Tuesday, September 30, 2008
from Christina Olson: Her World
"Alvaro chose life on the Olson farm. His brothers had married, so it was he and Christina left at Hathorn Point. Friends and neighbors remember going to see Alvaro for the wonderful vegetables in his garden - his famous peas - and the fresh eggs. He seemed to provide for everyone around him. Although he prospered at farming, his priority was always to take care of his sister, Christina.
"He spent his days working in and around the house, gradually letting go of the Olson farm. He mended the house and barn with contrived repairs. Missing or rotting clapboards would be replaced with mismatched boards and broken windows would often be stuffed with Christina's old rags.
"In time, the Olson house was not the family home that once existed - it became a large house that was difficult to heat and repair. The upstairs was not used, except by Andrew Wyeth for studio space. The front entrance stored wood and remnants of the past. Keeping some of the original characteristics of their childhood home, the barometer still hung in the front hall.
"Alvaro died on Christmas Eve, 1967. Christina died the following month, on January 27, 1968. They were laid to rest in the family cemetery at the base of the hill, overlooking the water, with a view of the house and "her world."
"The World of New England is in that house - spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic - dry bones. It's like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea, the Olson ancestor who fell from the yardarm of a square-rigger and was never found. It's the doorway of the sea to me, of mussels and clams and sea monsters and whales.
"The shadow of Christina's head against a door has a ghostly quality, eerie, fateful, serious, a symbol of New England people in the past - as they really were. There's everything about Christina - her hand pushing a pie plate toward you, or putting wood on the stove. There's a feeling that, yes, you're seeing something that's happening momentarily, but it's also a symbol of what always happened in Maine. The eternity of a moment.
"I've seen Olson's from the air on the way back by plane to Pennsylvania - that little square of a house, dry, magical - and I think, My God, that fabulous person. There she is, sitting there. She's like a queen ruling all of Cushing. She's everybody's conscience. I honestly did not pick her out to do because she was cripple. It was the dignity of Christina Olson. The dignity of this lady."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 12
The idea for using apples came from Gary who produced a beautiful shot with, as I recall, 3 apples. There were apple trees out back, a pail in the shed. The next morning I gathered fallen fruit. Gary shot across the entry hall toward the stairs. I wanted to shoot the length of the hall as I had on the previous day. I'm not sure why I was so set on shooting it that way, but I liked the strong light reflected from the painted wood, and I was in "rigidify" mode with an idea that kept me from really exploring other possibilities.
Tillman told us that he thought the floor had been painted by Christina. It is the color of a hazy sky and has painted brown leaves falling through it every foot or so. If Tillman is correct, here truly is Christina's World, the art work of the artist's muse. Tillman said that nobody had yet solved the problem of shooting the floor.
I wasn't really trying to solve the problem of the floor when I shot this, only use that glaring light, but now I'm eager to shoot Christina's upside down world. In a period when I lost my sunlight I made some experiments from the stairs that hold promise. I vowed to get back to them and never did.
The problem with shooting the hall my way, Tillman quite accurately pointed out, was an ugly building across the lawn and excessive glare through the door. Tillman identified the problem and then stood in as a solution, "Teacher's Dismay."
Earlier I had a reflector to bounce a bit of light back into the bucket, but when I shot this I'd already returned it. Another tool to make part of the kit!
Sunday, September 28, 2008
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 11
They look as if they are being swallowed by the sod,
as if the last steps taken
So the back door stays closed now.
The pilgrims come and go on the sunny south side,
and few notice the north door
there, near the window,
where Christina often sat,
by the open door.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 10
I'd been shooting buckets, basins and brooms in the shed. From behind me bright, north light spilled over my shot. When I turned, light and shadow sprayed me. I didn't even think to stop and ask what the thing was used for. I used it to wring out sunlight.
I wish I could have everything in sharp focus. I used my best macro lens and stopped it down to f25. Even so, depth of field is short, and I chose to focus where bright light first leads the eye.
