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"You aren't watching an instant here, you're observing a process."  --Max Clarke

Max Clarke

Local Water

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.

Format Evolution
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 County. 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 Ocean Beach, 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 birthday….

…. 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 Golden Gate 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.

Dreaming Light
 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
Artist's Reception

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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 white:

  • 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 to the 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

Thank you
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 negatives.

The framing and matting were done by Barbara 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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