Eightyone countries and a camera…
Elements of life through a lens.
Lawrence of Arabia in the Empty Quarter, Irving Penn along the Sepik in New Guinea and André Kertesz in Paris, they all photographed their surroundings. My life overseas has provided me with similar opportunities.
I have always been fascinated with photography. I can still visualize myself as a small boy in Pittsburgh leafing through Life Magazine and National Geographic and dreaming of exotic locations; the whole world beyond the garden was an exotic location for me, waiting to be explored through the camera lens.
A creative internal urge must have cried out for liberation as I related to other Pittsburghers: Andy Warhol, Gene Kelly and Erroll Garner, who all sought that elusive sense of creative self-fulfillment. They chose art, dance and music, but I followed Duane Michals and chose photography.
Like any neophyte, I began with simple snapshots. Eventually, I attended a Minor White lecture: an hour-long metaphysical exploration of a single photographic image! While I could not fully grasp the analysis, I did like what my eye saw: simple designs of contrast with a dash or two of detail. My underlying philosophy was more elemental: the eye is trained through imagination and experience – thrown in with a good mix of lighting.
Another photographer, Elliot Porter, made a strong impression on me when he spoke of waiting hours for the perfect shot. I soon realized that was not my nature. Lacking that patience when I see a fascinating subject, I move to capture it quickly and then search out other angles. I was also inspired to contact André Kertesz – a titan of the photographic art world – and was generously received at his Park Avenue studio in New York City. I began to build a collection of his celebrated works from his Paris period and through his mentoring I was able to build trust in my own eye. I discovered that my greatest enjoyment came in viewing a small highlight inside a larger scheme – an intersection of angles of detail and contrast that pulls together in a simple design.
I freelanced briefly along the breathtaking Maine seacoast. However, I wanted to live overses.
Before I went on my first overseas posting, I spent a summer at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, receiving a formal education in art photography. I covered the field, from the basics of using a coffee can pinhole camera to the rich and varied history and philosophy of the art. Learning to shoot and edit a full series of photos taught me to discipline eye and mind to produce a coordinated narrative. The skills, knowledge and encouragement I received at the Institute still serve me well.
As a boy I had spent endless hours perusing photo spreads in the World Book Encyclopedia and, suddenly, I found myself assigned to a post in Volume “S” – Saudi Arabia – to begin a career in diplomacy, travel … and photography.
I had read of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on the old Hajazi railroad from Mecca through Transjordan, and I made that my first trip into fantasy. I followed the trail of half-buried locomotives and wagons alongside ruined Turkish forts, visualizing Lawrence blowing up these very same trains. (Twenty some years later I completed living out my Arabian fantasy by camping in Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed.) Near the end of my tour in Saudi, I voyaged into the most remote desert in the world, the Empty Quarter or Rub Akhali. The desert was a perfect setting for my style, but the 52°C. temperatures and blinding light completely bleached out any good images, even with a dense polarizer. I chalked that up to “right place, wrong time” and left it at that!
Living overses has been wonderful for my photographic career. On occasion I have lived in “hardship” locations, so-called because of extremes in economic, social or climatic conditions. As a photographer, I have looked upon these same extremes as a luxury that often yielded a splendid play of light and landscape, and boundless images waiting to be composed on film.
In such environments it is the camera that experiences the hardship. On a visit into the Tassili in the heart of the Sahara in southern Algeria, where I spent two weeks at a “thousand-star” hotel (sleeping bags only) with blue-robed Tuaregs as guides, the camera was pitted against foes both abstract and concrete: intense light and intensely fine talcum sand. A polarizing filter helped solved both problems. Every morning the sun rose into a perfectly clear sky, but by mid-day it bleached all colors. The polarizer cut down glare and restored the color. I used it for a midnight effect in some shots by blocking the sun behind dune and rock formations. The sand blasting effect can score optical glass and the polarizer prevented the sand from reaching the lens elements. It always costs less to replace a filter than a lens.
I have always been an advocate of the polarizing filter in my work. I shoot the texture and design under natural lighting conditions, such as I did in Ethiopia, using filters to darken colors and accent contrast. The pleasure of using the polarizer is the ability it accords me to “create” as I rotate the filter. Reducing glare allows true colors not seen by the naked eye to pass through and, artistically, it allows for even more pronounced or sometimes exaggerated color values.
Then it was off to Sweden – a nation of superb design esthetic. The winter days are short, but there I discovered another true passion: reflections on ice. Stockholm's chilly beauty presented me with one of my favorite series: “Reflections”, and I carried this visual theme to other countries, particularly Australia and New Zealand, where water and subtle light are always present.
As much as I loved Sweden, the desert became my home again – sooner than expected – as I moved urgently to Kuwait a week after the 1991 Gulf War ended. I had access inside the country, as some 400 oil well fires raged wild. Although an environmental nightmare, the scenery was utterly dramatic. Not being a journalistic photographer, I took the fires and war carnage and blended in my style of high contrast colors and blackened sand to make some of my most exciting images.
