Saturday, December 19, 2009

"CLUES TO IDENTITY" The Art of Collective Conversation at ICP School of Photography

Great art is better made in society than in solitude; better in crowded conversation and camaraderie than solitary silence. A community of voices together feed the mind and heart, as well as develop the art. That said, one of the most exciting and powerful photographic exhibitions this past season in New York gave tribute to this idea. "CLUES TO IDENTITY ", recently exhibited at the International Center for Photography Graduate School, brought together the extraordinary and powerfully beautiful work of 20 photographers from ICP's Master Class seminars, taught by Chuck Kelton, an acknowledged master printer. Spanning three years, the intensive and committed journey that the students begin, leads to more than just a portfolio of images however; more important it leads to relationships of lasting value, and mentorship of extraordinary generosity. Yet indeed, the photographs that have been created from this seminar are exceptional. The students even more so. Ranging in ages and personal experience, each of them have pursued singular routes to understanding, and revealing, their personal vision -- identities -- in the community of intimacy and trust that Chuck Kelton provides. 

I had the pleasure to spend a day with the class and Chuck, and to walk through the exhibit with them as they talked about their inspirations and their challenges -- both technical and personal -- as they developed their photographic ideas. I came away from the experience with a sense of joy and a deep respect for what they all have accomplished. In images of compelling resonance, the photographers each provide a glimpse into their worlds that is both private and yet open-hearted. This is work. But this is the love of the work above all.  As one student put it, these are "collective conversations" that illuminate the unique bond that is forged among colleagues in the same pursuit.  Here the sensory world meets and traffics with the real world; dreams as well as reality are subjects to explore. The rich subjects of landscape, portraiture -- the great themes of family, body, memory -- are given full expression in prints of pristine craft.  It is also a tribute to a teacher and mentor who is able to give such guidance in a difficult medium. It is one thing to instruct; it is quite another to inspire. In discussing their projects, their technical and personal challenges, and their goals for the future, I could feel that long after this show is over these lives and what they love will be in front of us for a long time to come. I herewith share some of their collective conversations in photography:

CHUCK KELTON  "My work [image above] deals with the deconstruction of the natural landscape. I am influenced by the strength of the graphic image, its strong metaphoric content. After having taught for many years in college and workshop environments I felt a need to create a class which would establish a long-term working relationship with a group of artists. I was not concerned with their mastery of technique, only with their desire to develop a project and the technical skills needed to complete it.

"In developing this class I did have a sequence of events which I thought I would follow. At a certain point it was more important to listen to the tone of the class and let the sequence develop from their needs. I always know what I need to accomplish and what each class expects to accomplish.  Clues to Identity' seems like a perfectly obvious title for such a unique group of imagery. In so much as each artist including myself is always searching for an identity I thought the work in this exhibition presented the clues that helped them establish that identity.  I listen and that tells me what people want to be taught. I help them understand the voice and language that they are trying to create. I present them with the technical support they need, I give them historical references so that they might understand other who have thought in that genre, and I create an environment in the classroom which provides a critical and inventive discourse. I create an environment which allows for each artist to form a collaborative relationship, not only with me but with each member of the class. This allows for more information to be shared. This is a tremendously focused group of people. What has happened in this class has happened very naturally. There is a sense of obligation to interact at a high level and create an environment that supports each artist. 

"Technical aspects in photography tend to intimidate artist and inhibit them form pushing their work beyond a zone that they feel comfortable with. As a master technician I work very hard within this class structure to demystify those technical aspects that stop artist from continuing their explorations. In the group of twenty artists represented in this exhibition, most of them developed their technical vision within the context of this class  For the last twenty years my work has used the structure of the landscape as its objective and metaphorical imagery. This latest work was inspired by watching my father die. This tremendously physical person had lost his spirit and his individual strength had in effect become a shell of his former self. These photograms were a reaction to the emptiness that I felt. I took the physical identity out of objects -- trees and rocks -- leaving only the core without content.  I continue to use the photogram in my work. My imagery employs this technique in a narrative yet abstract form. I am currently preparing for a show that I am having at Causey Contemporary Art Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which will open in April, 2010." 

