By Jim Hughes
Back in 1972 (I only know the year because I happened to write about it in Camera 35 and saved the issue), I was cleaning out my childhood home in Connecticut, which I was preparing to sell after my father’s death, when I found a box full of stuff my deceased mother had carefully preserved in a cardboard box that she had for some reason hidden under an eave in our attic.
Among my mother’s albums of box-camera prints and newspaper clippings filled with our own family history I found a small illustrated brochure titled "1952 National High School Photographic Awards." Leafing through this silver-covered pamphlet, I came across several names, besides my own, that in retrospect I recognized: Bruce Davidson, Charles Harbutt, Constantine Manos and Douglas Kirkland. Above Bruce's name was a picture of a baby owl in a museum. The owl stared out with one round eye; the other seemed lost in shadow. Bruce had won first prize. I had received an honorable mention (along with Manos, I recently learned), which meant that my print of a rowboat mired in a mud flat would be published in our local newspaper and become part of that year’s traveling exhibit.
I do remember thinking that my boat, seen from above and surrounded by a tracery of sidelighted seagull prints, was at least as good as Bruce’s straight-on owl. But he was a senior from Oak Park, Illinois, soon to be enrolled in RIT, and I was a lowly high school freshman from Cos Cob, Connecticut, happy for any recognition at all. All this came to mind this summer, when I purchased Bruce’s magnificent three-volume retrospective, Outside Inside (Steidl). The first picture reproduced in Volume I, I quickly discovered, was his one-eyed owl, dated 1949. No wonder he’d won, I finally realized. Even then, he saw this young owl as a metaphor for himself, a photographer at the beginning of a lifetime of careful observation. It had only taken me 60 years to see the connection.
In August, during a heat wave that was unusually brutal for this part of the world, Bruce had come to Maine (the Maine Media Workshops, formerly the Maine Photographic Workshops) to mount a small but moving retrospective exhibit at the school's new gallery in Rockport, and to give a lecture at the Rockport Opera House. Not surprisingly, the place was packed. Bruce was his usual low-key self. If people listened carefully, they had a rare opportunity to learn from the master of serial (and compassionate) documentation.
Recently, an interviewer for The New York Times T magazine asked if Bruce wanted his pictures to change the world. "I want the world to change my pictures," he replied. Of his photography, Bruce said, "It's not about the history of art, it's about the art of history." Back in 1982, when I published his New York subway color in the original Camera Arts, Bruce wrote: "The subway interior was defaced everywhere with a secret handwriting that covered the walls, windows, and maps. I began to imagine that these signatures surrounding the passengers were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Sometimes when I was looking at one of the cryptic messages someone would come and sit in front of it, and I would feel as if the message had been decoded." He would take a picture, then engage that person in conversation if possible, showing a potential new friend the small portfolio he always carried. In the Steidl book, Bruce wrote that our mutual friend Ernst Haas had once told him, "In photography, we do our reading and writing at the same time." Ernst had a way with words, as he had a way with pictures. John Whiting, a legendary photo editor during the 1940s, once authored a book titled Photography Is a Language. I turn to it still. In it, he wrote: "The photographer who is only a photographer is not a photographer.... All photographers are part of their world. They know that there are two keys to the language of photography, akin to the examining and transmitting function of the camera. The two keys with which one works are meaning and technique.... The devices of a language are no less important than what it says."
"Through fifty years in photography," Bruce Davidson writes in his introduction to Outside Inside, "I have encountered worlds in transition, seen people isolated, abused, abandoned and invisible. I work out of a frame of mind that is constantly changing, challenging perceptions and prejudices. I view my work as a series. I often find myself an outsider on the inside discovering beauty and meaning in the most desperate of situations."
His Maine lecture was full of such gems of illuminating and thoughtful observation, along with hundreds of rear-projected slide copies of his richly rendered black-and-white prints, none of them digital, all viewed under a historic, proscenium-arched stage usually reserved for the performance of classical chamber music. This day, it was Bruce Davidson’s visual music that resonated so deeply.
At the end of the lecture, a familiar figure ambled down the center aisle. Paul Caponigro had come up from his home in nearby Cushing to say hello to his old friend Bruce.
This past summer in Maine was full of such connections. In June, the new Maine Media Gallery’s first exhibit was Peter Turnley’s wonderful Paris photographs, a selection from which Mike and Peter have generously offered to TOP readers. In the slide lecture that followed at Union Hall, Peter was kind to remember that he and his twin brother David received their first national exposure when I published their McClellan Street essay, which they did while still in high school, in 35mm Photography in 1975.
In August, Costa Manos, as part of the regular masters and instructors summer-long weeknight lecture series, gave a revealing talk about his distinguished career, beginning with his early black-and-white photographs in the American south, work I don't think I had ever seen, then continuing through A Greek Portfolio and Bostonians, and culminating with his current fascination with color as embodied in his most recent book, American Color 2. I remember when he first began making the transition in 1981, and I published his first major color portfolio in Camera Arts in 1983.
"I was interested in more complex images," he told our writer at the time, "that incorporated a great deal of information." So he began to look for "density." In his introduction to his new book, Manos writes: "My favorite pictures are ones that ask questions and pose problems but leave answers and solutions to the viewer. These are images with a long and evolving life, in which the photograph transcends the subject to become the subject."
"It is magical to think," he adds, "of a specific 250th of a second of a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, and to realize that all of the pictures in American Color 2 do not add up to one second of time."
Kodachrome was Costa’s film of choice, as it had been mine for more than a decade at the time, and would be still if it had remained viable. At any rate, it didn’t take long for a photographer of Costa’s skill and vision to master its idiosyncrasies and make them part of his vibrant palette. He has now wholeheartedly adopted digital, and announced that his new book, although mostly Kodachrome, did contain "a couple" digital images. I looked, but I couldn’t find them.
Jay Maisel, also teaching this summer, spent much of his evening lecture showing an impressive range of personal work, much of it made since the first of the year and all, of course, digital (Jay is another convert from Kodachrome). While he talked and clicked to advance images and make points in the darkened auditorium, I could see him raising his big-eyed zoom to photograph the audience. "12,800 ISO," he later quipped. "I kind of like the grain!" I liked the fact that Jay, even after all these years, has never, ever lost his enthusiasm for the act of photographing.
"When you speak of the photographer," John Whiting wrote in 1946, "there need be no distinction between the amateur and the professional."
These are the kinds of things I heard and saw—and remembered—during this past summer. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that never in my life have I taken a photography workshop, although I have taught a few. But a nice thing about living near a vital institution like the Workshops is the community it has spawned. The evening lecture series, for example, has always been free and open to the public. A random list of a few of the people, in addition to those mentioned above, whose talks Evelyn and I were privileged to attend this year: Sam Abell, Norman Mauskopf, Essdras Suarez, Tillman Crane, Cig Harvey, Sean Kernan, Keith Carter, Henry Horenstein, Susan Bloom, Craig Stevens, Amy Arbus, Dominic Chavez, Jim Megargee. The list could go on and on.
None of these people needed to be part of our long forgotten Class of 1952 to understand the magic we discovered all those years ago when we turned our Kodaks toward the world, converted our families’ bathrooms or basement storage areas into darkrooms and began our lifelong adventure in photography.
Jim Hughes is a regular contributor to TOP. His previous essays can be found by clicking on the "Jim Hughes" tab in the Categories, in the right-hand sidebar.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.