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.
A friend gave me a basket of ripe plums. This type of Italian plum is called “Nuns Thigh.” Who could resist. I made plum preserves and had plenty left over for some luscious bites. Not to mention a chance for a still warm still life.
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.
Gianni had brought me some leaves he saw in a friend’s garden. One of them, this bronzed and beautiful one of trillions on the planet, is a type of Italian Magnolia leaf, and it managed to convince me to put it in the mix with these other objects to see what would happen.
I like this dark setting, it seems to have suited where I was heading with these still lives when I began making them. After all the years of ‘light’ being my subject, darkness descended when I began working inside, and I like it! It continues even now a couple of years later with a whole new series. But these strange personaggi seem to have real personalities when I spend time with them. They show a stronger side now and then, but I have to turn them slowly and watch carefully, just like a moment on the street, the essential quality of their being can be missed in a heartbeat, so close attention must be paid.
The doll and the Grape Vine hung out on the set for a few hours. I hoped to make a flip book-like video to show you the way the figure moved, but couldn’t seem to get it to work today, so a contact sheet of sorts will have to do. I feel it’s important to share the process with you as I am feeling my way around while making these teatrino still lives. I am amazed and amused by the animated energy that comes from this eloquent little figure, and I can see that patience, and really concentrating on gesture, will be something that helps me to understand just what is going on within the still life form.
This doll has held my attention for a day or so. I don’t know what it was about it, but I was compelled to sit in front of my teatrino and stare at it, reach in and activate it, consider its potential for emotions; shame or pathos, timidity, or even joy, which it is not too readily capable of expressing, but for a moment I felt it appear, you’ll see.
Whether close up or far away it seems to have a spellbinding quality which I let take me on whatever journey the character has in store for my interests.
We were beginning to pack up the house we rented in Bonnieux in preparation for our return to Tuscany. This was a really great house, luxurious, generous, comfortable, but the odd thing was that the master bedroom had no real closet to hold a winter’s worth of clothes. Instead it had a row of hooks on the wall, which might seem strange given the overall quality of the house. But Maggie and I actually grew to like seeing the few things we came away with hanging, like an ‘installation’, or laundry, visible for us every day.
On this day I suddenly saw our wardrobe for what it was; a couple of city people living in the far reaches of Provence with all our city blacks. How strange we must have seemed to the locals as we changed from one shade of dark to another. But what pleased me here was that I now, after months of making still lives, saw it as just another arrangement of objects on a background, and wished I had looked harder earlier.
A friend brought this hand made old doll for me to see. It had tremendous power for such a small and innocent thing. Its oversize head and the tail between its legs lent it a kind of talismanic, or fetish-like presence, but one with no ill will attached to it. It seemed to me, with its bowed head, to express some kind of shame.
I put it on the background I was working with that day, an old, cowhide, butchers, or perhaps metalworker’s apron, which, when I put it on the table I was using, offered a powerful sense of landscape scale. I moved the doll around to see what it could say within its small range of movement. If you click on the link below the photo you can see a video of the sequence of images I made as I was trying to understand what it could do.
I can’t say I solved anything with this first attempt, and to be perfectly honest I always felt that the doll photographs that were so popular back in the 80’s were really dumb, and I couldn’t see the reason for people to play with them when the world outside was so much more compelling and challenging. Yet here I am making still lives at this time in my life, and someone comes along with this gentle soul and I find myself interested. If it is nothing more than that – interest – in seeing what this might ‘say’, then that is good enough for me now. I will just have to wait it out and see if it continues to stay interesting.
Inside a waiting room where Maggie had to go for an emergency eye exam we found ourselves in this crazy environment, wondering, ‘who designs these places?’ Who makes the choices for furniture, potted plants, chairs and tables? And does this place reflect some French “Eye” clinic sense of humor?
But what it really makes me think about is the untold zaniness of interiors everywhere, all just waiting to be photographed to reveal what 21st century style might be seen as in some future time. I guess as a photographer I am always looking for new opportunities to slice away at the time we live in because one never knows when some slight ‘aside’ can transform itself into a body of work of some merit. This kind of playful thinking has served me well over 50 years of shooting, and now, after having seen the fruits of that kind of work, I find myself still attracted to the surprising thought when it comes. The question I have now, at this late day in the game, is; do I follow it?
I had been looking at my tin chimney cap Mussolini for a few days, moving the tin man around on the little ‘teatrino’ setup I am using, trying to see what made sense, or gave me a fresh idea. At some point a crowd of objects came into the space but weren’t doing anything other than crowding. And then something happened. I introduced the tall wooden figure and, like a chess move, the force on the stage changed. The grey shapes began to cluster around and behind the tin man setting up a dialogue for me. The wood figure suddenly became slightly confrontational, as if he was the spokesman of ‘the people,’ who were represented by tiny, silver pastry cones, and the dynamic seemed to be (and all this is just the buzz inside my mind) that he was appealing to the powers that be for some cause, and that the outcome wouldn’t be in favor of the people, because the tin-man had his Henchmen to support him.
The stage seemed to bristle with potential political or social story lines, and then these cast-off objects, no longer used for whatever their original function was, seemed to come back to life for me. I thought, ‘is that what natura morte can do?’ Bring the inanimate back to life?
So I learned something here about what might be my way with still lives, which is not to arrange for beauty of form alone, that has been done by painting for a thousand years, but to stay open to trying to bring my street sense of possible connections and meanings into the way I look at the objects I choose. And that way test them to see if something meaningful rises up out of the collective assembly.