‘Table Top’ used to be what still life work was called back in the 70’s and 80’s when I did some advertising photography. I never shot that kind of stuff because I was a ‘location guy’ and couldn’t find any interest in being inside a studio. But sometimes, when sitting across a table from someone; a friend, family member, even a total stranger, whoever it may be, there is a moment when some connection just begs for a photograph.
Her steady look and directness, with no projection of the kind of beauty she is capable of and can often express, was what I responded to as we sat around the breakfast table. These simple, intimate moments are rich with possibilities.
Some friends came down for Maggie’s birthday a couple of years ago and brought their teenage daughter with them. We have known her since she was a few weeks old and have seen her through all her phases so far and hope to watch her for as long as we can. These yearly or sometimes twice a year sightings are a little like watching a stop motion movie where we see the spurts and leaps as if it was a continuous sequence.
She’s about 16 here and looking leggy and beautiful. I feel fortunate to have witnessed her through all the years and seeing this image, simple as it is (we were walking in the medieval part of our town in the evening) made me feel that I should collect them all and make a little book for her at some point in her life when it would be important for her to look back.
We had just stepped outside so Maggie could read another chapter to me when Luana, our close friend, stopped by. She saw Maggie’s hat, and since it’s not her usual style, she wanted to try it on, and so I was witness to the give and take between two beautiful women as they played with the hat.
It was nice to be the ‘fly on the wall’ for a few moments and see the kind of fun women can have with something as goofy as a hat, and it allowed me to make a couple of portraits that had simple spontaneity and genuine expression, rather than those more reserved moments when people put on their camera face.
Being read a story in the late hours of a warm summer day is a little like being a kid again and submitting to the pleasures of the tale and dreaming while listening. Those evening readings were pure joy and often, while Maggie was reading, I would photograph her, or sometimes make a video so I could hold on to the sweetness of the memory of that time in our lives. That was the year we decided to come back to live full time in Italy.
The halo of light around her head in the darkening of the day, and her physical concentration and intensity, like an actress preparing for a role and searching for the ‘voice’ of the character, kept me glued to her every nuance of gesture and tone. Little observations like that, even with someone you know well, can give an ordinary moment meaning.
At the little beach side hotel we were staying in – a real Italian family kind of place – the husband and wife chefs turned out homey and delicious variations of classic Italian cuisine. We went in to see them at work and were so taken with their honesty and sweetness that I wanted to give something back to them, so I invited them out for a portrait.
I couldn’t ask for a more playful pair of lovebirds. He simply found her irresistible, she was his ‘dumpling,’ and he couldn’t keep from snuggling and hugging her, even dancing around together for a moment. I suddenly felt that their restaurant (sadly they didn’t come back the next year, business being really tough in Italy’s economy, and we really missed them on our next visit) was their little theater, and so I photographed them on their ‘stage’ set. It’s one of a lot of frames I made, but it’s easy affection and real warmth keeps me engaged.
This day 2 years ago I visited Cortona to see my exhibition in the Cortona On The Move photo festival. Cortona is a beautiful hill town above a plain between 2 ranges of hills. On the other side of the far range is our valley and it always surprises me how different each terrain is even when they are only a few miles apart.
At lunchtime we entered a local restaurant, and immediately inside the front room I saw this image of a young girl in her dream state of wonder and illusion, like an Alice in Wonderland girl fallen into the depths of the mirror’s space, except this one seemed to be loving herself in a way that brought to mind all seductive and playful charms of the putti one sees hovering in the corners of Italian paintings, or holding up the edges of the ceilings in palazzo rooms.
These associations I find myself making come instantly to mind, and there is barely a moment between seeing what’s in front of me, raising my camera, and reading the underlying text that the image gives off. And reading it this way it doesn’t mean that it is true, or anything that even makes sense, it is just what comes at me from the world, and which only I am susceptible to, and I never expect anyone else to read it in the same way I do, but I am helpless in front of these associations.
I have long felt that it is a way of seeing that I have tuned my instrument to, and that by this associative verbalizing, even if it is just a flash thought, I can then see more clearly what its affinity is to me. I have long believed that if you can say it you can see it.
Silvia, the farmer on whose property we live, has been coming by with whatever is in season in her orta ever since we started living here. On that day in this photograph she brought zucchini and melanzana, and as I often do I make a portrait of her and the gift, which seems an appropriate way of thanking her while keeping a record of what a farmer’s wife can look like in the 21st century. Silvia is gentle and sweet, yet strong enough to handle big animals, carry heavy equipment, and bear up under the stresses of gardening, raising sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, and children, and weathering all the unexpected events that nature hurls at farmers everywhere.
Those zucchini wound up in this omelet about 30 minutes later. So it is in life on the farm; garden to table in no time, with informal still lives and portraits as memories. Then, when the evening cooled and the call to walk in it came, we took to the road that is always suggestive of adventure even when it is just along our familiar old road heading into town. It never ceases to please us and tell us exactly what time of the season it is.
On this date the Queen Anne’s Lace is lacily trimming the borders of the roadsides. In some way these offhand photographic notes on the seasons show me the constancy of time, the year after year perfection of seeds and sunshine, which results in a measurable and quantifiable experience of time’s passing.
Yesterday I mentioned that sitting around and talking could often produce spontaneous portrait studies, and that like street photography, if one was observant some rich gestural images might come from it. The next day our friend Gianni stopped by, as he does almost every day, to hang out and play with us as we have been doing for 20 years now.
The positions we were sitting in gave me this chance to really watch the Italian in him in action, with every nuance of his story needing an expressive gesture to move the opera along. What the story was about I can no longer remember, or as the Italians say, “chi se ne frega,” who gives a damn, anyway.
And then, when he was done, he gave me the sweetest, most sheepish look, which endeared him to me even more.
Sometimes just sitting around and talking offers unexpected gestures and expressions, and can often lead to a kind of intimate portraiture that doesn’t depend on the ‘pose,’ but rather flows from the state of being you and the subject find themselves in. Especially when it is family or friends, and the camera doesn’t present an intrusive presence into the mix.
I love this relaxed way of seeing, and in a way it is like street photography, but the kind where one is simply out for a walk and living in the wonder of the present moment. It’s always the present in photography.
Silvia had come by with one of her delicate tortes made with eggs, milk and flour all from the farm. You just can’t get it any fresher than that. She was so sweet when she brought it over, innocent like a kid in some ways, even though she’s a mother of two. I saw that quality coming from her and responded with a photograph, and immediate salivation.
Maggie and I ate at least half of it sitting in the shade of the oak tree in the back of the house. That day was nearly 90 degrees, and even that didn’t stop us from devouring it. And it lead to a portrait, and a still life, too.