Sunday, February 18, 2007


After a week in which I spent a great deal of time thinking, it was something of a relief this afternoon, to pack up my camera gear and drive downtown a simply wander around with no particular time frame and no particular destination, just putting one foot in front of another and taking the pictures that presented themselves.

Now that I've walked myself out I'm having thoughts again, a different kind of thoughts (second thoughts?), this time about the pictures themselves and some of the implicit logic of the photo-making process. I don't have sophisticated tastes in artwork, but I've developed a few favorites over time. One of first modern painters with whom I felt some sort of tentative, hard-to-articulate affinity was Charles Sheeler. I was taken by his sense of composition, the way he would take something quite literal and present it as a kind of geometrical abstraction. Many of his pictures are in essence a kind colorscape, as opposed to a traditional landscape, and the subject matter is often, as in "Upper Deck," the painting at left, is often technological rather than natural. He seems to be documenting and in some sense celebrating the constructions of mankind.

Similarly, I admire the geometrical precision and balance of many of Edward Hopper's paintings, which seem to be aiming for that middle zone between representation and abstraction. From there it is not too great a step to the more purely abstract paintings of Clifford Styll, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn, all of whom reside in a corridor in the back of my mind as presiding deities when I'm out with my camera. I'm not really consciously patterning my photographs after them, but they have colored the way I see things through the viewfinder.

Here, for example, is a picture I took at Ward Center today. While the subject matter is literal enough, a corner of the walkway on the second floor of Ward Warehouse, I saw it through the lens as a more or less as a study in form and color. Sometimes these pictures don't work out, but this one has a kind of drama that I like.

Similarly, if less obviously, is this picture I took a few minutes later, looking straight down from walkway at a little girl who was one of several children playing in the little ampitheater area they have there. Here Rothko was explicitly in my mind (those five, tonally related vertical stripes) as I framed the picture, but I was taken with the little girl and the implied geometry: she was looking sideways over toward her father and sister at the same time that I was looking straight down at her. I took several other pictures of the father and his two little girls, whose pure and un-self-conscious happiness resonated especially strongly for me after the events of the week.

I went back downstairs and was walking along when my eye was caught by a lime green t-shirt in the window of an old Ford Pinto. I was first interested in the picture as a kind of study of color and form within the horizontal rectangle, and then as I kept looking back to it I was, and still am, each time I look at it, arrested by the suggestion of a bodily presence which is actually a bodily absence.

(As I was writing this, I found myself thinking of William Stafford's poem "At Our House":

Home late, one lamp turned low,

crumpled pillow on the couch,

wet dishes in the sink (late snack),

in every child's room the checked,

slow, sure breath--

Suddenly in this doorway where I stand

in this house I see this place again,

this time the night as quiet, the house

as well secured, all breath but mine borne

gently on the air--

And where I stand, no one.

Presences. Absences. What it means to be present in the midst of absences.)

Walking a little further, I went into a kitchen-goods store, thinking to buy a wine-bottle opener as a gift for a friend of mine. They did not have the kind of opener I had in mind, but the place was an amazingly stimulating visual environment, and I walked around the store quite happily for several minutes taking pictures until I happened to look up and see the store owner giving me stink-eye.

I ignored him, but the next thing I knew a young woman began following me around. Then she came over to me and told me very apologetically that "There's a rule against taking pictures in the store." Really? A rule? And is that a rule that is written down somewhere, or what? "Well, I'm sorry, but the owner doesn't like you to be taking pictures in the store." Ah. A different matter entirely, to be sure. I told her I'd be happy to refrain from taking pictures in the store—and that the owner could rest easy, for I would not be back in a hurry—and took my leave. (Alas. I wonder what the owner was afraid of.)

I continued down toward Ward Center, the other half of the Ward Shopping Complex, and along the way came upon what will serve as the bookend for this reflection: another little study in line and color.

As I said at the start, I guess I needed this time to wander, and I guess that even in my non-thinking mode my thoughts were, inevitably, very much with me, and more or less insinuating themselves into what I was seeing.

There are many ways of thinking about photographs. I'd like to think of the photographs I've been taking lately as kind of testimony to, and celebration of, the small beauties that surround us everywhere, that we, that I, am so often likely to overlook. The title of the book from which the William Stafford poem is taken is "The Darkness Around Us is Deep." Photography is, in essence, all about the light. In the Geoff Dyer book I wrote about earlier, he quotes Dorothea Lange to the effect that "the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera" (9). I'm down with that.

Art Credits:

Upper Deck:
Chop Suey:


Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

Coincidentally I went in your pictures yesterday...looking. (And I'm going to write here before I read your blog except I saw the Sheeler reference and I about this life really are amazing.)

Thinking about light.Especially connected that to your photo's. I just bought myself the Katz book on Janet Fish. she was a painter I admired, admire. Right now I see a connection in a way to your photo work. I studied art-Masters-went into Pittsburgh from WV and took up with those around Close awhile...anyway I learned to paint under good teachers.Really good teachers that helped define how I see. I connect now that what I write,teach, how I construct meaning is all very tied to this still life thing I started very young of which Fish is a master.Think of it as everday object portraiture.

