THE ARTIST'S STATEMENT
West of Neptune is the first exhibit in a series of five or six
which will each deal with elemental subjects. For this one, the
subject is local water. Other exhibits will look at the sun, fog,
the earth, and so forth. The photographs will be black and white,
and will focus on the San FranciscoBay Area.
The West of Neptune photographs were shot with black & white film
between the early 1990s and 2008. Because of the time span, you can
spot some of the changes in my technique and subject matter.
You might notice, for
example, there has been a change in the cameras, and I don't mean
digital. When I moved to California in 1990 and settled in the Bay
Area, near San Francisco, I began taking my view camera up to the shores of Sonoma
Shooting with a large format camera
seemed the perfect way
to capture the detail of the sand and the surf. You can see the
results in Reentry Waves and Twelve, for example. However, an
accident during a photo shoot terminated my use of the view camera.
It was my birthday, September 25th, 1997. Some days you don't
forget. I was composing a shot with my view camera at
on the Pacific Ocean in
San Francisco. A large rogue wave raced up the shore, knocked over
the tripod, and took my view camera away. All my equipment was
ruined, and I was almost run over by a telephone pole that tumbled
across the beach in the surf. That was a bad birthday, a rotten
…. but the result of that accident was an expansion of my technique.
I bought a couple of 35mm film cameras and began taking them
everywhere in my backpack. These cameras gave me the spontaneity
which the view camera lacks. Photographs such as Autopilot or
Sentimental Walk would not exist had I remained tethered to the view
camera and large format film. I bought another view camera within a
year or two, but used it less and less through the 1990s. I don't
use it at all right now, and a few years from now, I'll probably use
it even less.
Object of Focus
Another change has been
the subject matter. When I visited the shores of the Bay Area with
the view camera, I shot classically beautiful landscapes and
seascapes. They were extensions probably of my experiences hiking
and photographing mountains.
The solitary splendor of the majestic
snow-capped peak, unspoiled by the artifacts of civilization's
intrusions, and so on. To paraphrase
Alan Watts, nature does not
make bad clouds, nature does not make bad waves.
That all changed when I started backpacking with the 35mm cameras. I
began to notice and photograph those connections between nature and
civilization. I don't think I ever photographed the
Bridge with the view camera, but we have two photographs here shot
with the 35mm cameras. Look at Jupiter And Beyond. Back in the view
camera days. I would have driven right past it…and beyond.
The first photos I shot on those view camera visits to the shores were
color, usually Velvia film, It was exciting to drop off the film at
New Lab and return in a few hours to see those 4x5 transparencies on
the light table. It was like being there all over again, but without
the seaweed smell and soggy shoes.
I also began to experiment with black and white films, and
discovered the magic that comes when you let go of literalism, that
need to reproduce exactly what you saw in color. It's an old story
in black and white photography, the discovery that less is more.
It was also easier to get good prints done in black and white. Joe
Glass worked at Hi-Fi in San
Francisco before he moved to Photolab. Joe always produced beautiful
prints. Here he is (right) with me on the left.
Meanwhile, it was tougher to get suitable color prints done. Too
many compromises with
Cibachrome, despite its richness and shine,
and the other color print processes never appealed for very long.
That has all changed with digital scanning and printing, so maybe
I'll do a color show sometime.
West of Neptune
October 3 to November 14, 2009
More Dreaming Light
What do black and white images
have to do with dreaming? When Andrea and I were
going over the final set of prints for this exhibit,
I mentioned altered states of consciousness, and how
black and white photos seemed to play into them. For
starters, the familiarity you have with something in
color goes out the window with black and white.
That's a change right there, you're looking at a
world that doesn't exist in everyday life.
Here are four examples of the way in which we are
cut loose from ordinary reality with black and
- In dreams, what you see is all there is. If you see a street
and a car, and nothing else, it's as if those were the only
objects in the universe. In a photo such as Suspended Aviation,
is there a universe beyond the bird and the boats and the dock
ruins? Maybe not.
- Notice that seagull in Autopilot. It might as well be welded
Bay Bridge. For that moment, it's married to it. That's a
bit surreal, a bit dreamy. In a color photo, the bird would
separate from the bridge and that possibility wouldn't be so
easy to entertain.
- In the dream state, almost
anything is possible, including the equivalence of opposites.
Look at the clouds and the water in two photos, Silver Gate and
Alcatraz. The sky looks as thick and substantive as the water.
They could be the same substance. That could be a higher ocean
up there, hanging over the Golden Gate Bridge. A color photo is
so literal, your brain won't let you be fooled.
- Finally, black and white seems to allow us to feel the
plasticity of time, the distortion of it, a bit in the way
dreams play with time. Look at the way the bird is frozen in
Suspended Aviation. How does it stay up if its action has been
stopped? You also see this a bit in Reentry Waves. Compared to a
color photograph, which I did shoot, this appears a bit more
like the stretching of time. You aren't watching an instant
here, you're observing a process. Is the water flowing back to
the source, or is the rock in the foreground moving uphill?
Joe Glass, Max Clarke, Barbara Anderson
Last, thanks to three individuals who helped
enormously with this exhibit and with photography
over the years.
Andrea McLaughlin has provided local and national
customers with superior service for years, and she
has been a strong local voice for the "cause" of
black and white photography.
Joe Glass has been printing my stuff since the early
1990s. He does great work, and he has a wonderful
way of showing me how to get the most from my
The framing and matting were done by
Anderson. They help make the photographs look like
beautiful works of art.
Thanks for taking the time to visit.
-- Max Clarke
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