Illinois Wesleyan University
“Thank you for inviting me to the Merwin Gallery.
My first formal assignment was photographing a college homecoming dance here. As a high school student I remember standing timidly in the doorway with a small camera and a flash making pictures of the homecoming court as they made their grand entrance.
Photography is many things: art, expression, evidence, document, passion, fun. Photography is a way of dealing with the world. I cannot remember who said that originally, but it is a way of approaching and evaluating, recording and remembering experience. I also remember Arnold Newman saying that “photography is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent moving furniture.”
Some of you have visited my studio which has been described as a culinary destination because of its location on the Hill, famous for its forty restaurants. It is also famous for its small houses and unchanging landscape. And its baseball players. Yogi Berra grew up a block from the studio, and the legendary Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola, the catcher and announcer, lived close-by as well.
I never studied photography in school, but I was fortunate to learn from other photographers, from visits to galleries and from the cinema which I attended regularly from a young age and always loved.
Currently I work with Hasselblad and Nikon cameras. The Hasselblad film camera is the Swedish-made box camera with Zeiss lenses and no electronics inside, not even a battery. Most of my photographs are made in available light, in the long shadows of afternoon or later.
You cannot imagine how much information is in a photograph. Film is inexpensive and records data at the molecular level. Which may explain why is has been so hard to beat. My Venice photograph in the exhibition, the Rio Delle Eremite mural, stretches six feet across. It was originally recorded on a piece of 35mm Kodachrome film. The resolution in the print is high enough you can read addresses along the canal.
Photography is about looking, about seeing. The painter Agnes Martin once said, “When your eyes are open you can see beauty in anything.” Matisse used to tell his students, ‘the inner feeling you have when looking at something is more important than what you literally see.” Edward Weston emphasized looking at a subject in the strongest terms. He wrote in his Daybooks, “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”
Photography is about finding beauty in the stars, in the branches of a tree, or in a simple object like a matchbox. It is about seeing things in a new light, in a unique way. The challenge for me in visiting a place like Paris (which was the birthplace of photography and has been photographed at least as much as the Grand Canyon) is to come away with something not seen before. If there can be such a thing.
Vision is the most magical of the senses. The human eye is the most magical of cameras. No piece of film or digital file can match the eye to penetrate a scene and render an image. If you want to know how incredible the eye is, try this simple test. Go out into a meadow and stand in the bright sun. Then put on a hat with a brim and stare into the deepest shade of the woods. Or wonder at how you can see in the dark at home in the middle of the night.
Evelyn Sheean, the woman who gave her name to the chapel on this campus, entrusted me with her collection of travel photographs. Evelyn was an amateur photographer and an avid traveler. She had no children and she knew of my love and passion for photographs. We exchanged travel stories over the years. Her photos are what you might expect: vacation pictures, pictures taken on trains, the tour group, breakfast at the hotel. It took me several years to sift through the thousands of images she made with her small Olympus camera.
Many have started to fade away, but there are some that are memorable and then there is . . . this one. One wonderful photograph that could hang anywhere in my opinion. An accident perhaps? A lucky shot? Not if you believe that photographs are not accidental.
The place is London. The scene is a gathering. The street is jammed with working people and onlookers, swirling scarves, brown hats and drab tweeds of the day. Double-decker buses, line up; traffic is dense. People fill the corners of the image and lean in various directions like a field of wheat divided by wind. The colors are muted in Rembrandt tones.
Evelyn must have held her camera over her head or stood on a step to capture this spectacle of movement. Her point of view is picture perfect. The photograph is titled in her hand-writing: ‘Crowds at Trafalgar Square.’ We know what is about to happen: a parade, foot soldiers, gilded horsemen, and soon a glorious golden coach. Inside a woman dressed in white and silver.
We know this because of Evelyn’s subsequent frames and the date on the Kodachrome mount. The year is 1952. The occasion is the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Masterpieces surround us, and we are all collectors.”