Wednesday, May 20, 2009
At the top of the stair
I was slapped by Spider Light.
To effortless geometrics,
Commanding the eye
Like the rose window
At the end of the cathedral nave
Where the organ point reverberates,
And like the inside of a fiddle,
Resonant and lithe.
Only later did I notice
The flying hay wagon
In the attic air
Like the lost chord,
Last vestige of
Kuerners working the land
Of root clinging to rock and earth.
So obvious and so enjoyable was the "vaulting" of the barn that it was awhile before I gave any attention to the wagon, here, on the third floor. I wasn't expecting it. This bank barn burrows in two full stories so that the hay wagon can be driven in here and the hay unloaded where it's dry. Hay is dropped left and right to level 2 for storage in the haymow and piled two-and-a-half stories high. Later it can be dropped again to feed animals housed in "the crypt" below or to reload onto wagons waiting down in the barnyard. Here, at last, farming still carried on by Kuerners. Betsy's hay lies somewhere below.
Karl J. Kuerner has done some beautiful paintings of this space. One of them, "Unloading Straw," is on his web site.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The light is like a spider.
It crawls over the water.
It crawls over the edges of the snow.
It crawls under your eyelids
And spreads its webs there -
Its two webs.
The webs of your eyes
To the flesh and bones of you
As to rafters or grass.
There are filaments of your eyes
On the surface of the water
And in the edges of the snow.
by Wallace Stevens
Monday, May 18, 2009
KARL J. KUERNER: "The way I really came to understand hard work was to make hay with my grandfather. He drove the tractor while I threw bales on the wagon for my father to stack. Grandfather never slowed down to accommodate me. After he was gone, it was even worse. Dad drove and I had to load and stack."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I didn't reach the third floor until very late in the morning. Perhaps I should have taken time earlier to explore the building fully and to construct a mental image of its layout. It will require a return trip to think about and to reconcile what I know of the inside and the outside, but my approach to photographing here was more immediate. I stopped whenever I thought I saw potential for an image, and I never knew if something better lay ahead. My only goal was to move at a pace to permit shooting on all three floors before we quit and to try to move at the resonant tempo.
Looking at my interior and exterior shots now, I realize there are parts of the building I never saw, never figured out how to reach. On the other hand, and whatever the results, my seeing was always fresh, every step was an adventure, and I avoided the perils of returning later to search for a position and a shot that had resonated deeply on first approach but had vanished now. Cook when the fire is hot.
This flight to the third floor is not directly above the flight from first to second. I wish I knew why. I like the homemade hand rail on the left of the stair and the sheer drop on the right.
I took an especially long time in the stairwells; I suspect four distinct light sources is a photographic rarity. Two are obvious in this image. A third is behind us, a bit of glow from deep in the barn and of no consequence here; there is a fourth source behind the stairs, through a door to a room with an incandescent bulb that radiates amber light onto a wooden ladder half hidden leaning against the wall and casting a shadow noir. I made a number of images that tried to contrast these last three distinct light environments, especially the way the white light from the window met the golden universe of the bare bulb.
So many possibilities to compose! So many ways to lead the eye! I took my time, but eventually I could no longer resist the pull of that attic space, my ultimate destination for the day. Gene Logsdon ends Wyeth People by noting that Wyeth, "paints people who have learned this basic lesson of life: to endure. He paints endurance. He paints eternity." Was that what I was doing now, trying to walk through a bit of Wyeth's eternity? Where would it lead me? What might I find?
Saturday, May 16, 2009
from "WYETH PEOPLE":
"I tried to tell her [Betsy Wyeth] about my excitement in finding the subjects Andy had painted.
... 'But aren't you disappointed?'
... 'Not really. Everything is usually smaller than I thought it was from the paintings, but I enjoy seeing how he edited out all the stuff that would have weakened them.'
... She smiled. 'Well, at least, after that, you won't say Andy paints like a camera.'"
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It is early spring. Out the window Kuerner Hill has recently turned green, and the hay mow is, understandably, nearly empty. It's clear that what farming occurs here now is just to provide for the few animals on the property and the livestock of a few neighbors. This is actually, I think, "Walt's hay," as the name on the front wall suggests. Betsy's hay was an even smaller pile to the left. At least here is a spot where real work is still going on.
