Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Real photography by the master

I can't wait for Christmas ... not because I'm going to get all sorts of fancy new photography equipment (though to be honest, I am asking for a tripod ... I was going to ask for a lens, too, but that's a bit pricey), but because I did ask for a major new photography book, David Plowden's career retrospective, "David Plowden: Vanishing Point: Fifty Years of Photography"

Plowden's one of the best photographers in the business today, in my opinion. I've always loved the 1930s photographers who were part of the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker as part of the New Deal, and the photojournalists of the day like Margaret Bourke-White. Eugene Smith is another great photographer I admire. These people weren't out photographing beautiful scenary like Ansel Adams (though I do like his work too, just not to the same degree), but were photographing everyday people and places. Instead of finding the beautiful in nature, they found the beautiful in everyday life ... and while their photos do not initially appear to BE beautiful things or beautiful places, they really force you into seeing something beyond what your first glance and first opinion saw.

David Plowden is the same way. He so often takes a photo of something seemingly mundane, of a person or a subject that you would NOT have noticed, or would have noticed and quickly dismissed. But by capturing that image in time, he forces you to stop and LOOK at it. And you do. There's something still and tranquil in his images that really force you to stop and really look. Not just look at the photo and say, "hmm, that's an interesting photo." But something that causes you to STOP and LOOK. And then you realize something about that image ... it's beautiful, or it's ironic, or it's nostalgic, or it's impressive, or it angers you. You can't just look at one of his photos impassively. You stop, you look, and you become invested in whatever that picture is about.

He's an old-fashioned photographer ... he works with film, with an old camera, and then does all his own developing and printing, even down to the point where he's stockpiled up his favorite film and favorite photographic paper, because they're just not being made anymore in this digital era. And it appears that he's finishing up his career taking photographs, at age 75. He'll still be working in his darkroom, because he's endlessly in search of the perfect negative and print, but I don't know if he'll take any more photographs. It is a pity, because his work is so powerful ... even today, his 1970s book "The Hand of Man on America" really causes you to think, because he is speaking out, through his photographs, about pollution, about suburban sprawl, about blight. His books about industry are beautiful in that you can tell that big heavy industry like steel mills fascinate him endlessly, but also frighten him a bit. His books about small towns are haunting, because the Grant Wood/Norman Rockwell concept we have of rural small towns is true, and untrue, and also dying out, as seen in his photographs. And the best part of all his books is the lengthy narrative that he inserts in the beginning of them. Because he just doesn't go and take pictures, he inserts himself into that town, into that place, that mill, that ship. He meets people, gets to know them, and gets so that they don't notice or care when he takes his photos. But his stories about these people and places affect you just as deeply as his photographs of them. He's an amazing historian ... with the added threat of being able to take pictures and illustrate what he sees and experiences.

I first heard of him by reading a portrait of him by David McCullough, in McCullough's collection of essays called "Brave Companions." After reading it, I HAD to go find a book by Plowden. And I've been acquiring them ever since. While McCullough is a masterful storyteller and historian ... Plowden is every bit his match, but he does it all in the single frame of a photograph, while McCullough does it with his narrative skills.

I've linked to Plowden's website in this blog ... go to it, and go look at his photos on the blog (click on "archive"). But go out and buy one of his books, so you can really LOOK at his photos, again and again, and really feel what good photography is all about. There's none better.

P.S., the book's $100, but it's way cheaper on Amazon!


From the Buffalo News (10/22/07),

A retrospective of David Plowden’s poignant photography forever preserves the fabric of America

Picturing the past: The eye of David Plowden

Updated: 10/22/07 8:56 AM

“I’m always there when they take the last run of a steam engine or they’re trying to close a store or abandon the ferry or scrap the boat, or if they’re going to close the steel mills … I’m always one step ahead of the wrecking ball." -- David Plowden

David Plowden was in a deep personal and professional crisis. You don’t find out about it – quite literally – until the final pages of the beautiful career retrospective “David Plowden: Vanishing Point – Fifty Years of Photographs” (Norton, 339 pages, $100).

The book is a magnificent record of a vanishing America – steam engines, bridges, grain elevators, barns, lake boats, steel mills, country stores, all the things once so visible and prominent on the skin of America. Their dedicated and singular photographer, too, may now be in the act of disappearing.

From the field anyway.

And that was the crisis he was in.

“There’s no way I will repeat anything like this,” Plowden says on the phone about the work in the magnificent book. “I’m not going to go out in the field again and photograph the same things that are in the book. In the first place, most of them are gone. Being 75, my days are limited. I can’t climb around the steel mills anymore. I can’t climb up and down the ladder on board ships.”

