Blog

8. A Trip to the Southwest

 

AE7096E8-D75A-4B2C-826C-69A5517287E0

In 1993 my mother died and my chiropractor, who was also a photographer, suggested I get a change of scenery by joining a photography river trip to Utah she and her husband were going on. We would take rafts down the San Juan River and stop to take pictures of Anasazi ruins along the way. I decided I would bring view camera gear and camping stuff and go.

If you’ve never taken a river trip, I recommend it. Southern Utah is beautiful and rafting on the San Juan River we got to look up at 1000 foot rock walls on either side. Our guides brought us to see Indian ruins where most of us took photographs and several people painted or made drawings.

I thought the ruins were interesting, but the terrain and rock formations were what attracted me most. Where the Dunes of Colorado offered bold shapes of dark blacks flowing into various tones of white, what we saw on this trip was much more subtle. I found myself often looking for sandy surfaces of rock, much of it caked with dried mud. At the Dunes I looked for big vistas. In this part of the Southwest I concentrated on things much smaller and closer.

Once again, nature gave me some lessons in lighting, namely cross-lighting. It happens when light grazes a surface to pick up textures.

Pieta

I think of the black and white photograph above as my Pieta.  I see the dark shadow on top as a symbol of the cross and the vertical mud streaks as the Virgin’s tears. It also sums up in visual terms what this Southwest trip meant to me.  It offered a variety of stone and mud textures which allowed me to create abstracts with no real sense of scale. You don’t know how big that wall is. It could be 10 feet tall or 100 feet tall. There is no “duck on the pond” stuff going on here, where 90% of the picture is context for a duck which takes up 10% of the image. Here everything in the image counts.

Advertisements

7. Back to the Dunes

C94EDC13-90A1-4A22-9424-5AC1104A55C2

It finally happened in 1989. I listened to the message my soul was trying to send me, like a drum beat heard from a distance in a jungle. First it was faint and gradually it got louder until the drummer was standing right in front of my nose with his message:

“IT’S TIME TO GO TO THE DUNES AGAIN”                                                                           (Excuse me, do we know each other?)

In the years since my first visit to the Dunes I had shown my black and white print portfolio many times. When I got to my dune pictures I would lie. I would tell people: “Oh yeah. I’m definitely going back there to shoot again”.  I did that for 8 years and started to feel so dishonest I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to finally keep my promise just so I could live with myself.

I made inquiries and fashioned an itinerary. I would fly to Denver, get a flight to Pueblo and rent a van. I’d have them take the back seats out so I would have a place to sleep and then I’d drive the 6 hours it would take to go west to the Dunes. I was going to spend a week taking pictures using the van as my base camp and my “tent”.

The trip was going to cost around $1000 and the thought of it made me squirm. I didn’t want to spend so much money on a trip to take pictures, but the drummer and my inner voice wouldn’t relent.  They kept telling me to go.

It was the Dunes, after all, not just any place.  They were special and I felt a bond with them from the first time I saw them.  Yes, love at first sight.

As Fate would have it, the person sitting next to me on the plane worked at Consumer Reports. We had a nice conversation and I told him where I was going. He then handed me his card and told me to call him when I got back. He had a job for me. It paid $2,000.

The Main Event

The six hour drive across mountain passes was the beginning of what turned out to be an endurance run of sorts. I waited the whole first morning for the sun to move so the places I was looking at would finally have some shadows, some drama. Then it dawned on me that it almost didn’t matter where the sun was. I was the one who had to do the moving. When I figured that out I started to shoot more. I also had to be patient. It took some effort to walk across the sand with my heavy view camera gear, so if the light wasn’t right I just had to wait for the sun.

I wore a cotton jacket with lots of large pockets, put sun tan lotion on my face and was out shooting from dawn until dusk. By the third day my face started to swell and it got pretty bad. Evidently my SPF 8 suntan lotion wasn’t doing its job! I went to the hospital in town where they did what they could for me. Then it was back to shooting more. I would have to deal with my sunburn when I got home (Jonathan Zizmor, board certified dermatologist, whose ads were all over the subway: “wash your face with milk”. It worked).

I got to know the Park Ranger pretty well, because I’d see him every day, and he was kind enough to let me use the Park’s darkroom so I could reload my 4×5 film holders. It was so dry at the Dunes and there was so much static electricity in the darkroom that touching anything in there created a blaze of sparks. I worried that my film would be ruined, so I was forced to do everything in slow motion so as not to generate any static.