JOHN DECKER  "My initial inspiration was to create a body of work that revealed what I like to call a subject's "spiritual stamp." To create the impression that beneath everything exists a sort of spiritual blueprint, invisible to the eye but not to the camera, and to suggest the notion that man in his/her substance is essentially a spiritual being. This evolved into a portfolio whereby the only connection between images are their particular feel, their aura. I titled the series Half Past Midnight. For me that title conjured up stories of people and places trapped between material reality and spiritual space. Working with Chuck Kelton was for me a big lesson in humility. I thought I knew how to interpret a negative before meeting Chuck but soon realized, through Chuck's mastery and sensitivity to the medium, just how much further I needed to go to realize my own work. The classroom environments was an extension of this lesson, for which I am grateful." 

CLAIRE GILLIAM  "Believe it or not, it's the technical side of making the negative that I find the most challenging. I respond immediately to a scene in front of me and in my eagerness to make the image, all things technical go out the window and it becomes a purely intuitive process. I love the element of chance and surprise, letting things be, and it is the printing that becomes the most rewarding and creative part of making the image. 

Years ago I began using myself as a model partly out of convenience, and because it also allowed me to work at my own pace. But it quickly developed into something more personal, a way of telling my own stories, and, as a disabled woman, a means to explore the contradictory feelings I've held towards my body, in relation to the perceptions other people may have had. "I Am My Body" is the latest incarnation of this journey.  'Family Matters' (the first portfolio project) extends further in a way, because I felt I needed to step outside of myself, my own body, for a while, although of course I didn't travel too far. It was a challenge, not only because of the very personal and emotional nature of the work, but because it forced me to step out of my comfort zone, to work in a very different way to what I had been used to. I'm always striving to push my work beyond the conventional, and in this case, I decided to combine text and images, so that the piece became a fully sensory experience for the viewer. It's a work in progress.   Working with Chuck and the other group members has been an amazing journey of creative growth for me. Aside from the fact that my printing abilities have improved to no end, I think the most important thing about the class is that it has really given me the focus I needed to develop and create new bodies of work. I don't think I would have had the courage to go forward with 'I Am My Body', a series of self-portrait nudes, for example, were it not for Chuck and the group's support and encouragement. Chuck especially is a master at pushing you gently, so that each and every one of us always achieves more than we ever expect from our work. I have also learned a great deal from each member of the group, in the way that they express themselves visually, and through our collective conversations each time we meet. It's been very exciting to see the progression and development of each individual project from conception to completion.
It's a very inspiring group to be a part of. I'm not certain at this point where my work will take me next. I'm taking a break from the self-portraits (although I don't think I'm done with them completely) and turning my camera on to nature. I'm told though by the group that these new images are emotional landscapes so I suppose in some sense they are still reflections of myself. I also have a few ideas brewing that relate to my memory and the loss of it (something my grandfather has recently been diagnosed with). I'd also like to develop my work with other disabled women, to discuss further issues about difference, body image and sexuality."

JORGE LUIS  "Being born in Cuba and raised in the United States hasn't always been easy. My desire to learn more about where I came from and the people I left behind were often discouraged. All I had were my grandparents' stories, which I'd listen to for hours. It was through them that I developed this desire to know more about Cuba. Around 1996, I decided that it was time to begin my journey and not allow a political divide to get in the way of who I am and what I felt. This was the beginning of 'Ninety Miles: An Intimate Journey', a close look at Cuba, and my family -- who I had not seen in 30 years. When I arrived for the first time and met the family I only knew from stories, and felt how they embraced me as if no time had gone by...I knew then that this was something I was destined to do. I have never looked back."

"I've had the privilege of working with the photographers from 'Clues To Identity' for several years now, spending many weekends in the darkroom and discussing each others' work. I can only say that I am a better photographer today because of them. Their dedication to the medium is unparalleled, and has drawn us all together. And through this bond, we have helped each other grow. I can honestly say that I would never have evolved this work to this point without Chuck. Not only is Chuck a master printer, but he's also a master teacher. His innate ability to encourage, inspire and even tell you when it's not working -- is simply magical. I wish for many years of working together. I feel there is a last chapter for me in Cuba yet in the making, but I'm also constantly shooting everyday life, and printing whenever I can. I am currently work on something in the Catskills, New York. It's a wonderful place, with a great history and a culture all its own."

