Musings

Musing December 2016

What’s next?

I have just had the most amazing experience of my professional life! On November 26th Alchemy of Light opened at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. I was completely unprepared for the experience of walking onto the third floor of the museum to be face-to-face with 30-foot banners of my name and images. My work was grouped into three rooms while a fourth was covered with ceiling to floor pictures of me working in my darkroom along with 10 prints from Dr. Li, who had shepherded this project through the governmental maze. The 100+ images (16×20 and 8×20) were beautifully displayed but were almost dwarfed by the sheer size of the walls.

The formal opening ceremony and speeches began at 10 a.m. in the main entrance hall of the museum. (I gave a thank you speech, but not in Mandarin.) The number (and rank) of dignitaries and representatives of every major newspaper and TV station in the country made for a big crowd. An hour long “seminar” was held for about 100 people during which time I answered questions from the curator and the audience. There was a formal lunch with dignitaries from the government, Beijing University and the China National Photography Association. There was a one-hour press conference with more interviews. There was a book signing. There was a formal dinner to end the day. It was 10 p.m. before I was returned to my hotel.

I will probably never have another show in my life that will compare in ceremony or stature to this one. At moments the experience had me speechless and completely overwhelmed but I am so grateful to my hosts for making this exhibit and this experience possible. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times that “this show is good for Sino-American relations”. Which, in the end, means it wasn’t really all about me, right? I am grateful that my images could be a bridge between two cultures but the reality of this being about something bigger than me makes it easy to return to the every day practicalities of life.

The week before I left for Beijing I was in Alabama to be inducted into the first class of the Alabama Arts Hall of Fame with nine other talented artists (Wes Chapman (dance), EmmyLou Harris (music), Nall Hollis (mixed media) the late Dean Jones (theatre), Bruce Larsen (Sculptor), the quilters of Gee’s Bend (textiles), the late Mildred Nungester Wolfe (painter) and the late Richard Zoellner (painter). This smaller celebration is the result of the collaboration between Athens State University and Calhoun College, which together created the Alabama Center for the Arts. Students from both schools attend classes and work in these two state-of- art spaces for the visual and performing arts. What an opportunity for students and teachers alike!

As I think back on the past two weeks I wonder what’s next? After examining my “life’s work” up to this point and preparing an exhibition of over 100 prints I am still in love with the platinum print. The process still speaks to me and is the way I want my work seen. As I get older the cameras get bigger and heavier so I am beginning to use my digital camera more. I can still make beautiful 16×20 platinum prints from the files I get out of my Fuji X Pro 1 and X Pro 2. (I have several Fuji large format lenses and the digital lenses are equal to any on the market.) I still love working in large format but am now willing to be flexible where necessary.

I still like to work in a project format, that is, to define a topic and explore it deeply. Currently I am in the middle of long-term projects on the Erie Canal and Maine. I will continue to travel and photograph in other places, in the US. (AL, ND, TN, VA) and abroad (China, Japan and Scotland). I hope to get to new places to do my own work and then introduce workshop groups to these locations. I love teaching. Teaching workshops with dedicated and motivated students in interesting locations is something I want to continue doing for as long as it is possible.

I want to continue to make better prints. The more I make the better I get at making them so that means I need to continue printing on a regular basis.

I want to deepen my vision and my understanding of the places that pull me to photograph. I want to understand what calls to me and how I can better bring that calling into a visual presence. I want to keep looking, striving, pushing myself to see stronger and to make better images. As great as these past few weeks have been I want to continue working and creating. I want to be a stronger teacher, to help others make their images better. I don’t want these two events to define a career. I want them to be a comma or semi colon in a career, a time to pause, reflect, gather, and to move on to greater images. I want to continue to experience new challenges and make new discoveries beyond the next horizon and not be focused on what’s in the rear view mirror.

Wishing you all the best this holiday season,

Tillman

 

Musing September 2016

Curiosity, Kindness and the Travel Gene

I have (mostly) recovered from my six weeks long Mandarin intensive in Guilin, China. I can honestly say that apart from marriage and parenthood it is the hardest thing I have done in my life. It was also exciting, energizing and totally exhausting.

Unfortunately the day after I returned to Maine I was on another plane to Alabama to be with my mother who was dying. I was blessed to spend some quiet hours with her and share my recent experiences. My mom loved to travel. She organized vacations for our family, often accompanied by the families of her large groups of friends too. After my dad retired they traveled all over the world by boat, train and plane until it became too physically difficult. She was fascinated by my trips because I traveled to places off the beaten path and stayed for longer than a few days. She wanted to hear about these places she hadn’t been, about the people I met, and the local stories that gave her the sense of knowing them better.