Humor

There was a fair amount of wind out on the dunes and I was sometimes forced to put all my weight on my tripod while I also tried to keep my camera’s bellows from moving. Every evening before it got dark my first job was to empty all the sand that had collected in my camera bags during the day. There was a lot of it. It made all the fuss of using delicate anti-static brushes and high pressure dust guns at home seem silly.

One morning, as I was heading out, the ranger told me his wife was away and would I like to come over for dinner with him and his young sons that evening. I told him I would love to and spent the day thinking about how nice it would be to sit down to a real dinner for a change.

When I got over to the ranger’s house my food fantasies had reached extreme proportions. I was psyched. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by the Ranger while his kids were kind of bouncing off the ceiling. He finally got them to sit at the dinner table and plates were passed around. We were going to have pancakes.

Was It Worth It?

When I got home I developed and proofed my film. Kodak had put out a new silver rich paper, with a wonderful tonality, and I decided to make an 11×14 portfolio of the dunes using it. The Dune Series was some of the best work I had ever done. Unlike most of my landscapes up to that point the photographs were abstract from edge to edge.

I began showing the new portfolio around. I took it to ICP, or The International Center of Photography, which was then still on the Upper East Side. Initially I got some resistance from the receptionist, but when I showed the prints to her she told me to wait. She wanted to show the portfolio to the chief curator. I was happy to wait, but she didn’t appear happy when she returned. She told me what had happened:

”You should see this guy’s dune prints”.

Curator: “We already have Weston’s dunes”.

”But, he’s gone way past Weston”.

”Ah, we already have dunes”.  I’m guessing he never saw the work.

Another time I contacted Barbara Millstein, the curator of prints and drawings at The Brooklyn Museum.  She took a car service to visit my studio and looked at my prints with a care and concentration I had never witnessed before. “You have a European eye,” she told me. She loved the work. I asked if the Brooklyn Museum would purchase some prints. She said they had no money.

Eventually I gave the museum three prints, but my biggest regret is that I waited too long. By the time it dawned on me to donate the prints my mother had died. It would have been great for her to know my work was in a museum. Prints of the Dunes are now in corporate environments, like Pfizer and Bloomingdales, and in many other places.

 

6. Landscape Light

0E599FC3-9431-46FD-8EB0-B4F5CABEC27B

The Summer of 1981 was approaching and I told my boss I was thinking of quitting my job.  He told me to wait and give it some more thought. He suggested I take a vacation instead. So I asked him for a month and a half, vacation time I had accrued, and he said yes.

A friend from Jackson Hole, WY, had invited me to visit and that seemed a good destination to aim for. The plan was to drive out with camera gear, camping gear and a 12 string guitar with two truss rods, which I got because I felt it would handle the weather changes I knew I would encounter. In Jackson Hole it could be like summer one day and snow a foot the next. I loaded up on cassette tapes, food and lots of film for my 35mm and 4×5 cameras. I took a sturdy tripod and my tent was a 2 Man Draw-tight, supposedly used on Everest. It was dependable, able to handle strong winds and I was used to it.

My route was laid out on a AAA Triptik and in short shrift I made it to Wyoming, where I took pictures around the Tetons and in Yellowstone. Somewhere on the trip I heard about a place called Great Sand Dunes National Monument, in Colorado.  I had never shot dunes before and decided I would drive to Zion Canyon in Utah first and then to the Great Sand Dunes on my way home.

The Dunes were like nothing I had ever seen before. It felt as though I was in photographic heaven. With the sun low in the sky in the morning and late afternoon, deep shadows formed behind the dunes creating beautiful patterns.  Unfortunately I  only took a few photographs, because I had been on the road for over a month and was out of film.

The Dunes made a powerful impression on me and I saw great possibilities to do some good work there if I ever got to go back. However, when I returned to New York I quit my job to become a full time photographer. There would be no opportunity to take a month off now. I had to find and equip a studio to do my work in .

I thought about the Dunes a great deal as the years passed and one day I decided to replicate similar lighting in a studio setting. It seemed to me that the shapes closest to dunes would be nudes. I had never shot nudes before and decided that they would best be done in black and white, like my dune photographs, and without showing anyone’s face. I felt that including faces was more of a Playboy Magazine approach and I wanted to avoid that. The image below is one of the photographs from the series I made.

