I found myself neglecting to show some of the still lives I had been making at the same time as I was making outside images. This strange collection of forms below had been up in the teatrino for days, moving themselves around into different groupings. The organic shape (a smoke bush’s flowers which had dried and became this aggregate mass of delicate twiggy forms) and for some reason seemed to want to appear with the grey shapes I was working with then. These connections come so suddenly, on instinct, that I tend not to resist and just let myself be taken in by them to see what comes of it.
This was a day of generosity. In a nearby small town I came across this beautiful bunting wrapped, church doorway. No doubt ready for a procession for a saint’s day, or a wedding, or who knows what festive event the town was making, but it made me happy just looking at the way the space was redefined by some simple fabric hanging on the facade.
Then, returning home, a bounty of offerings appeared; Silvia came by with a cake she just baked, then her mother-in-law stopped by with some fresh ricotta she had made from the new sheep they recently bought, then a man from Buonconvento, on the way to his sister’s place, stopped by to bring us a box of figs from his amazingly productive tree. All that, and some eggplants from the garden, which I roasted and turned into baba ganouj became a summer dinner. And a still life, and a portrait of a building. You work with what you have.
We came back after a late-in-the-day walk to find this rugged tomato, just picked from the garden, deposited on our table by our farmer landlord, Silvia, who often brings us whatever is on the vine; squash blossoms, string beans, zucchini, eggplant, new potatoes, onions, figs, grapes, plums, and so on, but this creature sat there looking ugly/beautiful, and that always gets to me. Ugly/beautiful is one of those qualities that the world throws our way in unexpected moments, and when I see it I am reminded of how great the variety of what we call beauty really is.
It suggests a reconsideration of what we think we know about beauty, and our own values. It’s not that this tomato is any kind of paragon of beauty, but simply that it made me pause for just a moment to look at it, and once I paused I saw the light making lines like the tomato’s lines, and then I felt the sweet sentiment of Silvia’s generosity, add to that the lateness of the hour and its color, and what came over me was the plain song of the evening and the goodness of life.
Living on a farm in Tuscany offers in its solitude few distractions from the basic simplicity of daily life. Not like living in a city where just stepping out the door onto Broadway, or any lively street in a city, throws marvelous and unexpected chaos at one non stop. I find living on the farm is more of a slowed down and mediative experience, so that something even as ordinary as putting food on a plate and bringing it to the table can offer a moment to be startled by its humble beauty.
By accepting this I found myself responding the simple language of poetry, in which an accounting of what is in front of me serves to bring me to consciousness. That perception, more than making a great image, is preparation for what may appear next. And since photography is always dealing with the momentary – in which we never can imagine what is coming next – these small moments of attentiveness are really all we have.
During this period of a picture a day I had started making still lives and sometimes found myself considering found objects as potential backgrounds for the dark interior spaces I was working in. I was looking for indeterminate surfaces to make my teatrino space with, and when I saw this small billboard frame, with its scraped off remnants of posters and announcements, I decided to shoot it and later to print it on old linen tablecloths I have collected. That way I could subdue the color and darken it down into a visual space that would have that indefinite feeling I was looking for.
These ideas were all new to me and have about them decisions about picture making that never entered my mind until I began making still lives. As a working philosophy for my first 50 years, ‘do not touch or arrange anything,‘ was my method and bedrock belief, and I remained true to it, except if I was shooting something commercial which needed direction, and even then I often set something in motion and watched as it spun out of control and became part of real life, and then I could photograph it.
But now that still lives have begun playing a major role in my work I can accept that management and concept, selection and reworking, are all valid means of making a photograph. Even old dogs can learn new tricks.
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.
Summertime means simple meals. We were lucky that summer to be eating out of the farmer’s garden nearly every day. A broth of vegetables and lentils, some steamed zucchini, fresh tomatoes, edible flowers to embellish the tops of anything we wished, some locally baked crackers. This kind of eating makes me want to photograph every meal, and sometimes I do. More of a record than art, but simplicity is what it demands.
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.