As I sat by her bed I told mom about the people, the food, the unrelenting heat, the sounds and smells and how hard the language was for me. She occasionally squeezed my hand when I stopped and I took this to mean she wanted me to tell her more. I told her about the 3 year-old singing the vocabulary song in a restaurant one night and the victory it was for me to understand what she was saying. I described the monastery down the road from the school and how I found solace and peace standing in its quiet confines. I explained to her the traffic and how I learned to cross the street with the crowd no matter what the light said. I shared the challenge of being reduced to ordering my food by pointing, at the picture or sign or the object of my desire, never really sure what I was going to get. I told her about my morning walks with Wolfgang, the only other student near my age, and the little stand where we got hot soy milk and hard boiled eggs for breakfast. I spoke about the young man from Kuwait that I became friends with and my amazement at how quickly he adapted and picked up new words but stopped comparing my inability when I realized he already spoke Arabic, English and a couple of other languages.

Mom loved parks and scenic places. There are several parks in Guilin as well as the Guilin National Park, through which the Lijiang river flows through an area of limestone rock pillars covered in vines and small trees. (These same mountains stretch all the way into north Vietnam.) I told her about Elephant Trunk Park where I met a shaman, who for a donation, blessed me with a year’s good fortune after which I was told to tie a red ribbon to the sacred tree (I did). I told her how I walked to Seven Star Park with its rock formation that is shaped like a camel. (Guilin seemed to have lots of parks with animal shaped rocks.) I talked about how the wild monkeys at the top of one of the mountain trails reminded me of a family story about monkey man. I want to think she smiled at the thought of that story. I droned on and on, sometimes crying as I told her my stories about this latest trip.

I wanted her to see the city streets, which were wide and often tree lined. I described the overly wide sidewalks where the tiny restaurants fed their customers at child-sized tables. All along the sidewalks restaurants were tucked in beside scooter repair shops, mini marts, plumbing/knife/clothing supply stores. Most businesses were small, with only one or two employees.

Mom always wanted to know about the people I met. I told her about the friendliness in the people I met in Guilin. They could say as much in English as I could in Mandarin yet were helpful in a good-humored way. We managed to communicate in spite of times when all I could do was point or indicate my confusion with a shrug of my shoulders. Mom believed in the goodness of people. She believed that if you were kind to others they would return the kindness. That is the way she lived her life, whether in her beloved hometown Decatur or around the world. I’ve followed her lead and it has served me well all these years.

I talked on for hours, not knowing how much she heard me, but hoping she did. I know she was in my heart and head as I was traveling. Death came the next afternoon and we were all blessed to be present to witness her final trip home.

If there is a travel gene in my DNA, I got it from mom. If she had been born in 1983 rather than 1933, I think she would be a world traveler with nothing but a backpack, her passport, and the love of her life, my dad, holding her hand.

As I reflect on both my trip to China and my mother’s death, two lessons become clear:

  1. Be curious about the world around you. Go explore.
  2. Let kindness be the largest and most important thing you take with you.

As I pack to return to Orkney, I will be taking both of my mother’s gifts with me.

Thanks Mom.

Tillman

 

Musing June 2016

Thoughts on Making a Book of Photographs

Paul Caponigro and I have both been invited to exhibit at the National Art Museum of China this year. Paul just returned from his trip and brought home the exhibit catalogue, which is actually a beautifully printed book. Each of the one hundred images in the exhibit is included in the book. The high quality reproductions give each image the vibrancy of an actual print. It is well laid out and I think, stunning.

I think of the book of photographs an art form, separate and distinct from the prints. The images in a book move from a beginning, through the middle and to the end. Page by page, we are led through a slice of the world the photographer sees and feels. An essay or introduction can bring us to the starting point, with a little understanding and, hopefully, a big sense of anticipation. In an exhibit print order is often determined by someone other than the artist and so the story is told one step further from its source. In addition, the juxtaposition of the images is temporary, available to us only during the short time of the exhibit. With a book, the images and story are available to us to look at and think about for as long as we keep the book. When I hold one, I hold a completed piece of art.

Two things have changed the way we see and perceive photography books. Today, everyone can print a photography book, thanks to the advent of on-demand digital printing. On the one hand this offers a wonderful form for family/friend/wedding/travel scrapbooking as well as an affordable printing modality for a low number of photo book copies. On the other hand, the narrow confines of layout, paper and printing options leave the photographer with fewer aesthetic options.

In addition, our hand held computer/phone also acts as a camera. Using a variety of apps we can share images around the world instantly. It is absolutely amazing but it is not a book. There is little to no editing or sequencing and the images exist only on the electronic brain. I enjoy sitting with a book of photographic images. Most importantly I sense and feel the intention that went behind creating this piece of art.

