“Without contraries there is no progression.” —William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The path to my recent work began during my first visit to the Frick Museum in 1971, when I found myself in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Nicolaes Ruts. In the painting, an aristocratically robed, intelligent and kindly looking man stands next to a chair, holding a piece of paper. As I looked at the portrait I was dumbfounded by the fleshy, breathing quality of the figure, the palpable atmosphere that surrounded him and the clarity and specificity of the moment that was depicted. The air between the painting and my body seemed charged with electricity.
Ruts had a sure, relaxed grip on the piece of paper. I became fascinated with his thumb, its shadow and the gentle bend of the paper. As I got closer to the painting, the image dissolved into scumbled and smeared paint and patches of color. Rembrandt’s dance of paint abolished the thumb, the shadow and the paper. Except that when I stepped back, Ruts was completely intact, including his thumb, and was still staring at me. And he was still breathing. I looked back at the thumb. And his breathing stopped. And the paint reappeared. And so on. Until I started to shake my head and laugh.
The painting was a conundrum, a nonstop delirium of visual facts in conflict with one another. It shifted from image to paint and back again. I was transfixed by my inability to hold the “facts” of the painting in my mind and simultaneously hold onto a single, integrated truth.
Which brings me to a second event that shaped my path in artmaking, and more or less codified the first experience. I read Immanuel Kant’s Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, which Robert Rosenblum refers to in his elegant essay on Abstract Expressionism, “The Abstract Sublime.” Kant describes the “bewilderment, or sort of perplexity, which, as is said, seizes the visitor on first entering St. Peter’s in Rome. For here a feeling comes home to him of the inadequacy of his imagination for presenting the idea of a whole within which that imagination attains its maximum, and, in its fruitless efforts to extend this limit, recoils upon itself, but in so doing succumbs to an emotional delight.”
Kant’s “emotional delight” is similar to my experience in front of the Rembrandt. Seemingly graspable facts become elusive. Knowledge contradicts itself. And the experience of that contradiction is thoroughly and inexplicably life affirming. Life is momentarily heightened beyond normal experience and permanently altered as a result.
For me, that has become the defining characteristic of art, as well as my goal in making it.
I have been photographing waves for five or six years along a stretch of beach in Long Island, from Wainscott to Amagansett. In 1998, in a little under two hours, I photographed the waves generated by Hurricane Bonnie at Georgica Beach in East Hampton. In water up to my waist, I managed to take 250 photographs of the unending metamorphosis in front of me. The sky went from white to black, and finally to a strange blue. The waves varied from about two to 12 feet in height, and the surf’s aspect shifted back and forth from foam to liquid granite. It was a spectacular display, and I was an ecstatic, though soggy, photographic witness.
I don’t know if the story about Turner strapping himself to the mast of a ship during a storm is apocryphal, but if it is true, I can understand why he did it. Nothing is more vivid or real than the collision of a storm with the sea. Photographing hurricanes could very well be the least abstract experience of my life.
The pictures of Hurricane Bonnie, which were taken with a Mamiya 7 medium-format camera, remained as contact prints for about two years while I completed other work and finished building my darkroom. During that time, I also began to explore the possibilities of large-format photography and, almost as a learning exercise, photographed the small, elegant midsummer surf in Wainscott with a Wisner 4 × 5.
It turned out that my skill with the various tilts and swings of the Wisner was less than adequate, and when I printed the negatives, I found that the images were out of focus on the edges if they were printed at any significant size. On the ground glass, or as 4 × 5 contact prints, the focus problem had been undetectable. The results of my efforts were disappointing because the purpose of moving to a larger negative was to enable me to make extremely large prints with a high degree of sharpness and very little grain. I found myself referring to the Wainscott images as Horizons, a title in keeping with what seemed to be their true subject. A few of the small Horizons were pinned to the studio wall. They were a sad reminder of a typical creative setback but an interesting counterpoint to the work in front of me, which was proofing the 46 × 56″ Hurricane prints.
As the proofing unfolded, it seemed as if the hurricane itself was going to engulf the studio. I took that as a good sign. Photography’s astonishing capacity to present reality and enable us to relive past experience was evident. But as I worked on the Hurricanes, my eyes kept shifting to the small Horizon “failures.” Their serenity was an interesting juxtaposition to the romantic violence of the Hurricanes, and they were so wonderfully small. Even more striking to me was the pure gray tone representing the blue sky. The gray tone was very abstract.
During previous years of work with the medium, one of the most surprising and important things that I discovered about black-and-white photography was that in spite of its original purpose of depicting the world around us, it has a natural tendency toward abstraction. The discovery occurred while I was using a technique known as pre-fogging, when I accidentally added too much pre-exposure light to a print. On development, my image turned a deep, abstract gray. With a few more “mistakes,” I had realized the obvious. If you added extreme amounts of light, you made an abstract black object. If you did nothing to the paper except develop it, you made an abstract white object. Ad Reinhardt and Robert Ryman would have felt right at home.
Toward the end of the Hurricane proofing, I realized that some of the Hurricanes contained skies that could be coaxed into the pure gray that existed in the Horizon images. I began to push the sky in one of the Hurricane images in that direction, and I felt the possibility of an interesting and contrary maneuver. What if the Hurricane images were flanked by abstract rectangles of gray that corresponded to the sky tones? It was a simple idea, rooted not only in the images themselves and the Horizon “failures,” but in the constructed photographic abstractions that I had made previously.
That led me to a bigger question: What was the difference between a pure gray sky and a pure gray anything else? The answer was, absolutely nothing.
So why not just photograph light itself, in its purest form? Was it different from a photograph of a pure blue sky? The answers to these questions held out the promise of destroying, once and for all, the notion of an irreconcilable gap between reality and abstraction. The investigation also promised to strip photography down to its essential elements—light, film, and paper.