I shot this too quickly on my way to something else. Had I been more patient I would have made one more exposure to clean up some of the shadow detail. Thirty seconds is a long exposure, but to get two stops more brightness for the next exposure, in the sequence required getting the pocket timer from my backpack and lingering two minutes more. I'd been doing it all morning, but somehow I didn't believe this shot would please me as much as it does, and time was precious. The pressure to rush must always be resisted; let the right brain lead.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
GENE LOGSDON: "The whole [Kuerner] farm was like a museum of Wyeth paintings cleverly concealed by reality. It was delightful hunting them out."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: In the great barn the spirit of Wyeth was always elusive, just out of reach, even as it was omnipresent in light and textures and in my thoughts. Like many barns, the second floor opens over the barn yard in a large Dutch door so that stored, hay bales can be dropped onto waiting wagons. The door is flanked by windows, and all stare eternally at Kuerner Hill. It is one of those views familiar from many Wyeth paintings and drawings. as is the view back the other way. Wyeth may have only rarely sketched the barn, but he sketched from it, perhaps taking a bit of shelter in the winter behind the Dutch door while he drew Kuerner Hill.
Monday, May 11, 2009
KARL KUERNER, SR.: "Andy spends a lot of time over here, painting. We don't pay him any mind. We let him alone. That's what he needs. To be let alone. To know that we don't care how long he stays, or when he comes, or when he leaves. He could just as well be a rabbit coming and going. That's what he likes."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: When we arrived at Kuerner Farm Tuesday morning there was a red pickup in the driveway. Although we worried that it might be someone who would try to countermand our mission, fortune was smiling. We quickly discovered that the pickup belonged to Karl J. Kuerner, the grandson of Karl Kuerner, Sr., Andrew Wyeth's surrogate father and friend. Karl J. is a painter who learned to draw as a child, "watching Andy," and studied painting with Andrew's sister, Carolyn. Karl was happy to answer our questions and talk about art, and soon he was showing us through the barn and then showed us how to close up after he left.
Beyond the red door we passed between horse stalls into a deep, crypt-like space forested by columns. At the front and side of the barn, light poured in though several windows but barely seemed to penetrate the shadows. At the back, where the barn was dug into the hillside, a yellow glow came from a bulb above a steep, narrow stairway. How could I help but imagine Andrew Wyeth on his first adventure here perhaps as many as seventy-seven years earlier. Even though Wyeth rarely drew the barn, I sensed his spirit among the cobwebs and, I'd like to think, lurking in this image.
Karl Sr's spirit was quite evident everywhere. Karl J. writes of the, "No electricity needed here...stubborn independence that marked the Kuerner's 75 years of farming." Karl Sr. has been portrayed as a hard-working individualist who lived a utilitarian life and prided himself on his capacity for labor-saving, home-spun innovation. We'd already caught a glimpse of how he harnessed the underground spring. Most working barns are practical, make-shift affairs, added on to and altered as needs or crops change. Barns are studies in "form follows function," and Karl had made sure his barn was as functional as possible.
Kuerners' is a bank barn, a large one. The lower stories are dug into the hillside. At the back wagons can load hay bales and grain directly to the two upper floors. Inside, the arrangement of spaces was filled with surprises. It was clear it was the result of a careful plan integrating vertical spaces with horizontal layout. Making sense of them would require a longer visit or an expert tour, but I'm sure it's all geared to what needs to be where at which season. Various chutes and ducts seemed to have been added or altered as practices changed slightly. What was the adaptation that scooped a bit of daylight onto the steep, narrow stairs. Light was a necessity there before electricity. On the other hand, extra space for stair wells and in some cases stair rails were an absent luxury. I could imagine someone lugging an awkward bundle down the stairs and how a rail might make that impossible. Few bundles are lugged now. Hay bales are stored, but no cows are milked now and the dust has settled.
Later we visited Karl J. at his home, just behind Kuerner Hill, and I especially enjoyed his clean sense of design and the thoughtful characterization in two of the portraits I saw there.
