It's my birthday today. My brother is wrong—I am not older than dirt. Technically, at least, dirt is older than me. I am older than the Hills, though—my friends Scott and Catherine, who are somewhere around a decade younger than I am. Bah-dum-pah.
Being older is good in some ways—the average 60-year-old knows four times as much as the average 20-year-old, for instance—but not good in other ways. Cell regeneration is not working as well as it once did, and there are signs that said cellular decrepitude is affecting the gray matter as well. Notably "proper noun aphasia." But then, I never could remember names. A book on aging I read once said that, mentally, as you age, most of the things you were always good at you'll get better at, and most of the things you were always bad at will get worse. That seems to be playing out with me—except I could not be a worse cook, so that's just staying the same. (The problem there is not the will to chop and dice. The problem is a lack of imagination. I am a grateful audience for good food, but get somewhat lost when put in charge.)
Anyway, I've just turned 59. But I hardly look a day over 58. (Things like that are why Xander hates my jokes.)
Curiously, three weeks ago I was 54, and about four months ago I was 42. That's what it seems like, anyway. Young humans, hearken: do not your years waste; there are fewer of them than it at first seems, and they roar past like a freshet after rain.
My current pet project
So I need you to tell me if this is a crazy idea.
I have a big spread of yard here. There's lots of room. Over in Himrod, near Seneca Lake, there's a company called Woodtex. They built the prefab barn on my property, a two-and-a-half car, two story garage. It's well built. Turns out that Woodtex, which is owned by Mennonite brothers Ben and Kent Lapp, will build any structure you ask for. So I had them write me an estimate for a one-car, one-story garage-style building. It would by 16x20' more or less, and have one door and—this is important—no windows. The ceiling inside would be 9' high to accommodate lighting.
The structure would cost just about $9k. An insulated slab would run another three. Interior finishing I have not priced yet. I haven't priced electrical work either. It would not be plumbed. I'm going to guess the whole thing will cost less than 20 grand, all in.
Inside (here comes the fun part), there'd be a permanent exhibit of photographs. With such limited space, I wouldn't be able to "afford" the stark, modernist museum-style display of prints with large mats surrounded by open space. Rather, I'd cheerfully embrace the 19th-century salon style of jam-packing the walls with all the frames I could jigsaw-piece together.
It wouldn't be an art exhibit exactly. Rather, it would be an exhibit of pictures and artifacts of special interest to photography enthusiasts in some way, shape, or form. Examples of different printmaking methods, for instance; portraits of photographers; an antique printing frame with a whole-plate negative in it. There would be some objects. Wouldn't there have to be an electronic exhibit? That could show thousands of JPEGs, including some gathered from readers. And there'd be a story behind everything. I have lots of interesting things—a platinum print by Spiros Polemis showing Walden Pond from the original location of Henry David Thoreau's cabin; an old, beat-up dye transfer prints of Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Mannes, a.k.a. "God and Man," the inventors of Kodachrome (next to that would have to go some Kodachrome slides with backlighting that comes on with a button push, of course, and a yellow box with a roll of Kodachrome in it); David Vestal's portraits of W. Eugene Smith and Minor White....
I don't have enough cool stuff to fill up the whole room. But I bet once I have the room, I could track down enough cool stuff to fill two rooms.
On my own
I'd do a Kickstarter if this was just going to be a gallery, but here's why I can't: in the middle of this room I'd put a big table. Specifically, one like this! Removable leaves go on and off to convert it from a regular table to a pool table. Perfect for spreading prints out on, as a table; also perfect for after-hours recreation for the proprietor. :-)
It would be somewhat dubious to ask people to contribute to a gallery they might not ever visit. But I'm certainly not going to ask anyone else to contribute to my gallery if it's also my pool room. Even though they're both the same room. But really, the one purpose is perfect for the other, isn't it? If I built a little building for a pool table, the walls would just go to waste; and if I built a little building as a gallery, the middle of the room would go to waste. So, yin and yang. Two birds, one stone. Perfect.
