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The Apple and The Tree

Apple’s Origins

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They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but, of course, the apple has no idea what that means. He’s too busy being an apple.

I was an apple once who just happened to grow up in an artsy craftsy family. I didn’t think much about it. Thats just the way it was. My father used a pallet knife to paint with oils and his favorite theme was still life. My mother was a musician.

My parents were German refugees who narrowly escaped Hitler’s horrors. They owned and ran a ladies glove business and commuted to New York City every day, coming home at 7:30 every night. On their free time my mother went straight for her piano to play and sing countless show tunes, as well as arias from operas. My father headed out to the garden or for his paints. The adage: “children are seen, not heard” was one of their favorites.

I visited the Frick Museum, in Manhattan, a while back because I hadn’t been there in a long time. What struck me was that I felt like I was home. It was so familiar. The house I grew up in, while a fraction of the size of the Frick, was jammed with art too. The furniture was all French Provincial and put together with wooden pegs (see above). There were Flemish landscape paintings and porcelain vases. We had a giant stained glass window and all kinds of beautiful antiques.

The primary activity my father and I shared was going to museums to look at art. We began doing that from as early as I can remember. My father would always quiz me: Who painted that? Who made that sculpture? He would hold up a book of paintings at the dinner table and quizz me there too. It was fun and I was an apple. What did I know?

Apple Realizes Tree’s Influence

I had had my still life studio for about six years and for the last few of them I chose to live in the studio. Then I found an apartment which had a lot of empty wall space and needed art. I asked my mother if I could have some of my father’s paintings and she told me to come over and pick out what I wanted. So I went to visit her and took a bunch of dad’s paintings back with me. When I got to my apartment and began to hang them, something felt strange.  I was shocked to realize that the paintings were all still lifes. I had been photographing for years, but it never dawned on me that I might have chosen to shoot still life because that’s what my father painted. It was quite an awakening. Apple realized he was related in more ways than one to Tree.

Apple Pie, or It All Starts to Make Sense

Around that time I had an appointment with an art director at Y&R, the ad agency. It was common for me to show my portfolio to art directors, because that’s how I got new jobs. At that meeting I showed 8×10 transparancies as well as black and white landscapes, which was unusual. Normally I showed only 8×10’s of my still life. It was a lot to look at and afterward the art director and I just chatted.

I asked if he had gone to art school and he said yes. He graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago. I told him that was impressive and he replied that it wasn’t so special. The only good thing about it was that he had a free pass to all the city’s art museums. “That’s where I learned”, he said.

For me it was like a near death experience, in that my life flashed before me. I could never understand the source of my creativity. I had never gone to art school, but now it all made sense. The countless hours I spent in art museums with my father and without him were what taught me to see. Apple finally understood what he learned from Tree.

I shot the still life above. My father, Erich Neumann, painted the still life below. The table is the same.

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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The Story Of My Photographs Begins

I was thinking this morning about motivators for photography, or the creative process in general. What is the allure? I guess, for starters, you don’t have much choice: one is driven. It isn’t really rational. There is something that gets you out the door – in this case with a camera – and once you’re out wonder takes over. We’re all explorers by nature and wonder is a big motivator. Humility is another. A friend of mine has spiritual values and years ago he was married to a woman who thought anything spiritual was silly, hokus pokus. So he took her to see the Grand Canyon and bingo: she got it. He could see the change in her countenance and sensed a transformation in her whole being. She was moved and clearly felt awe (brother of wonder and humility). My friend was excited. His wife could now be a real comrade. Unfortunately it didn’t last. For others that feeling comes up all the time. You see something beautiful and you can barely contain yourself. What should you do? If you are a photographer you take a picture.

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The above photograph was made during the days when I had a still life studio. Landscapes were my art and shooting them got me out of the studio and into nature. The process was an adventure and I love the places that took me. Part of the experience was the clothing I collected and used for all kinds of weather and, of course, the camera gear. The picture above was taken with a 4×5 Special Deardorf camera – really a 5×7 with a reducing back, a heavy Gitzo tripod and not so light tripod head, a bag full of lenses and, of course, film holders. I had just arrived at our summer house in Craryville, NY with a car full of people. When I drove up the driveway and saw this scene I immediately headed for the trunk of the car to get my camera. The view of the hay bales blew my mind. I thought it was not only beautiful, but it felt like I was looking through a window into America’s past. Twice gallery owners wanted me to make 10 prints and retire the negative so they could sell the prints, but I hardly knew those people and so I said no.

The image below shows where things have led me. I took it with a 35mm digital camera and it was originally a vertical. Someone said they liked the image, but needed it horizontal. So I changed it, because I liked it horizontal too… I’m willing to experiment more now.

I should say a little bit more about the image below. I saw the reflection on the building from several blocks away and gradually wended my way to the street below. The building was on the next street so I was looking at the back of the building. It wasn’t close and I had to keep moving to get the exact reflection I wanted. A tripod would have helped, but I generally don’t use one when I shoot in a city. There are too many people and I don’t feel safe. So I shot several exposures and when I got home the image I saw on my computer didn’t really look anything like this. I love a beautiful, straight photograph, like the one above, but lately I like to experiment and play when I can. My Architectural Abstracts are the perfect venue for that, so I pushed the colors as far as I could and then made proofs to make sure what I had would also print.

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