Thursday, July 1, 2010

Becoming a Fine Art Photographer

Driving down to Bicknell Photo, right in the middle of the dangerous, derelict Old Port area, I equipped myself with a Pentax 35mm and a Mamiya 2 1/4 x 3 1/4. Enchantment with Edward Weston led to me buy an old Maine State Police Grover 8 x 10 Field Camera, complete with carrying case and a bunch of film holders. The loaded, single-handled case weighed almost fifty pounds, plus the huge tripod over the shoulder, but I was young, crazy and master of the world.

Later on, I got  Bronica, as close as I would come to the mighty Hasselblad.
My calling was now clear. I was the second coming of Weston, and would assume my place in photographic history. Call me a megalomaniac. I was one. But it drove me. No longer a radio rocker, I spent long nights in the darkroom. The first task was to gain control of the medium. I found teachers in books. Ansel Adams’ classic series showed me the Zone System, but Minor White’s compact yellow paperback taught it to me. In a series of simple experiments, I calibrated my system from exposure meter, its dial marked with the nine shaded zones, through time/temperature development to a final print on the enlarger using “machine settings,” not the old test strip or guesstimate. The method was a revelation which I have since applied in other ways. Test and calibrate. 

Minor White, through his book, was truly my first artist teacher in photography. Bob Duncan was all practical experience, no theory at all. Minor, Ansel, Edward, soon joined by Steiglitz, Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Abbott and more, became my teachers and led me further down the path of photography. I made pilgrimages to the print room MOMA, reverently handling original platinum prints touched by Weston’s hands.

Don Hinckley was an affable, no-nonsense workman who faithfully shot all the accidents, basketball games, meetings, groups, and grip-and-grins that comprise the meat in a small town lensman’s loaf. He was no creative artist, but a dedicated man making a living. I, a snotty little college kid, married though I was, mocked Don’s conventional style and lack of creativity. 
Years later, when I wore the business suit and did no more art photography, I ran into Don. When I told him I’d moved into selling printing, he said, “Never abandon your eye!” Humbling though it was to be creatively challenged from such a source, I still waited twenty more years before I came finally back to my eye.

Tom Cornell reminded me that I couldn’t go on being the bright young man forever. I had to zero in on something. Press clippings were not enough. Then he left on sabbatical and Don Lent took over my case. He was a young prof then and later became head of the Bates Art Dept. A friendly, cheery man with a formalistic, high-minded attitude to his semi-abstract art, Don was a regular guy who got tipsy with us at parties. He let me have the freedom I needed.

The Adams basement was increasingly inadequate for the growing photographic interest on campus. Tom Brown was right next to me with the latest cameras and tips. He did well enough until the night he put six rolls into the fix instead of the developer, creating perfectly clear film. Those are the learning moments. Tom was my closest campus buddy, whose Greenwich, Connecticut mansion I visited a couple of times, He had wealth, but it just made him a bigger target in the divorce wars of the 70s and 80s.

Tom helped make alumni contacts who funded the construction of a darkroom on the second floor of the Union, next to the radio station. It was a beautiful space, with custom sinks and the latest equipment, a monument to the revival of photography at Bowdoin, in which I played a role along with John McKee, a French professor whose environmental exhibit, “As Maine Goes” was getting worldwide acclaim. When I came to Bowdoin, there was no darkroom, no club, nothing. Now there was a shiny new darkroom at the center of campus which I had helped create. I never used the place, joke-named "The Dave Wilkinson Memorial Darkroom."

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