The "gallery" wouldn't be open to the public. There might or might not be anything in it for sale. (Print bins? Could do.) I envisage it being the focal point for visitors (I got a lot of visitors last fall, more in three months than I'd ever gotten in any three years in Wisconsin), and I have in mind using it for talks and mini-tours for groups from local arts organizations and colleges and so forth. Most of my objects have stories behind them.
I think the main part of the fun would be deciding what to display and trying to acquire it.
Anyway, this is where the proceeds of the current 'Red Chair' print sale will go. The profits will seed the savings account toward the future gallery/pool room.
Print sale aside, I'm probably two years away from starting to save up for this. Xander is in his last year of college, and in two years the car will be paid off, and I have several other expenses which will come to an end by then. At that point I can start saving in earnest. I've also started a list for ideas for things to show. (I have an original print of the picture from this poster, for example.)
Oh, and one other refinement: I think I'll have Woodtex build an opening for a garage door and then fill it in with insulated wall. That way, a future owner of the property can tear out the infill part, install a garage door, and use the building as a garage. That way the structure stands a chance to actually add some value to the property.
At my age, I know myself pretty well—and I know I tend to get carried away by my enthusiasms. So tell me what you think of this plan. How does it sound? Does it make sense? Am I being completely impractical? Is it worth it anyway?
(If you're going to rain on my parade, though, be gentle. It's my birthday....)
ADDENDUM by Kenneth Tanaka: If anyone near, or visiting, Chicago would like to see how a "salon"-style photographic installation might appear, I urge you to visit Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography before April 20, 2016. The Museum is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a remarkable exhibition spanning its in-house collection. The main gallery (which is just a bit larger than Mike's proposal) is installed with prints from eye-level to 12 feet high, very much like that Morse painting. A numbered key sheet is provided to visitors for reference.
It was great fun to try to identify the photographers without the key! The MoCP is on South Michigan Avenue, just a short, lovely walk from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
MarkB: "Yep, crazy. Bat-guano insane. No sensible person would think of that, much less attempt to do it. Go for it! 'Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood...Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.' —Daniel Burnham."
ScotInDortmund: "Michael, the technical term for 'jam-packed' walls is 'Petersburg Hanging.' Just saying...."
Mike replies: I did not know that. Thanks. Named after the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Google reveals.
Jeff: "Sounds a bit like a mini- Barnes Foundation, now in Philadelphia (Barnes just rolled over in his grave), just as he laid it out in Merion, PA. It consists of paintings and objects, juxtaposed in very specific order and location, up and down walls, and used as part of his teachings and education for participants. Of course he had the bucks to do it in style."
Mike replies: And his timing was right—he was collecting Impressionism when it was cheap to buy. But yes, I'm a Barnes sympathizer.
Darlene: "Happy Birthday Mike! Where is the powder room? I am giggling because it seems like a man-cave to me. :-) Not that there is anything wrong with that."
Steve G, Mendocino: "Coupla comments—first, I was finally, after wanting to for many years, able to see the Barnes Foundation collection, now in Philadelphia. There, at least, the 19th century style of art jam-packed on the walls works. Helped, of course, by the quality of the collection.... In fact, I found myself much less visually fatigued there than I often am at more modern museums, which struck me as somewhat paradoxical. Next, allow some budget for ventilation. Not necessarily full heat and A/C, but if there will be people and artwork in the same room you've got to change the air. Come to think of it, that was one of the problems with the original Barnes location in Merion. Anyhow, good plan—keep working on it. And Happy Birthday."
Kenneth Tanaka: "Happy Birthday, Mike. How does it sound? Emotional and impulsive. Does it make sense? No. Are you being completely impractical? Yes, on every level I believe so. Is it worth it anyway? No. Paraphrasing your proposal: You want to raise money to build an unconditioned storage building on your rural New York property to house, conserve, and display an eclectic (and mainly non-existent) collection of photographic history items for an undefined audience."
