gelatin silver prints 3.5 x 3.5"
Click on images to enlarge
I worked six years on the Studies project and I never lost my enthusiasm for making those little 3.5 x 3.5” black and white photographs. I worked fast and furiously in the darkroom, often pumping out 15-25 different prints each printing session. Every print seemed like an experiment: in simplicity, technique, thematic subject, psychological mood. The whole process was very liberating though I had no idea where this work would take me. It always felt, however, like the process was preparing me for something much bigger that was yet to come.
By the time I had moved on to the Garage Series in 2000 I had an edited collection of miniature photographs that totaled more than 1000 images. What to do with them was one of more poignant questions related to the Studies project. The mid 90’s was a time of prosperity and in particular for the medium of photography. Everyone started making big photographs, in color, selling at high prices, and here I was doing just the opposite.
Studies, Boy, Bat and Ball 3.5x3.5"
I was continually being inspired to make these visual miniatures by listening to brief piano compositions. I had begun listening to the familiar composers, such as Chopin and his Etudes and Preludes, and the Preludes and Fugues by Bach and Shostakovitch. Then I moved on to contemporary composers. I researched and experienced the whole range of miniature piano compositions, just as I was not limiting myself visually in any way with the Studies.
I wanted to make pithy little photographs that had the same direct, simple but moving and satisfying appeal as the music I was listening to. Generally, the pictures I made needed to have a simple structure and large forms that could be seen easily a few feet away for viewing in a gallery. Other than that, I tried to break every rule necessary to get at some kind of new if small visual statement.
Of primary influence for this project was The Twelve New Etudes by William Bolcom (b. 1938) and Debussy’s amazing Etudes. The level and range of invention and experimentation in these works was very inspiring to me. The list of wonderful, brief and to-the-point piano pieces I listened to just grew and grew as I kept making more and more miniature photographs. I’ll provide a list of music recommendations below.
I first began the project by searching through all my old negatives trying to find areas of the image I could crop out into a square format image. I took parts of 4x5 negatives, parts of 2 ¼ negatives, and I printed square sections from the middle - and sometimes the sides - of my entire backlog of 35mm negatives. I looked back to negatives made as early as the mid 1960’s - my college days at R.I.T. I might print just the backgrounds of certain images. Or perhaps I’d crop everything out but a face, or an object that before was an integral part of a picture and now would become the central focus of the miniature photograph.
It was an enormously interesting, instructive, nostalgic, and productive exercise (i.e., study) to look at all that old material again, and to resurrect and transform it into something new and exciting.
Cropping and reinventing the past negatives eventually taught me how to see in the small square format when I began photographing for the project with a 35 mm camera. I wanted to work fast and spontaneously with a lite handheld camera - pretty much in the same spirit as I was working in the darkroom.
Studies, Stepping over fence, human gestures
As I worked the pictures began to form themselves into many different thematic groups. Some shared a subject theme or a technical theme (white tones, blur, etc.) or a conceptual theme. Recognizing themes helped me see more when I was out photographing. Some pictures I took announced a new theme. Here are some of the thematic groupings I know of:
close ups of little things
the human figure, and gestures in time
stairs, steps, ladders
portraits, power poles, tears
landscapes and abstract landscapes
out of focus pictures
shadows, fences, water, mounds
doors, windows, walls
looking up at things
animals, birds, fish, insects
boxes, bathers, balls, roads
water, spaces, lines
stones, bricks, pebbles
venetian blinds, chimneys
things hard to name & "quirky pictures"
pictures shot from a moving car
white pictures & things suspended in black space
Sometimes the themes came together (ball and human gesture, for example). These thematic lines just kept manifesting themselves over the 5 - 6 years. It was a wonderful time of working freely, quickly, with a joyful sense of exploring and experimenting, and always with a great feeling of anticipation to see what would happen next.
In 1999 I began making miniature photographs of garage facades. I was just discovering the piano music of Morton Feldman at that time. I was printing black around the garage forms; the facades looked as if they were suspended in space, like the way I experienced the sounds in Feldman’s music. I eventually saw the parallel between my photographs and his music and began shooting nothing but garage pictures with Feldman’s music in mind. That was the beginning of the Garage Series and the point of transition to the end of the Studies project.
I have often wondered how I discovered the music of Morton Feldman. I think it was by listening to short piano pieces by John Cage. The two had been friends in New York City when Feldman was just beginning to compose his graphic works. I believe their relationship was discussed in the liner notes of a Cage CD and I became curious to learn more about Feldman.
At first I presented the miniature gelatin silver prints in 10x10 inch frames, as individual images on the wall, in the classical straight line layout. But at some point this kind of presentation seemed too serious, too precious for the way I was experiencing the work and the process of making it. I had so many images! All the spontaneous energy going in the process of shooting and printing was somehow not being honored by the traditional way of presenting my work.