He was, in fact, going to stop photographing altogether not all that long ago. That’s where his wife, the former Sandra Schoellkopf (of the Buffalo Schoellkopfs) stepped in.

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what else there is for me to photograph.’ I can’t do the same thing overand over again. Sandra suggested doing the book, ‘A Handful of Dust’ – looking at things which essentially are now gone.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to be taking these expeditions anymore.’ And she said, ‘If I go in the field with you, will you go?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. … For about three years we went out and covered a lot of the country that I realized was on its last legs.”

Plowden will show and talk about his work at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Auditorium of the Central Library at 1 Lafayette Square.

Rural vs. industrial

Putting this selection of his lifework together while living and teaching in Chicago “was a very bittersweet experience. A lot of these things I photographed 50, 40, 30 years ago, when you look at these photographs you remember everything. You remember the people, everything about the places.”

But at the same time, Plowden, the anthologist of Plowden the photographer’s lifework, was also struck by a question about his former self: “How could the same guy photograph the drama and the intensity and the mayhem of the steel mills and still go out and photograph the inside of a country church? I can’t believe that I was actually able to do this. .… As I looked at my work, I realized there were two major things. There was the rural, which included the small towns, and then there’s the industrial world. I have spent my life photographing these things with equal fervor.”

His explanation for the polaric opposite Americas in the work that has absorbed him for half a century is simple: “I would go to the steel mills and photograph the fire and brimstone of the mills and, then, as Sandra says, I’d have to come up for air and I’d go out and photograph Iowa. As a relief, then, I’d go out and photograph the [lake] boats.”

Without subjecting that duality of subject matter to too much pop psychology, it may relate directly to his parental upbringing, and Plowden admits as much.

“My father was a scene designer. He’d studied architecture. He became an actor. I’ve always thought many of these photographs of mine are stage sets. If you look at these interiors, some of them have been used that way – as examples of ‘what this room should look like’. … I can walk into these spaces and I can put the players into the room.

“In many cases, I don’t have people occupying these spaces. I want people [looking at the photographs] to be there themselves. I’m trying not to tell them everything.

“Music has always been a central part of my life. My mother studied very seriously in Paris. She wanted to be a concert pianist. She played all her life until her fingers gave out. Music was always in my life, always there. When I’m printing, I always listen to music. When I’m putting a book together, I’m thinking in terms of ballet, of choreography. I’m trying to keep the action going.”

He has always seemed to know, then, either intuitively or explicitly since he first started photographing steam locomotives, that a unique kind of American beauty would eventually be gone – from the nation’s landscapes and cityscapes, perhaps, but not Plowden’s photographs, those fragments shorn up against our ruins.

An ‘outsider artist’

Plowden, it must be understood, is not a journalist taking pictures on the fly for a deadline, while keeping on the move. He will only photograph what he’s taken the time to know and what he’s been given permission to photograph. And that, almost always, requires getting to know the people who gave him that permission.

Sometimes they decline. He remembers – dramatically – an old woman who had a country store “in the hollows of West Virginia. I asked her, ‘Would you mind if I photograph your store?’ And she said, ‘Listen, I know what you’re trying to do. You want to take it back to New York to show everyone how desperately poor we are here and your sympathy for us.’ ‘But,’ she said, ‘it’s my face and my store and it’s all I have.’ ”

Her face and store went unphotographed.

Plowden’s lifelong connection to his specific subject matter has resulted in his becoming a truly singular and privileged kind of “outsider artist” in the world of photography – one who is always published in book form and always admired but not very often in the inner sanctum of his art.

For illustration, picture a soigne photography exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Imagine Plowden approaching a chummy huddle of photographers and curators who are chatting. “One of them turned to him and said, ‘Oh, here’s David Plowden, our topical photographer. What’s your next book going to be? Telephone poles? Fire hydrants? What a wonderful thing you could do with fire hydrants.”

Plowden laughs about it now over the phone. But it was painful. His peculiar high-profile unfashionability isn’t entirely funny, even now. There’s an issue involved. And if it makes him one of the most strangely privileged and successful “outsider artists” in American art, so be it.

“I felt very hurt,” Plowden says now. “I felt very much the outsider in the art world. [I felt] that I was not an artist but a person who deals with a subject. To me, the composition and the light and the form and all those things are just as important as the subject. But it’s the subject that has always drawn me to make the photograph. I’d much rather be swimming in [railroad] engine grease than sitting on the floor eating rice out of two bowls.”

That latter is a reference to Plowden’s studies in Rochester with legendary American photographer Minor White, a giant of more conspicuously aesthetic bent whose reputation is on par with Ansel Adams and Walker Evans. White, says Plowden, “lived a very Bohemian life. He had a lot of the trappings. We’d sit on a rattan rug and eat rice out of chopsticks. And I thought that was going a little too far.”

