2. Advice to an artist

Photographic beginnings:

I was late in starting photography. Up to that time playing guitar was my art and running and cycling were my obsessions. One day while sitting in a recliner with my feet elevated to reduce the pain after foot surgery, my mother called to say she felt badly about what I was going through. She wanted to give me a gift. The Rolleiflex my father left me had been stolen a couple of years before and I had been thinking about replacing it, so I told my mother, “sure – chip in for a new camera”.  I still have one of the free rolls of film that came with the Nikon.

Within a year and a half of shooting with my 35mm camera I drove cross country with a view camera and its full complement of gear to shoot 4×5 sheet film of the American landscape. I took route 80 going west through Ohio, bound for Wyoming, and discovered the joy of looking for beauty while driving. You don’t know what you will find, but you do know beauty is out there if you pay attention.

Early on I saw a hitchhiker with a guitar by the roadside. I had hitchhiked 5000 miles around the country one summer,  so I owed the institution some favors. The kid also made me realize that the one thing I forgot to bring was a guitar to play at night. We made a deal: I would drive and he would keep an eye out for barns. At one point he said, “we just passed a nice barn” (the one above), so I pulled over to the highway shoulder, backed up and popped the trunk of my Fiat. I got the camera gear out and we walked toward the barn. There was a stream, though, and I remember tossing him lenses as we navigated our way across the water. The aluminum watering trough in front of the barn had the word “Pride” printed on it, which seemed a fitting title for the scene and its proud, almost defiant looking barn. To our left, along the stream, were fairly tall bushes. As the kid pointed out, it was marijuana. He asked me to take a Polaroid of him standing in front of the bushes. From there it was back to driving and looking for the next scene to photograph.

The barn image above was used for the poster of my first show at the United Nations Secretariat, called: “The Way West”.

Paulette’s Advice:

Once back in New York and sitting at my desk at UNDP I found myself constantly dreaming of the beauty I had seen on my trip. On a day like that my mother called. I told her I wanted to move to Bozeman, Montana, so I could live in an environment that would be conducive to shooting black and white landscapes. I wanted to leave New York and become a landscape photographer. I told her I was tired of the city.

My mother spoke: she told me I was an artist and that I needed the pressure of the city, namely New York City. She said it was essential for my creativity. I kind of got what she meant, but felt she was really saying: “stick around, I want you to live nearby”. I listened to her and wound up staying here, but it took me a long time to understand what she was saying. The pressure to keep moving forward is like an undercurrent here. There is no escaping it. Its probably a bit like surfing in that without big waves you can’t improve.

While the energy of New York may be unrelenting, the resources here complement it. I visited a friend in Wyoming one day and was amazed at the stack of art books he had. They went clear up to the ceiling. You couldn’t reach them, but they were there. I told him it was impressive, but at home all I had to do was walk a few blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the originals. He didn’t say anything.

In any case, I did what my mother told me and didn’t move to Bozeman. Instead, I quit my job at UNDP. I was actually told to quit by my friend Amir, who worked at UNDP and was also an art teacher. He had given me an assignment to shoot eggs and said he wanted to see the results in a week. Eggs? I put a single egg, then several eggs on a white piece of paper, lit them with a reading lamp and photographed them in black and white. I made some prints and brought them into work. After looking at what I had Amir stood in front of my desk and said: “ You must quit this job and do photography full time”. I was flattered, told him I would think about it and just kept going to work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a seed had been planted.

I had met someone who shot both landscapes and still life, so I knew it was doable and the idea of becoming a photographer didn’t go away. It just grew. So after one more cross country photography trip I came back to New York and quit my  job.

I found a studio with a nice shooting area and darkroom in the Photo District of Manhattan and became a still life photographer. My intention was to become the best photographer I could be and I felt the challenge of still life would teach me the most.  Still life was all about detail, especially shooting with an 8×10 or a 4×5 camera, because every nuance could be seen on the film.

Money, I must confess, was a secondary goal. At that time you needed quarters for the bus and one day I stopped in an new store which sold leather jackets to ask for change of a dollar. To make small talk I asked the owner how business was going. He told me he wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t making money. Hmm, I thought, I would be a photographer if I was making money or not. That was a revealing lesson.

The image below was shot in my apartment before I had my studio. I like it a lot, but it is far from being commercial. I bought the pears at a supermarket near where I lived. The proper way, as I learned later, was to go, or have a stylist go, to a place like Balducci’s where all the fruits and vegetables were unblemished and perfectly shaped. Still, the image below can pass for art because its so unassuming. I also probably taped a 35mm Nikon soft focus filter in front of my view camera lens. Something I don’t think I would do now.

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