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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Finding My Way Home – Thank God the Lights Were On!

In the beginning, most photographers know nothing about photography. They have no cohesive vision. They do not understand the relationship between the camera and the film, and the film and the darkroom.

This is quite normal. The technical aspects of photography must be mastered, and they must be learned before the apparent tedium of the darkroom overwhelms the ability to “create”, causing the photographer’s spirit to die along the way. Having other shooters around at various levels of competency permits you to bounce ideas off one another, stimulating the intellect to ‘try this’ or’ try that’. This was very healthy for all involved, and, when coupled with institutionally based learning (at the university level), the natural progression of events where a wannabee becomes a photographer moves somewhat smoothly in the right direction.

The great thing about a college environment is that almost everyone is starting at the same level, so friendships form fast, creating bonds that may last for many years after you have left the hallowed halls.

In the beginning many of us resisted looking at The Renaissance. We could see no reason to associate photography with art. I believe the response our professors were trying to provoke from us was the brick wall we pass through (headfirst, with all requisite cuts, scrapes, and bruises) when we have begun to create a style and substance of our own particular view of the world.

There is a reason that Mick Jagger doesn’t sound like Beethoven, and it has nothing to do with the lack of electricity during the nineteenth century.

Before you can embrace Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment”, you must first explore your own “Defining Moment”

Mine came during the summer of 1970 in Paris France, in the most unusual of places, “The Louvre”. I never connected with art in either high school or college. Art was art, photography was photography. Photography may be considered an art form, but there is one major distinction that many people fail to see:

Artists create something out of nothing – they begin from a blank canvas.

Photographers on the other hand must create something out of something. The photographer’s canvas begins full to the brim; that’s where they start, that’s when the passage of time articulates a moment to be grasped and preserved.

The catalyst for me was examining the works of the French Impressionists and post impressionists, especially the work of Georges Seurat.

The purpose of a catalyst is singular in nature. It gives you a nudge into a new direction. It’s not meant to influence all of your work, that would result in a shallow mimicry, rather than in the creation of a vision you could call your own.

While my impression of West Germany involved the exploration of Bathos, France evoked a contemplative feeling of Pathos instead. If you compare both sets (of my images) side by side, the difference is profound.

(Walking down the street in Munich)

(French Open Market outside of Paris)

That visit to the Louvre stimulated something inside, and my next visit to the Tuileries Garden (where I spent 80% of my time while in Paris) provided the fodder I needed to develop that inertia.

I saw a father and daughter walking through the park, and the juxtaposition of form and color was magnificent. I shot very little color in Europe, but the times I did, the images were in-your-face compositions where the color actually defined the image rather than just tagging along as a weak haze of reality whose presence did nothing to help the photo survive.

When I saw that father and daughter walking, my instincts said to grab my 300mm telephoto to bring them closer, but Seurat whispered to leave the 50mm normal lens on, and the magic would happen later.

When I returned to the states for my senior year, I had this gnawing in the back of my brain about that image. I took the transparency and placed it into our duplicator. This was a simple device used to copy an image. A camera with a special lens let you view the image. Behind the transparency holder was a strobe similar to the ones we use to illuminate portraits. It provided the light to copy the photo.

The only disadvantage of this process is that every generation removed from the original is a little less sharp. This was the key for me. This is precisely what I wanted. With each successive iteration, I zoomed on the photo a bit, enlarging the composition, ostensibly turning the image into what it would have looked like had I chosen the ‘correct’ lens that day, not the one Seurat was pushing me towards.

The process was a slow one. 20 minutes at the duplicator, 90 minutes in the darkroom processing the film. After about 3 iterations, the original image began to fall apart, revealing something else entirely. I continued the duplicate / disintegrate process 8 times over the course of about a week. Almost everyone thought I was crazy.

I like crazy. We party.

When I had the final transparency, the next step was to make the interneg. This was a much more complex process because it involved taking the 35mm transparency, placing it into the enlarger, and exposing a special type of film to create a negative image from the positive. We only printed negatives back then – printing from transparencies (which I have done) is not my cup of tea.

So a couple more hours in the lab, and after about a full week of work, I had a print. This was my tribute to Seurat. I had seen this image in my head that day I snapped the original. I knew back then (for the first time in my short life as a photographer) exactly what I wanted. I had previsualized it, the way Ansel Adams taught me to.

I would never use this technique again, but it had served its purpose. While I never pretended to be an artiste, I now felt a kindred spirit, a small lick of fire that ignited a drive in me. It felt good. It was one of those feelings that you recognize as being there; but you don’t spend any time dwelling on it or placing it under a microscope for closer examination. It doesn’t survive that way.

As a photographer, we have several ways to relate to our subjects. We can view them as a ‘slice of life’, as a metaphor, or as an icon meant to represent one of those difficult-to-articulate but easy-to-enjoy moments when the past and present form an undeniable and unshakable bond.

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