La Valse

Once, years ago now, I came across a sculpture that literally captivated me. The name of the piece is La Valse (which is French for The Waltz). Although I found it at the Musee Rodin in Paris, this particular piece that I so love was not done by Auguste Rodin. It was created by his mistress Camille Claudel.

Such a sad life she had. From what I have read she spent the last thirty years of her life in an insane asylum not because she was crazy but because her family did not approve of her life. And yet she created this piece of art which is lasting and beautiful. There is a flow to the the sculpture that is diffiult to define. And a romance. The lovers as they dance — perfectly frozen — they seem filled momentum. It is as if they could continue the dance at any moment if only someone could find the right music to play for them. If I could find a replica of this sculpture I would buy it immediately or at very least start saving my money for it. I periodically do a search for it via Google, but so far, I have not found one. Maybe someday I shall see it again. I certainly hope so.

A few months ago I did one of these searches again and this time I came up with a link to a flickr page. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lanphere/3864638413/in/set-1126707/

La Valse by Scott Lanphere — used with permission

I have begun a small collection of artwork. Very small. The first piece of art I ever paid serious money for I bought in Sedona, Arizona. One day I was driving through and I stopped at one of the local art galleries. There I found myself completely in awe of a tall bronze statue entitled Self-Made Man by Bobbie Carlyle. I would normally put a photo of this into the blog, but I photographed this piece back in the days of film, and my prints are currently still in Maryland. But I can describe it. The sculpture is of a man, with his right arm raised high above his head.  In that hand he holds a great hammer. He is caught in that moment right before the hammer begins it’s downward strike. In this left hand he holds a chisel to his raised left knee. As the eye continues down you see that the man is quite literally chiseling himself out of a block of solid stone. It’s beautiful. And at the time I loved what I felt to be the message of the piece. Arizona is where I was when my father died. The idea that we are carved and shaped by these terrible blows, spoke to me. That something beautiful can be born out of intense pain — I need to believe that. And this sculpture conveyed that message. So, I purchased the 12 inch replica. I’m fairly certain my brother has permanently requisitioned this piece. He liked it too and I have moved so many times I doubt I shall get it back. He may have even talked me into giving it to him. 🙂 But it will always have a place in my heart because there  is something profoundly significant about the first piece of art that you love enough to want to make it your own.

I don’t have a lot of art. I love it, but more often than not the demands of reality, such as the need for rent and groceries, takes precedence over the desire for such arguably non-essential things. When I lived in Maryland I came across another piece that spoke to enough that I wanted to have it for my own. I met a painter named Kathy Karlson. Kathy lives in University Park, Md. The Gazette did an artist portrait on her after her work was displayed in the National Cathedral and I was the photographer. Her work is spectacularly colorful and wildly free. Most of it is abstract, but in some pieces you can see the hint of a landscape. There was one piece in particular that I loved. Again, I don’t have the photo. Sorry, it’s still in Maryland. It’s a large square the upper right and across the top is a violent array of red, oranges and yellows. The lower left and along the bottom is a study in grays and greens. One of the reasons I love this piece is that these colors shouldn’t go together. There is too much contrast. Yet somehow, she made it work. To my mind the gray and green patterns look like crosses. Specifically they look like rows of crosses. They kind that you see in a military cemetery. In 2004 I was in France and I got to visit the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. The rows of white crosses became a personal obsession. And when I saw this painting I was instantly put to mind of that cemetery. One of the things that I love in abstract art is that each view sees their own meaning in it. For my eyes this piece is a combination of the fire of battle and the price of war sharing the same moment. If you want to see any of Kathy’s work you can visit her website: http://www.kathykarlson.com/

As much as I loved the painting I didn’t and still don’t have two grand to spend on a painting. But I am a photographer and so I offered to photograph every piece of Kathy’s art for her in exchange for that painting. I didn’t really know what I was getting into because there was more art than I had imagined. But I love my painting and I got to really see and closely examine all of Kathy’s work. We spent days working on capturing the raw images of her paintings. It was a lot of work, but well worth it. Because my reward has been a second piece of art for my collection.

