Sunday, August 25, 2019

Going nowhere fast

Longhorn, Texas, David Michael Kennedy, 2016

Two weeks ago, Cris Pulos, Terry Thompson and I spent 2-1/2 amazing hours with renowned photographer David Michael Kennedy at his studio and home in the village of El Rito an hour or so southwest of Taos. I wish that Bill Davis, the other member of our monthly breakfast foursome, had been able to share the experience. He would have loved it. Our audience with the famed platinum-palladium printer was the result of Cris’s persistent efforts. I know there was a lot of back and forth to make it happen. It sure was worth the effort. Thanks, man.

Since I visited David’s studio in 2016, a visit during which I purchased a small framed platinum print of a longhorn steer, he has expanded his workplace and added one of the most impressive darkrooms any of us has seen. We had some serious studio envy.

The gallery space within his studio was as expansive as any in a major city and there were at least seventy framed photographs on the walls, each a masterpiece. If the test of great photographs made by a great photographer is that you know whose work it is from across the room, David Michael Kennedy passes with flying colors. Simply seeing that extraordinary display was worth the price of admission. That we sat in easy chairs and enjoyed two hours of wide-ranging talk about the state of photography today; David’s personal journey from the go-to rock and roll and album cover photographer in New York; his self-taught mastery of platinum-palladium printing; and a smattering of our long but modest careers was the bonus. He could not have been more engaging and open. He said we were always welcome and I intend to take him up on that.

Bob Dylan, 1985, David Michael Kennedy

Theories about the decline of fine art photography were an overarching theme as they always are when devoted photographers get together. In fact, no discussion among photographers is complete unless it eventually goes “there.” Name recognition notwithstanding each of the four of us were saddened by our star in the photographic galaxy, and that recognition and sales have been fleeting and heading toward nil.

On that subject David leaned in to say, “I’m confused.” He could have said “disappointed” or “disillusioned.”

David told us about recent shows in Los Angeles and Manhattan. These were big time affairs attended by A-Listers. The well-heeled gallery owners flew him to both cities, put him up in four-star hotels, bought $4,000 dinners for eight at Michelin starred restaurants and he came away with a case of indigestion. In LA he sold exactly zero and in NYC “two small prints.” How does that work and what does it say about the viability of a self-supporting life as a fine art photographer when David  Michael Kennedy’s work doesn’t sell? It says, as I wrote in a letter to a floundering writer-photographer friend, that “fine art photography as a business proposition is a fool’s errand” and that “financial success is damn near impossible.” My friend captains a pilot boat in the frigid waters off Rockland, Maine in the middle of the night to make ends meet. Good thing he loves it.

David suggested that the art business in general is in the tank, that it’s broader than just photography. Millennials don’t buy art. They buy experiences. They’ll safari in Kenya or trek to Machu Picchu but won’t buy a $500 photograph. At least that’s my theory, a theory supported by the fact that photography workshops are moving off-shore and are more about new places, cultures and cuisines than learning skills.

And everybody is a photographer. Most folks think they can do what we're doing after fifty years of practice. Everybody has a social media outlet for their work. Instant gratification is there for the taking. Even the compositionally impaired can grab a good image from time to time. It’s like golf. The occasional par keeps a hacker in the game.

David related a story. He was visiting his Taos gallery, since folded but that’s another story, and overheard a besotted young gentleman contemplating the purchase of one his prints. He knew that the youngster was in a new relationship with his girlfriend by the way he swaggered. David described the photograph as a classic Rio Grande Gorge vista. The dude debated whether to buy or not to buy until the girl told him, “You can do that, babe. You don’t have to buy it” Naturally, he decided that he could and another sale was buried in the graveyard of broken expectations. I asked DMK how he could hold his tongue. He shrugged.

On the plus side there was a modicum of comfort knowing we were in good company when a photographer of David’s stature was struggling to sell his work, too. I offered an analogy to the restaurant business and to the adage, “Misery loves company.” In my restaurant life I would commiserate with my competitors when sales were down. We’d complain to each other about how bad business was and I’d take heart. So, it isn’t just me.

But I countered the misery loves company excuse by saying that even when you and most of your peers are in a death spiral somebody else is kicking ass. Somebody is killing it when you're dying. You have to figure what does work. I’m giving that advice to myself more than anybody else. My good friend John Farnsworth suggested that you need to identify what everybody else is doing and do the opposite. I'm not entirely sure about that angle. Maybe you just have do it differently and better. If they like it enough, they’ll buy it. However, that premise leads to the abyss of self-doubt if you’re not selling.