“He also got into hypnosis. He would try to hypnotize us so we could see deeper into our photographs. That didn’t work for me. (Big laugh.) He finally said to me, ‘Go do your steam engines!’ I always felt with Minor that you had to be a clone in order to get his approval. Of course I was the rebel. I was the philistine. Minor and I were about as dramatically opposite as any two people could be.”

As it was

Steve Edwards tells the story of Plowden’s Museum of Modern Art humiliation in his introduction to “Vanishing Point.”

Plowden still insists on the power of the still photographer, even as his retirement from the field looms.

“I think the still photograph is one of the strongest statements. You, the photographer, have to be aware of every single thing in the frame and therefore the viewer has to look very carefully. In this frenetic world we live in, where everything is in motion all the time, suddenly to be confronted with a still image requires a great deal of the viewer. I think I ask a lot of my viewers. I ask them to look as carefully as I did. I think by doing this you see the way the world really is.” Or, more importantly, was.

Which makes, in its entirety, something singular about David Plowden’s America.

“I photographed these things at their height – the railroads, the steam engines, places where they would build the boats – Buffalo, oh my God, all the lake boats … ” His voice, on the phone trails off. The photos remain. And will continue to.


From New Chicago (, 11/13/07

Endangered Species
The vanishing art of photographer David Plowden
Michael Weinstein

"I suppose I am a heretic," David Plowden says with more than a touch of jovial irony. He is also a man who has achieved wisdom through his lifelong romance with the world through his camera.

Plowden's heresy is to be a master of the fine black-and-white photographic print of a straight shot that captures a subject—be it the densest landscape under the most dappled sky, or the sparest streamlined artifact—in all its complexity and individuality. In an age of digital shutterbugs, who is willing, as Plowden does, to spend a day driving through North Dakota solely in search of the perfect subject, framing it—if he is lucky enough to find one—"in the field" with single-minded concentration, and then taking the negative through a painstaking process of darkroom development that results in a print that makes a moment of the fleeting world exquisitely permanent?

In our graphic disposable age, the fine print is becoming passé and Plowden knows that. We want flash, not subtlety; we want to sense and emote, not to perceive and contemplate. Plowden's injunction to all who will listen is: "Stop and look at things!"

It is no exaggeration to say that "looking carefully" is the key to Plowden's entire life—his passion and his mission. Conversation with him quickly reveals that the camera is not an end in itself, but simply the best instrument for "seeing the world the way it is," and that the fine print is the best medium for preserving the subject against the tooth of time.

Indeed, the photograph conveys reality more authentically than perception of the world through our naked eyes, in Plowden's view. The fine straight print "separates things so that we can look carefully at them." With a certain optimism, Plowden adds that "you have to look at a still."

With self-irony, Plowden acknowledges that he is "asking too much" of his viewers. They must follow him back to the experience that he had when he took the shot, attentive to "every detail." Then they must "use their imagination "to inhabit the scene and respond to it with personal associations. All of this takes time, which is presently in short social supply.

Time is of the essence to Plowden. Not only does he want to memorialize the subject of a moment of experience and thereby recreate that moment in the viewer's response, but he chooses subjects that are vanishing from the humanly constructed landscape, committing a second heretical sin. What does an age obsessed with novelty—albeit superficial—want with the abandoned silos, steam locomotives, mom-and-pop stores, steel mills and Great Lakes freighters that Plowden serves up as subjects worthy of a careful look? Plowden wants to remind us of what we are losing or have already lost, much to his regret at 75 years old after a half-century devoted to preservation through photography.

Plowden's mission might seem to be tinged with nostalgia, which is the bĂȘte noir of the postmodern hipoisie. If culture is simply a construct to be altered at whim and will, the cardinal sin is to look back with longing to a past that never really was what we think it was now as we contemplate a two-dimensional colorless representation on a piece of paper.

Plowden is unmoved, remaining steadfastly the pure opposite of today's conventional sophisticated wisdom. He is troubled by the tendency of younger photographers to say "look at me" and to "strive to be different." As a professor of photography, he would take students into the field and, when they complained that everything around them had been shot straight before, he would answer: "But you haven't done it. Get over your self-consciousness about being derivative. Enjoy what you're looking at. Forget if anyone has been here before."

That is not nostalgia, but a decided preference for reality over novelty. Plowden explains that he photographs the vanishing landscape of factories, farms and small towns because "without these icons we will lose our identity. We are doing our best to obliterate our sense of identity. I feel very strongly about that." In an age of identity-experimentation, marketed identities and cyber-personae, Plowden is fighting a losing battle. In an increasingly virtual culture, images of the past are fragments of an archive to be sliced and diced, and mixed and melded into instant traditions for the moment.