As I flew by helicopter over the hellish fires, the blackened sky was shot with the day-glow orange and yellow of petroleum volcanoes erupting out of the ground. Later I went on a military convoy over the Iraqi border alongside miles of abandoned and destroyed military vehicles. Little did I know that some 13 years later I would be back after the second Gulf War, exploring Mesopotamian ruins and loading my camera in the city where world civilization was founded.
An assignment to Seoul took me to Asia and provided an opportunity to comb over all those wonderful places I had read about in Somerset Maugham's short stories. However, the years in Asia proved not to be an especially creative experience – with the exception of Hong Kong. Set up in rows along physical cliffs, great architectural cliffs of sheer glass throw off shimmering reflections. I enjoyed shooting entire building blocks in horizontal and vertical lines. With so much reflection off the glass facades, the ‘polarizer’ completely altered the angles and lines into contrasted brush strokes.
Four years in Rome – a city of natural lighting (the same can be said for all of Italy) – was a photographer’s dream setting. Walking to work from Il Ghetto Ebraico to the Via Veneto with my camera at the ready produced many handsome images. Just playing with that light was a treat, like eating a good ‘gelato’. With great reviews from Italian friends urging me “Do something with your images”, I met with an Italian publisher who was interested in my work. As I proudly displayed my best images, he said, “Nice for a coffee table, but when one leaves the book, one forgets the images. Let me see what else you have.” I showed him samples of my desert portfolio and he exclaimed, “Now you have something which remains in the mind.” A sobering experience, but helpful in editing for this volume.
Sardinia during springtime is memorable. With the landscape in full bloom, I shot abstracts of colored lines, sometimes partly out of focus. A close friend and talented paper box artist asked me for my “throw-away slides.” She produced an incredible montage of rainbow images by striping together various types of vegetation. What wonderful work she did! It underscored a lesson that I am continuously relearning: others can see in your work things you might not.
The U.S. military aviation “bone yard" outside Tucson is home to over 5,000 decommissioned military aircraft preserved in the dry desert and is stunningly surreal. I received special permission to photograph these military “sculptures”: F-16s, A-10 Warthogs, and B-52s being cut up or “guillotined” because of the SALT Talks. A deep blue sky, lack of pollution, and the desert sun were perfect ingredients to work my 24mm lens on these powerful machines. Climbing up and over these relics, I was able to produce images that resembled alien spacecraft more than fighter jets. If only those planes themselves could tell their stories …
Another desert: Australia. The striking features of Australian desertscapes are the rock and stone formations. Mango National Park in Victoria was a revelation. The site of two pre-historic lakes with some of the world’s oldest rocks – and the desiccation, wind erosion and deadened roots – formed landscape images recalling the dinosaur skeletons I had seen as a child at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.
I also ventured to Papua New Guinea and fulfilled my childhood dream of motoring up the Sepik River where Irving Penn famously photographed the tribal Mud People in his portable studio. Unlike Penn, my photographs were not simply portraits. I introduced my personal esthetic, blending villagers with the lush and harsh environment into a set of forms or patterns.
Living in Paris, I looked for those bright days to take the camera out for a walk. But still I need a desert fix with its charge of energy and change of scenery. I made a camera pilgrimage to the White Desert in Middle Egypt and later in Libya. The reader should picture himself or herself surrounded by desert dunes on a long-ago ocean floor with limestone deposits wind-eroded into ethereal sculptures. In some places the deposits form waves breaking across a beach against a horizon of never-ending dunes…
I envy the citizens of Fez and Sana’a – two cities in which time stands still, the inhabitants living in grayish, brown structures like so many generations before them. When the sun strikes the fruit or clothing markets, the colors are so rich that they seem to illuminate from within.
In Khartoum, where the Blue and White Niles merge on the site where Pasha Gordon met his maker, I took silhouettes of modest veiled women in beautiful purple and black garb, their gold bangles shimmering against a weathered green wall. Being at the right place at the right time is a major part of photography… priceless.
However, I cannot omit the lost opportunities. During my sojourn in South Africa, I heard rumors of ghost towns in Namibia. But when I set out to visit a town outside of Lüderitz, an abandoned German mining town, a rebel insurgency caused me to cancel. Today I still think about the possibilities of the images of a town lost to sand dunes.
I have been most fortunate. Travel surely multiplies the optimal moments in one's life and most assuredly photographic opportunities. Personally, photography is still an exciting adventure: when I shoot a wonderful image that I am certain is a “winner”, where everything has seemed to come together, and then when I can look forward to editing, and working with a theme in mind. At times I have been right on the mark. At others I have received an unexpected but pleasant surprise and sometimes, sadly, a major disappointment. Pre-visualizing images energizes me, but one can never fully control the elements that make for that perfect shot.
I am still looking for that perfect shot… and always will be.