My project had grown past hurricanes to become simultaneously aesthetic and conceptual. I grabbed my Mamiya 7, opened up the front of my enlarger and shot straight into the light. By photographing the light from the enlarger that I would later use to make the prints themselves, I closed the artistic loop completely.
While I finished proofing the Hurricanes, I followed a second line of investigation by working on the new “lightscapes.” As I worked, I came to realize that their true subject was as much the film they were shot on as the light they were aimed at. In fact, as I proceeded, I began to see the “lightscapes” as “grain portraits.”
Having eventually photographed the light from my enlarger with a variety of film types and other, large-format cameras, I proceeded to develop the film in various ways to explore the resulting changes in the shape and structure of the film grain. I began to feel like a sculptor, but a sculptor working on an insane nanoscale. Instead of using chisels to carve marble or an acetylene torch to cut steel, I was using chemistry to shape miniature grains of silver.
The day I printed the first Grain prints at the same size as the Hurricanes, I arranged them on the wall together. I expected trumpets to sound, that the effect would be unified and transcendent. The perfect art conundrum. It was, of course, a self-conscious disaster.
The direct juxtaposition completely undermined the best qualities of the individual components. The Hurricanes were diminished in their immediacy and the Grain prints were static. In frustration, I took the Grain prints down and threw them on the floor in the corner of the studio. As I continued work on the Hurricanes, the Grain prints just lay on the floor, face up. The Hurricanes went back to looking pretty good. But the Grain prints were muttering to themselves in the corner. And I caught them staring at me with rather baleful looks on more than one occasion.
One day, during a break in the Hurricane work, I pinned three of the Grain prints back up on the wall next to each other, but oriented vertically instead of horizontally, because that was the only way they would fit on the available wall space. Once they were up, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
As I looked at them, something led me to see the flat gray rectangles as light-filled spaces. Was it photographic expectation, the result of a natural anticipation that the basic spatial elements of our world will be in all photographs? It was impossible to look at them and not see into them at least part of the time. And at those moments they demanded to be perceived as sky. But then, without notice, they would snap back, taut and abstract as could be. The overall effect was not unlike that described by Kant in his Analytic of the Sublime. The work seemed impossible to comprehend, yet created a certain “emotional delight.” It reminded me of looking at James Turrell’s mystical sky portals.
Over the weeks that the first large Grain prints were up on the wall, it seemed that part of their quality lay outside the dialogue between their perceived “image” and their evident abstraction. There was also the simple beauty of the paper itself, which was augmented by the different sizes of the prints in their unfinished state. In addition to creating Grain prints on varying sizes of paper, I decided to underscore the paper issue by printing on Ilford Warm Tone and Matte papers as well as my standard Glossy.
In order to push the definition of a photographic series to the edge, I picked one 4 × 5″ negative that had just the right characteristics and began using it as the sole “image” for the entire Grain series. I made well over a hundred 8 × 10″ studies of the Grain image on the three different papers.
But could I undercut the traditional concept of a photographic series with the Grain image, and successfully connect it to the Hurricanes, which celebrated some of photography’s most established traditions?
The answer to this question developed over a period of months, during which time I had a few studio visits from artist friends with markedly different interests and perspectives. They all found the Grain prints compelling. But I had trouble accepting them.
Were these Grain prints more than just an investigation? Were they functioning as art at all? The only word that I could use to describe the Grain prints was impossible.
Many months earlier, a musician friend had mentioned to me that he had created an album in the ’70s that almost ended his career. He described it as an exploration and celebration of some of the essential elements of rock and roll: “rhythm, noise, power, and emotion.”
My friend deflected more than a couple of my requests to borrow a tape of the music. I suppose he thought I wouldn’t respond positively. But when I was in the last throes of my struggle to embrace or reject the Grain prints, he told me that, to his utter astonishment, the album was being reissued as a CD. He lent me his copy of the newly remastered album. The music held me transfixed. It certainly wasn’t easy listening, but it was mesmerizing and at times surprisingly beautiful. It was difficult, stripped down, and generally opaque, but it contained flickering passages that invited the interpretation of motif, arpeggio, and even melody. Or was it just musical expectation?
In light of my own work, I thought of Walter Pater’s statement in “The School of Giorgione”: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”
My friend and Walter Pater teamed up to quash any final doubts I had about the Grain prints.
As work on the Grain prints proceeded, I felt that I needed to find a link connecting them to the Hurricanes, but one that would not undermine the aesthetic dialectic between the two series. The Horizon images became the perfect bridge. Their necessarily small scale ensured their proper role. If they had been similar in size to the Hurricane and Grain images, they would have inserted themselves too strongly between the other two series. And their position on the continuum of abstraction and realism, classicism, and romanticism, was ideal. The Horizons became the natural division between the Grains and the Hurricanes.
As I selected and proofed the Horizon images, I became increasingly aware of the impact that the Horizon series had as a unit unto itself, as well as the strange intensity of the individual works. They may have been small, but they asked big questions. They had the aesthetic power to pull one in, and the conceptual power to make one think.
As this project has unfolded, it has taken on a life of its own. It was not yet complete when I began writing this essay in 2001. Using different types and sizes of paper to make the Grain prints proved to be a mistake, another wrong turn in the process of creation. The entire paper issue eventually seemed irrelevant to my goal. But what was the goal? Or, more accurately, what has it become?
I think it has become an effort to create a new version of the established, and connect it to a new definition of the essential.
Certainly the project is no longer just about waves, hurricanes, sky, grain, abstraction, or conceptual structures. It has evolved into something else. It has become a meditation on the medium of photography as much as a photographic reflection of our world.
If it is successful, it will produce some version of Kant’s “emotional delight.” I hope it has become Wave Music.