Last year I asked a former neighbor of mine at Lowell's Western Avenue Studios, Sergio Vélazquez, if I could photograph him, partly because he is an interesting guy, who also happens to be a photographer, but also because he sometimes lets his hair get pretty interesting. While I missed that window, Sergio having cut his hair before we could schedule the shoot, I ran into him again recently and we finally made it happen. Since the first proposed shoot, he and his wife Kerri, who together run Sweet Pig Press with their amazing antique letterpress printer, moved their studio and shop to Mill No. 5, on Jackson Street in Lowell. I thought that their shop, and that amazing printer, would make a great location with the evening available light.
This one is about me. This winter, in fact since mid-summer, I have been experiencing a sort of existential crisis concerning myself as an artist. I attended a workshop in July that was a pretty negative experience, a disaster really, mostly having to do with the instructor. I partially blame myself as well for the careless way in which I chose the workshop. Not surprisingly, I did meet several very talented and creative photographers at the workshop, but I found the dynamic fostered by the instructor pretty much sucked the life out of most of us. Possibly because of this experience, I realized in the early winter that, with the exception of one studio shoot, I felt completely blocked artistically. I think the experience of that summer workshop was a kind of message from my subconscious that I needed to take this more seriously.
So now as I slowly come out into the light in fits and starts, I am realizing that there is a reason that the phrase 'personal work' contains that adjective; it needs to be personal. It can't be done FOR someone else; that's client work. Nor can it be LIKE someone else's work.
I started my photographic journey before I was even in high school. I was enamored with the work of Penn, Avedon, Ansel Adams, and others of that era. But I was also attracted to 'the process' of making photographs. I was sloppy and careless with my process then, as I was with everything else as a kid, including my schoolwork. But I also recall the enthusiasm and abandon with which I set out to make photographs. I thought that Penn and Adams were about the process too, which to an extent they clearly were. But over time I have come to realize of late that the photographs that they made were about themselves as well. I think the idea that Ansel Adams' work is thought to have been simply about technical perfection of its day, and nothing more, engenders replication that is technically accurate, but lacks the artist himself.
My life as a photographer was on hiatus for much of my life as I pursued two other careers. I don't regret any of it. In fact, sometimes I wonder what kind of photographer I would be now had I been a commercial photographer for those 30-plus years. Re-creating my photographer 'self' as digital photography became real caused me to lose sight of my old 'self' and that old process for a while. I immersed myself in the new technology, including learning to use lighting, much of which either didn't exist or was far beyond my abilities to afford in the early 70s. Once again, it became all about the process. A couple of years ago I started to use film again, first sending my film to a lab, then buying a couple of larger format cameras and developing the film myself. It was still about the process. The process of shooting film though came with a lot of deja vu moments, causing me to think a lot about what my 15-year-old-self was thinking, and feeling.
Over the last year or so though this process-based photography has been feeling pretty hollow. I need to do more than just make technically good photographs. Probably not surprisingly, over this time I have been trying to make them less so; low-light, grainy images, paper negatives; maybe as a way to shake things up.
If you are my client, the good news is that I am basically a "pleaser". I am sure that it has something to do with my upbringing in a conservative Catholic family and 12 years of parochial school. Layer that on top of an inherently introverted personality and that makes for someone who does not like to disappoint. I will always strive to give my clients what they are looking for. But my personal work has to say something about myself. It's an ongoing project and definitely has it's ups and downs, good days and bad (ask my wife), but I need to feel that the work that I make has substance and meaning for me and that it says what I want it to say.
A few more of my photographs, probably from the early 1970s
I usually do an end-of-year retrospective of my work, but this year I am running a little late. But it's not really TOO late, is it? So here, without any excessive wordiness, are some of the things that I was involved with in 2017. I hope it is fun to skim through!
Virginia Prak came by the studio the other evening for a very informal photo shoot. Virginia is a college student, pageant winner, as well as a dancer, instructor and board member of the Angkor Dance Troupe here in Lowell, Massachusetts. This year is the 30th anniversary of the Troupe. Click here for more about this great organization.
I hesitate to feature just one of the Angkor dancers over the other, very talented dancers. To be honest, I'd love to photograph many of them! So maybe this is a start. As it happens though, she and I had a little conversation starter as my wife, Amy, was Virginia's 2nd grade teacher :-).
Please enjoy the pictures!
About a year ago I had asked Marc Clermont to be a subject for my artist portrait series. He is the Facilities Manager at Western Avenue Studios, in Lowell, MA, and the founder and President of the Board of Directors of The Miracle Providers NorthEast, a non-profit organization that helps raise money for children and their families impacted by HIV/AIDS. Among their many fund-raising events, they regularly produce musical extravaganzas at the Onyx Room, also at Western Avenue.
I really didn’t realize what kind of preparation was involved for Marc to get into character, which was of course how I wanted to photograph him. I thought, a little mascara, a wig and a dress… what’s the problem? Well a couple of weeks ago Marc asked if I could show up at the Onyx Room for the next Miracle Provider’s show, at which time he could sit for my photographs before the show. I think it took Marc about an hour and a half to get ready. It was worth the wait! I hope you enjoy my take.
Please go to the Miracle Provider’s web page, or Facebook page to see what incredible work they do! They also have shots on the Facebook page from that, and other shows, expertly done by other photographers.
A couple of weeks ago Sarah, whose acquaintance I had made at a corporate shoot last year, and who has since transitioned to a creative career, came to the studio for one of my shoots. Clearly a very beautiful woman, I was intent on getting beyond the obvious and on trying to reveal a more serious side, and one that hopefully would show a presence… something serious, something more. Here is a loosely curated set of those images. I have a favorite, and that one will likely end up in one of my more select portfolios, but I will let you decide. I will be happy to hear your thoughts!
Need to blog. Need to blog. Need to......
You get the idea. It's time to show some work that only appears on my Instagram feed for the most part. Some of it was made here in Lowell, Massachusetts, some in Lawrence, at least one in Nashua, NH, some in Boston, and some in Honolulu. Feel free to critique me in the comments. I can take it... I think :-)
Masada Jones is one of a number of young people whom I know in this town who make it a good place to live, by simply doing her part. Formerly the Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator for the Lowell Community Health Center, she has recently moved across the street to become the Assistant Directory of Extended Day at the Lowell Community Charter Public School. She is also, or maybe foremost, a poet and has recently published a book of her work called "Becoming Broken".
Masada and I had met several years ago for a project that I was working on that really never got off the ground, but I had never photographed her until she and her Mom came to my studio about a month ago. A little snafu with the film processing, and paid shoots, got in my way in completing this collection, but here is the work - finally.
I got a mini-education in the art of crafting wood, or maybe just in the kinds of woods that are used. John Welch, of John Francis Designs allowed me into his studio a couple of weeks ago to photograph him and he enthusiastically explained to me, the clean slate, about some of the exotic hard-woods that he uses. I had no idea that some trees have a dark part and a very light part in the trunk!
Ok, back to talking about John. He recently moved into a larger space. It is flooded with great light from the huge Western Avenue Studios windows that face onto the Pawtucket canal. But let’s go directly to the photos! These are a mix of digital, medium format color film (Portra 160) and black & white film (Ilford HP5), all with window light.
You can visit John on Western Avenue’s First Saturday Open Studios, or you can go Like his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/johnfrancisdesigns