WENDY PATON  "Visage De Nuit (Faces of Night) is a portfolio of work consisting of a series of black and white, candid night photographic images that are meant to provoke compelling, mysterious emotions of uncertainty. I was initially inspired to begin this project by the excitement to do something completely apart from where I was artistically. I was intrigued to photograph at night and fascinated to concentrate on candid "portrait" images; street photography, celebrations, all my magical little moments. I enjoy looking at other photographers' work and thus I am inspired by a variety of work I see and words I read. The beautiful images of Lillian Bassman, and the photography and writing of Edouard Boubat were especially influential when working on this series. I connected immediately to Boubat's quote: 'Don't try to explain the photograph. Let it keep its mystery.' I now feel completely comfortable pushing my artistic technique to the max and entering the abstract realm when the work calls for it. And I do not feel any necessity to explain my work.  

When I began this project three years ago at the inception of the ICP Independent Projects Seminar, I had already been working and collaborating with Chuck Kelton for some years. My work was far different than what it is today. I switched from a medium format Hasselblad to a 35mm Leica M7. This allowed me the freedom to photograph handheld in very low light without flash. I changed the developing, the enlarger, and every aspect of my printing. I simply jumped into the frying pan, learned all new techniques and achieved my vision with "Visages De Nuit. Working with such talented and motivated photographers and being privilged and mentored by a master such as Chuck Kelton continues to be my educational and emotional inspiration. I am currently preparing for a solo exhibit of my latest body of work, VISAGES De NUIT, as Sous Les Etoiles Gallery in New York City, opening March 11, 2010.

SANDY ALPERT  "For me, the challenge in black and white photography is to create an image that holds my attention. With the absence of color, the image becomes shape, line, texture, shadow; about mystery. The best black and white photographs have mystery." 

"Ethereal Essence" grew out of a childhood memory. It started in 2005 when I photographed the Japanese Tree Peony at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Their fragrance brought me back to a time when my brother and I were growing up in the Bronx. My father always worked two jobs -- sometimes three! I got to see him only on weekends when I helped him sell flowers out of the back of his truck on a street corner in the South Bronx. I can remember falling asleep on his shoulder as we drove down to the flower district on 28th Street in the pre-dawn light. We'd load up the truck with tin barrels and thousands upon thousands of roses, lilacs -- whatever was the best of the day.  Gradually, "Ethereal Essence" transformed itself and me into an exploration of my own feelings of sensuality, intimacy, joy. The flowers became my self-portraits, my metaphor. Chuck has created a safe place for all of us to explore our innermost thoughts and feelings through our work, without judgment or fear. For an artist, that feeling of safety is a precious gift.  I've made some deep friendships in the group which are invaluable to me. I can bounce ideas off them without feeling the need to edit myself. Sometimes I just need to hear how they sound. I feel that the project is coming to completion. Where will my work take me next? I'm feeling somehow that I need to look back in order to move forward. Years ago, I started a series called "Light, Lamp, and Shadows". There is something there that I've left unexpressed. After that? Trust." 

THERESA SWIDORSKI  "I find the process of translating my original feeling about the image the most difficult aspect of printing the photograph. It is easy enough to print a purely documentary view of the image, but how does one convey a feeling or imbue the image with emotion? I think this is an important aspect of black and white photography. I take my photos with a 35mm camera and a 24mm-135mm lens.  I don't use a tripod because I take most of my photos on the run. At this point I take mostly landscape or cityscape photos, but I would like to try adding people to the mix. I want my photographs to be so sculptural in quality that you feel you should touch them. Texture and touch -- that moment whether real or imagined."

CRISTINE HAFT  "This project started as a way of working things out..a series of photographs dealing with the objects of home, and the reconstruction of a home now absent of children. Play blocks and trees, wooden figures. I always work intuitively. It seems that the project chooses me instead of the other way around. I shoot first and think afterwards.    There were a lot of things going on simultaneously before I began this body of work. My daughter left for college, the housing crisis started -- foreclosures, many factors. I grabbed blocks that my daughter used to play with and just started photographing. The more I photographed, the more ideas I had."  

