Photographing After 70
Looking Back; Looking Ahead
Now that I've sailed past 70, after 40-plus years as a photographer, looking back at my life and my work, I wonder how (if) it can be summed up. What has remained constant, what has changed, what remains to be done?
I began photographing after college and unexpectedly, without preparation or planning. Starting in Africa with a camera I didn't know how to use, I eventually stumbled and slouched my way to a career. I never formally studied photography; to use the Italian term, I am "autodidata" - self-taught. I learned by looking.
Throughout my career, I have been influenced primarily by painting and film. As a result, I have sought to transcend the literalness of photography - its presumed factual or documentary nature - and to expand my photography through abstraction into the realm of ideas and emotion, creating images that ask questions in addition to providing information. I am an observer, not a reporter; my photos belong on the op-ed page, not the front page.
One of my enduring preoccupations has been the meaning of abstraction in photography. Given that every photograph is an abstraction as well as a document, how can I free the photograph from the bonds of its presumed reality? As with abstract painting, I try to create new realities; think of Mondrian or Diebenkorn whose inspiration for abstraction was the physical landscape. My own thinking about abstraction has been influenced by the work of two very different photographers, Aaron Siskind and the surrealist Clarence John Laughlin.
Although my photographic predilections have remained fairly constant for almost forty years, I am continuously seeking new ways to satisfy those desires. First, I tried manipulating photographs in the darkroom by multiple or moving exposures, then cut and paste collage, then combining photographs in sequences. I found a variety of ways to successfully accomplish what I wanted. But eventually I found greater inspiration in the challenges that came from outside the darkroom. And that became a career-long goal and one of my guiding principles - seeking ways to abstract with the camera rather than through darkroom manipulation.
One important breakthrough took place in Rome's Piazza Navona where one day I unexpectedly came upon a reflection in a puddle cradled by cobblestones. I soon realized I had found a simple way (through single camera exposures) to create impressionistic images that merged the two meanings of "reflection" - the visual and the mental. That led me to a series of reflection photographs in water and windows and other surfaces that offered provocative juxtapositions, abstract compositions and layered imagery. The reflection photographs I took were available to anyone inclined or trained to see them; I used no special equipment or techniques, just my eye. That too became an important goal for me, using photography to stimulate people to see what they otherwise might overlook.
As I said, I often get my ideas and inspiration from art. I am not trying to create photographs that look like paintings, merely to borrow some of their ideas and attitudes. The connection between painting and photography was deepened for me while photographing reflections; I became convinced that the Impressionists had developed their technique at least in part from carefully observing the effects of light on water.
Reflection, transparency, juxtaposition and sequencing have remained constant hallmarks of my photography. All can be employed to create layers of meaning that move the photograph beyond the obvious or immediate. Abstraction requires interpretation, not just recognition; I like photographs that ask questions and that remain open to debate.
In Africa I began with color. Then, when my ambitions led me to become a "serious" photographer, I took up black and white photography, only to realize later that color was the medium that moved me more deeply and thus could better express my personal vision. Originally defended amongst its practitioners as more realistic than black and white photography, it is color's emotional quality that draws me to it, not its presumed reality. For me, color facilitates abstraction.
Often art has been my subject as well as inspiration - but art that is hidden, unnoticed or unappreciated. The Hidden Persuaders series uses the art and design of magazine pages but in a way unintended by the magazine and unappreciated by the readers. SoHo Walls documents the fleeting, anonymous and spontaneous markings left by artists. The Mexican Street Photography series deals with indigenous photographers who get no recognition whatsoever in the world of photography. My cemetery photographs isolate the artistic forms of commemoration in seldom visited "galleries" where art plays second fiddle to history.
My Homage to Jackson Pollock series taken in the vast and jumbled Paris flea market of Cligancourt, marks a return to double exposure and the random juxtaposition of images. Like my other work, it is not documentary but a personal interpretation faithful to the original reality.
Geography - location - is secondary, however. I travel to photograph but not to document, always in the hope that the stimuli of new places will provide me with new ideas. I am always looking for new experiences and ways to express those experiences that go beyond the ordinary. It's sometimes harder to do at home; it took me years in California to find an appropriate way to deal with the ubiquitous and celebrated local landscape, but recently I have begun a series of panoramic triptychs that combine detail with pattern and scale.
That brings me back to one of the questions I posed at the beginning - what next? For one thing, I expect to keep traveling, always with the goal of new discovery, now aided by digital photography which offers many new creative possibilities that I am anxious to explore. I plan to keep asking questions, hoping that at least some of the answers will continue to remain elusive.
Beyond that, I have a number of ongoing projects that I intend to complete. And, I will be editing photographs that I have never previously printed or published from my 40-plus years of travel and photography. Some are in series, others are individual images. These are photographs for which I have a deep personal affection. I am looking forward to sharing them.