I had many questions in processing the image:
How much shadow detail to squeeze out? It's tempting to adjust curves to lower contrast and make the shadows glow, but ultimately I decided that drama had soaked me, and I preserved only a shimmer to show that something was in the shadows.
What makes this shot color rather than monochrome? When I tried it in monochrome I couldn't tell whether the light source was daylight or electric light. I prefer fresh-squeezed.
Friday, September 26, 2008
￼PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 9
I was about 5 years old when my parents rented a new apartment in an old building in New York City. It remained my home until I left for college, and afterward it was my brother's apartment and the place of many family reunions. It is as much a part of me as the freckles on the back of my hand, and in my palm I still sense the unique feel of the crystal door knobs and bathroom faucets.
Yet, among the profound mysteries of my childhood were the places in that apartment, usually around the door frames, where I caught a glimpse of strangers. In those places the clean paint of my home was nicked to reveal a cross-section of old paint layers. There were pale blues, dark browns, greens, or yellows piled on top of faded cream, on top of stately rust; they were stacked like geological stratifications. I remember taking chips in my hand and trying to peel them apart. Through those cracks in time I could travel back what seemed to me like eons into spaces that were at once my room and yet places very different where other people lived in my home. There I sensed the shuffling ghosts of generations. I like taking photographs in such charged places.
The inside of Olson House contained such cracks in time where stair treads were worn thin, where the grip of absent hands had rubbed the paint from door frames, where mirrors might hold vanished reflections, where scratches on the bottom-rail of a door told of a dog seeking to be let in or let out and a hand that would grasp the door knob in compliance. So far, most of the shots of Olson House that I've posted were taken from outside the house. Such intimate residuum is harder to find there. Much as I had eagerly anticipated shooting INSIDE Olson House, once I got my chance, I found it discouragingly difficult. Interior space is much less forgiving of lens choices and tilts. Probably its also that I've done much less shooting in such narrow confines.
The spartan emptiness of the rooms was another thing. Furniture was minimal except in the shed, and that was already crowded with shooters. What objects should one introduce? How much should one stage the image? Or were the spirits to be found solely in the way light caressed the mottled, dappled, and stippled surfaces of the of the old house. It had been home, not only to to Christina and Alvaro, but to their forebears back to the Hathorne's who built it? Tillman's photos were elegantly simple and made the emptiness speak, but his medium, large format, black & white film, was also quite different. What should I do with my color digital technique?
In my first afternoon at the house I spent some time shooting an old rocker and its shadows in one of the otherwise vacant rooms. The angle of sun was such that the spindles in the back of the empty chair cast grotesquely exaggerated shadows on the floor, and I spent some time exploring these gothic geometries, but the result was contrived and ultimately passionless - not worth going further. Or perhaps I simply hadn't placed the chair properly, or I shot it in the wrong room, but I moved on. In the entry hall I liked how the afternoon sun caught details of the stairway and made the floor gleam, but I felt no presences, saw no shots, though I took some. I made a number of other tries, increasingly half-hearted, and retreated outside where the bright sun was making the exterior wood of the old house sizzle. I had four more days to get inside, after all.
Outside the house was instantly gorgeous to me, and I shot until sunset. It was only that night that I recognized my retreat as the cowardly act it was. In order to overcome my difficulty, I decided that on the second day I would re-shoot a shot, justly famous. Even if I couldn't yet commune with the spirits inside the house, I hoped to control the picture space.
A tradition has developed in photographing Olson House. Perhaps it was the inevitable outcome of the way rooms are strung together and receive light. Wyeth, of course, set the pattern in, "Room After Room." He uses a similar device in, "The Ericksons." When Tillman Crane shot his series of photos on Olson House, he reversed Wyeth's perspective by shooting from pantry to kitchen to shed.
Numerous workshop students have also chosen Tillman's orientation, and it was what I wanted most to try. Of all the room after room possibilities, this seemed the most challenging. It is potentially the longest run possible and includes the three most furnished spaces. Light enters from three directions. I liked especially the bright light, way back at the end wall of the shed, and wanted to include it. Inverting Wyeth's shot allows inclusion of the gleaming wood cook stove and doing so you'd think you were at the Ericksons' instead of the Olsons'. Although I had wanted to shoot this room-after-room since I signed up for the workshop, I still had no Idea what I wanted to do there.
