"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Saturday, February 01, 2014

diane, helen, mary ellen and me

I'm going to school today. Not as a student, but as a teacher. 

Today we will be talking about inspiration. Here is the gist of what I'll share about the work that has informed mine over the years. I'll be showing the bleary eyed students 100 images, some of which I'm including here.

My Sister Playing Pool, c. 1963

Believe it or not, I started taking pictures when I was 2½.  What inspired me then? Certainly there were pictures around me: billboards, magazine covers, our 8mm family movies, pictures in books, drawings and paintings hanging in the houses of friends and family, etc. but back in 1957 there was not the bombardment of images there is today. It was a much quieter time visually, and I think I probably got my inspiration simply by discovering and carefully considering the things around me: my toys, my friends, my family and sights I saw on family vacations.

I took my camera almost everywhere and used its viewfinder to frame and record my world. I obviously took great pleasure in making time stand still and then, investigating those moments over and over again once the pictures were developed and printed. So, discovery and documentation were my early inspirations. Turning an ordinary moment into something special and maybe even monumental gave me a sense of control and creativity. I think I ended up with a fuller understanding of my childhood world by making pictures of it.

I learned how to develop my own pictures when I was in middle school and in high school I built a darkroom in our basement. Photography itself had become my inspiration.

The first picture I remember truly knocking me out was Identical Twins by Diane Arbus. I was 18 years old and had just headed off to college. The image was on the cover of her book; I think I saw it in the bookstore on campus. Once I bought a copy, I could barely turn the pages, because I couldn’t believe there could be possibly more images that powerful and strange and breathtaking.

What struck me? Honestly, I think part of it has to do with the fact that these girls resembled pictures I’d seen of my mother, grandmother, great aunts and even pictures of me as a young girl. I saw myself in them.  If I used my imagination, I could invent a story about them that was similar to mine. I felt a kinship to them.

Arbus thrived on going to new places, putting herself in new situations, feeling uncomfortable, getting to know people she probably wouldn’t meet if it weren’t for her camera. She believed that most of us would never see many of the things she photographed if it weren’t for her pictures. She was fascinated by people, especially those who carried some kind of physical or psychological burden. What was Arbus telling us about herself that she felt a need not only to photograph these people, but also become their friends? You’ll hear words like voyeurism, exploitation, disturbing, unsettling and tragic when people talk about her work, but from the first time I saw them, these pictures inspired me with their formal beauty, their starkness, their secrets and their unflinching honesty. I thought they were intimate and brave. I was inspired by the way the subjects trusted her and revealed themselves to her.

There are two other photographers who have greatly inspired me: Helen Levitt and Mary Ellen Mark.

Helen Levitt is best known for the quiet, lyrical images she made on the streets of New York City in the 1930’s and 40’s. I have always been inspired by her tender and witty approach and her ability to formally structure an otherwise chaotic or messy scene. I got to meet Helen shortly before she died at the age of 95, and she told me that taking good pictures involves LUCK! For years she roamed the streets, mainly in Spanish Harlem, waiting to come upon scenes to photograph; she had nothing to do with making them happen and she basically felt that she was simply in the right place at the right time more often than not. She thoroughly enjoyed capturing moments that unfolded before her. I am inspired by her sense of wonder and discovery. Because of her Helen Levitt’s pictures, I truly believe in the magic of image making. Her work has taught me to look around very carefully and closely, but mostly, it has taught me to be open to what is in front of me, to trust my intuition and to be willing to take a chance on the subtle beauty and poetry that surrounds me.

Mary Ellen Mark inspires me in yet other ways. She has portrayed - both journalistically and in her own personal projects homelessness - drug addiction, gypsies, circus performers and prostitution, among other things. Her style is direct and often formal, but she manages to skew the frame or use the edges in such a way as to make the images slightly unsettling. She believes that reality is always extraordinary. Like Arbus, Mary Ellen is interested in people on the fringes. She has always felt an affinity for people who can’t seem to catch a break. She is inspiring to me because she believes it’s important to acknowledge their existence and to give these people a voice. Her pictures represent a celebration of the human condition… something I aspire to accomplish with my own work.

So these three women inspired me early on and continue to inspire me today… each in a different way. One thing they all have in common is the ability to elevate something ordinary to the extraordinary. This, in a nutshell, is probably the way they have inspired me the most. Ultimately, I think knowing and studying their work has pushed me to try to become the best photographer I can be – to have a diligent work ethic, to learn how to speak with my own voice and to honor and celebrate the human condition. It’s true that many of my pictures, especially my early work, bring their pictures to mind. In preparing this presentation, I took the time to look back at several of my own bodies of work to see if I could easily find nods and references to photographs these incredible women have made. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. I’m going to scroll through some of those I pulled, and you can see for yourself how the lessons I’ve learned from Arbus, Levitt and Mark have woven their way into the tapestry of photographs that I call mine.

Diane Arbus

Helen Levitt

Mary EllenMark

and me


Anonymous said...

These are wonderful, Gloria! Marti

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I can definitely see the influence of the women you chose in your work as well. However, your work is still distinctively yours. JR

Anonymous said...

I hope your students know how lucky they are.
- Susan