Saturday, June 5, 2010

Intimations and Yearnings

We came to Brunswick in the winter. This is where we lived for three years. Nothing much more than what you see. Bed on right. Tiny bathroom off to left and Brad's room beyond. Doorway in photo leads to tiny kitchen. The woman is one of Tom's girlfriends. I probably took this shot to test out the strobe unit, but now it captures many details of this period.

After the usual family and academic obligations, my top priority was to set up for photography. Bowdoin in 1965 had no active camera club, no course in photography, no studio and no darkroom. The latter was essential, and it took my friend Tom Brown and I a bit of running around until we found a dank spot in the basement of Adams Hall. We set the lab up with sink, safelights and homemade PVC film tanks.

I started with the old Rollieflex. Bob Duncan considered the 120 format the smallest format a pro should use. He often shot his group shots with a Graphic Press 4x5, so that the negatives would be "sharp as a three-peckered billy goat." These are some of my first images coming back from New Hampshire.

Tom Brown was my ally, compatriot and lens brother as we cleared out a bit of space for photography at Bowdoin. More than hardware, we were also making space in our heads for new influences. With no formal course to guide  us, we dove into Steigltiz, Weston, Adams, Callahan, Siskind, White and many more photographers. With the speed only college sophomores can achieve, we became instant  experts in the fine art of photography.

Reconsidering Duncan's admonition, I got myself a 35mm Pentax and was amazed at the sharpness one could get with that tiny negative. In this early test shot I've got the pipe I smoked from the time I quit cigarettes in 1964 after the Surgeon General Report until I took them up again along with grass in the later phases of the 60s. Don't worry. I gave up tobacco for good in 1972.

Those were eager days. I would go into blizzards at night with the Pentax wrapped in a plastic bag. The camera went everywhere as I aimed indiscriminately at anything or person of interest. My eye was drawn always to abstract form, especially in its natural mode. From the very first. my work divided itself between a personal search for form and a social interest in people.

The great awakening came in the person of Professor Tom Cornell. Unable to take a course in photography, I signed up for Studio Art 101. The professor assured me that, despite his total unfamiliarity with photography, he would assist me in any medium. I was soon to learn that his teaching sometimes appeared to have little to do with art at all.

In 1965, Tom Cornell was a wunderkind of the art world. having stunned it with his Monkey Book and etchings of Frederick Douglas. More artist than academician, Tom took a bohemian stance before his class of budding lawyers, stockbrokers and economists. He took on the task of challenging every comforting suburban, Republican, Episcopalian belief we had. Today it seems he merely presented the beatnik liturgy, from Zen to Marx. His suggested readings came from John Burroughs and Alan Watts.
What may have been intended as invigorating salt to his students came through to my unformed fetus of rebellion as nectar of the gods. Suddenly, I found whole new ways to construct the universe. God was no longer even a joke; the Tao, Yin and Yang, Satori, Nirvana, Enlightenment... Tom went far beyond the old models I knew.
Hadn't I seen any of this in the coffeehouses of Cambridge back in 1959? Reading the history of those times, I can see that this knowledge was seething around our little preppie world. But all we cared for was the music, sex, cars and alcohol, on the parents' model. Little did we suspect the reason for Kweskin Jug Band bassist Fritz Richmond's little blue glasses. Hardly could we imagine we'd be casting the I Ching within a few years. It up to Bowdoin College and Tom Cornell to bring this dissident, beatnik, artsy world into focus. In rich irony, my parents paid for me to become a beatnik and find out about drugs.
Cannabis would not happen for two years yet in the sheltered world of Brunswick. In 1965, the very concept of a Zen reality was a mind-blower. So was the blissful embrace with nature as described by John Burroughs, and the light in Vermeer, ancestor of the chiaroscuro I saw through my viewfinder and in my prints.
Tom lived on the same block, his studio just a few steps from our back yard. In photo sessions for the Alumni magazine, casual encounters and the intensity of my first exposure to free thinking, we became friends. This year (2010) we are making an incredibleMAINE show (see link) about Tom's art.

Many things were happening at once. Captivated by Weston's Daybooks and his uncompromising stance, not to mention the beauty of his severe 8 x 10 contact prints, I found myself a used Maine State Police 8 x 10 view camera, complete with tripod, case and a bunch of large, heavy film holders. The rig, loaded with film, dark cloth, exposure meter, notebook and lunch must have weighed forty pounds. Undeterred and possessed with the strength of youth, I hauled that monster out to the beach and everywhere else. At present, my I cannot scan the negatives, but I hope to rediscover this work as we go along.

As artistic sophistication kicked in, so the clothing got kicked off and I began to see the model as pure form. The nude series continued through the 60s and ended with the divorce in the early 70s. Never again would I find a model able to devote the time nor have the ability. Lorel was also model to a number of other artists.

Drawn to the formalism of nature and the nude, I also found delight in human faces and situations. Though one of all-male Bowdoin's few married students, I retained connections to the TD house and became active in documenting campus life for the yearbook and later the alumni magazine.

Living off campus created ties with the community. Across the street lived a bunch of Navy photographers from Brunswick Naval Air Station, who developed film of Russian subs in the large base that dominates the eastern side of the town. These were the guys who didn't get to go to a fancy liberal arts college, but they still knew how to have a good time.

Rich is just faking his anxiety here, but at his notary-office wedding, it's for real behind the brave smile.

During the summer I discovered that actors will pay for pictures of themselves. So I hung out at the Summer Music Theater and did a brisk business.

John Cole, Editor of the weekly Brunswick Record, gave me my first publication credit, soon followed by Peter Cox at the daily Bath Times. They kept me busy with local stories.

The camera was always aimed at the family. This blog, while a personal story, is not a family album. The family of an artist is rarely immune from being involved in the work, and mine was no exception. The images are selected for inclusion here because they are part of my artistic development. This is not about family history except as it inevitably intertwines with the art.

 A lot of irons in the fire? I was insatiable.

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