Some years ago I began a series called “The Elements,” in which I was trying to see if I could photograph the phenomena of the 4 elements without resorting to the conventions of traditional renaissance perspective where there was a horizon line and diminishing markers of distance. I asked myself, ‘can I photograph the simple fact of each of our 4 phenomena; Air, Water, Earth, Fire, in such a way as to make them the pure statement of the thing itself?’
I began looking at sky, sea, earth, etc and realized that this could be close to being the most familiar and boring photographs one could make. Dumb images of dirt? Still photographs of water in a pool or lake? But my thought was to make them BIG, really large scale, say 10 feet high by 12 or more feet long; and I did make some like that for a show in Germany, where they were well received and collected.
I continue to add to that body of work whenever something speaks to me. Here was a moment when the light was going, and a stream of buttermilk clouds slowly drifted into view, and I found myself in that frame of mind where studying the sky for a while was a purely pleasurable experience, and what could be a better stimulant than pleasure for making photographs?
To stand in the shadows, looking out into the light, is like a child’s game of thinking that the treasure is down there, just past the sunlight, around that bend. But the treasure is to be standing still, in the quiet cool at the end of a June day, and drinking in the sweetness of it, the silence, the timelessness that it suggests. And then raising the camera to affirm the sensation of contentment that overcame me.
Machines for specific functions can be strangely beautiful. This creature kicks cut hay into winnowed rows for later rolling up by the farmer. To come across it at rest, out in the open at that time of day was breathtaking. Its color harmonized with the varied greens of the land, and the late light intensified its physical presence, making it feel – for just a moment – like an amusement park ride I wanted to strap myself into and be sent spinning for a wild 5 minutes.
N.B. The wrong month and day were inserted yesterday
This is where we live. On a real farm in the hills of Tuscany. Those cows are out our door and down the slope maybe 150 yards away. Most of the time I don’t think of cows as subject matter that I’d be interested in, but when this double rainbow fell into their field they suddenly became more important to me just by being in the space. It’s the humility that gets to me. They’re not exciting the way wild animals might be. They just ruminate around, eating, lying down, wandering to the pond for a drink and a cool place to be, what a life. I could learn something from them.
There are evenings when we walked down the road just to be in their presence. They stand and look, and we do the same, and often something happens that is as simple and ancient as old dutch landscape paintings, with hay ricks and wagons, and farmhouses and sometimes a wonderful weather event in the distance. I don’t know what it is about this ordinariness, but it goes in deep, and I continue to try and find my way to making photographs that tell it right.
For a city guy to to be in this kind of country, without the drama of street life, is a lovely problem to take on, especially for a ‘photograph a day’ project. Some days things are very quiet in the country, so making work requires a different kind of openness.
On the walk back to the house Maggie (then the space behind her was bare gravel, and now, 2 years later, it is lush with flowers and clover and trees – a magical transformation made by Maggie) picked up two rose petals which were dazzling in her hands in the low light.
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.
It was a sudden light show. I moved from tree space to tree space watching it play out; where was the strongest sensation, what made me gasp? A few steps into the next pairing I saw the shadow of a man who was nearby, fall on the trunk of the cypress, and it was a sudden jolt of a new possibility.
There were others too, of the trees alone, and some are strong on their own, but this one made its way into the considerations for this blog. maybe on another day I would feel differently. Photography is like that.
One day a year Maggie and I travel Once More Around The Sun and find ourselves on the road where we were married 14 years ago. It is a road enclosed by tall Cypress trees, male and female trees mixed together for the last hundred years, or more and whose shapes tell you the difference. The female trees are rounder, thicker, taller, and have small, round, fruited pine cones the size of chestnuts, all over them. The males are slender, not s tall and seem to bend in the wind easier. They certainly are the inferior looking part of the species.
We always go for a walk there at the time of day that we were married, around 6 o’clock. Some days it’s sunny, as it was on our day, and others, as in this image, cooler, clouded over, grayer. We have had it every way and it doesn’t matter what kind of day it is, it’s still our day, and we always make the most of what we are given. Which, as you may have heard me say before, is what is at the heart of the photographic experience; ‘make the most of what you have.’
There are moments and places that speak to me out of their simplest, most elemental nature. It could be the light – as it often is for me – or their form; mysterious, pure, layered, intricate, organic, ancient… This sunny space between two dark buildings announced itself, as places often do, by making me gasp when I turned into the lane, and when I gasp I know I am in the right place, or the right moment. I trust that gasp to be something from my source speaking without words. Words come later, but in the moment there is only the intake of breath that means, Now!
These simple forms; the house fronts in the light, the pair of quintessential Tuscan trees, the cypress and the pine, the face full of ivy on the building on the left, that flawless blue sky, the blush of pale color on the sunlit facade, all of these ordinary facts combined to make something ineffable, yet felt with the precision and economy of a Haiku.
My eye is dazzled regularly by the Tuscan light. A light that caused us many years ago to name our book on the region; “Tuscany: Inside The Light,” because it so often seemed as if the light was emanating from within the landscape rather than falling on it.
There is something very special in the composition of the soil here which I believe contributes to this light effect, and my reading of it this way. The earth here is not the typical dark earth of many agricultural zones. This earth is known as the Tuscan crete, which is a light toned, clay-like material deposited millions of years ago as sea bottom, and as such it is incredibly nutrient rich, but not dark. I believe that this light toned earth forms a base below the grasses, grains, sunflowers, vineyards, etc, that are part of the landscape here.
This produces a more reflective surface than a dark soil does, and so there is a luminous lift to the light bouncing back from the land, which I believe is what generates the special qualities of Tuscan light. Certainly daily atmospheric conditions emphasize light and color as well, but from my 20 year point of view working here, it is the accumulated resonance of this scattering of the light that accounts for these remarkable and emotional displays.