A Life in Snapshot
After graduating from Columbia University (liberal arts), I went to the Sorbonne and at the same time attended l'Acadèmie de la Grande Chaumière, an art school in Montparnasse, using the three years left on my GI Bill. I also studied with Gertrude Stein's last protègè, a Catalan friend of Picasso's, from whom I learned much about art and painting - very classical stuff. When I came back to America I fell right in with the abstract-expressionist painters hanging out at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. For a while I did abstractions and had a few unimportant shows but, without altogether condemning the paintings that were being displayed, got tired of what was being done in the name of art - it seemed too easy and had the earmarks of a conspiracy of dealers bankrolling an organized esthetic delinquency. I preferred to go back in time to the Fauves, and then even further back, to the Impressionist Revolution and to Turner, that great Englishman whose watercolors were hors concours. I loved these artists for their treatment of nature and their original way of seeing things. Their paintings seemed to say more about life than I found, personally, in the work of "the Cedar Street boys" like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock and Bill De Kooning and Rothko and the rest, as much as I liked them as barroom friends and respected them as painters. I fell in love with Monet's astonishing ability to paint not just a landscape but the actual light and air in the landscape, and I think this is what gradually shifted me over to photography - the look of light and air.
I used to love looking at old Coronet magazines from the 1930s and seeing the work of Stieglitz and Edward Weston and Brassai (the night exposures in Paris). Later I was married briefly to a Sunday photographer who liked to go out in Manhattan and take pictures with her Hasselblad but never liked to develop her films or make her own prints herself. So I learned to do these things for her and discovered that it was possible for me to "do photography". So I bought a Leica M4 and began. The Witkin Gallery had opened around then, followed soon by other good galleries, like the Light, and my understanding of photography deepened by looking at the works of great modern masters. I couldn't get over the beauty of the medium and the emotional intensity possible through black-and-white grayscale images.
While all this was going on I got interested in psychoanalysis and trained at psychoanalytic institutes in New York and eventually began practicing in the Village. Paying for the years of training by working as an editor at a major publishing house, I proposed a book of Paul Caponigro's work and saw it through publication (Landscape) and also published a book of FSA photographs from the 1930s (The Years of Bitterness and Pride).
Things would have gone along like this if I hadn't conceived the idea of doing a book of memoirs of Edward Weston by those who knew and remembered him. Many of them were still alive and I thought it was a historic opportunity that could easily be lost unless someone recorded their memories. I was by then so enraptured by photography that I left New York and moved, lock, stock and barrel, to Carmel Highlands, ready to start life all over again.
But the Weston project foundered from the outset, when the family members and friends - Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Morley Baer, quite a number of people - all of whom were enthusiastic about the project, reported all they could remember, which amounted to an hour's worth of daily-life trivia. It would not have been possible to write even an article on the material I gathered. Cole Weston, though very pleasant and easy, was a disaster as coauthor of a memoir of his father, telling me at the end of our very first chat, "Well, that's about all I remember of the old man."
So back to the drawing board. I wrote the book anyway, a book, and though Ansel praised it handsomely and even extravagantly in various letters to publishers and friends, I decided against publication. It didn't say enough about Edward Weston's work or about photography to satisfy me and probably therefore not satisfy any serious photographer either. I have it still, sitting in my closet. It didn't help the project that Cole said he could not allow me to reproduce more than ten photographs of EW's work - Pepper No. 30 and the usual ones - because of all sorts of contractual commitments he had got himself enmeshed in, and I thought, who would want a book about a photographer whose work you can only talk about and not show? But at least I recorded some tapes of Chandler Weston and others who knew EW, some having rather violent views toward family members and friends and for that reason of possible interest to curators and photographers of the future. The tapes are in the closet too.
That fiasco got me interested in some day writing a book about Ansel and Brett and Morley and the other Weston-ers - acquaintances, neighbors, shopkeepers - a book that would tell of the things I learned in the course of writing the ill-fated EW memoir, including all the good times I had writing and doing photography up and down California's incredible Central Coast and the five or six times of being mistaken, because of my view camera and beard, for the celebrated Ansel Adams by autograph hounds. I told this to Ansel one day and said I hoped he wouldn't mind if I started forging his signature once in a while, because I could no longer bear the look of disappointment on the faces of so many travellers zooming up Highway 1, skidding to a sudden halt, getting out of the car and happily rushing over ("Mr. Adams? I hope I'm not disturbing you if . . .") to meet the great man and get his autograph.
One of the conditions I had originally set myself was to acquire an understanding of how to make fine prints in justification of my belief, or presumption, that I was qualified to write about the medium. I took private lessons with Ansel, who was conveniently a neighbor - and, as it turned out, more help than anyone else had been on the EW book - and I learned quite a bit from Morley and from a couple of his architectural assignments on which he very kindly allowed me to work with him as assistant. I picked up a lot of technical stuff about indoor and outdoor photography from him, as I learned fine printing from Ansel. Paul Caponigro's work taught me that there was more to photography than Edward Weston's formalism, which had been my original and, as I now think of it, narrow view of photographic beauty: Paul, I thought, didn't photograph a thing by itself - he photographed what the thing was in. That's how I viewed it, and when I told him this once he looked at me as though I were crazy. But it made and makes sense to me.
I went out west with a lot of cameras and at one time or another used them all. Aside from the Leica, which I soon gave up because the negatives were too small for satisfying enlargements of the totally ungrainy kind I wanted to make, I used my Sinar 8x10 and 4x5 but, more and more often, my Rollei SL66, which I still use most of the time. The 120mm size is easier to work with - although in my opinion nothing will ever take the place of large-format photography, if you have strength enough to carry a Sinar and heavy tripod up and down hills and over rocks and sand.
I lived at Point Lobos and did much work in the Big Sur region, but gradually grew disaffected with the West Coast poster look, which is pandemic out there. I began to prefer the more gentle works of Tom Millea and Robert Adams and George Tice and the lovely images of Martha Casanave and Emmet Gowin and Fay Godwin - in short, became an admirer of the work of many good individual and quite different photographers and indirectly learned from all of them, past and present. William Clift, Kipton Kumler, Bert Stern, Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard and probably another 250, including that great nineteenth-century figure, Anonymous - a whole slew of practitioners. I am particularly fond of Atget, and am one of those who thinks he was quite possibly the best of the lot, and I love Atget's treatment of light, as in his luminously backlit townscapes and landscapes: 8x10 miracles. There are others - a Harry Callahan that looks almost like an exquisite Japanese print that I wouldn't part with for anything. I love platinum and fell in love with the medium and much of what I know about it and the making of it I learned from Tom Millea, who is not only a master in platinum but a fine all-round photographer who understands Edward Weston's idea of composition as "the strongest way of seeing".
After all the thinking and reflecting on photography I've done over the years, I had a sneaking suspicion that I didn't really know much beyond one or two things. For example, I knew there's no such thing as a subject by itself: nothing exists apart from the way a person sees it. I learned too that something gives me the urge to take a picture, but what that something is becomes clear only in the darkroom, which is where the picture, so to speak, completes itself. Gary Winogrand said: "I photograph something to see what it looks like photographed." An important lesson I learned: don't try to understand everything - just keep working.
For digital prints, I used the Epson Perfection 3200 Photo scanner, which scans all negatives up to 4x5, and printed with my Epson Stylus Photo 2100 (2200, I believe, in the States).
And saving the best for last, I had a lovely English wife, Margaret, who, alone, made life worth living. I was very fortunate to have her and her love.