The little saw-toothed fringe along the tops of Tuscan hills has always pleased my eye. This particular passage is one that I drive by several times a week and it gets me every time in every season. Why? Why do some places have that power, even when it is a far away and slender note of attraction? Perhaps it is just that, the minor tone in the major space, and yet…it pulls at me, not just my eye, but all of me, with that gasp of recognition that this place, right now, right here, adds something to my life.
Some things are just pleasing because they are. Not for the graphics which certainly could be a part of the pleasure too, of course, but for some small and barely noticeable relationship which plays the eye for only a second, but is enough to tell the brain to consider its potential.
For me the clusters of foliage of the lecco tree, like a big broccoli, and they way they hold the light along their tops, brought me into connection with the clusters of clouds dissolving and reorganizing every second. Somehow they relate for me, the near and far, the substantial and the vaporous, the varied greens and the luminous whites. The pleasure of standing still for a minute to take in the world as it is.
I find this form of discovery a kind of play that is both serious and light handed, and it keeps my instrument tuned.
For the briefest of moments it came across as a man sitting against a building, perhaps asleep, but almost in the same instant it became clear to me what was. This brief ambiguity is part of what makes seeing and then photographing so interesting.
I went to visit with my friend, the photographer Paolo Ventura, in his studio on the far side of Tuscany. At some point he took a seat on his own hand painted set where he usually has characters from the 40’s and 50’s playing out his stories and dreams. In fact he usually plays some of the characters. But here he was just himself, and to me he looked like he belonged there in that barren, spindly, woodland, almost like a lost traveller in a dreamscape, or a contemporary version of the sage sitting alongside the road, which one finds in those School of Siena paintings of the 1500’s. Slightly wild-eyed or mad, or possessed, which he is.
In our time Earth Art and Process Art have become important formal ways of looking at things, but when I see something practical, like this pine tree being held up by two poles a local farmer used to support the tree, I think – this is real art,not just that it looks like art, in that it can be seen as beautiful, and it has a real function. Of course it becomes even more beautiful with the red shutters and lovely light and shadow, and the shape of the house, and the feel of the day, and finally, that sweep of the pine tree into the heavens.
We had gone to the seaside for a couple of days of play, and while we were waiting for dinner on the first evening I decided to make a photograph of Maggie. We walked out to a little patch of ground surrounded by pine trees, and while Maggie was standing there a loud CRAACKK sounded, and this huge branch came tumbling down right near where Maggie was standing.
As soon as she recovered from the surprise she began to do her old mime stuff with it, and began rolling it offstage like some huge elephant dung ball. She’s funny that girl.
There was a run of days in the high 90’s that kept us indoors during the middle of the day. The old hay barn we live in was built with thick stone walls which kept the interior cool despite the blazing Tuscan sun. By late afternoon we’d saunter outside to sit under the dappled light of the Leccio tree, the only place where something like cool air could be found.
We had two, sling-like, canvas deck chairs, called sdraio which we slung ourselves into, and dazed from the heat stared off into space. Above me the tree became a Japanese screen with infinite brush strokes of black and green which shivered in the slightest breeze or eddy of heat rising from the baked and stony earth. On many of those late afternoons I daydreamed there, and often saw through the breaks in the tree, small celestial comments floating by, like the way atmosphere lends a pearly, pinkish weight to summer clouds.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed something like this and made a photograph of it (but then my inner voice says, ‘oh, Joel, but you have, and in many different ways’) but since this project began I have many times considered things that I might have let let slip by under other circumstances. It is part of the pleasure of this kind of daily shooting discipline, that modest, often overlooked moments come into play in this way. It’s good to shake up our patterns and the standards which we hold so dear.
Sometimes there are natural forms that approach perfection. The shape of this tree has spoken to me for the four years we’ve been coming to this place, and I realize now that I have been photographing it casually and repeatedly in all lights and seasons.
While I was doing the photo a day series I probably added this tree to it many times on days when I was working in the studio and didn’t get out to do anything special. It could be said that it was a ‘fall back position’ image, but not merely that, since it made me look carefully at what was right in my own backyard. A good working principle for all of us.
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.