For this second episode in our new series of interviews of the great photographers of our time, I’m really proud to publish a long and fascinating discussion with Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee.
Michael and Paula are husband and wife and live in the USA in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They work with large view cameras (usually 8×10-inch for Paula and 8×20-inch for Michael) and make contact prints on silver chloride paper, a unique photographic printing paper that they had manufactured after Kodak’s Azo was discontinued. Between them, their photographs have been collected in over 150 art museums worldwide.
Michael and Paula are also book publishers under the imprint Lodima Press. They have published eleven of their own books, with three more on the way this spring, and thirty books by other photographers—some very well-known such as Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon, Larry Fink, and some by unknown photographers such as Bill Lowenburg, Alejandto Lopez de Haro R. as well as others.
This interview deals with Michael and Paula as photographers. A second interview will be about their book publishing, paper manufacturing, their archival mat board business, and their digital services.
I have sliced this long first interview into 2 digestible parts. The final segment will be published early next week. I urge readers who want to improve their photography to read the words and not just glance over the photographs. I own several books and prints produced by Michael and Paula and they are exquisite. As you will see, the following is all about vision and how to improve it, so it is a real privilege and I cannot thank Michael and Paula enough for the considerable time and effort they have put into answering my questions.
Enough into. On with the show !
[Pascal] In each of your photographs, the subject seems of little importance. It seems to be a pretext or visual support for patterns, visual metaphors, ambiance … how is that a conscious decision?
[Paula Chamlee] The first time I looked on the ground glass of a view camera, I said, “This is perfect. Now I can see things for how they look and not what they are.” The ground glass helped me control, and even put aside, preconceptions about how I thought things should look and allowed me to see how things could look. I felt completely free to see new visual relationships and make discoveries I might not have otherwise made.
Our task as photographers (in black and white) is to make the relationship of tones rhythmically harmonious. When looking at the world through a camera, any camera, one must realize the subject is no longer what we name it, such as buildings, sky, trees, water, people, etc.; we only have tones to work with, tones that become the form and structure of the picture.
A photograph is a picture; it is not the thing that was in front of your camera. The photographer transforms the subject matter into something else, and ideally something more than what it is of. The two-dimensional object, the picture, becomes the new reality.
[Michael A Smith] That the subject of our photographs is of little importance is not true and is true—both at the same time. We always have a deep emotional response to that which causes us to set up our cumbersome cameras. (The one I use most often is a 12 x 20 Deardorff with an 8×20 back. It weighs 35 pounds without a lens. Paula uses an 8×10 Kodak Master View.) We would not go to all the trouble of setting up if we did not have a deep response to the subject.
But then, in the act of looking on the ground glass, what the subject is becomes unimportant. Our goal is, as I have put it, “to make the best picture we can.” Our photographs, while they are of and are about some particular thing, place, or person, are also really as much about the relationship of everything to everything else—every tone to every other tone.
I have referred to our photographs as “rhythmic events”. It is because of our attitude in approaching the making of a photograph in this way that we can so easily move between photographing the natural landscape and photographing the urban landscape. It is how one sees, not what one sees, that makes any photograph interesting.
Edward Weston once wrote that what he photographed (the true subject of all of his photographs, regardless of subject matter) was “… the ‘me‘ of universal rhythms.” We are all connected to universal rhythms and when a work of art connects to those universal rhythms we all (usually unconsciously) feel it. And it is that connection in a work of art that makes it successful. We are well aware that with photographs some people feel they are successful because they are interested in the specific subject matter represented, but with our work, the subject matter becomes an excuse for making a rhythmically harmonious picture.
[Pascal] Very often, abstract or semi-abstract pictures use perspective compression and/or suppression of visual cues of depth. The distribution of tones in your work seems to provoke the same sort of reading as abstracts but with broad vistas and an abundance of very real detail. What’s the trick?
[Paula] Having come to photography from painting (I painted in generally the abstract expressionist style), my interests were naturally involved with spatial ambiguity. For all of my art-making years, I have been involved with abstraction. To emphasize this in photography, I normally use long focal length lenses. One’s eye cannot see things in the world the way various focal length lenses can, so why not take advantage of those tools and exploit them for all the grand visual surprises they can offer? My long focal length lenses help me see things I could not otherwise see. If a work of art is too easy, too obvious, it doesn’t hold my attention longer than first glance. When I make photographs, I want to feel surprised and exhilarated by what I am seeing, and various lenses provide visual discoveries that I could not imagine otherwise. I put great effort into the process of seeing; this is not only to learn from the ground glass image, but to feel something strong and moving from it. How to make a picture, any work of art, more than what it is of? That’s the key to all great art.
