Italian families! So much affection, gentleness and concentration on babies when they come. On our way home from the seaside we stopped to see an old friend whose new son was drawing all eyes his way just by being his bubbly small self. Or was he so happy just because of all the attention pouring into him? Probably goes both ways in that circle.
Shooting little kids may seem like easy pickings, but they shouldn’t be seen only as ‘cute,’ like kittens, or beautiful, like flowers, they are amazingly communicative and expressive little beings whose personae, and expression, although limited by their size and verbal skills, still make them interesting subjects. Witness those Diane Arbus photographs of kids in which their fears and pain make them powerful subjects. I always thought those images of hers were a big step toward a tough body of work in an area we think of as cliché.
We have had a special friendship with Gianni for 20 years. It was his character and generosity that led us to think about starting our own workshops in Tuscany 20 years ago. At that time he was the director of a large azienda; Castelnuovo Tancredi, on which there was a castle and 7 renovated farmhouses capable of holding 40-50 people. The castle was lived in by the owner, who at 102 is still living there! And who danced at our wedding when she was 87.
So, Gianni is, for us, and I know for many other people too, a special keeper of the flame of old Tuscany. And it is with him that we frequently go off on jaunts around the countryside searching for old treasures that carry the history of the region. And this year we have taken a studio all together to make a kind of museum out of these finds, and also to work on our own projects in. But when I made these images 2 years ago, while doing the picture a day project, we were just finding our way to living here more regularly.
Maggie has learned her Italian by speaking with Gianni who is immensely patient with us, and is a great communicator himself, while not speaking a word of English. I find that I can photograph our lives as if I was out on the street anywhere in the world, and that this trio we make provides countless picture opportunities. It brings up that same lesson again and again; do not treat the intimate space of family as if it was off limits for doing serious work.
When I am out walking with Maggie (who, among many other professions during a well lived life, was a dancer) the unpredictable often happens, so carrying a camera is a foregone conclusion. She, spins, and kicks, and runs and laughs, like a 6 year old, and she is more than 10 times that, but her energy and humor are part of the bounty she has brought into my life. Every so often I think; ‘why haven’t I made a book about her?’
While considering a photograph for today’s blog this one popped into view, as did that thought once again. I must have a thousand photographs of Maggie from our 20+ years together, probably more. This is a photographer’s dilemma; the thought that someone close to you is not the stuff of a book. In fact the family and loved ones constitute a great subject for an intimate work, if only we are willing to take the time to look closely at what we have. It also is a portrait of how one ages. Consider Nick Nixon’s series of the four, Brown sisters. When looking at them we see the wear and tear of lives spanning 40 years which, even without words, is an amazing document that grows deeper with each reading and every year.
So, look into your files for those images that you though were too personal, or too familiar, and try looking at them as if you were a stranger who has discovered this trove in a flea market trunk, the way John Maloof discovered Vivian Maier. You will be surprised.
It’s often hard to know what to make of almost anything we see in the world at large. Garry Winogrand, with whom I daily walked the streets of Manhattan, LA, Paris, and elsewhere for a few steady years in the mid 60’s, used to say that when he photographed someone on the street with their mouth wide open it was difficult to know if they were screaming, laughing or yawning, and it was that ambiguity that made it an interesting photographic moment.
Here too, the ridiculous angle and action opens the frame to suggestions of a violent nature, as well as just thoughtless family teasing. These unknowns are part of the photographer’s vocabulary of ‘signs,’ which indicate something of interest is happening right here! But will it yield a photograph? Only the photograph after the fact will tell us if it amounts to more than the sum of its parts.
I am reminded that all situations are fair game for making photographs, even the ones that seem most conventional; like sitting around with friends, watching family members living their lives, casual moments at home, or anything that is merely quotidian. These unexalted events are the things that become invisible to us, while in fact they are as potentially potent as anything else out there in the free-for-all of life on the streets.
I can think of wonderful images made by Robert Frank, Elliot Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, and lots of others who were open to looking at the abundance of their own family’s private life. This image is not significant in terms of art, but its moment of shared good will and human warmth, the lovely gesture of the woman on the couch, the quality of the ambient light in the room, all remind me of how engaged I was by the feelings swirling around the room, and how it made me want to reach for it the only way I know.