#197. Talking with masters : Paula Chamlee & Michael Smith on photographic vision (part 2)

By pascaljappy | Interview

Feb 02

Part 1 of this interview was published here. Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee, 2 reputed photographers from Pennsylvania share their wisdom on developing and honing photographic vision.

At the end of the interview is a very special surprise that I’m very excited about and that will be discussed soon in more detail ! Be quick if you’re interested, stocks will not last long 🙂

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[Pascal] Why work with a view camera in this day and age? Isn’t it all easier with an iPhone and smart apps?

[Paula] Indeed, there are much easier ways to work, so each of us has to decide what the defining advantages are and what our goals are.

For black and white prints, digital printing is quite different from darkroom printing on silver chloride contact paper. Both can be excellent; they are just different.

I have thought for many years that digital and analog photographs should simply be considered different mediums. No matter what we choose, it must be done at the highest level. The final picture is what counts, not how we got there.

Though Michael and I both have some of our 8×10-inch negatives scanned and made into large digital prints, we do not find that process to be satisfying and pleasurable. Thus we have an excellent technical assistant who does the electronic work under our supervision. And the digital printing results are stunning; otherwise we would not do them. Scanning and printing digitally is also much more expensive and time-consuming, with the constant need for new and better systems and equipment. There are many pitfalls and much aggravation that can preclude the creative work.

Certainly, the digital age has provided remarkable advances for the world of photography, but one should not lose sight of quality whether working in either analog or digital processes.

from the series High Plains Farm, Adrian, Texas. 1994. (c) Paula Chamlee

from the series High Plains Farm, Adrian, Texas. 1994. (c) Paula Chamlee

Mason, Ohio, 1998 (c) Paula Chamlee

Mason, Ohio, 1998 (c) Paula Chamlee

[Michael] Even if the quality of digital capture and digital printing is as good as film and sliver chloride paper prints, I would still use a view camera and continue to work as I have been for the last forty-eight years. It has to do with the “pleasure in the process.” I enjoy looking on a large ground glass and I enjoy making prints in the darkroom.

We have a “point-and-shoot” digital camera and I can’t stand using it—the “menus” are just too confusing for my brain. And once Paula asked me to make some record shots with our iPhone for a museum exhibition she had. That was way too complicated. I screwed up most of them. Working with a large view camera is not only more pleasurable for me than working digitally; it is also a lot easier.

Near Guererro Negro, Baja California, 2003 (c) Michael Smith

Near Guererro Negro, Baja California, 2003 (c) Michael A. Smith

[Pascal] Why no colour ? Do you think colour detracts from your use of tone?

[Paula] We have both begun working in color to some extent for the past few years. Sometimes the subject simply demands it. (We are using negatives rather than digital capture.)

Color is a powerful visual element and can often be too literal; therefore the task of harmonizing the placement of colors is quite different. It is exciting and challenging to photograph in color without being merely illustrative. For me, it’s an interesting addition to working in black and white, as I have to resolve all the visual concerns quite differently.

Our photographs are governed by our vision and not limited by our materials. Changing materials, however, requires serious commitment. One’s materials have a direct relationship with one’s way of working and present new problems in resolving how form fits into space. I explore various mediums so that I can learn how to see more. I want those choices to remain open so that I can keep learning how to see.

Skagaströnd, Iceland, 2010 (c) Paula Chamlee

Skagaströnd, Iceland, 2010 (c) Paula Chamlee

Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 2013 (c) Paula Chamlee

Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 2013 (c) Paula Chamlee

[Michael] For many years, when asked why I did not work in color I would reply, “The world is in color, so I don’t have to do that.” But then, while photographing in Iceland in 2004 I was struck by the color of the buildings in the landscape and resolved that if we returned to photograph there I would work in color in addition to working in black and white. So in 2006 and again in 2010 while photographing in Iceland I worked in 8 x 10 color.

Near Þingvallavatn, Iceland, 2006 (c) Michael A Smith

Near Þingvallavatn, Iceland, 2006 (c) Michael A. Smith

Isafjörður, with our Land Rover, Iceland, 2006 (c) Michael A Smith

Isafjörður, with our Land Rover, Iceland, 2006 (c) Michael A. Smith

[Pascal] Edward Weston has been mentioned a few times, as well as Cezanne (who lived 20 miles away from my home, by the way) and Renoir. Who are the influences of each of you?

[Paula] When I started painting, I was strongly influenced by Matisse, Cezanne, and Kandinsky (his paintings prior to 1917).

My first photographic influence was Edward Weston (amazing how he has influenced so many of us). I first saw reproductions of his photographs in Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography textbook in 1985 when I took a history of photography course at the university near my home at that time. (I had returned to school to finish a degree I had started twenty years before.) I was completely smitten by those pictures and felt something quite moving and inspiring from them.

Up to that time, I had no exposure to fine photography and had no idea that it could be so powerful. I began to read everything in the university library on Edward Weston, then I read and looked at the pictures of many, many other master photographers. I was inspired to start photographing immediately. My sensibilities as a painter seemed to feed nicely into this new medium; so much so, in fact, that I presented in my senior exhibition two-thirds paintings and one-third photography. I was also building a painting studio where I was living, and decided I should include a darkroom in the design. I began to meet and spend time with other serious and professional photographers in the area.