NADHAR OMAR  "This project is an ongoing study of the social landscape of urban Japan. Titled "Yugen", it is an attempt (by a foreigner) to search for, and try to understand, a central ideal of Japanese aesthetics within and through such landscapes. Originally meaning "dark" or "obscure", Yugen has been used in Japanese cultural criticism to evoke the remote, profound, subtle, and mysterious: those things that cannot be easily grasped or expressed verbally. It can also generally be understood to describe beauty that is suggested rather than stated. Whether ultimately the mysterious and silent region is definable or understandable is questionable.  I have been interested in Japan for many years and only started shooting there a few years ago. Initially, it was an unconscious exercise with no pre-determined goal. In the summer of 2006, I was reading a program brochure during an intermission of a Noh theater piece. It referred to the concept of "Yugen" in relation to Japanese cultural criticism. That seemed to suddenly put in words what I felt I had been unconsciously attempting to capture. From thereon, it has been a much more conscious effort. Discipline, committment and a dedication to fully exploring and realizing meaningful personal projects are common attributes of all the other group members. I hope some of that has rubbed off on me."

PETER AGRON  Ghostly silhouettes of sky; graphic beauty found in a torn piece of white paper; a painted building the face of a beguilingly beautiful woman.  A bird in flight, its wings caught in the transitory moment of pure light. Peter Agron photographs what is quiet, but never reticent. Old shoes, polished to new life, the graphic beauty of shadows at the end of the day,  the shadows and light that find their secret places to reside in.  If a photograph can spur memory as well as surprise with the magic of chemistry, Agron's images hold deeply to the craft of both. 

RUBEN RUENES  For Ruenes, photographs are construction pieces, to be connected to each other. In the series in this exhibition, a graphic array of subjects are built together, in collage, as a single structure. The effect of the juxtapostions -- a young man's face, a stark white church steeple, a bull, a swimmer -- is that of order and design made into visual dialogue.  

DONNAS SCHAEFFER  "'25 Bowling Alleys' -- The project was conceived as a personal challenge. I wanted to build a body of work on a specific subject. I chose to photograph Mom-and-Pop bowling alleys because I discovered I had taken photographs of several as I reviewed my work to date.   The first was taken 16 years ago. I was drawn to the iconic symbols associated with the game and the physical architectural space as a cultural artifact. I have two ideas bubbling to the surface as I wind down this series. The first is a study of what's overhead. I want to concentrate on interior ceilings and explore how different casts of light make each unique. I'm also thinking about a series that explores the incandescent light bulb. As we move to fluorescent lighting, these too will be things of the past." 

FRANCES DENNY  "Silver gelatin is far from trendy these days. Few emerging photographers opt for black and white photographs over color. Rather than deter me, this inspires me to do more monochromatic work. Nevertheless, my peers usually look askance at my choice of medium.  I spent the summer of 2008 working at the Maine Media Workshops. There, I was able to find inspiration in the melancholy landscape and was exposed to the work of several artists -- Francesca Woodman for one -- that have since been a great inspiration. I shot the bulk of the project there in Maine. My mother was such a good sport when I arrived on her doorstep, camera and props in hand, and without much explanation, asked her to pose for me!"

"I am sensitive to the fact that by photographing myself, I am literally making an object of myself. Yet in formulating it, I felt that self-portraiture best befit the personal and psychological nature of the series. "Bound" addresses the nature of female relationships, particularly the tenuous bond between mother and daughter. By photographing myself, my mother, and close friends of mine, I was able to access an intimacy in the photographs impossible to achieve with just models. I work in medium format and shoot with a Hasselblad. At the risk of sounding horribly romantic, the first time I looked through that camera I felt my heart break! I remember thinking that a person could shoot a gorgeous picture with her eyes shut with that in her hands. I was wrong.

GABRIELLE MANGERI  Mangeri's photographic arena is that of the family -- memory boxes -- the photographs of lives caught in celebration, ritual, and the inevitable transformation in their growth and endings. A young girl in high heels beckons womanhood not as play but as tribute; wedding  photographs document perhaps long-gone parents, young always in the image. In a fascinating and haunting addition to her printed portfolio, Mangeri has created a sound video of photographic 'sentiments' that take us through certain lives. The video's foundation images is an angelic young girl smiling at the camera (at us), her hair gently blowing in a breeze. Other images interrupt her -- laughing couples, a handsome young man throwing a kiss, the landscape of hills --  all to a repeating and magnetic score of music. We put the headphones down with melancholy; something touched us and made a mark inside us. This is work of complete heart. 

