Too Much Time and No Way out
how an old photographer learned a few new tricks
As I approached seventy I was a member of The Academy and went to the Oscars. I was welcome at the American Society of Cinematographers and a movie business insider with connections all over town. At trade shows and events, I couldn’t walk five feet without someone coming up to say hello. It was the moment that everybody knew my name. To get there, I had worked in film production for many years, invented a few things, started companies, and sold them. I was the EVP, Technical Marketing and Strategy for Panavision, then the leading camera rental company, and my office was two doors down the hall from the CEOs, there was no place better. I had a lifetime of knowing my craft behind me, and I was planning on staying there till the end, finishing my career as an elder statesman. Then one day they fired me. Turned out they didn’t want an elder statesman that year. Let me tell you what happened then.
In the first months of my freedom, freedom was enough. I slept till I wanted to wake, ate when I wanted to eat and saw the people I wanted to see. It was lovely until I grew bored. A lifetime in harness doesn’t prepare you for leisure, and when I started feeling anxious, I knew I had to find something to do. Fifty some years earlier, my career in photography had started when a guy I knew showed up on the corner where I hung out and offered me a camera for sale, an Argus C3. I bought it for five bucks and started taking pictures.
I don’t recall exactly why I was interested; certainly, there were no photographers in my life to show me the way. Our family camera was a Box Brownie and looking at the pictures my family made there is no evidence anyone was interested in more than pictures of people smiling at the camera. But somehow I began making pictures as expression right away. I shot my friends riding their motorcycles and hanging out in garages, and I made portraits, pictures of my girlfriend, and my brother and friends. I started carrying the camera with me and making pictures of things I saw along the way. I made pictures of people bathed by warm-colored lights in twenty-four-hour donut shops, and I turned bars at closing time into something more glamorous then they were. I made pictures of the guys I hung out with on the street,
and if I had had any idea that this was a category of seeing that had a name and offered a way to be in the world, I might have headed in that direction.
Instead, I turned to what seemed available to me; I learned to photograph weddings and Bar Mitzvahs and started down the path of making pictures for others for money. That path led to Hollywood and working on movies and a good life, but not to making pictures for me.
So now, years later, I started to make personal pictures again, but photography had changed a lot in the years since I had drifted away. The aesthetic of the fifties was sixty years gone, but it was the aesthetic I was steeped in. Cameras and lenses were different and printmaking too. I was starting again but with a veneer of knowing laid on me by the years in between. That veneer came between me and seeing things fresh, but I didn’t know that… yet.
So I made up my mind to return to where I had started, to make pictures, but this time I’d only make the pictures I wanted to make, what the world sometimes calls fine art pictures, and this time I’d aim for a place I’d never been before, the art world. Why not? I was taking pictures all the time, and they looked pretty good to me. I started to meet with gallery owners, started showing them my new efforts as well as the work I had done years ago. From years in business, I knew how to talk to people, how to present myself, and I thought I understood how the art world worked.
But slowly it became clear that regardless of what I thought, in the years gone by others had already done what I was doing and nothing I had to show was strong enough or fresh enough or saleable enough to interest the gatekeepers. I could produce clean, well-made images, ones that people liked, but that was not enough.
Here’s a question. How do you measure the value of a picture in a world with billions of them? Money is one way and an easy one. The act of buying a picture is important. It says I value this thing and want to make it part of my life. But during my lifetime, pictures had gone from being precious and treasured to being taken for granted and disposable; noticed for an instant, then thrown away. The internet offers us millions of images every day, all of them for free. Why should anyone care to buy a piece of paper with yet another image on it?
Another way to measure acceptance was recognition in the art world. I immersed myself in the land of galleries, and I began to shoot pictures at the openings I attended. I was fascinated by the people who came to look at the photographs, and I made pictures of them, of the way they grouped themselves in the space. I read everything I could find about the world of fine art photography and started to get my work into a few shows. And along the way, I became a regular at the Pacific Design Center, a Los Angeles landmark known to most as the Blue Whale or the PDC.