My mom's people ran the dairy in Doylestown, PA home to Sheeler and I have a always felt he was the first artist I "understood". I miss the east coast where the light was different and I saw more art work, frankly. And worked and sold so knew people to see more.

But just the same I went today on a journey looking at Pearlstein whose paintings reminded me of the light in some of your pictures, the angles. Looked at others too. You seem to move through your photo's free of "moral" or somehow I want to say moralizing. Allowed me to feel the spaces there with the warmth of your light, with a sense of lifting my eyes and looking, with a kind of beauty in the ordinary life. I find this one of the hardest things to do well and most important. For me it's a celebration of daily life. I like to ride close that that place.

One thing I noticed as the works went backwards in time towards basketball shots(well sports) I was enjoying the intelligences and experiences that framed the shots. It felt a kind of "same person", though someone that might be in different mind or different thoughts. So sometimes humor, or as a man, as a thought about this or that the way our mind kind of moves through thoughts. In this way I really liked seeing these shots in a group. I thought it was very revealing seen in this way. Artistic process revealing.
Still and all I suppose a singularity of vision.Which was a bit voyeur of me but I was engaged.

For what it is worth you made me flash to thinking about different "spaces". I live I think in a more emotion based memory and visual memory kind of place. I was seeing white light on walls and streets in cities and the smell and feel of markets and venturing of my own flashed there triggered by your images. That surprised me. You put me into spaces of an art life of 20 years ago frankly.

So here I read you were out and about.

Very funny.

I really enjoy the connection to art. I'm gearing up to start another run of painting. For some reason this requires a great deal of strength. And older, I wonder about how this seems to be both a good thought, but also one where I feel less than the task needs.
Now I'll go read your post and be a bit intimidated by your intelligences....

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Sarah. I appreciate what you said about the framing of the shots as revealing something of the "same person." I do have what I think is a pretty consistent set of overlapping aesthetic principles in mind when I'm taking pictures. In some of them it's more skewed toward the two-dimensional color composition angle, which I'm alway conscious of to a certain degree. In others, its' more reportorial: there are aspects of what I see around me that I find intriguing and sometimes funny and I'm trying to document that in something like the way that Sheeler or Carl Laarson did in their paintings: this is the world I inhabit. Or, more precisely, this is the version of the world that I inhabit that I choose to attend to.

That's something I think I've learned, and have tried to communicate in some way to my students: the extent to which we shape the world we live in by what we choose to attend to. Even in ordinary everyday awareness, the proportion of things we are screening out as opposed to the things we are actually attending to is very high, up in the 90s somewhere, I would guess. But I suppose if I were to take enough pictures, those pictures taken together would eventually reveal or make inferable the nature of the world I carry around in my head. Which is sort of the point you were making earlier. I find it encouraging that you sensed that. Thanks.

I went to the basketball game because the coaches (twin brothers) of the team in blue (which was playing my school's team) are the sons of close friends: I was best man at their wedding back in 1970. I used to coach basketball and I was trying to (re)capture that feeling of the intensity of the communication that goes on during a time out, while also trying to make a portrait of Jesse and Julian I could send to my friends. So that was different than what I normally do, but fun.

I hope you do get going with your painting again. Though you certainly have a lot of good work going on in your classroom and your blog, not to mention your family, so I imagine time must be hard to come by. As far as not feeling up to the task, welcome to the club. I've always liked what William Stafford says: if you're finding it hard to write, lower your standards. "Finicky ways dry up the sources." The same is true of art, or music, or photography. If I held myself to the standards of quality I would like to aspire to, I'd never get started: on the blog, on piano, on pictures, on lesson planning. My tai-chi instructor says, "Do without doing. Try without trying." See what comes next.

- B

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

Yes....and I should have said I stopped looking at the basketball works because it was different. And I couldn't accommodate it with the line I was going down.I guess.

Clarity...I'm ever in murk.But I was in a very interesting place. Thinking of markets, people out in sun, your selecting, what you might have been seeking or not seeking...and humor. I found humor and a male perspective too.

I will read your blog more completely taking a deep breath as I will grow very's just how I am...exactly this way in a museum or gallery or conversation in a faculty party....and look at your pictures with evenings where I'm up not sleeping, my newest issue. As I said slightly intimidated but learning. The literature is just very meaningful and I get lost in poems and pieces.

Lately I've begun to see how breath taking is the capacity in others.

And for what it's worth your silverware photo's made me want to do drawings of my flatware. Beautiful, cool, portraiture and yet not a person, removed, very evoking.... really.And I may just do some pencil work from some forks tonight.I have literally spent the day in artists works from the photo-realist I knew(some personally) and re visiting artist works I can now see on-line. And I know your photo's jumped me to there. Thank you much,