So I decided to place the framed Studies prints into larger, sequenced groups on the wall. I created visual constellations of framed prints resembling musical notations - similar to the way I treated the earlier Lacy photographs. I used silver frames and black frames together to add more graphic and symbolic emphasis to the musical graphics approach.
Studies, Presentation:musical graphics, Ehelers Gallery
Sometimes I would devote a wall to a particular theme. For instance, for an exhibiton at the Carol Ehlers Gallery in Chicago I created a "Wall of Lamentation" in memory of my wife's mother who had just passed away. Another wall was entitled "13 Blackbirds" a visual response to Wallace Steven's Poem - 13 framed prints with a wall statement. Still, there was a strong emphasis on how the wall looked as a graphic display, as if the framed pieces were notes in a musical composition.
Critics liked the little pictures, but there was some discomfort in regards to the way the display of the images distracted from the integrity of the individual images. I loved these little pictures and the various constellations on the wall. It seemed viewers just didn't know what to do with them. Perhaps the small size reminded them of snapshots. Perhaps this entire body of work goes back to my epiphany, when I was ten years old: when I looked at a handful of snapshots in my cousin's hand I knew in that moment that I was going to be a photographer.
By 2002 I had completed the Garage Series. I displayed the miniature garage images as single images and as quintets - five images in one long mat which contained five windows for the miniature garage images. The idea was to simulate a nocturnal walk down an alley lined with garage facades. There was also some attempt to create a visual flow between the five images that had a formal graphic musical aspect to it as well. Visit Quintets.
As I listened more and more to Feldman’s music I got the idea of exploring image repetition. I cut long horizontal mats with three windows in it (Repetition Triads), and tall vertical mats with four windows in it Repetition Quartets). I placed 3 or 4 of the same miniature study images behind those window mats to see what affect the image repetition would have.
A few worked out well, but generally I didn’t like the end results. It became clear to me that if this idea of image repetition was really going to work I would need to get rid of the window mats and have the repeating imagery happening on a single piece of paper. About a year later I transitioned into digital printing and began what was to become the gigantic series of projects entitled Triadic Memories: The Repetition Series Photographs 2003-2007.
So, I had all those unused window mats originally cut for the repetition triads and vertical quartets. I decided to place behind the mats different studies images that looked right together formally and generated some kind of meaning for me, generally trying to avoid an obvious narrative. I called them Visual Triadic Poems, and Visual Quartets. These "poems" are kindred in spirit, I believe, to Minor White’s idea of the photographic sequence.
Matted gelatin silver prints: Triadic Visual Poem 3.5x3.5"images, 14x24"
Triadic Poem #24 15x27" digital inkjet print
After I transitioned into digital printing, I came back to this idea again in the Triadic Memories project. Visit Triadic Poems. Most of the images you see in the Repetition Triads, Triadic Poems, The Chromatic Fields, The Portraits, etc. originally existed first as miniature Studies.
Five more Studies can be seen at: Other Music Inspired Projects
Also to see more Studies visit Monk’s Quirky Music
Recommended Piano Music:
William Bolcom, Twelve New Etudes
Debussy, Etudes, Preludes, Images
Satie, all piano music
Martinu, Etudes and Polkas
Howard Skempton, piano pieces
Bartok, Bagatells, op.6
Chopin, Etudes, Preludes
T. Ades, Life Story
Cage, Sonatas and Interludes
Beethoven, Bagatells, op. 126, Variations, Diabelli
Grieg, Lyric Pieces
Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano
Mompou, Musica Callada
Frank Bridge, Vol. 1 (continuum 1016)
Morton Feldman, Palais de Mari
Bach, 48 Preludes and Fugues
Shostakovitch, Preludes and Fugues
Messiaen, Vingt Regards
Scriabin, Preludes, Etudes, Poems, etc.
Silvestrov, Piano Works (Nostalgia)
And then there's the music of
Thelonius Monk . . .
I have listened to Thelonius Monk's music, especially his solo piano music consistently and frequently over the past twenty and more years . . . and yet I have never mentioned him as an influence on my work. Why? I think I believed I could never find a visual equivalent for his quirky music. And yet, if you look above at the thematic group titles for the Studies project, you will notice I have a group called Quirky Pictures.
Now I am happy to say I've created a visual tribute to Monk and his music using my quirky studies photographs. Please visit Monk’s Quirky Music.
The great jazz composer and soprano saxophone player Steve Lacy loved Monk and his music; he played Monk’s tunes throughout his career and made albums and dedicated concerts totally to Monk tunes. Click here to see my visual tribute to Steve Lacy.
Other Related Links:
Symmetrical Studies Click here
Garage Quintets (gelatin prints) click here.
Framed Studies and Garage images (gelatin print) click here
The Garage Series
Thing Centered Photographs
Repetition Triads & Vertical Thoughts
To go back to the Welcome Page with it's complete list of linked titles for this web site click here.