The goal I set was technical: 1. Explore lens choices, positions, and tilts and their effects. This is but one. 2. Use light and objects to lead the eye through the composition. 3. Maintain detail in all shadow areas.
The length of the room-to-room run meant I had to coordinate my work with efforts of my colleagues in spaces down the line. We were all considerate of each other's needs, but progress was slow and sometimes heads and fannies popped unexpectedly into my viewfinder. A few of my shots feature such unscripted, guest appearances though they are not the spirits I was hoping to capture.
This then is a sketch as I think about the experience of shooting here; I hope it is something to build on. I've shot up, down, left right, and maybe I've learned a bit about the consequences of each choice. If I get to shoot here again, I want to return with a plan and props. Any suggestions?
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 8: Wyeth had painted Christina by the geranium window at other times as well, most famously in "Geraniums" (1960). It could almost be the same scene as "Woodstoves" but from another angle. It's worth noting that in moving from one painting to the other, Christina has shifted in her chair as if dodging our gaze; as we try to look in, she turns away.
In "Geraniums," Wyeth peers in through that north kitchen window. What do we find when we look there now? What part of Christina remains?
ANDREW WYETH (on "Geraniums"): One of the most important of the Christina Olson series. I like the way you can see the red of the flowers, through the house, and out the window on the other side, then out to sea. The black thing, by the way, in the opposite window is a black-and-orange work glove her brother, Alvaro, put there. Christina barely seen - just that flash of her striped shirt. She was like a scarecrow when she wasn't rooted in that chair - just bits of tattered rags and hair all askew. What interested me is that she'd come in at odd places, odd times. The great English painter John Constable used to say that you never have to add life to a scene, for if you quietly sit and wait, life will come - sort of an accident in the right spot. That happens to me all the time - happened lots with Christina. The whole point of this picture, which is very abstract, is how you look through the windows and how that brilliant point of color in the geraniums catches light from the other side of the house.
TILLMAN CRANE: "Spiritual presence for some reveals itself in the natural landscape, untouched by humanity. For me, the divine reveals itself in those places where people have lived and worked. My spine literally tingles with excitement when I find a location that resonates with the historic presence of others."
Monday, September 22, 2008
TILLMAN CRANE: "Photography is also a physical art. Photographers must be at a location to capture the image. We must experience the emotion of being there. We react: How does the place feel? What does the light do? Is it uplifting or depressing? Does it invite or repel? There are places where I feel history, where I feel things have happened. Men and women have lived and perhaps died here. They leave a part of themselves. Their spirit remains."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 7: The geranium window faces south and floods the kitchen with light. Another window facing north permits the free passage of light and air. From the outside, either north or south, we can look through the kitchen and see the opposite yard. In three earlier photographs you were looking through or at the north kitchen window (1), (2), (3).
The geranium window was tended by Christina. It is part of Wyeth's Christina enigma. In "Wood Stove" (1962) he painted her seated, almost off stage, opposite the geranium windows. Center stage is commanded by the sprawling wood, cooking stove and by an empty rocking chair. If stove and chair are not exactly in conversation, they are, unlike Christina, at least intently present. The empty rocker nestles up to the geraniums. Across the room (and the picture) the back door beside Christina is open and seems to have some sort of connection to the back of the chair in which she is seated, but everything about Christina shrinks away from all these things.
How can one photograph in this room and not feel dwarfed by haunting presences? What can a complete stranger add to Wyeth's own intimate record of the place? Can one do more than acknowledge spirits that remain?