Ultimately, we identified digital photography and social media as the assassins of our beloved art form. It’s been made too easy and this is from a person who usually has no problem with fast or easy. And a dope who doesn’t know an f-stop from a traffic stop can reach an instant audience. David Michael Kennedy told us, “I hate easy.” Or more accurately he has a love hate relationship with easy. He hates himself for secretly liking speed and ease. The man spent fifteen years learning and mastering the painstaking platinum-palladium process. He’s one of the best in THE WORLD. But being a tried and true process guy, he just might like the journey as much as the destination. I do not suffer that malady.

He showed us a recent portrait made with his Sony 7 series digital camera albeit equipped with a Leica lens from a film camera. He boasted, “I don’t think you can tell that this is Palladium from a digital camera.” We could not. It looked like rest of his incredible work to us.

Water Wagon, Taos, 2019, Steve Immel

That leaves us with the question of where to go from here? What will work and are we willing to do it? One answer is do what you do and do it for yourself. We’ve already stipulated that doing the same old thing will lead nowhere but if self-satisfaction is enough, go for it. I wish liking my own stuff was enough but it isn’t. Most of us need validation of some kind, be it recognition or recompense. I’ve been asked a hundred times if I want fame or money. I’ve always danced around that question by answering, “l'll take recognition. If I get that sales will follow.” I still kinda sorta think that. On the other hand, I’ve been in dozens of juried shows across the country and have a chest full of ribbons to show for it.  But I have yet to sell a photograph in any of those shows.

About ten years ago I set aside the goal of making money from fine art photography. Now I'd be happy to pay for my habit. I trimmed costs. I stopped advertising. I still can’t break even though I came close last year because I shot a wedding for $2,400 that works out to an average hourly wage of $10.

Is there commercial work I'm willing to do? It'd probably be portraits. Or does a person do it for her or his self? Get back to me on that.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Rhythm and Light at Wilder Nightingale

Ebb and flow
Wagon  Ruts

When Peggy and I sat down with Rob Nightingale to plan our third two person show at Wilder Nightingale Fine Art we had no particular theme in mind and hoped something would pop up as we tossed ideas around. The only thing I knew for sure is that I didn't want to be bound by subject matter or geography. Couldn't do that if I tried this year. Peggy on the other hand would be showing work with a decidedly southwestern bent and a strong emphasis on New Mexico. How to reconcile those countervailing approaches was a challenge. But as the sage once said, "If you can't rationalize it dazzle them with baloney." And that, dear friends, is where I shine.

The only givens were that we would both show a dozen or so new works and that they can't have been shown before. And mine would all be toned black and white for which I am entirely unknown. Already you can tell I'm writing in my wise ass voice.

The conversation meandered on and all I wanted was no boundaries. Finally, Rob asked, "What should we call the show." We agreed that the title would begin with Immel + Immel like the ones in 2015 and 2017. Then it dawned on us that this was becoming a biannual affair and maybe we were developing an Immel + Immel brand. One hopes. The inaugural event in 2015 was called Immel + Immel "Monument" to celebrate the designation of the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument which wraps around Taos from the Orilla Verde on the Rio Grande on the south and west and north to the Colorado border and east to the John Dunn Bridge in Arroyo Hondo.

The 2017 soiree was Immel + Immel "Our New Mexico." I'm guessing that was about the Land of Enchantment.

Guardian of Santa Barbara

Which leads us to Immel + Immel "Rhythm and Light." What does that even mean? Got no clue. Rob and I just thought it sounded cool. One can weave a narrative that Rhythm and Light refers to the patterns, flow and energy that are part of any successful painting or photograph. And that the juxtaposition of light and dark provide the key shapes and the inherent design of the art. If that's too much artspeak for you, too bad. Or as Peggy writes, "We wanted to have the work relate but not necessarily in terms of subject matter." She adds, "We are both taken with the effect of light on our subjects in terms of color, values, key and design relationships. Both of us feel that the mood of the piece is determined by the qualities of the light."

Fall on the Cimarron

"Whether in nature as exemplified by rows of crops in a pasture, trees on a mountainside or the facade of a building punctuated by doors and windows, patterns and rhythm create compositional interest."

Whew. She's even better at tripping the light fantastic than I am.

According to Peggy she's been working in small series of three or four paintings that might be subject oriented or might be about color and design. She may explore a color theme like a complimentary purple-yellow scheme in several pieces, for example. But her work continues to be of the Southwest and especially near home in Taos. She is particularly interested in the relationship of man to nature and is known for her mastery of architecture in the landscape. Recently much of her work has focused on the sky, clouds and the light patterns that the sun creates in the clouds. That's evident in Ebb and Flow, Guardian of Santa Barbara and Solitude shown here.