My third piece of art I have just acquired. I contacted Scott via Flickr and asked to purchase a print of La Valse. This may not have been the most sensible use for money for my tax refund, but sometimes a little non-sense is good for the soul. For all the art I have ever been drawn to this is the first time I have ever been willing to put money into someone else’s photography. If I am going to spend money on photography, I am going to spend it on my photography. That was true until now. When I saw this picture, this image that so perfectly captures what I remember and what I loved in Claudel’s work that I knew I wanted it enough to buy it.

My print arrived yesterday. It came in a box that is truthfully the hardest to get into that I have ever dealt with. I would have smiled, except that I was terrified of damaging the print with my box cutter. I did get the box open and inside, my print. It’s gorgeous. Looks even better printed that on the computer. I have had it in my hands for less that an hour because my print and I went straight to the frame shop. It’s been a long time since I worked with a framer. Framing art work is expensive. But worth it. Jake at Montana Frameworks and Gallery helped me go through frames and mats and glass. I knew that I wanted something red, like cherry wood for the frame, but beyond that I really had no solid ideas. I settled on a medium thick deep red frame clearly showed the wood grain and went well with my print. Now to the mats. Black, of course, after all it is a black and white print, but I don’t necessarily believe that a black and white must be framed in black and white. Why not a red, like the frame? Jake seemed very happy with the idea and quickly set to help me find a matching wine-colored red. While we were looking I stumbled on a burgundy suede mat. I have never used suede in my framing. It didn’t even occur to me as an option. Fortunately for me Jake is familiar with it. And loves it. He highly recommended the suede when I saw the way it looked laying next to the print there was no other choice — it had to be the suede. The material acts a little like velvet and absorbs the light. The color is rich and also plush. And that burgundy, against the black and white, stunning. The black suede for the top mat was also a must. That material seems to enrich the colors. All the other black mats I looked at were never a true black, but only shades of grey. The suede Coal Black with a black core. Perfection. On a side note: now that I have seen suede mats I doubt I shall ever use anything else.

After all that I thought we were done, but the burgundy suede didn’t quite match. It wasn’t perfect with the frame I had selected. And this began to bother me. Jake said that when he found one little thing in framing that bothered him, he had a tendency to focus on the flaw more and more. As he said it, I knew I would be the same. It just didn’t match. But I loved the suede so the change had to be the frame. Ironic that piece of the puzzle that lead me to the suede is now the piece that I am discarding but that is rather typical of me. If I can’t have it match perfectly I would rather not try to match at all. So, we went with a slightly larger mahogany frame. Brown, then black, then burgundy, then black and white. It looks amazing and in three to four weeks I shall have my newly framed piece of art to hang in my home. I can hardly wait.

Last night I wrote to Scott to tell him my print had arrived and to let him know of my plans for it. I think that the gorgeous frame is going to be perfectly set off against the rich yellow wood of the log cabin. I am hoping for an extreme contrast between the style of the work and the rustic nature of the wood that somehow works to the benefit of both. He sent me brief note on the history of the statue and I have decided to copy that here.

Camille Claudel, created this sculpture in 1889, but it evolved into this form by 1895 and was cast by Eugene Blot Foundry in 1905.The origin of La Valse can be traced back to as early as 1889, when Claudel wrote of her work on the subject in a letter to Florence Jeans. The genesis of this group has been described as follows: “Without a doubt the most celebrated work by Camille Claudel, dating from the end of the happy time with Rodin, it is more than L’Abandon, her most erotic sculpture. In a first version gone today, the dancers were nude; l’Administration des Beaux-Arts was shocked by this audacity, and demanded that the sculptor clothe her characters.’’ (Reine-Marie Paris and Arnaud de la Chapelle, op. cit., 1991, p. 127)

In another version, today known as the first, the figures are enveloped by drapery which climbs up and around their heads. In a second version the drapery is modified, so that the figures are now nude from the waist up.  Variations also ensued from this second series, in which the base on which the figures dance was modified and the placement of the man and woman’s heads vary. The present work incorporates several of Claudel’s modifications, as here the man’s lips rest tenderly against the woman’s cheek rather than against her neck as in other versions.