B5B0A58B-2BA0-4310-9F03-B867B29988FB

5. Art Needs Heart

BD378A1A-C1A3-46DF-9F4C-FB0F6A261870

Before the internet there were several ways a photographer could advertise his work. He or she could have cards, or in some cases a brochure, printed up to be mailed to art directors at ad agencies and magazines. There were “source books”, such as The Black Book and American Showcase that allowed you to design a page or a spread with samples of your photographs. Those books were then sent to art directors all over the country. You were also given 1000 copies of your page to use as leave behinds or you could mail them to people. In either case, printing cards to mail or buying pages in source books was a calculated investment. If the right client saw your work and gave you an order you could make a great return on your investment.

As one of my assistants once put it: “Instead of buying equipment, I’d rather rent it and put my money into advertising”. No matter how you approached it, you had to advertise. The most direct way was to make appointments with art directors and meet them face to face.

There came a time when I felt ready to invest in a source book page with a company I hadn’t tried before. Their rep came over to my studio and asked to see my portfolio. I had some of my black and white landscape prints hanging on the wall and after looking at my still life book she said: ”You know, I think you should wait. When your still lifes start to look like your landscapes you will be ready to advertise with us.”

What?

When I got over the initial shock of (and anger over) what she said I tried to figure out what she meant. There was heart in my landscapes. I shot them for myself and I always looked for scenes which moved me. I realized that my still life work was done to please and impress some unknown art director “out there” in the world of ad agencies, someone who I hoped would give me jobs. That work was one step removed from my heart. I was always trying to guess what others might want to see.

It was a scary transition to cast my fate to the wind and forget “the market” in order to remember my heart. I had to find it within a still life setting, but I wasn’t sure where to look. How was I going to forget the world of clients, when I so desperately needed them?

Start Playing

That’s what I gave myself licence to do. Like Captain Horatio Hornblower I walked the deck. I thought about I what I really wanted to shoot. It began a period of forgetting about commercial concepts to shoot whatever I wanted, only I still wasn’t sure what that was. I made sketches of still life sets I had in mind. I bought a small notebook for the subway and began jotting down ideas whenever they came up.

Gradually the thought of hand made papers surfaced in the 8 Ball of my mind. I would use them as backgrounds, shoot flat and straight down on my sets. I shopped. I looked for the most interesting and beautiful hand made papers I could find. I looked for crazy props to put on top of them and started to have fun.

Marbles: Tiny Set, Big Camera

I decided the theme for one of the first photographs in my new series was going to be marbles on a handmade paper. Light going through the marbles would add another dimension to the photograph. I’d also add props found in my search around the city.

The “live” area of the photograph was perhaps 11” x 14” and my paper background was on top of a board, which was on top of a metal milk box turned upside down. I had to keep the set low because I was shooting straight down and didn’t want the camera (or my head) to hit the ceiling.

The camera of choice was an 8” x 10” supported by 9 foot studio stand. The stand was a giant tripod in theory, but in reality it was just a tall column with a heavy base. Imagine a big tree right in the middle of my studio.

To shoot a close up with a view camera was tricky. The closer you got to the object you were photographing, the farther the lens had to be from the film plane. The bellows of my camera in this case was racked out to 30”. That was a long way for light to travel from the lens to the film (reciprocity) so I would need more light than usual to get a correct exposure.

I began by arranging the bird, car, plane, flag and flowers where I wanted them, and had the cyclist head toward the light as a symbol of aspiration. Then I walked up the steps of my 7ft ladder and put my head under a focusing cloth to check the composition. The image was upside down, because that’s the way view cameras are. Some people think it helps you to compose your image and they may be right, but you don’t have much choice. With view cameras the image is upside down no matter what.

I made this particular image by myself. I had no assistants, which meant if I made a change on the set I would have to go back up the ladder to see if I liked what I did. I made a lot of trips up and down that ladder.

Then there was lighting. I think I had one main light on the set behind a large picture frame with diffusion material stapled to it. There were fill cards and tiny mirrors stuck to wood blocks with Funtak. I took polaroids to check exposure and most probably underexposed slightly so I could push the film development for more contrast and pop.

