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I don’t know if it is just me, or my generation — a cohort of Baby Boomers who once felt, or more precisely, knew they could change the world for the better (sigh). 

Or perhaps it is some random mutation of the Protestant work ethic. I think of stately plump Buck Mulligan telling Stephen Dedalus, “You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” Only, in my case, it is a dour Lutheranism, a faith I have never believed in nor practiced, yet discover somehow in my Scandinavian blood, where it lingers and makes me feel that if I am not working, not producing, I am not making quitrent on my existence. 

It is not simply a compulsion to work, but a crippling sense of guilt if I do not. The joke is that I am fully aware in my rational mind that there is no reason to feel this way. I am 71 and no one will threaten me with a cat-o-nine-tails if I don’t pull my oar till I drop dead. I worked steadily during my working years, and even after I retired, I managed to pump out more than 500 essays on this blog in just a few years. 

When I was employed, even on my vacations I managed to squeeze out travel stories for my newspaper. I was writing all the time, and making the photographs to accompany those stories. “Your business is producing; your business is producing,” a tiny Stalinist voice is grinding in my subconscious. 

So, even now, five years on from my paycheck, when I go visiting out of town, I am compelled to spend at least a portion of my time on one project or another. Several of these projects have been displayed on this blog over the years. One such project was to photograph nothing but circles; another to photograph ceilings and floors; another to document every house on a given street. 

Well, I am just back from visiting my brother- and sister-in-law. I drive three hours from Asheville to Reidsville, N.C., several times a year to spend a few days with them. He is an artist of some reputation; she keeps him in line. And this time I managed to work on three different ongoing art projects. 

The first I’ll mention is a series of images of fruits and vegetables in bowls. A bit of the round rim usually crosses and edge of the frame. I love the organic and geometric shapes interacting. 

I am also responding to a famous sumi-e Zen painting by the 13th century Chinese artist Mu-Chi, in which he lines up six persimmons and cleverly evades the monotony of an even number of fruits by making three groups, of one persimmon, of two, and of three. I have always loved this painting.

There is no way I can ever match it. But I have my own interest in the roundness, the ripeness and the color of fruits and vegetables. 

There is a one-off I made this trip. Looking out the window in my bedroom and seeing the branches through the Venetian blinds, I was reminded of a three-part Japanese shoji screen. 

The second project is a continuation of a lifelong fascination with the complex, ungovernable patterns of tree branches in the winter. I always think of them as a metaphor of the tangle of axons and dendrites in the human brain. The macro mimics the micro. 

It is a series I have called “tree nudes,” and I feel toward the rough bark, the curves in the tree trunks, the graceful dance of the end-twigs in a breeze as a similar kind of sensuousness you find in a classic nude painting or photograph. 

I made my first tree nudes at least 50 years ago and my solander boxes are filled with old silver prints I made from that point until I gave up chemical photography and took up digital. Now my hard drive is silting up with jpeg tree nudes. 

I used always to photograph in black and white and tree nudes are a perfect subject. The trees are usually rather color-drained in the winter and their silhouettes are perfect for a monochrome. But I have also discovered the magnificently subtle colors that can be found in a completely grey image. Grey is never just neutral; it always hints at something on the color wheel. 

In my senescence I have discovered color. I never thought to think in chroma, perhaps because color film, whether Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, or Agfacolor, was always such a poor conveyer of color. A Kodachrome image looks jammed with Kodachrome colors, not the colors of the world. And transparencies never printed out well enough to make a satisfyingly crisp picture. Even Cibachrome looks always like a Cibachrome. 

But, for some reason, my own sensitivity to color has rejuvenated and I find myself seeking out images that work best in color, and I like the look of digital color, which I can control so much better, thanks to Photoshop, than I used to be able to control the color of a transparency or a print from color negative film. 

Almost all my art has been unmanipulated. I am not a fan of solarization, double exposures or all those godawful “filters” that Photoshop provides. But I did make one experiment this trip. 

The tree nudes were inspired, perhaps, when I was a teenager visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Manahattan — I lived just across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey — and I came to love the great Jackson Pollock hanging there. The business of the paint drips was the first neuronal metaphor I was aware of. 

So while in Reidsville, I made three photographs of some vines out the front door. Here’s one of them as an example:

I then edited the three images, lightening them up, and layering them one atop the other. The result is my simulacrum of a Pollock, only with the lines and shapes of nature. 

I made a second version in which I tinted one of the images yellow, a second one cyan, and the third magenta, so they might make a color version of the monster I had created. 

Finally, I had my third project this trip. I sought out the older parts of Reidsville and made a series of images of post-industrial Piedmont. For those images, I will wait for the next posting. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Not every life-changing event happens on the road to Damascus: a blinding light, knocked to the ground, twitching galvanically. The death, the religious conversion, the falling in love. But there are smaller turnings also, often dozens of them in a life, perhaps passed unnoticed at the time, but nudging our lives on a slightly new heading. “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined.” The butterfly in Brazil. These are also life-changing. 

In the summer of 1972, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a small exhibition in its downstairs gallery, behind glass doors. “Atget’s Trees” put together 50 photographs by the French artist Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857-1927). Lined up on the wall in a darkened space, with brilliant track lighting that made each photograph gleam like a jewel, the photographs made my heart jump and my eyes happy. (That kind of lighting is now largely verboten in museums, as they adhere to a strict limit of only so much illumination to protect sensitive materials from light damage. Silver-image black and white photographs are largely immune to such light damage, so the restriction on lighting seems shortsighted and misguided; it dulls the brilliance.)