Clarkdale Store
Water Wagon

My interests hew in that direction, too. I am drawn to vestiges of man's fleeting presence in the natural world. The abandoned and forgotten resonate with me. Always have. There's a sweet melancholy to it. In this show there are examples of that kind of landscape photography but also street photography that intersects with environmental portraiture. And, finally, there's some more experimental work that's more abstracted and that employs darker tones, vignetting and applied blur. I'm fascinated by the the ethereal and timeless look this creates. Water Wagon above is an example of that new direction. From this series will be a cluster of 4"x6" prints matted and framed to 8"x10."

All of my photographs will be black and white. That's been my playground for more than fifty years.

Immel + Immel: Rhythm and Light opens on Friday, August 23 and runs through September 15. The opening reception will be held from 5pm to 7pm, Saturday, August 31. We hope to see you there.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Lighthouse Keepers

Des Peintres Américaines

As guests of Keremma resident Pierre Guidetti, the eleven visiting painters were treated more like luminaries than tourists from the United States. Pierre’s imprimatur gave the group access to otherwise inaccessible sites and the warm welcome they received from the local gentry would not have happened without his caring hand. Merci, Pierre.

The Bretons showed real appreciation for the artists and often watched as they painted on the beaches and in the villages of the Finistére, meaning “Land’s End. And Land’s End it is. The Finistére is northwestern most corner of France which is framed by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Celtic Sea to the north.

Le Phare de Moguériec

Most notable among these connections was the opportunity for the group to participate in a benefit paint-out to help fund renovations of the decaying lighthouse in the fishing village of Port de Moguériec, population 400. In 2018 the Interregional Directorate of the North Atlantic Channel announced a plan to decommission and demolish the beacon but the townspeople, fisherfolk all, treasure their lighthouse and are committed to preserving it as a symbol of their seafaring heritage and of the resilience of their quaint town and its picturesque harbor. They have been given a two year stay to raise funds to rehabilitate the landmark at the request of the Save the Lighthouse Association of Moguériec. Bon chance.

Jan Norsetter above the tiny harbor

When Pierre asked if the painters would be willing to paint in Port de Moguériec and to donate the proceeds of the sales of their paintings to save the lighthouse all eleven gave a resounding ‘oui’ to the proposition. And so, began what would be a highlight of the visit to Brittany for the artists who were dubbed The American Painters and who enjoyed a measure of notoriety including a spread in the local daily. The title of the article read, “Des Peintres Américaines Au Chevet du Phare de Moguériec.” Which translates to “The American Painters at the bedside of the Moguériec lighthouse.” Hmm.

The Lighthouse in living color

The lighthouse was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in about 1861 when Eiffel was just 29. So, its importance exceeds its diminutive size. Just 33-feet tall it’s little more a prefabricated cast iron cylinder painted white with a dark green lamp housing. It is not prepossessing to say the least. As we neared the village in early evening, we spied a small two-color protrusion on the horizon and Peggy declared, “That must be the lighthouse.” To which I sniffed, “That can’t be it. That’s not a lighthouse.” There is no house and there is no light.

Au contraire, mes amis. The modest structure in the distance was the alleged lighthouse and would be the subject of our crowd funding efforts that memorable evening.

We arrived at 7pm and were greeted by the mayor and Arnaud Lampire the president of the Save the Lighthouse Association. Both of spoke about the beloved landmark and the town’s mission to return it to its mid-19th century glory. The town’s share of the 540,000 euro cost to renovate the “phare” is the princely sum of 140,000 euro. My mouth is still agape. That’s 350 euro for every man, woman and child in Moguériec. The painters listened to Monsieur Lampire as they sat on the seawall for photographs before spreading out along the trim harbor at low tide, Peggy, Krystal, Paul and Cynthia choose the narrow beach; Richard, Vered and Jan opted for the breakwater to the east; Tia, Ellen, Nancy and Lori painted from above the beach.

Vered Pasternak and Richard Lindenberg
Peggy Immel and the boys
Krystal Brown at the easel

As the orange sky turned slate gray all the paintings were finished and the mayor invited us for drinks at a vest pocket bar just off the cove. What a treat. We all knew how special it was.  Pronouncing the town’s peculiar name was a struggle for everybody so Monsieur Lampire led us in three rousing choruses of “moh GUER ee ack, moh GUER ee ack, mo GUER ee ack.” He jabbed his forefinger at us each time we came to the syllable “Guér to emphasize the accent over the e. Then came a mayoral oration in French as translated by English Bob who came to the town as a guest worker forty years ago, married the lovely Geneviève and never left. Earlier at the harbor he told me he came from England’s industrial north between Manchester and Liverpool. I asked if he had been accepted as a local after all those years. He laughed, “Probably not but Geneviéve’s family goes back centuries so they may let me stay.” He pointed out their house. “It’s the second one in. You should come by for a drink.” I didn’t and regret it. Bob and I would have become mates.