I can only speak about my own four books and those of other photographers I have worked with to create. Here’s what I think makes an effective photography book:

  1. Edit. Only a very small percentage of images made on a particular subject should make it into a book. In my case, it is about 1% of the images I shot in Orkney that made the book Odin Stone.
  2. Sequence. The images in the book are edited and sequenced with deliberation. We decided that Odin Stone should open with the image of the setting sun behind a 5000 year old standing stone and end with the sun rising behind a 20th century plexiglass bus stop. The narrative of Odin Stone flows through the succeeding images in the book. Modern barns, artists at work, contemporary events, memorials and monuments, the echoes of past and present, are images of what I experienced and felt as I traveled through Orkney over five years. What I hope the viewer understands is that Orkney has an ancient history and a modern society.
  3. Layout. Choices are made. Does each image stand alone on the right page with nothing on the left or are images paired so they speak to each other? In Odin Stone we chose to pair images in most cases with a few select images standing alone. This increased the narrative power of the book. In Paul’s new book the editors chose to present each image standing alone on the right page with the title information on the left. It becomes in effect a portfolio or exhibition.
  4. Design. Great care and consideration is given to the printing, packaging, and presentation of the book as a piece of art. A cover image is chosen to represent what the viewer might find inside. Cover material is selected, along with end papers, type font and color of paper and images. All are selected to contribute to the whole piece of art.

In my opinion these are the elements that go into making a good book of photography. The book needs some introduction but the images speak for themselves; you can hold it in your hands and physically experience it as a piece of art; and it is the best the photographer has to offer on the subject at that particular point in time.

My exhibition opens in Beijing in November 2016. It will be at least 100 images strong, my best images to date. I hope the exhibition book is as beautiful as the one done for Paul. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands.

All the best,

Tillman

Musing March 2016

Work the problem, not the panic.

My life as an athlete has been pretty sedate and no one today, or when I was a kid, would have ever confused me with a jock. However, I have participated in paragliding and scuba diving, both of which involve an element of danger. The training mantra for both sports was work the problem, not the panic. It was explained that more pilots and divers died because they panicked than because of system failure. You still needed to train for a system failure but you also trained for control of your mind.

So how does this relate to photography?

I have been invited to have a major exhibit at the National Art Museum in Beijing this coming November. The exhibit will consist of approximately 100 large platinum prints, representing the best of my work to this point in my career. It will be my second major exhibition in China, and my first at a National Art Museum. I am thrilled and terrified at the same time. It’s a great honor and a huge task and responsibility.

I started by spending the last three months editing 30+ years of negatives. Images from my four books will be about 40% of the exhibition. The rest of the work will come from other projects I’ve been working on over time. After editing and scanning the negatives, I decided to “warm up” by printing some of my earliest and thus best known (to me) images.

I made the enlarged negatives in the same way I have made them for years: same settings, printer and negative material. I went into the darkroom, started printing and nothing worked right. I did not recognize the prints coming out of the developer. They were too flat or had too much contrast. I was tearing paper that I usually handle with ease. Sensitizer was flowing through to the back of the paper. The paper was not clearing or it was bleaching when I tried to clear it.

I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I went back to the computer and rechecked my settings. I rechecked the printer. I rechecked my curves and then made new ones. I worked on the files in Lightroom. I worked on the files in Photoshop. I made new chemistry. Every time I changed something, the print changed but not in a predictable way. The platinum process process I had worked with exclusively for nearly 30 years and had come to hang my aesthetic hat on was no longer working. I was spiraling into panic. I had used two straight weeks of time, way too much chemistry and paper and things were getting worse and more unpredictable.

Finally, I started working the problems and not the panic. First I solved the surfactant problem. Then I solved the clearing bath bleaching issue. I went back and started all over with my darkroom working sequence and discovered I had been just a little too causal, so I tightened up my working process. But the prints still sucked.

Next I went to the computer, and started reworking the files, adjusting this or tweaking that. Slowly things were getting better but nothing was matching what my notes said the settings should be. I had now been at this for three weeks. I hated going into the darkroom. I was disappointed with the prints and self-doubt was creeping in.

Then back to the darkroom. Again, images I have known for years were still not working. I was filling up trashcan after trashcan. I was getting desperate. I knew these images, I knew how they should look and feel and these were not even coming close. I had solved the darkroom issues but not the aesthetic issues.

Finally I called a friend who knew the platinum process well and talked with him. During the conversation he asked a great question that lead me to figuring out the problem. Something in my computer settings had changed, either by a software upgrade or by me. I simply had failed to go all the way back to the beginning of the digital process. When I did the problem was solved with a (relatively) simple setting reset and prints began to work.

I am back on task, excited to go into the darkroom and enjoying seeing old friends emerge from the developer.

What did I re-learn? Work the problem, not the panic. Solve the problems one at a time. Keep your standard high by demanding the best from yourself and your work.

Don’t be afraid to examine and reexamine what you are doing and why you are doing it both aesthetically and technically. Talk to others who share your love of the medium. They may not have the answers but they may be able to ask the right questions.

I hope that when your photography begins to fall apart for one reason or another (and if you stay at it for long enough it will) you will keep this lesson in mind.

All the best,

Tillman