Furthermore, the drapery is more worked than in other versions, and serves as a support for the two bound in their delicate and passionate dance. From the days of its first exhibition, La Valse was lauded by the critics. It also should be noted that as well as receiving critical acclaim, this subject was also beloved by many of Claudel’s friends and fellow artists. Of the many works by Claudel representing musical themes, La Valse was a particular favorite of Claude Debussy, with whom Claudel was extremely close, although the nature of their relationship has never been substantiated. He kept La Valse on top of the mantlepiece of his studio.

It has been noted that La Valse comprises some of Claudel’s “most daring and personal works’’ and that with “these works, Camille Claudel displayed a completely autonomous genius and takes a place among the greatest artists of the turn of the century.’’ (Anne Rivière, Bruno Gaudichon and Danielle Ghanassia, op. cit., pp. 116-17)

For those who are interested, Scott’s professional work can be viewed at http://lanphere.zenfolio.com/

There are a lot of photographers I admire. People whose work inspires me to push myself to become a better photographer. Perhaps the lesson I shall take out of all of this is the value in letting myself love someone else’s images as deeply as I love my own.

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National

National. My first photo went national. It was a week ago and I am still in shock. And still just as happy as a kid on Christmas morning.

Here’s the story: on Tuesday of last week I photographed a group of third graders from Elrod Elementary carrying 300 paper bags they had decorated with Earth Day themed art back to the local grocery store. The store had lent the students the bags and planned to give them out to customers on Earth Day. Three girls were at the front of the line and as they waited excitedly I snapped this picture.

When I got back to the office, I worked up the photo and on a whim decided to upload it to AP. That was Tuesday afternoon, and were it not for a particular kindness, that would have been the end of my part of the story.

On Thursday almost as soon as I sat down to begin my work I noticed one of the girls from the front office walking into the newsroom with a bouquet of flowers and a ballon which reads “You Rock!” She came to my desk. 🙂 In all my years as a photographer I have never been given flowers for doing an assignment before. And the flowers are still beautiful, tiger lilies, and purple irises (two of my personal favorites) surrounded by yellows, pinks, whites and some fascinating greenery.

The flowers are from Barb Andersen, teacher of the third graders I had photographed. Scott, my editor, looked over and smiled. “That the kind of thank you that you want to say thank you for,” he said. I agreed and so I wrote her a thank you email. When she wrote back she mentioned that she had never had one of her stories go national before. And that’s about the point that I started getting really excited. What did she mean “national?”

Turns out she had gotten a call from an editor with USA Today wanting to double check the spellings of the names of the girls in the photo. It is not uncommon for photographers these days to want to rip their hair out at the decidedly odd ways people have begun spelling names. In a lot of cases you will run into one unique spelling, but three in a row gets questionable. Janet Kigilyuk, Paulina Carbajal-Jepsen and Lauryn Vornbrock. Those are the students in the photo. In the photo that ran in USA Today. They ran it. Can you believe it? I can’t. And, it gets better.

I moved to Montana from Maryland. I lived within 10 miles of the National Mall for three years. And now, once I have moved to the middle of nowhere Montana, now, one of my pictures gets used to illustrate a story about the National Mall. Are you kidding me? The irony of this is quite simply too much perfection. I have to smile when I think of it.

Once I got the news I began looking for a copy of the paper. My first USA Today picture – I want that newspaper. Turns out they don’t sell them in Montana. In the entire state, you can’t get one. Fortunately Ms. Andersen had a connection in Spokane, Wash. and she got me a copy of the paper. On Friday she called me to tell me that the photo had been picked up again. This time by the Christian Science Monitor website. They created a slideshow of pictures from Earth Day around the world. It can be found at http://www.csmonitor.com/CSM-Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Earth-Day-2010

And right there in the middle of it, number 13, Kalispell, Montana. Kalispell, along with Columbia, Chili, Peru, the Florida Keys, South Korea, India, Moldova, and of course, Washington D.C. — who would have ever thought?

