I did not use a camera until I was in my twenties, my relationship to photography and to photographs still maintains a tint of the newly amazed.
Because I did not enter a darkroom until about the same time, my understanding of the way photography works and what photographs do is flavored by this feeling that every time I enter into that room (wherever that darkroom is), I am about to see a miracle in progress.
Because I had ached to take photographs my whole life and could not due to the expense, what I do have and do with a camera feels fragile and fresh.
I hold my Leica in my hands and I bounce on the balls of my toes: Let’s GO! Let’s GO!
I put the camera to my eye, and the world behind me falls away.
My words fall back.
I have entered a cathedral of silence where I am one sense only— an eye.
The rhythm of the eye and what it sees defies every because I can conjure.
Why shoot on film? Because.
Why this subject? Because.
Why? Because. Because. Because.
Each because is the snap of the shutter. Each because is a visual answer.
I would like to take you where my mentor took me when I started to learn photography, and then I would like to take you to the places where his eye still leads me.
This photographer never stopped being my mentor because he is always teaching me something new. By his example. And his generosity with what he discovers.
The light never fails us. Here. Let me bring you to it.
The first stop on our tour should be to the photographer who trained me. (And I was hard to train. Remember me telling you that I have dyscalculia? Now imagine teaching someone who does not understand how numbers work the matrix of math involved with printing a photograph. Keep in mind there is a healthy dose of chemistry involved here as well. How did he do it? Patience. Repetition. Mnemonics. Visuals. And more patience.)
And here he is— one of the best photographers I’ve ever known: Donald Ewers.
(He is also one of the crispest writers I’ve ever met. His prose is sharp and clean. I hope you get a chance to meander around his blog a bit. He amazes me, always.)
I called him tonight.
I wanted to make sure that it was okay that I mentioned him by name, that I talked about what he taught me, what he is still teaching me. And that conversation led to other tendrils— I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight.
(I did, after a fashion, have them straight. Sometimes I surprise myself, but in this case I should not have been surprised at all because this collection of facts has little to do with the student and much to do with the mentor. Everything he says bears a certain weight, you see.)
But one slight confusion of mine required him to rectify my memory. And once he had rectified one fact, the rest started to stand out as clear as a cliff in an Ansel Adams photograph.
I had to sit down, put my face in my hands for about five minutes, and then, begin again.
While I thought today’s Our Sunday Best was going to be a hotpot of photography, I now know it is going to be a brief survey of the history of *modern photography.
All because of Donald Ewers.
All because he leads me where the light is best.
When discussing photography, especially where it goes, you start with Stieglitz.
Stieglitz who still mystifies me. Stieglitz who terrifies me. He’s so publicly stern.
To make sure I remembered my Stieglitz, Donald Ewers sent me these clips from the American Masters documentary “The Eloquent Eye.”
Stieglitz in his own words:
“I am an American.
Photography is my passion.
The search for truth is my obsession.”
“What is of greatest importance is to hold a moment,
to record something so completely that to see it
will be to relive an equivalent of what has been expressed.”
Here we are at the beginning of photography as we know it now.
Stand with me in this moment where Stieglitz comes into view.
There! See his strong face? His strong voice? He is where we begin the story of the pictures that we take today.
Others came before him, and many during his time were trained by his eye, his voice, his hand.
To be quite honest, everywhere you look in photography (and modern art for that matter— ever heard of Georgia O'Keefe?), you'll find Stieglitz staring back at you with his groomed mustache and that hand in his pocket looking intense, brooding and full of words.
He knew what photography could be. It could be an art form equal to painting— that was his mission. To make photography seen as art. And he drove himself to exhaustion in his mission to create this new, equal-to-other-forms-of-art, art form.
He succeeded. But his mission and his photography ruled his life. His obsessions crashed and burned his first marriage, and made his second marriage to O’Keefe a thin thread of two people who loved one another, but loved art more.
When I think Stieglitz, I think truth.
I think movement and I think honesty and I think of Georgia O’Keefe heartbreakingly in love with a man who was heartbreakingly in love with her— so much so that she revealed all her soul to his camera. And I think clouds likes wisps of unspoken sentiments.
If Stieglitz is clouds in sentiment, his legacy as a photographer and visionary begins metaphorically as the trunk of a vast tree.
Modern photography is a rare anomaly in the world of art. You’ll notice something peculiar to this relatively new art medium that does not necessarily occur in other new mediums— one photographer leads to another in a definitive line.
We shall place Stieglitz near the trunk of this tree.
From Stieglitz, two intense photographers emerge from that single trunk— Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.
He trained them to consider what is possible and showed their work in his gallery.
Both photography legends are very different in their approach, their subject matter, even their sense of the medium and what it can do.
Edward Weston’s legacy as a photographer influences every aspect of its development. Weston eye carved light in curves.
It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, his eye made the line dance.
To this day, his photographs are printed only by his family, who have carried on his legacy here.
When I think Weston, I think curves and body and new light everywhere. I think dunes and hips and bell peppers. I think fresh.
Ansel Adams is the photographer most people know by sight.
Why? Because many of his more famous images were reproduced into not-great posters. (His official website is here.)
Now that I think about it, though, if not him, then who? Even those not-great reproductions remind us of what photography can do.
And when I think Adams, I think “I hear America singing,” as poet Walt Whitman wrote. (A phrase that poet Langston Hughes countered in his own poem “I, Too, Sing America.”)
When I think Adams, I think of vast, vast narratives. The pioneering soul.
But both Weston and Adams have their place on the photography family tree, and they, too, sung American and International photographers into the public consciousness.
And we wouldn’t complete our discussion of the roots of photography without Group f/64, where the roots become branches that will soon become trees.
Group f/64 was the natural next step from the art-driven Stieglitz to his protégés Weston and Adams.
Those two photographers broke from this painterly tradition that Stieglitz had established (by beauty, by great will) and moved into the world of the natural light, the actual object.
Weston and Adams were joined by five others who constitute a who’s who of modern photography. f/64 refers to the f-stop with the greatest depth of field to allow for a sharp, clear, image free of the painterly manipulation style affected by some photographers at the time.
Here’s a quote from their manifesto:
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.
Without Stieglitz’s proselytizing, photography may have stayed stuck in a twin rut of stiff portraits and yellow newspaper images (though somehow, given other images of the time— photography was going somewhere, it merely needed a muscled shove by someone with a strong voice).
What did Stieglitz himself think of Group f/64? Well, the best information I can offer at the moment would be this link to a meaty research selection on Google talking about this moment where Stieglitz and Group f/64 hashed out what was and was not a photograph.
Can you imagine trying to argue what is, and is not, a photograph near the beginning of this technology?
Can you imagine trying to determine what makes a photograph art?
Who gets to call him/herself an artist and a photographer at the same time?
Now, we can’t imagine what it’s like to have to fight, and fight hard, for the next direction of a new art form, a new technology, but this one thing?—
—This one thing determines a great deal of the direction of art in the 20th Century.
This one thing— What makes photography art?— is the question we’re still asking now.
All I know at this late hour as I rewrite this entire Our Sunday Best, because of Donald Ewers, because of Stieglitz, is that we are all, all of us, captured by light.
But I might have given you a much different, less rich story today.
All because of Donald Ewers.
All because he leads me where the light is best.
*A BRIEF NOTE: When I speak of the “modern,” I mean the late 19th Century into the first quarter of the 20th Century. When we talk about art that is happening now, we call it “contemporary,” a word that sounds flat to me, but it is what it is. (Modern sounds racier to me, but I don’t know why.)
*WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
*PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US
*BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.