Atget (At-zhay) was an odd little man who taught himself photography in order to document art, architecture and decor that was disappearing as Paris and France entered the modern world. Originally, beginning in 1890, his work was meant for painters, architects and stage designers to provide models for their work, and he sold his pictures to them. But he seems to have become more and more interested in the details of his city for their own sake. He took thousands, maybe tens of thousands of negatives. Many were sold to various institutions interested in historic preservation, such as the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. 

In 1925, he met American photographer Berenice Abbott, who began buying his photographs and collecting negatives. In 1968, she sold her collection to MOMA, from which the “Atget: Trees” show was developed. 

The majority of Atget’s subjects were buildings, statues, door knockers, gardens and street scenes. No detail was too humble for his attention. There are photographs of doors, photos of stairways, photos of balconies and railings, of fireplaces, of courtyards and alleyways. His curiosity was omnivorous and ravenous. 

But through all, there was one subject he came back to over and over: trees. Most were in parks, like Saint-Cloud or Sceaux; some were at Versailles; others simply out in the countryside. He seems especially taken with ragged bark and gnarly roots. Often, he has photographed the same tree over and over, from very slightly different angles, or in different seasons. There is something sensuous in the growth and surface of trees that excited his artistic libido. 

Atget’s equipment and technique were already antique when he began, using an old bellows camera and large negatives, printing them on albumen paper and toning them with gold chloride. This gave his images a sheen (from the egg white) and rich, chocolatey tone (from the gold) that, in the right light, makes them jump from the frame with gem-like luster. 

And there I was, in 1972, ripe for the message they were giving me. 

You have to remember that 50 years ago, the art world — and especially the world of photography — was deeply buried in a type of snooty puritanism. We were taught you never “crop” your images, but framed them precisely in the viewfinder. Anything else was “sloppy” and perverted the natural uses of the camera. You must used archival paper and processing. Frames must be neutral, matting must be white or ivory.

And most of all, you were made aware that a photograph was all about photography. Art about art. Subject matter hardly mattered; it merely provided an armature on which to make your statement about the nature of photography and art. 

This was the art world the late Tom Wolfe railed against in his book, The Painted Word, where the deacons of art criticism slapped their hands down on a kind of outstretched bible of certainty: A painting must be flat, it must not mix genres, it must investigate the possibilities of paint and never, ever “illustrate” a story or event. Hellfire and brimstone of a different sect.  

This was the heyday of Ansel Adams and his Zone System of photographic exposure and development, to carefully control the results, which were by necessity “previsualized,” i.e., you were to know before you snapped the shutter, exactly what the end result would be, including its printed size and what sort of paper you would print it on. God, it was constricting. What a constipated way of approaching art. 

And here was Atget before my eyes, messy, uncoordinated, obsessive and obviously fascinated with the things of this world. 

Not that it made a dent in the attitude of exhibit curator John Szarkowski, one of the deacons of that puritan orthodoxy. Szarkowski was Director of Photography at MOMA from 1962 to 1991, and one of the most influential voices of the time. He performed many miracles for photography as an art at a time when the status of photos was still doubted in some corners of the art establishment. But he also issued some very dubious edicts. 

About the “Atget: Trees” exhibit, he wrote in a wall label for the show, “On the basis of a small and heterogeneous collection, the quality of effortless poise that identifies Atget’s work might easily be read as naivete. A study of his repeated investigation of the same or similar subjects, on the other hand, suggests a conscious and sophisticated concern with the ultimately formal problems of picture making. 

“Atget was acutely aware of the literally infinite number of images that are potential in a given ‘subject,’ and he knew also that none of them was true, in the sense that it shared a privileged identity with the object photographed. The subtle variations in framing included here among the six plates of the Beech Tree, St. Cloud, for example, make it clear that Atget did not confuse the subject with the object. He understood that the true subject is defined by (and is identical with) the picture.” 

That is art gobbledy-gook for, “Don’t think Atget was a bumpkin. No, he knew that the real subject of a photograph is the photograph itself, and the finished print, given to us, is the only actual goal of taking the thing in the first place.” (I especially note the condescending quotation marks around “subject.”)

And that, my friends, is a complete misreading of Atget and his art. 

What I came to realize, adoring those luscious trees on the wall of 53rd Street, was that what mattered was not the print, but the attention that Atget gave the world he loved. That, in fact, the subject does matter, and the photographer’s engagement with it was the photograph’s raison d’etre. The photo was merely a lasting and sharable byproduct of the artist’s attention. 

Atget was an indifferent craftsman. His photographs are often poorly exposed, a bit out of focus, show effects of lens flare from an uncoated lens; the prints are sometimes poorly processed and some are fading, or picking up spots and stains. In a Postmodern world, all these things might have been consciously introduced to make us aware of process in privilege over subject matter. But Atget was no such. The power of his work, and its attractiveness is in its naivete — or rather, its directness. Art theory cannot touch it, cannot sully it or soil it. 

Soaking in the MOMA show, I fell in love with Atget’s art, but even more, I learned to mistrust the vox auctoritate. Just because a respected and learned expert speaks ex cathedra does not mean he is right. After all, a scholar is shooting in the dark, just as we all are. Just as Atget engaged with the things he loved, I tried my best to engage with his photographs and not be led into believing orthodoxies that had little to do with what I actually saw. 

And this visit to 53rd Street also freed me to loosen my own approach to the camera and use it to engage with the things I love.

I have had many such life-changing encounters, small but meaningful. This was just one of them. 

Click any image to enlarge