On a more personal note: I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents this week. They would have loved this. And they would have been so very proud of me. I like to think that this would be one more piece of evidence that proves the faith they placed in me was well-founded. When I began in photography I started with my father’s old Canon AE-1. I loved that camera. But when it became obvious that I was serious about photography my parents took me up to Murphy’s Camera in Lexington (the camera store that I am loyal unreservedly still loyal to) and bought me my first real camera. And as I got better and kept with it, they bought more expensive gear. They did that for me. They also let me live at home my last year of college so that I could work jobs like the school yearbook, the PR office, the campus newspaper and the local daily, none of which paid much but all which added to my portfolio and my resume. The life that I am living now, the life I so desperately love, was made possible by my parents. I remain profoundly grateful. I wish they could have lived to see this.

I know that is a sad note to end on, but I won’t apologize. Even the sweetest and happiest moments are often laced with sorrow. And from my perspective an experience is made richer by having such depth.

So, here it is, the digital file of my USA Today page. Thanks to everyone who has written to offer congratulations. Thank you for sharing this moment with me.

Stillness and Swan Lake

An almost perfect stillness on Swan Lake

I have always loved things made from wood. I think I inherited this from my father. It’s something that I remember about him distinctly. I remember his hands, I remember his eyes, and I remember the way he admired and took extra time to look at things made from wood. He seemed to relish the pattern of the grain, the color and smooth texture, and even the feel of it. And since my father was one of those do-anything, build-anything types I know he admired the craftsmanship of woodworking.

So for me, this recent photo shoot with the boat builders at Morely Cedar Canoes was more than just work, it was  chance to reconnect with some of the memories I have of my father.

There is a particular smell to a woodshop. It’s that combination of freshly cut woods, shavings, dust and polish. All these smells combine into that particular smell which as soon as you encounter it, you know, you are in a place where craftsmen perfect their craft. The woodshop at Morely’s has this smell and it is the first thing I noticed as I entered the shop. A woodshop is also home to a wonderful variety of details. There is the gleam of the boats, waxed and sealed and ready to sell, the piles of wood strips waiting to be used, a myriad of tools, wood shaving curls, patterns, and plans, and works still in process.

I love details. I love to wander and look, to examine and play with compositions that are hidden everywhere. A lot of my personal photography is very detail oriented. Normally, with a newspaper none of these images would see the light of day. They are fine for what they are, but newspapers have limited space and these don’t really tell the story as much as the wider, scene-setter types of pictures. If we are going to run a detail it will more than likely be one like this one below that combines the details of the wood and the human element. Such is standard philosophy with newspapers. But now that I am doing slideshows with many of my larger projects I am finding a use for these detail shots and so I end up photographing more of them. This has been one aspect of my job with the Daily Inter Lake which I absolutely love.

Gus Morely working in his shop.

I got a wide array of images in my hour at the woodshop, but with something like this, you really want to go back, go again, see what more you can find. As it turns out Steve, Gus’ son, goes out on the water almost daily in a canoe he built for himself. On Saturday, he let me tag along for some pictures. By the time we got out there the light was getting really harsh, but I still got a few shots I liked and the photo shoot would not have been complete with out a shot of the boat on the water. Besides, any disappointment I might have felt about the light vanished when Steve told me that he and his family go out on the water all the time in the summer and if I ever want to take a paddling trip down the river he would be happy to have me come along. He promised I won’t tip the boat over, so I may even be brave enough to bring my camera. That will be coming up late this summer, but once I do get to go, I will doubtless have more boat photos to post here.

Steve Morely rowing an Adirondack Guide-Boat.