Mike replies: Ken, were you ever on the panel on a show called "Shark Tank"? For the record, one small misunderstanding—I was specifically talking about not raising money, but using my own.
Geoff Wittig (partial comment): "Time's a wastin' at our age. For instance, I have discovered that it takes about five years of diligent discretionary-time effort to become a reasonably competent plein-air oil painter. I'm greatly enjoying it, but...damn it, I wish I had started years earlier. I may not have enough time left to become really good, and my eyesight isn't getting any better. So I say, go for it. Dreams are for living."
Joseph Reid: "Crazy? No, but you are a dreamer. If you do this, you'll regret no plumbing. You'll have a pool table and fabulous pictures to linger over. Would you really want to be forced to put on your coat and walk all the way back to the house just to go to the bathroom in the middle of an upstate New York whiteout? And you know the times you will most want to go to that space will be those upstate blizzards. Not to mention the needs of guests. So two words of advice: powder room."
Michael Wayne Plant: "I really love the idea of a salon, somewhere for curious and photographic artefacts. We have many modern museums but few collections of curiosities of the dedicated especially in photography. As a multifunctional space it sounds great shame it will take you till you are 65 to realise it. The room/gallery/pool hall would become a focal point and regular hangout for many photography enthusiasts who would find it a stimulating place to call their home away from home and you may find yourself holding court far more often than you realise. It would be a fun place that you would have many very happy and highly interesting conversations within."
Svein-Frode: "'The days run away like wild horses over the hills' —Henry Charles Bukowski. Happy Birthay Mike!"
scott kirkpatrick: "Your virtual, hypothetical garage pool mancave cum gallery was accompanied by enough fascinating links that I almost couldn't find my way back to report in with a comment. By all means get the Orland chart up on the wall, with its great quotes like 'when man creates a sharper lens, Nature will produce a fuzzier object,' and 'Expose for the secrets, develop for the surprises.' And in the course of reading Jim Hughes' reminiscences on David Vestal, I came across The Whole Photography Chart, a copy of which also belongs up there. Not only will you have no problem covering three walls, I think you will need a storage space as your new house will likely be crowding you out by the time you get this to happen."
Rod Thompson: "Love it. Shame it will be such a long drive from Tasmania!"
Mike replies: Isn't everything a long drive from Tasmania? That's our problem here, too—everything is far away from everything else. The lesser of my two grocery stores is a 15 mile drive; the better one is a 46 mile drive.
Rob Young: "Happy Birthday. In 2017 I am planning to visit friends in New Jersey, then drive through New York to visit friends in Toronto. Can you have it finished by then?"
Mike replies: No, but stop by anyway!
Joel Becker: "Exhibit I want to see: The same image: Web JPEG on an older CRT. Higher-res web JPEG on an LCD, and then a real print, perhaps even in two sizes. To really drive home the difference."
Mike replies: Oh, believe you me, this sort of thing is definitely part of the plot. I have long wanted to set up perceptual experiments. Many are possible that would be interesting and educational both ways: for me as the "researcher" as well as for the viewers whose preferences are being collated. To name one such experiment I tried to do in the '90s: I made six prints, two of which were pictures made with different Leica lenses. The other four were made with good lenses of other brands. The idea was simply to see if people could actually recognize Leica lenses in prints. The big difficulty was in trying to get the prints to people for evaluation. With the curio gallery, I'd just have to be patient while the test subjects sequentially came to me.
Glenn Brown: "OK, it's crazy. I have a small heritage house and have crammed the walls with photography from 40 years of collecting. I see them every day and sometimes move them around. If they were in a separate building I would not see them in our Canadian winter (similar to New York's). Our bedroom has the best images, all vintage platinum, and there is a great comfort to see them going to sleep and in waking."
Bill Pelzmann: "I like your concept. However, hosting the throngs of visitors could become a burden on your time—especially those that come to play pool! For all that wasted space in the center, you could add more surface area by installing free standing display panels instead of the pool table. :-) Happy Birthday! We are also celebrating our son's 32nd today. I swear his 21st was only a few years ago!!!"