Plowden was called to his mission early in life, before he learned to see through the camera. The life-changing experience that set him on his journey occurred in his boyhood spending summers in Vermont, where he fell in love with the steam locomotives that still plied the tracks there. One day, he realized that those magnificent machines would soon vanish from the scene, and he was seized with the wish to remember them and somehow to preserve them. At that moment, he had found his center and his life's work.

Already at his core, the impulse to attentive preservation flowered when Plowden took up photography in his youth and, from then on, he continually perfected his ability to see and record. Plowden's first great break came in 1958 when he was 26 years old and became the assistant to O. Winston Link, the famous photographer of steam engines. He counts his time with Link as more important than his private study with Minor White—the photographer's photographer and master of the fine print—in 1959, and his years at Chicago's Institute of Design from 1978 through 1986, where he encountered other versions of precision photography.

By the time he met Link, Plowden was already set on his course. An unabashed lover of railroads and a precise recorder of them, Link honed Plowden's technical skills but, more importantly, gave him added confidence in his mission. His later encounters as he matured gave Plowden further capabilities along the path he had chosen, but did not turn him from his root commitment.

As his visual intelligence became keener, Plowden's vistas broadened beyond steam engines to include all the vanishing vestiges of modern agricultural-industrial society. He is best known for his series of esteemed books, such as "The American Barn," "Bridges: The Spans of North America" and "A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America." Plowden's new book, "David Plowden: Vanishing Point—Fifty Years of Photography," is a rich retrospective of 352 pages covering his entire output and capping a career that he says is now over, at least in the field; there is much work still to be done in the darkroom.

Plowden's books allow the viewer to get a sense of his detailed aesthetic surface but, as he puts it, "the gallery is the best place to look closely at photographs," because we see them there as they were meant to be seen, and in a space designed to encourage visual appreciation.

Is there any life left in the fine print? Is there any time left for careful looking at something that our culture has passed by and is obliterating? Those questions can be answered affirmatively by taking in Plowden's impeccably curated retrospective exhibit at Catherine Edelman Gallery the way that Plowden suggests we do.

Plowden says that he offers the viewer a subject seen through his practiced eyes with the purely objective intent of bringing it to presence in its full detail. He is not administering a playful Rorschach test, but is engineering a confrontation in which the viewer is drawn into the subject and then meditates on it, associating with it only after taking the image in with single-pointed attention.

Viewers relaxed and receptive enough to follow Plowden's directive will find themselves in a zone of communion with the subject that produces a sense of the subject's independent power at the same time that it stimulates a contemplative mood that most often settles into wistfulness—a melancholy, yet strangely tranquil longing canceled by the affirmative resignation at the core of Plowden's wisdom.

It is up to viewers to let the subject fill their individual experience and make its imprint, and then to identify with it personally, so that it will become part of living memory, even if it is not consciously recalled.

David Plowden is a philosopher with a camera—a visual sage. His current assistant, Josh Law, says: "I have never seen anyone as dedicated to what they believe in."

Like his subjects, Plowden is of a vanishing breed and he is acutely aware of that. He requires our careful look because he teaches us to dwell with "wonderful things" that deserve to fuse with our lives.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

when I think of fall, I think of cemetaries ...

Okay, that sounds morbid, doesn't it?? But in a way, there's the whole symbolic thing, as nature shuts down for winter, the whole "lion in winter" thing about aging, etc. But actually, it's because in Cleveland we have the Lakeview Cemetary, one of the best in the nation ... and it's MORE than a cemetary, it's a gorgeous park, with immensely beautiful statuary, carved by Italian master craftsmen imported from Italy to do just that. They settled in a small area around the cemetary that has since become "Little Italy," which is home to countless great little Italian restaurants.

But the cemetary they worked at is a beautiful place, and I love to wander it in the Fall and Spring, photographing the place. It's filled with significant Clevelanders, ranging from President James A. Garfield, to John D. Rockefeller, to Elliot Ness, and Ray Chapman, the only pro baseball player killed during a game (took a nasty fastball to the head). And of course, plenty of everyday Clevelanders (such as my great-grandparents, Benjamin and Elizabeth, who emigrated to Cleveland from England in the 1910s).

Naturally it's a wonder too ... the place is filled with huge Japanese Threadleaf Maple trees, amazingly overgrown for decades, and just literally a cascade of color in the fall ... it's almost like a natural waterfall of red hues ... just stunning to see.

I need to get back there, but now I spend too much time on the weekends working on or around the house, but I WILL get back there one of these days, just because it's such a beautiful place. Yes, there are dead people there ... but it's such a wonderful place, you almost envy them for spending eternity in a gorgeous museum of natural beauty and the stonecarver's art.