Wildlife Safari

In the five months that I have lived in Montana I have come to quickly realize that I am living in the midst of my very own wildlife safari. Saturday is the perfect example of this. I had an early morning photo shoot at Swan Lake — I’ll write about that tomorrow — shortly after leaving my house I caught sight of one of  my wolves. Yes, I have my own wolf pack. I LOVE it. And this morning the big grey one was out and about in the early morning. No photo. Sorry. Once they catch sight of me, or in this case, hear the Jeep coming, they tend to bolt. But I got to see him, so, Wolves, check.

Later that day while out on the river I caught sight of a peculiar looking kind of duck. These little guys are a study in black and white. I can’t remember the name of the birds, but I was told that if you are paddling down a river and faced with a fork where each path looks equally good, follow the ducks. They always know the best route. Ducks, check. There were also snakes, but I avoid those. Even the non-poisonous variety.

On my way back home I caught my first sight of Sandhill Cranes. I have always loved cranes and herons for their size and their grace. And also because the Ahearn family crest features a solid green background and three white cranes. Sandhill Cranes are large. Maybe the largest of this type of bird that I have ever seen. Speeding past them at 70 miles per hour (welcome to Montana) I didn’t realize what they were but I knew I had seen something so I stopped and turned around. Again, as soon as they see me coming they start backing away, but I had my 300 with me, and that helped narrow the gap. So, Cranes, check. And of course, as soon as I got home I saw my deer. They are always about in the evenings and mornings now. I see them daily, but I never grow tired of standing still and watching them. Deer, check.

Soon the roads will open in Glacier an I am going to have to head up and start looking for some of the big creatures that inhabit my strange new world. Bears. Moose. Bighorn Sheep. Mountain Lions. I want to see all of this. Of course, the real trick is going to be to see it, photograph it, and then live to blog about it.

A Black and White World

A colorless sunrise

I love black and white photography. I love the way it forces a person to concentrate on composition. Colors are beautiful, but they can be a distraction. Test it yourself sometime. Take a photo that you think is good. A colorful sunset, balloons at a fair, a field full of flowers, whatever you like. Now convert it to grayscale. Then ask yourself – is it still a good photograph? The answer depends on how well composed the photograph is. If the image has strong compositional elements, shape, line, texture, pattern, or others, it will be able to stand as a black and white. If not, then it isn’t the photo that was good, it’s the color, blinding the view to all else.

I learned to be a photographer working with TMAX and TRI-X films. I learned to bulk load my own rolls of film. I learned how to develop my own film and then examine each image with a light table and a magnifying glass. And I learned, after months of experimentation, that there really is no cure for the headaches induced by breathing in dektol, stop-bath, and fixer. You just have to make yourself grow accustomed to it. I have always considered myself fortunate that I came into photography by this time-tested path. Those early days, wherein I built the roots of personal style, are with me still. These days I am completely in love with the freedom and instant gratification of digital. But while I enjoy color and am just as distractible as the next person, I try to think in terms of other compositional elements when I am shooting.

That is true for most days, but yesterday I didn’t need to eliminate the colors from my mind’s eye. There weren’t any to see. The dense clouds from a recent snow storm still blanketed the sky. (Snow. Mid-April. Welcome to life in Montana. Sigh.) The hills along the lake looked dark and equally dense except for the snow on the pines and the fog in the air. And the glassy lake reflected it all back, equally colorless. For me, this was exceptionally beautiful. Once, when I was in college, I had a dream in black and white. I woke up, or at least I thought I was awake, and could see my room in the early morning light. Everything was white or black or shades of gray. It was the most peaceful dream I have ever had. And though I have wished for it often, I have never gotten back to that particular place. The irony is, this was years before I became a photographer. Perhaps this is another reason I love black and white imagery. Who is to say? Anyhow, I don’t know how another person would have viewed this gray morning, but for me it was like re-entering that dream world. It was as if I had entered a world where all uncertainties are banished and everything really is clear and simple, and black and white.