Friday, May 8, 2009
KARL KUERNER SR (quoted from Gene Logsdon): "This place is, well, like home to Andy. It IS home, by golly. Andy and me, we've known each other a long time. My land butts up against the Wyeths' over the hill across the road, and the Wyeth kids played around this farm from little on up. I raise my Brown Swiss cattle, grow a little oats and hay for them. My son and I work together. We mow grass and trim trees and such for people around here. I don't farm so hard anymore. More money in taking care of estates."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL "Following the Footsteps of Andrew Wyeth - Kuerner Farm, Part 1": It had been drizzling on and off all morning, big drops that felt as if they came from the trees, but we were in the middle of the field and trying to make the most of limited shoot time. We shielded our gear with towels and endured. I've been treading the footsteps of Andrew Wyeth again. Thanks to my friend Gary and access provided by the Brandywine River Museum, the two of us have just spent several days photographing in and around the Koerner House and other sites in Chadds Ford, PA.
Kuerner Farm is where Andrew Wyeth reached adulthood as an artist. He became part of the Kuerner family and the land. Among his best works are the "soulscapes," he painted here. One could certainly never stand and photograph one, nor would I ever want to try.
Gary and I were still in the upper field, once an orchard, when the rain picked up. We headed for the only open door, but I stopped first to shoot the Kuerner house behind clusters of yellow flowers, wet and glistening in the grass; so Gary arrived at the stable first and dryer. When I got there he was already shooting, peering over gates into stalls and passageways toward depths in the base of the Kuerner barn that had been dug into the side of the hill. Three more stories of barn were above us. It was an immense structure.
In the picture above most of the barn is in front of me. Behind me is the old milking room where Wyeth painted "Spring Fed." The great stone trough is still there, still filled from the underground spring which flows when the faucet is turned. At the foot of the trough the bucket is still perched upside down between the wall and the pipe. The windows are more as they are in one of Wyeth's sketches. Other sketches suggest this was not just the milking room but also the room where animals were slaughtered and butchered. In several Anna is seen busy, cleaning the milkroom. In a final watercolor, there is just a single window through which we see Kuerner Hill brightly glowing and the bull standing by the barnyard wall. In the final tempera, however, we are looking into another room, through more windows with bull and Kuerner HIll proud in the background. However, as I looked through the actual windows nothing lined up and a pile of farm refuse was in the outer room.
The facts of Spring Fed mostly remained but I felt none of its spirit. It was the barn itself that called to both of us. For the next hour we made images peering into the shadows of the lower barn, a place where time seemed to have stopped. Whatever lay behind the red door, for now it barred our way.
The Brandywine River Museum and Kuerner Farm
Friday, May 1, 2009
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The barns of Waller are venerable. That's as simply as I can say it. Unless I'm preoccupied or totally insensitive I can't pass here without feeling their power. How long it took me to understand! They are so quiet now; they barely whisper, and twice a year the fields are hayed. Are the barns also in retirement? I like sharing in their quietness and their testimony, and it can't help but influence the kinds of photographs I make here.
The barns are great hollow shells. Inside, empty cow stalls remind us that this field once reeked of cow manure and urine, that it was often mostly mud. Or, more likely cows grazed on the uphill slopes, and this flat, rich land was planted with corn. One of the barns is a tobacco barn. At some point tobacco grown here supplied the prized wrappers for which Connecticut was known. What did farming look like when the American Revolution stirred within some of these walls? But even without their pedigree, the barns themselves are a venerable presence. It's in the wooden clapboards that hold their volume. They anchor the north end of The Great Hollow, one of the few places that a visitor from the late 18th century might almost recognize.
Others have noted that photography is 25% preparation and 75% luck. From two hills over, at the orchard on Baldwin Hill, I could see a patch of interesting cloud forms, and I calculated that the lake or Waller Farm might be, pardon the expression, ground zero. It's usually futile to chase clouds, but this felt right. I had to pass the lake to get to Waller. I rushed because the clouds were moving. Coming down the road from the left I saw my chance, parked, hoisted my pack, shouldered my tripod and took off across the field. Because I've shot here often, I knew where to stand to make the barns fan out across the field while putting the klieg light at the back. The first two exposures were a quick HDR set, just position, zoom, and shoot. I had time for five more shots and the clouds were gone. As it turns out, those last five shots were just wishful thinking. Fortunately, the first exposure was spot on, and I worked up two versions, one using the single shot and one with the HDR set.
A few other images made at Waller Farm:
The Other Side
Colors of Winter
Behind Inner Space
Composition in Triple Time