I had been photographing for only a few years when I first met Michael, and because he had a big head start on me in the world of photography, there was certainly much to learn from him, plus he had such a deep and strong vision and one that I could relate to. So, he became a most important influence for me. The most valuable thing he gave me was the confidence and encouragement that I lacked giving myself. In our many years together we have learned from each other. That is the great gift of being married to someone with whom you share the same concerns in life and work and someone you really trust, on every level.

Reykjavík, Iceland, 2004 (c) Paula Chamlee

Reykjavík, Iceland, 2004 (c) Paula Chamlee

Jökulsárlón, Iceland, 2006 (c) Paula Cmamlee

Jökulsárlón, Iceland, 2006 (c) Paula Cmamlee

[Michael] In addition to the book, Prints and Visual Communication, by Ivins and the music of Bartok and Hindemith, the sonograms in a book titled Birds of North America by Zim and others gave me the understanding of how to make photographs in the 8 x 20 format.

Photographically, I have been influenced by all of the great classical photographers, most especially by Edward Weston and Henri-Cartier-Bresson. Although Weston and Cartier-Bresson used different equipment from each other and photographed very different subject matter, the insistence by both photographers on never cropping a photograph is what stuck with me.

Although Paula and I would, if needed, crop a photograph, to date we have never done so. Getting it right on the ground glass or viewfinder—that is the high moment.

Washington, D.C., 1984 (c) Michael A Smith

Washington, D.C., 1984 (c) Michael A. Smith

[Pascal] And what about philosophical influences? Your work seems permeated by a certain take on life.

[Michael] I see the world through my understanding of energetic phenomena. Early, I understood form as frozen energy. (See Near Aspen, Colorado, 1967) Then, when I also understood the flickering of the life energy, my photographs sometimes reflected that. (See Near Aspen, Colorado, 1975) This, of course, was totally unconscious. I could not articulate the previous two sentences until years after I had made the photographs.

It is just an example of how one’s photographs reflect who one is and what one understands.

Near Aspen, Colorado, 1967 (c) Michael A. Smith

Near Aspen, Colorado, 1967 (c) Michael A. Smith

Near Aspen, Colorado, 1975 (c) Michael A. Smith

Near Aspen, Colorado, 1975 (c) Michael A. Smith

[Paula] The universe is made of many things far greater than ourselves. I trust that much can be revealed to me if I don’t get in the way of letting it in.

Reyðarfjörður, Iceland, 2004 (c) Paula Chamlee

Reyðarfjörður, Iceland, 2004 (c) Paula Chamlee

Jökulsárlón, Iceland, 2004 (c) Paula Chamlee

Jökulsárlón, Iceland, 2004 (c) Paula Chamlee

[Pascal] So, having made these influences yours and developed a vision strong enough to find rhythm and meaning in many types of situations, even the most mundane, how would you guide someone on the same path? Do you teach at all?

Tenants Harbor, Maine, 1998 (c) Paula Chamlee

Tenants Harbor, Maine, 1998 (c) Paula Chamlee

[Paula & Michael] We teach occasional weekend Vision and Technique Workshops where the emphasis is on “vision.” Although we demonstrate with an 8×10-inch view camera, our workshops are for anyone who wants to make better photographs, whether with a view camera or a 35mm DSLR.

Over the years we have discovered that in all workshops everyone has a good time meeting other photographers and the instructors, and they usually do learn something, but that afterwards they do not make better photographs. After our workshop, everyone makes better photographs, on their own terms.

You have so kindly invited us to teach a workshop in the south of France in June. If there is sufficient enrollment, we would be happy to do so. Your readers might be interested in a few of the unsolicited comments we have received about our workshops. Below are just a few. More are here: http://www.michaelandpaula.com/mp/workshopcomments.html

I have been a commercial photographer since I was 17. I went to college, assisted the top photographers in London, worked on global international advertising accounts for the last twenty-five years. Last year I went back to college to do my Masters. Not once in all that time have I ever had such an interesting and informative photographic experience.

Just a note of thanks to you both for having me at your wonderful workshop. There are events that occur in one’s life that you consider a milestone for growth for who you are or become. I can honestly say that your workshop is one of my milestone events. You have renewed my photographic vision. You have reaffirmed my love of photography.

I truly enjoyed your workshop. The experience expanded my perspective and I have not felt this level of excitement since I started in photography. The best workshop of the dozen that I have attended.

I must say that your seminar was the best investment I have made since I bought my first shares of GE a long time ago. Not a day goes by that I do not put to use some of the vast knowledge base I learned.

New Orleans #264, Louisiana, 1986 (c) Michael A. Smith

New Orleans #264, Louisiana, 1986 (c) Michael A. Smith

La Foce, Tuscany, 2000 (c) Paula Chamlee

La Foce, Tuscany, 2000 (c) Paula Chamlee

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