Bob brought Geneviéve to the thank you soiree and the first thing she said was, “We were waiting for you.” with the hint of a smile. I began to wonder how it would be spend a year in Moguériec and to tell the story of life in a hamlet by the sea, of the pounding waves against the jetty, the boxes and spinvers setting out in heavy weather to catch Red Mullet, Sole and Turbot in the open sea and to harvest scallops, oysters and mussels from the shallow waters of Siecke Bay.

Beers with Arnaud Lampire

The raucous thank you celebration at the bar ended with a toast to the American Painters and with Krystal Brown fending off a shoulder rub from an attentive admirer. She kept saying, "No. I'm married. The elderly Romeo responded, "But you're not wearing your wedding ring." Krystal told him, "I'm still married so stop." Beneath the raucous laughter and the clinking glasses I could hear a disgusted Moguériec matron tell her companion "What an asshole." Apparently, some words are universal.

For you sporting types Moguériec is a surfing mecca known for its big rollers and, more impressively, is the site of the World Periwinkle Spitting Contest. There’s a sport you don’t hear much about. The periwinkle, as you know, is a sea snail the size of your thumbnail that's also called a whelk.

I do wonder if the goal of the spitting is volume or distance. And, either way, what’s the world record?

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Keremma on my mind

Chez Pierre in Keremma

Two weeks removed from beautiful Brittany we are still basking in the glow of our time in the coastal hamlet of Keremma where we spent carefree days painting and photographing on the beach, in the dunes and in the glorious towns of the Finistère. We were captivated by the pastel tones and soft light of this pastoral region where artichokes, onions and potatoes flourish and where shellfish are harvested for savory Moules et Frites and briny oysters on the half shell. This part of Brittany is off the tourist trail and we were the only Americans we saw. It was bliss.

Ellen Howard, Paul Kratter and Peggy Immel at Chez Pierre

We are grateful that Richard Lindenberg included us in his list of potential housemates and even more grateful that we said yes within five minutes of being asked. Sometimes it pays to be impulsive. There were twelve slots available to share Pierre Guidetti’s country home in Keremma and, according to Richard, all the beds were taken within 24 hours. We are so lucky.

Pierre’s house is a handsome three story affair built in typical Breton style and, while a relatively new iteration, it has the country estate esthetic that abounds in the area and blended seamlessly with the palatial residences in the neighborhood, a neighborhood of 2,500 cousins according to local lore. It seems that a distant forebear of Pierre’s bought the land and established a commune in which only family members can own the property. There are no commercial services to be found in Keremma save a campground and a windsurfing school. What you will find is the world’s largest family compound. I exaggerate to make the point. As guests of Pierre we were greeted like long lost relatives. Our reception couldn’t have been warmer.

Richard Lindenberg and Paul Kratter at the Saturday market in Plousecat
Duck sausage among others

For a supermarket and other services it’s a ten minute drive to Plousecat, a charming town of 3,800. At the center of town sits the 15th century Les Halles, a timber framed open air market structure and the neo-Gothic Eglise Saint Pierre de Plousecat from 1870. The Saturday Market cannot be missed. The selection of cheeses and sausages is breathtaking. The roast chicken and local produce induce gasps and giggles. I am very hungry.

Ellen Howard painting on the dunes above the beach at low tide

Every day was perfection with daytime temperatures in the low 70s and sweater weather in the evening when it stayed light till 10:30. It made for long days that started with a 7am run on the beach and ended after painting till the sun fell into the sea. I was so enthralled that I lived that life for eight days with nary a nap. I’ve been examining that phenomenon, how it is that one has so much more energy when stimulated by new and special places.

Peggy Immel, Krystal Brown, Vered Pasternak, Ellen Howard, Jan Norsetter, Lori McNee and Tia Kratter above the beach at 10PM
Guevroc Chapel

The dunes above the beach were riven with paths which led from Keremma to Brignagon Plage in the west and Plousecat to the east. Much to my surprise I saw more runners in a day that I’ve seen in Taos in, well, ever. Nestled in the shallow dunes sat the 17th century Eglise Guevroc. The first room in the church may even go back to the seventh century as told by Jacques Rosseau, Pierre’s older cousin. To be steeped in that kind of history is a thing of awe.

I can't recommend Brittany enough if you want leisurely days, gentle people and caressing beauty.