Taking the Picture

It was after sunset and my studio was pitch dark. I used strobes to light my set and when I felt all the objects were in their right places I climbed my ladder and pulled the slide covering the film in the film holder. I then went down to sit on a chair next to the powerpack generator of my strobes, turned off the modeling lights, grabbed the cable release of my camera lens and opened the shutter. I then pressed the button on the powerpack to “pop” the strobes. When a buzzer sounded I knew the strobe generator had recharged and I popped it again. I did this 30 times in the dark with my eyes closed. The strobe light was blindingly bright so you had to keep your eyes shut. The trick for me was keeping count of the number of times I did this. There was a great tendency to space out in the dark with your eyes closed. When I finished I closed the shutter with the cable release, turned the modeling lights on and went up the ladder to prepare the next sheet of film.

I then went into my darkroom to put the exposed film in a box and walked over to my lab to drop the film off. From there I went home. The next day I got the film to check exposure and the placement of my props. At one point I moved everything on my set, shot more film and realized I liked the first arrangement better. I put everything back the way it was the first time -as best I could- and shot it all over again…30 pops of the strobe in the dark for each exposure. The set and lights were left in place for several days.

That was the way I began to find my still life heart and a style which had more meaning for me.

 

4. A Marketer Is Born

BC2F39AE-77EF-47BD-9508-1F2DA4001699

When I commuted to work in Manhattan I never got to know anyone on the train. My mother was different. On her commutes from Long Island to Manhattan she made lots of friends. One of them was Leonard Gussow, the owner of a small ad agency, and when I began my still life studio she told me to call him. I thought, wow, what a way to start. I have my first client.

So I contacted Mr. Gussow and went to visit him in our home town of Long Beach. I didn’t have my portfolio with me, so we were just going to talk. I don’t remember much about our meeting except that he told me to take a look at a pile of 8×10 transparancies (Ektachrome color film) on a table in his living room. There were perhaps 30 or 40 of them and they didn’t seem very special until he told me they were shot by Richard Avedon. Whoops. I looked again and was humbled. We then set a date to meet at Gussow’s Manhattan office so I could show him my portfolio. I had worked hard to create it and was looking forward to getting a positive response.

Mr. Gussow had a large wooden desk and tall dark bookshelves along the walls in his office. He was dressed in a brown three piece suit and wore bedroom slippers, which surprised me. I was excited to show him my carefully matted chromes (what transparencies were called in those days), but to my disappointment there wasn’t much ooing and ahhing . Didn’t this man recognize a budding genius? Evidently not.

When I finished showing Mr. Gussow my work he slowly walked over to his desk and sat down. On his left there was a tall garbage bin which was almost full. Gussow then turned to reach over to the garbage with his right hand, grabbed a magazine from the top of the pile and threw it at me with a force and accuracy which shocked me. My mother told me he was in his early 80’s. Where did he get a arm like that and besides who throws a magazine at a guest? I looked up and my host said: “Call every advertiser in this magazine and show them your portfolio”.

I thanked him, took my stuff and left. I never saw him again, which, as I look back, makes no sense. There was probably no need. Mr. Gussow told me what I had to hear.

At the time, I was sharing a studio belonging to a someone named Stefan. When I was looking for a place to work in I saw an ad in a photo supply store and went to see the people who posted it. They were a group of photographers who shared a space. I told them I wanted a studio of my own and they said to go up to the fifth floor and see Stefan. They called him and I went upstairs to meet him. When the door opened I felt an immediate kinship with the fellow. We got along from the start.

On the day I returned from Mr. Gussow’s office I told Stefan what had happened and he asked to see the magazine. It was called “Luggage and Travelware”. “Oh” he said, “they put out a directory of advertisers. You should call them and get a copy”.

The directory was a small, pale blue booklet filled with the names, addresses and phone numbers of companies that sold handbags, vases, jewlery and women’s accessories. Familiar stuff, given that my parents designed and sold women’s gloves, scarves and belts. The one distinguishing factor about that directory I will never forget was the size of the type. It was so small you could barely read it, but read it I did. I called every single company in that booklet and made a 3×5 card for each of them. Every day I went out to show my portfolio to someone from the list and that was how I began marketing my photography.

One day a business owner who sold Chinese vases needed photographs for an ad. He asked me to come over and also bring my portfolio. My presentation was so automatic that when I was done showing my photographs I got up to leave. “Wait,” the owner said. “What about the pictures I wanted you to take?” I had forgotten all about the job. Marketing had become my primary occupation.

 

3. The Apple and The Tree

Apple’s Origins

E2FAE89F-984E-4844-9DF2-9DF8A89236A3

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.

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.

21F8585E-26D9-4286-9185-7B01D8AD34B2