We have all done this, I know. And I don’t often like to try to find figures in clouds, or patterns and faces in shadows, or other potential sources. So when Maggie and I went to Bagno Vignoni – a Roman bath town nearby – for a lunch and a lie down under the Linden trees; because this was the time of year that Linden trees let out a perfume that is like syrup in the air, and it had become a 20 year, mid-June, ritual of ours to make this pilgrimage. So I was surprised, while looking up into the trees, to be reminded of the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
I’m sure you have seen these famous paintings of fruits, vegetables, animals, woodland plants and flowers, etc. But there we were, under the animated spirits of the trees, and with a contented, post lunch dreaminess, we watched the spirits emerge.
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?
After Rome we came home. What a relief to stand in the open countryside and simply look. That to me is one of the joys of being out of a city where the activity is all over the city’s surfaces, and the layered densities of the movement and constant life on the street build a fevered concentration in me. I love it when I am there, whatever city I am in, because I am truly a city creature, but, oh, the surprise of the spacious and quiet Tuscan countryside, brings out another side of who I am. And that is my meditative nature.
I stand still and let my heartbeat find the rhythm of what I see and smell and hear, and often, then, I see something small and maybe even familiar, but with a freshness that opens me to accepting just the pleasure of seeing it, and slowly, it seems so slow after the city , I take it in.
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.’
While waiting at the train station for a friend’s arrival I looked up and saw, once again, how something can come from nothing. It may not be something totally interesting, but it makes me react, think about whatever the prompt was, consider the way things work, or don’t, and add another moment of being present to the day.
These ‘incidental’ observations keep me tuned up and hungry for whatever may be next, while giving me a tingle of pleasure in the moment.
Whenever I see a buttermilk sky I am drawn to watching its curdled passage across the heavens. It’s a harbinger of weather systems on the move I’m sure, but of exactly what kind I am not. Still, they make for great skyscapes and play well with almost anything they relate to, like these trees with their frail, wintery branches whose color, somewhere between gold and green, vibrates against the blue.
Some days it might be the simplest of things that moves me; like the smokey yellow tone glazing the horizon, seen in relation to the russet underbelly of the cloud superimposed on the delicate celeste blue of the sky.
The poetics of the moment cause me to stand very still and watch the trio of colors slowly dissolve into a colorless wash of grays and blacks. It’s good training to observe something change right in front of my eyes. The long slow phase of one mutation into another. I always find it fruitful to search my mind for precise names of the colors that I see. The more precise I am the more I sensitize myself to where I am, and what is actually happening right then.
Stillness and taking in are two states of being that have always nourished me, particularly in the countryside where the tempo of life supports that kind of tuning in.
Photography isn’t only about seeing something and then making a photograph of it. It’s also about movement, moving in and around as you feel the qualities of the place you are in open up your mind to the other possibilities the image presents; the what if… moment. For me that’s part of the joy of seeing. I love the expansive experience of recognizing the potentcy of even such small scenes as these two below.
What was it that drew my attention? A tinkling of sunlight on Christmas lights seen against a classic French village building caught my eye, and then they pulled me forward to look more carefully, and of course everything changes with every step one takes. 20 feet further on I looked up at the lights and saw them dance against the sky.
None of this is of any great significance in the larger scheme of things. But for a moment, once again, the world offers its bounty, and I am grateful.