books, meditations on admired work by famous or little-known photographers. But you’ll also find types of writing and subjects that you may not find elsewhere. I hope that when I write, say, on the death-longing that shapes certain kinds of commercial photography, or on the reasons why beauty makes Edward Burtynsky’s “ugliness” more powerful, you’ll find that we’re swimming in deeper waters than usual, or climbing farther into the mountains.
If you’ve been graced (burned, inspired, or deranged) by the art-making fire, then you know that keeping it going, stoking it, trying to spread it, is like being a resistance fighter in occupied territory. You have to cope each day with the assaults of a society whose values are aggressively opposed to your efforts, that aims to stifle any voice calling into question the value of its trinkets and trash. You have to resist the bribes for turning a blind eye to official wrong and mass delusion. You have to bear up against outer voices telling you that what matters dearly to you doesn’t really matter at all. You have to fight the inner voice insisting that you don’t have the know-how, the gear, the courage to carry out your mission. (If you want to see this story on film, try Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician.)
Even genius (and sometimes genius least of all) fails to bring immunity. I think with sadness of Tu Fu, one of the greatest poets in literature, who spent most of his years as a civil servant in exile, far from friends and cultured society, his poems known only to a few fellow writers. Or I think of Edvard Munch (whose work my wife and I, then living in Chicago, drove through the mountains in a blizzard to see at the National Gallery in Washington). He was brutally persecuted for his gorgeous, ground-breaking works by the bourgeoisie of late 19th-century Norway. No doubt you have your own essential list of such examples.
We say, “It’s a miracle that real art gets made at all.” I like that cliched sentence because it says not only that the odds against us are great, but that what happens despite them is indeed a miracle. Such miracles, time and again, sustain us. As I hope that this site will also do for you.
I’ve worked not only as an art photographer and poet, but as a lawyer in private practice and in public service, and as an arts administrator and advocate, dealing with deceitful corporate executives, corrupt public officials, sexual predators in federal agencies and in the ranks of feted (or is that fetid?) poets, members of the Mob, and other such fellow creatures. I know that what happens in novels and movies happens outside of them, too. But all my experience in the alleged “real world” hasn’t shown me that art is frivolous or inconsequential. Quite the contrary.
In this site, I’ll bring to bear not only my experience in the arts, but my encounters in those other societal realms in order to make my case for what matters. In my social battles, as well as in my artistic labors, works by Beethoven, Balzac, Coltrane, Kurosawa, Bill Brandt, and Robert Frank, among many other artists’, have guided and strengthened me.
Art doesn’t sit on a shelf apart, and it shouldn’t be judged as though it did. It has its life and its force in the heart of the world that so often belittles it.
I hope that what I bring to this site makes you, too, want to bring more sustenance to me and to your other fellows here, in our ongoing conflicts and luminous engagements. And I hope that I can do here what the best art does: open doors to the fact that life is greater than its representation in reality shows and political harangues, that it still contains visions, demonic seductions, inexplicable power, mysterious danger, and miracles, both within and beyond the borders of art.