[Pascal] There is a modern current, particularly in amateur photography, with shallow depth of field and loose composition. Your work is the opposite. Composition is incredibly important and depth of field total. What influences that?
[Paula] I find it to be a fascinating and delicate balancing act to have something totally recognizable and yet completely abstract simultaneously. The photographic medium has the particular advantage of rendering sharp detail from near to far, and I find that quality very alluring. Sometimes blurring in various parts of the picture can add to a photograph. Some people have a trademark visual style in working only this way. It’s a personal choice. For me, it is harder, and thus more satisfying, to achieve the mystery and power and abstraction in the structure of the photograph while still showing every detail. There is simply more to see, and a good photograph should be a pleasure to look at from across the room as well as very close.
Good composition comes from understanding that everything in the picture is the subject. Everything. Nothing is unimportant. Negative space, positive space, tiny details–everything counts. One can be loose and free and playful while still working carefully.
[Michael] In our photographs we feel that we are responsible for every square millimeter of the picture space, the same way a composer is responsible for every note or a poet is responsible for every word.
In music, a composer cannot compose a piece of music with a few bad notes, or with notes that were just left over. And likewise, in a good photograph there should not be any square millimeters that are there just because they are left over to the side or behind the ostensible subject.
Even in a photograph such as Edward Weston’s Pepper #30, the subject is not just the pepper, but it is also the space between the pepper and the edge of the picture and how that space relates to the pepper. In all good photographs, every space, line, and tone must relate to everything else.
With an infinite depth of field in focus there is simply more to look at. With a shallow depth of field, the emphasis is on “the subject.” Since, in our photographs everything is the subject, we want it all to be clear and to be important.
In regard to everything in the picture space being essential, we are reminded of something we read in an art history book: If you take a tiny piece out of a Renoir painting you have a hole in the painting, but if you take a tiny piece out of a Cezanne painting you have nothing at all—because everything in the picture is necessary to everything else.
An example: Cezanne was painting a portrait of the art dealer Ambrose Vuillard. In the painting Vuillard is sitting on a high stool and his hands are in this lap. After 117 sittings Vuillard said to Cezanne, “In the painting, there are a few small areas on the back of my hand where there is no paint. Did you forget to put color there?” Cezanne replied, “I did not forget, but I don’t know what to put there, and if I should put the wrong thing I would have to start all over again.” In the finished painting those spots remain as bare canvas. Paula and I like to think that we make our photographs with the same care that Cezanne made his paintings.
So, when looking at our photographs we ask the viewer to take time and look at everything and to pay particular attention to the corners and the edges; what is happening there is as important as what is happening anywhere else in the picture.
[Pascal] So your photography follows very strict rules of composition and tonal rendering?
[Paula] Oh no. There are absolutely no rules (which is the only rule). Actually, there is one rule in photography that I learned from Michael: “Don’t kick the tripod.” To follow rules is to limit one’s self to all the visual possibilities and to miss the surprises–the surprises where real progress can be made.
Tonal rendering: I believe that a photograph can really “sing” in the gray-scale. Black and white is easy to attain, but a very long and luscious gray-scale is not so easy. Michael and I use the very best negative material combined with the very best printing paper, and processed with specific chemistry for each in order to achieve a gorgeous tonal rendering. It also helps to get our exposures right most of the time.
[Michael] There are most certainly no rules. Both Paula and I work intuitively. I have heard about the rule of thirds, the golden mean, and “s” curves, but I could not clearly tell you what these rules are. If any of our photographs adhere to these “rules,” as undoubtedly some do, it was purely unconsciously on our part.
[Pascal] Earlier, you mentioned rhythmical events. How do you find rhythm in everyday life?