ANDREW WYETH (of "Wood Stove"): "This drybrush is intended to be a portrait of the Olson house, both outside and inside. Outside is total fragility. Inside is full of secrets. There's Christina sitting in the kitchen, on the left, and everything's in there - the stove, the geraniums, the buckets, and the trash. I had to overdo it here and reveal all the secrets. Some people say that artists ought to work for utter simplicity. I say to hell with that! Let's get it all in there! I'm afraid of editing too much; it's not natural to be simple and pure. It's not good, either, to show too much artistic ability. You have to fight technique, not let it take over. You can't be nice about things. Like painting a nude - there's got to be some ugliness there. I like to paint in places that are not too nice. That's why I like painting Helga. She's not in love with the neatness of life or things. My father tried to clean up my paintings. Once he took out the hook that Bill Loper wore for his severed hand. That's too neat; too nice. Can't be."
Sunday, September 21, 2008
ANDREW WYETH: "It (Olson House) was monumental, but I had the feeling that the house was made of thin boards, not real timbers; I felt that it was something like the game "pick up sticks," which one day the house would look like. ... I wanted "Weatherside" to be a true portrait of the house - not a picturesque portrait, but one I'd be satisfied to carry around in my wallet to look at, because I knew this house couldn't last. I did it purely for myself. I had this feeling that it wouldn't be long before this fragile, crackling-dry, bony house disappeared. I'm very conscious of the ephemeral nature of the world. There are cycles. Things pass. They do not hold still. My father's death did that to me."
TILLMAN CRANE: "The building is essentially a 19th century house maintained in a state of arrested decay."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 6: After a long morning of shooting through windows of the main house, I wandered into the barn. Soon the house and barns would be closed to us and open to the daily pilgrimage of tourists. In a back corner of the barn these webs of death flooded by light grabbed my lens. I shot multiple exposures knowing that the dynamic range was too great for my camera to encompass both bright spots and shadows, that if I bracketed carefully I could reassemble the whole image in my computer. However, when I saw the power of this white light flooding in, it reminded me of a Hieronymous Bosch painting I saw in Venice where souls entering heaven after death pass through what looks like a long concrete culvert toward similar light. I've left my image un-recomposited with burned out highs.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
ANDREW WYETH: "It's all in how you arrange the thing... the careful balance of the design is the motion. It's a moment that I'm after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 5:
We returned one afternoon from our midday meal & workshop to find a blue and white, Art Deco sky sailing by Olson House. Some trick of Mercury copied from a vintage rendering of the Chrysler Building. It was spectacular; the farmhouse windows glowed white fury. But the clouds were moving quickly, what I call "theater lights," and I hurried to find a position to catch the full show. Alas, the midday visitors were still on the lawn; the place was not yet ours. Also, to include the sky, one had to include the newly shingled barn, a new wound gaping in any photograph. After several unsuccessful attempts at the full scene, I turned to the windows. I sometimes wonder who sends these fanciful lighting designers who assist us in our work. With such a sky, who needs curtains?
The whole show lasted perhaps half an hour, and then it was gone. The sky-makers packed their bags and went home. Their gifts, such as they are, remain.
Monday, September 15, 2008
ANDREW WYETH on Media:
"To me, pencil drawing is a very emotional, very quick, very abrupt medium. I will work on a tone of a hill and then perhaps I will come to a branch or leaf or whatever and then all of a sudden I'm drawn into the thing penetratingly. I will perhaps put in a terrific black and press down so strongly that perhaps the lead will break, in order to emphasize my emotional impact with the object. ... I may go into tones at times but to me it is a very precice and very vibrating medium."
"With watercolor, you can pick up the atmosphere, the temperature, the sound of snow sifting through the trees or over the ice of a small pond or against a windowpane. ... I work with impulsiveness. I use eleven kinds of brushes, camel's hair or sable or an old house painter's brush. Sometimes a scrub brush. I've torn pictures in half trying to get into them, to get structure and weight and form and succulence and passion."
"I work in drybrush when my emotion gets deep enough into a subject. So I paint with a smaller brush, dip it into color, splay out the brush and bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so that there is only a small amount of paint left. ... But if you want it to come to life underneath, you must have an exciting undertone of wash. Otherwise if you just work dry brush over a white surface, it will look too much like drybrush. A good drybrush to me is done over a very wet technique of washes."