BLONDINE LE GALL  In images that question the balance of the picture frame and the sense of perception in the square format, Le Gall explores the graphic relics of streets and passageways, what we choose to see and choose to miss, when we are not looking: stone angels above our heads; stairs to secret gardens; all captured with the acumen of someone who never misses these things. 

LUCILLE TORTORA's images from the portfolio "Transformations", are graphic and powerful evocations of the temples at such places as Machu Picchu, in Peru.  Cruciformed, and cubist, these reconfigurations create abstractions that bring more attention to the objects themselves, seen in new perspectives. These images magnify with juxtaposition and shape; each of the congruent squares a perfect balance of light and shadow for the corresponding edges. These tactile surfaces seemed warmed by the sun, and chilled by night airs. 

AMELIA PEARN  A father soldier's grave in winter; an American flag; incised name and dates. Pearn explores in stunning simplicity the identity of the past and the movement of time. As time does its work and its passing, what stays the same? What changes? More important, what remains? 

MARIA DiELSI  These lush images from "The Radiant Realm" are filled with light and end with dark. Trees dense with fruit, grasses and rock -- life manifests itself in the natural world as infinite expressions of order and designed chaos. DeElsi's eye for detail and surface beauty is matched by the luminance of the print tones. 

MARY NEWMAN  "Every artist is subconciously or emotionally drawn to a subject -- for this project, first I had the idea, implemented it and then thought about why water has always interested me. On the surface, it seemed at the time being aquaphobic was the obvious reason. Perhaps a psychoanalyst could give a subliminal one."

HEIDI TARGEE  Images from "No Helmet". 'You used to fear us, but now you want to be us.'  "When I began to develop this project, I thought about the things I have collected in my life -- memories and possible subjects that I not only had access to but in some way intrigued or captivated me. I have come to know over the years a group of people that live on the fringes of society, a group of friends that consider their motorcycle not just a mode of transportation or a weekend hobby but an extension of their lifestyle. These are people that consider themselves to have strong personal integrity despite often making choices that are taboo, or even criminal. People in this group have stories written on their faces -- in their eyes and their earned facial lines (which often, by the way, coincide with the respect received by the rest of the group). I wanted to photograph that. Women in this community also have compelling roles; strong and respected or sexual trophies -- although almost always secondary to the men."

"I have always been fascinated by people-watching, and especially learning how groups on the outer limits of society have different norms from the mainstream but also strikingly similar patterns of humanity. Because my husband is considered a member of this clan, I have had access and acceptance by this group, although I don't feel like "one of them."  I am also intrigued by the way that this outlaw culture is now being marketed to white-collar America by Harley-Davidson. This often comes in expensive, slick packages that allow the average professional to feel "part of" the community for a short time -- through the use of fashion, costume and extraneous chrome accessories. This is not only diluting the idea of American outlaw biker culture, but creating a hatred of the corporate branding from the old-school group of the "real bikers" -- though ironically they seldom can be found riding a motorcycle manufactured by another company." 

"I am an educator and teacher by training so I don't lightly assert: Chuck is a rare and special mentor. Often a photography student can group their teachers/instructors into two categories: left-brained technical photographers concerned with f/stops and formulas, or, right-brained artists who stress experimentation. It is rare to meet someone who not only straddles both of those camps but is nurturing as a Master Printer. He is encouraging, warm, inspiring and generous with his talent and knowledge. I have had teachers whose mantra has been "honor your own experience" but Chuck coaches us in a way that allows us to listen to that voice, to recognize it, to amplify it, and to believe that it is worth pursuing and worth revealing to others." 

EDWARD CHENG "I have been photographing "Eldgridge Street" since 2005; it is the geographic nexus of the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Soho, Nolita and the East Village. I will keep photographing until I can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood." Cheng's knowledge of this remarkable New York neighborhood and street lend these images the power of truth by having lived here as a resident.  The street becomes an identity itself, as well as one for Cheng.  Its beauties include its ravages: graffiti, commercial signage, the graphics of decay as well as the mark of life and being.  People still live here, still work here, and will still.  The observer is a friend, and a welcome one. 


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