[Paula] There are infinite ways to make rhythmically harmonious pictures, and each of us finds that in our own way. Life rhythms are in everything. All one needs to do is connect with them. In everyday life, I find new and challenging rhythms through many things, all of which I hope enhance my growth as a person and expand what and how I perceive the world. Most of it simply comes from what I call “staying awake,” being sensitized to what’s around me: the music I listen to, the things I read, the people I meet, the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of the natural world as well as the urbanized world, the practicing of some yoga, the challenges I set for myself in my studio, to name a few. For example, I’m working on (and not without anxiety) some very difficult collages and sumi ink drawings. I trust that everything feeds itself subconsciously into my photographing, and it seems to work that way. I don’t try to make new pictures; they come when I’m ready. The readiness comes from my having moved on, however slowly, to a new and expanded place from within. And I have to work at it. Perhaps the best way to develop one’s vision is to develop one’s self.
[Michael] When looking on the ground glass we just concentrate on the rhythm. It is the underlying abstract structure of the picture that creates the rhythm. It is an unconscious thing. One feels it or one doesn’t. By understanding that what a black and white photograph is—a flat surface of tonal relationships, ideally where those tonal relationships have an abstract underpinning—one can develop this sense of universal life rhythms. It is this that we teach in our workshops.
[Pascal] How did your vision evolve?
[Michael] Early photographs of mine were clearly “abstract”: things were seen close-up in a relatively shallow space and with relatively high contrast. After the close-up “abstract” photographs, for a time, my pictures became more “all-over” and with much more subtle tones.
The influences for this are many and varied. One important one was the book Prints and Visual Communication by William Ivins, who was Curator Emeritus of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Another influence was that I began to listen to twentieth century classical music—mostly by Hindemith and Bartok, instead of J.S. Bach and Mozart. A longer answer to your question can be found in the essay by John Bratnober in my book, Michael A. Smith: A Visual Journey—Photographs from twenty-Five Years, which was published in 1992 on the occasion of my twenty-five year retrospective exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.
As a result of these influences my photographs became a mixture—“all-over” with many small forms and shapes relating to each other. Although this is true for the most part—not all of my photographs can be characterized this way, but in general, this characterization works.
As an artist I always want to challenge myself. I am fond of quoting one of my favorite poets, e.e. Cummings who said, “An artist, whose every agony is to grow.” After a while it seemed too easy to make close-up abstract photographs, and I started to make photographs in a larger, habitable, identifiable space that were abstract and at the same time realistic. That was somewhat easier to do when photographing in the natural landscape than in cities, so I began to photograph in cities. Once I have done something well, I want to do the next thing—visually—with the same equipment and in the same manner of working.
[Paula] As a painter my vision was involved with abstraction through the specific influences that I mention in a later paragraph. I am not interested in showing mere illustration, but rather a deeper expression through the organization of visual elements that convey something more open-ended, something even mysterious, but always something that can have meaning on many levels and touch the viewer through the experience of their own life, not mine.
This is actually why we never title our pictures (except for identifying a location or a person if it’s a portrait). We never define what someone is looking at because it would limit their experience and imagination by telling them what they should see. Our photographing experience is no longer important. It is now a picture with which the viewer can have his/her own experience–sometimes one that is deeper than our own.
[Pascal] What do you want to bring to the viewer?
[Paula] A great photograph.
[Michael] I once wrote this about my photographs: “My photographs are really records— records of the interaction between myself and the things recorded. It is my hope that the end result of this interaction—the picture—will create an exciting new interaction between itself and the viewer.”
[Pascal] You both appear to share the principles discussed thus far. But is it fair to say that Paula’s photographs are more feminine, more organic, and Michael’s more rigorous?
[Paula] Yes, it is fair to say that. The masculine/feminine aspect has been noted by others many times, which has always been surprising to us since it isn’t something either of us would think about when making our photographs. It isn’t something that can be explained easily and it isn’t necessary to do so, but it seems to be a clear and affirming example of “who you are is always revealed in your pictures,” for better or for worse, and certainly reveals the uniqueness of every photographer.
[Michael] It is interesting to note that although we use pretty much the same equipment (I worked with, and still continue to use an 8 x 10 as well as the 8×20), the same film, the same paper, and that we basically share the same principles, that the photographs we make are so different from each other. Back in 1990, Paula made one photograph that I felt I would have made—but that, to this date, has been the only one. I remember once, also in 1990, looking on her ground glass after she had made an exposure. I wondered (silently to myself) why she had bothered, because it is certainly a photograph that I never could have made. Well, it became one of her most popular photographs. . . . So much for what I know. (See the following photograph.)
The second instalment of this interview is now online.