Some years ago, on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found myself in the hall dedicated to Roman culture, a place I have always loved to wander through, but this time I was moved by something I had seen dozens of times before but was never stopped by in this way.
The room has several stepped rows of sculpted marble heads of Roman men, women, and children, from what might have been all walks of life, although it’s hard to know since only the heads are there and not the clothing which would certainly tell us more about them. But they seemed to be worldly, political, wealthy, and of a class that had their portraits done, whether for funereal purposes or as home decor. As I walked the line and carefully looked at each face they seemed to come alive to me, alive in the sense of discovering the individual in the stone as I slowly moved my vantage point around for each head. It was as if at a certain point, ‘there it was!’ the revelation.
I became excited enough to consider making a series of all of these heads where I would try to find the essential position where the spirit of the person emerged from the stone, as if they were sitting for a portrait with me. This idea came before my current interest in still lives, but I see now that it was a preview of this new interest, and it is still one I would like to pursue. However when I called my contacts at the Met the idea was met with a kind of slack interest, and a sense that it was too much trouble for them, and I was off to Europe soon after, so I let it drop.
Here, in a friend’s workshop in Tuscany, is a head of Mussolini, and as I considered it I could see that this notion I had of finding the essential character in the stone is still a workable one. That egomaniacal bastard is in there somewhere.
Remember that line from the old Amex ads; “never leave home without it?” Well you know what I would say, never even go to the bathroom in a restaurant without a camera on your shoulder. On my way upstairs to find the restroom in this Bolognese, countryside restaurant, I was surprised, when turning the corner in what was an unused salon, to be greeted by this assortment of objects. What’s a little Charlie Chaplin doing next to the strange, oversized head, and why the helmet on the table, and the toy car on the left, all of it, etc?
And when I turned around the rest of the space was almost as surreal as the head. Who knows what it all adds up to? Not much really. But the truth is that there is always something to see, even where you least expect it, and it is better to be prepared; as the old Zen warrior motto states, ‘expect nothing, be prepared for anything.’
The Doll and the Grape Vine
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.
Where Will It take Me
In yesterday’s post I showed a photograph of this statuette and talked about how desirable it was, but not for me. What I didn’t say was that the guy also had this tin chimney cover, and that that was the thing that interested me. Now how strange is that? Why the damn chimney top of all things? I can’t explain it, but I found myself walking away from it, and then turning around and going back to look harder, handle it, and finally, overcome by some mystery inherent in the object, some strange power, I bought it.
As I have mentioned before, my new interest in still lives has me seeing things. This tinsmith’s work, and after all, the thing was meant to go way up on a roof top where nobody really looks at it, yet it has about it a kind of madness and image quality that suggested to me something of the dictatorial power of Mussolini. Even the profile feels like Il Duce.
Look at the force projected by the helmet-like face and the warrior’s plume, which in this case is simply a wind catcher, so that the draught from the fireplace below will flow smoothly upwards as the wind turns the cap. My first impulse was to read arrogance and force into the inanimate tin pot. From that moment on I was blinded to the actuality of the thing itself, and all my first images seemed to be about scale and power. Where will it take me?
It was an 80 degree day in April, and I was at a big antique fair in Avignon. While wandering the endless aisles I came across this sleeping beauty getting his radiation dose, and found it more interesting than any of the furniture, paintings, mirrors, chests, dishes, rugs, and the assorted contents of dealers warehouses from all over Europe.
Although this guy below had an amazing statuette of an All American showgirl/cheerleader type that had me thinking; ‘what I could do with this?’ But, in the end, (which is where he was going) I felt it was too much of a great thing in and of itself – it had all the same characteristics of those 40’s and 50’s pin-ups and magazine illustrations – and it felt that there was little I could do but copy it, and that isn’t my idea of photography. Yes, the camera does copy things, but one’s intention seems to me to be more important than mere duplication.
Invention in the moment, inspiration and surprise, and of course the time factor, has always been a more exciting prospect to me than direct rendering of a thing or place or person.