[On egg tempera] "There's something incredibly lasting about the material, like an Egyptian mummy, a marvelous beehive, or hornet's nest. The medium itself is very lasting one, too, because the pure method of the of the dry pigment and egg yolk is terrifically sticky. Try to rub egg off a plate when it's dry. It's tough. ... You will notice that in my temperas I am not trying to to gain motion by freedom of execution. It's all in how you arrange things - the careful balance of the design IS the motion. It's a moment that I'm after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment. Tempera is not a medium for swiftness; it's marvelous, but its not for the quick effect."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 4:
Several Wyeth images remained in my mind throughout my time shooting at Olson House, but one more than any other challenged my shooting. I wanted the same sense of transparency and motion Wyeth captured in, "Wind from the Sea," his homage to Christina after her death. Only once did I actually go to the window of Christina's room to search for it there. It wasn't the window or Wyeth's composition I wanted but something of the airiness and delicacy of his work, though I did think about getting curtains and shooting them there blowing in a breeze. Yes, if I do this again I will have to bring some spectral fabric or a bit of gossamer, but I know that what I really have to do is make gossamer with my camera. We have no pencil or paint, only light and lenses.
On Wednesday, the third day of the workshop, I was the only one there at sunup. It was thinking of "Wind from the Sea" as I began shooting the kerosine lamp through the kitchen window. Across the kitchen the geranium window admitted backlight. The house was still locked and I couldn't get in to move the lamp, but there were a wealth of compositions I could make by just shifting my camera a bit; a move as small as an inch sent reflections reeling while shifting the collisions of chimney, walls, window frame, and geranium silhouettes. I made 45 images of the hurricane chimney through the window. The one above is the most satisfying and the last shot. I'm not certain if it has anything to do with "Wind from the Sea" or Wyeth's transparency, only that they were in my mind, and in some sense I was being moved by the spirit of Wyeth.
Notes for Next Time: What I failed to do was watch this spot to see how it changed throughout the day or to "stage" it for another day's shoot. I was too busy looking for other angles on Olson House. I guess one must recognize that a rich photo site such as this, maybe any photo site, must be explored in stages. Does Tillman have a method for tackling big projects? Well, yesterday I found this article entitled, "Working Style," among his musings. It's reassuring to know he struggles with the same issues.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
ANDREW WYETH: "Through the Olson's I really began to see New England as it really was. ... Overall, it's like dry bones, the house is like dry bones, the house is like a tinderbox."
GENE LOGSDON: “I believe artistic creativity exists in the same way a thought exists, or love, which is to say that it arises in that mysterious realm of the human animal where body and spirit intersect.”
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 3:
This workshop has given me a fuller appreciation of Wyeth's achievement, not only his technical gifts, his ability to finesse transparency from the surface of his paper; but more importantly the evident physicality of his work, the degree to which emotion seems to leap from the tip of pencil or brush; a true expressionist!
Of the Olson House, Tillman Crane wonders, "Why did Wyeth work here? Was it the personality of Christina or the quality of light in the house? Perhaps both."
After a week shooting there, it seems to me the most natural place in which to imagine Wyeth working. Its light and flashing surfaces inhabit his work, but do Christina and Wyeth still inhabit the old house? Can a camera's lens find them as well?
Notes for Next Time: This was taken shortly after sunrise on my first morning at the house. The light was dazzling, and I knew it wouldn't last long. I moved quickly from location to location, composing and refining only a bit before moving elsewhere. As a result, this image has some technical problems. I initially preferred a related shot for its greater complexity, but I'm pleased with the syncopated beat and geometric play in this, and I want to remember it. It is a study, a jumping off point for a more focused (in both implications of the word) shoot.
Alas, the consequences of moving quickly are that I lament all I missed. A bit of zoom and crop and wonderful (low-res) things appear amid my rejects, a zoom away, but the review is instructive. I was enthralled by the crisp carpentry of the house. Now I think I know how to make the joints creak. I was afraid of the bright specular highlights and how they would record, so I only took a few, but they are a feature to be cherished. Spirits move in specular highlights. Then I chose to trek ahead and took shots from the meadow which had a wonderful glow; one is already posted.