In a moment of freedom then, I did something that changed my life.
Having heard that PDC sometimes welcomed artists with projects, I wrote a proposal asking for permission to photograph the buildings for an extended period of time. I told them I wanted total access, that I would use it to photograph the architecture, the people, the events and the life of the buildings. In return, I would show my pictures of the buildings both as work in progress and as a finished installation, a kaleidoscopic multi-image, multi-viewpoint assemblage that grasped the complexity of the compound. After some months of back and forth, my proposal was accepted, and I moved into an unused gallery space in the building, built myself a little studio and began to work.
I settled into life at the PDC, and for a while, it was very rewarding. I loved the fresh vistas, and my early weeks were filled with pleasure. I made pictures in a different part of the building every week, met new people, and learned my way around. It was fun and exciting. By the third month though, familiarity and knowing started to creep in. I walked around the buildings filled with boredom, “I know this place, I’ve seen that angle, I’m done with this.” In my headlong desire for a fresh hit of stimulation, I had given myself the gift of too much time and no way out. I had promised both myself and the building owner that I would deliver “A kaleidoscope of images that will give a person who has never been there a real sense of this complicated and living space.” I knew I hadn’t accomplished that yet, and I didn’t know how I was going to.
Sitting in my empty studio with Annie Lennox singing “Why” and “Legend in my Living Room” over and over I let those feelings sink in. I was bored and empty now, without inspiration or desire; I hated what I had started. In my earlier days, I might have bolted, snuck away, and ducked the emotions, but now that no longer seemed an option.
Through a long lonely afternoon, I turned the problem over in my mind, and finally, I made myself a promise, that I would continue to show up. I didn’t have to make any more pictures, but I had to be there.
Being there was hard. I sat out in the PDC courtyard surrounded by the giant facades of red and blue and green. The angles of the buildings that had once entranced me were now known and familiar, so my mind wandered away. Time passed slowly while I sat there bored, but I didn’t walk away. My mind was made up. I would stay here until the time was up, even if it meant months of sitting. Then more time passed, and slowly I noticed that things changed. When I let myself look without knowing, I saw that the light was constantly changing, that people were always moving in interesting patterns. I felt a gentle shift in my perception. So I sat some more and watched the day happening in front of me, and slowly I felt desire grow until finally, it seemed right, it was time. I picked up the camera and made a picture, and that was an exciting moment. I think that was the first time I really saw the building.
In the following months, I learned some new things. I learned how to begin by not knowing, and that changed the way I worked. Before I had approached everything as a professional, and to be a professional is to know, to have mastery over a situation, to quickly assess the variables and make choices that led to a satisfying outcome. But I began to understand I was no longer working as a professional, I was trying to be an artist, and an artist can’t always begin by knowing.
In the next weeks, I learned to pick up the camera last. I gave myself the gift of experiencing the environment first, of sitting in each new space and letting it reveal itself to me. I learned to let the room guide me to where it wanted me to be, to sit in a place and watch people move through it, watch the light reshape it. I learned how to move a few feet or a few inches and see how everything changed. I learned how fragile this state of mind was, how easily it was interrupted by distraction or inattention and how easy it was to slip back into the old way of knowing and doing instead of waiting for being.
I will always be a sensation junkie and a control freak, and I forget this all the time. The anxiety to know and to have mastery is powerful. But once you know, your mind is filled with steps to take and things to do, and then you are back on familiar ground, which is not where I want to be. Because if you are in a state of knowing you are no longer learning, and if you are not learning, you are just repeating your past. That’s useful for putting socks on in the morning but not the best way to see the world newly made. Shooting the PDC gave me the gift of learning to see things fresh, and the pictures I made there remind me of how to do that when I forget.
Here’s a link to the pictures I made at the PDC; Seeing The PDC
And here’s a video of me at the time I was shooting the PDC; What Can a Building Teach a Photographer
Finally, here’s a link to pictures I offer for sale; Pixels