I think of driving back to try again, but I fear by the time the trip can be made and the weather is right, the orbs will be out of alignment, the sun is racing south, and this is the north face of Olson House.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
ANDREW WYETH - "In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul almost. To me each window is a different part of Christina's life."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 2:
What is the responsibility of anyone who strives to create art, to those who have gone before? Even if Tillman Crane hadn't specifically raised this issue, it necessarily imposes itself when one spends a week shooting photographs at the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, so completely is Wyeth's emotional life caught up with that house and landscape and with Christina and Alvaro Olson. One doesn't have to spend long in the house before one finds Wyeth's work begins to resonate there.
However, it is now not only Wyeth's work that distills the air. At the instigation of the Farnsworth museum, TIllman Crane has created a body of beautiful, large format, monochrome images of the house. Additionally, for some years participants in various workshops of the Maine Media College have grabbed images in 2 hour photo shoots there; it is hard to attend any workshop at the college without encountering some of this work. As Tillman pointed out at the start of our workshop, most of those photographers, given only two hours to shoot, find the time cramped, and such visits tend to produce or reproduce, "the obvious shots," what I have called "postcard shots." However, whatever they are, the proliferation of these obvious shots gives them currency, adheres them to the tradition. In the end, of course, it is Wyeth who looms largest.
Nine of us, including Tillman Crane, the instructor and Richard Barnett, the teaching assistant, had access to the exterior of the property at any time of day or night and unrestricted, exclusive access to the interior for several hours every morning and again every afternoon for a week. At the end of the week, I find even this time is far too short to address the considerably greater challenge of this workshop: Engagement with the tradition. My urge to rise early and shoot late and to process sometimes 300 RAW images a day and then cull them to 50 for review at the next day's workshop left little time to think and plan for addressing the tradition.
On the other hand, perhaps such assimilation is too much to expect. Those ideas are percolating now, and hopefully I will get another chance to go further. More importantly, too conscious an engagement with the tradition might have led me to, "point making," the shooting of sterile idea photos that did not originate in the ability of the house and property to speak directly to me. A good photograph hits us visually, and for me engagement with the house has to also be visual and emotional. I set out first to find my own relationship with the house. Of course, Wyeth's memories and their connection to things and places in the house are not mine. However, If the house spoke to Wyeth emotionally, perhaps some residue of that emotion was there in the light and the air, perhaps even bits of the spirits of Christina and Alvaro Olson were there to be detected and photographed.
Friday, September 12, 2008
PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 1
The Olson House! Betsy James, wife of Andrew Wyeth, knew it from the time she was ten. She recalled it as, "looming up like a weathered ship stranded on a hilltop." The looming quality of the house is still impressive. Most people know it from, "Christina's World."
When I shot this photo, there was a brilliant sky with pretty clouds, and the natural temptation was to shoot a skyscape and put the house at mid level or even near the bottom of the composition in order to show off the sky. I shot 42 images of the house from the meadow that morning while the light kept shifting. I wasn't thinking of Betsy James' comment, but only the first five feature the sky; fourteen try to make the house loom in the upper right corner. However, even so, I never would have framed it this way had I not seen the way Wyeth often composed the edges of spaces and forms, crunching them against the edges of his composition. The image I chose, the one above, was #40 of 42.
Elsewhere I've lamented the loneliness of reviewing my digital "contact sheets," the difficulty of selecting. Yet, this time the choice of this image over the others seemed obvious. I knew it when I took it. That's why I stopped (41 and 42 are bracketing shots), though at the time I didn't know all of the reasons. Reviewing our contact sheets one afternoon at the workshop, Tillman Crane suggested a student crop an image, putting a small detail in the corner. He showed how doing so could draw important attention to such a detail that would be otherwise too insignificant to notice. This and other reasons for choosing image #40 didn't occur to me until I got home, and began to review and think seriously over my week at Olson House.