I knew I wanted to make photography my life when I opened the Aperture book “Edward Weston” and saw Pepper No. 30. The world suddenly opened up, anything was possible, anything could be made into a picture. The year was 1977.
Nearly forty years later, I’m still loving Pepper No. 30 and all things Weston. I named my older son Weston. I published a book of Edward’s and his son Brett’s sand dune photographs. Above my desk as I now write there is a framed portrait of Edward, by Brett, and a portrait of Brett, by Edward. Bookends.
So? Am I out there trying to be Edward, or Brett, or Ansel Adams or Paul Strand or Andre Kertesz or any number of photographers who have influenced me? Yes and no. Yes, I have tried to crawl into their skin and look through their eyes to see the world as they’ve seen it. No, I haven’t placed a pepper in a tin funnel and used an 8×10” camera to duplicate the effort Weston made in 1930. What I’ve embraced from my mentors, both dead and alive, is their belief that photography can take you to places outside yourself, that photography intensifies living, seeing. Even–especially–when I am not holding a camera to my eye.
I have seen no reason to quit putting film in my cameras and making pictures as I have done since I began. I am content, happy, to work within the limitations of straight photography because I know that great and timeless pictures can still fit within the frame. Content matters. The moment matters. And the process matters, to me. I like everything from exposure through to pulling a print in my darkroom. It is deeply satisfying. I feel like I am just now comfortable with my tools and I’m ready to make the kinds of photographs and prints I once dreamt of. Another beginning.
I’ve done a few music videos, and when I say “done” I don’t mean it in any Hollywood sense of done. It’s just been me and my Beaulieu Super8, a few cartridges of color negative film, someone to push “play” on a boom box, and the artist. I made an “unauthorized” video for Jewel with just two cartridges (about 5 minutes of total running time), my son Weston operating the boom box, and Jewel. No hair and makeup or assistants or stylist or manager or publicist. It took about ten minutes, set-up to finish.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not boasting. I have a lot of respect for the people in film who have dedicated their lives to it, have paid all the dues, have learned their craft. I envy the great cinematographers, and sometimes secretly wish I’d made that my profession; just to be close to great acting, to look through the finder and see it happen, the best seat in the house.
In the spring of 2009 I got a call from John Mellencamp, asking me to make a film. He was going on tour, and recording a new album. John and I go back, and he knew I’d never made a feature-length documentary before, and I was honest when I said I’d love to do it but it will be a grand experiment. Was he sure he wanted to finance an unknown result? John has a history of giving people jobs they’ve never done before, I was no exception.
Well, my son Ian and I did it, we made a film–just the two of us–and it was a selection in the SXSW, Nashville, and Dallas festivals. Some people have said they like our film, but the truth will be told sometime in the future, it’s out of my hands. I’d be delighted if someone called it a cult film, it’s a rough piece of work, all Super8, but John’s music shines through, as it should.
In 2011 I took on another film project, this one about six-man high school football in rural Montana. It’s a story that has an ending no one would have predicted, and I’m still struggling with how to tell it. One day…
Give me a good book, no better feeling than to be lost in the landscape of words. As much as I love photography, my heart belongs to writers.
I’ve had a suspicion that many of us photographers turned to photography when we failed at painting or music or the other grand arts. I’m a failed writer. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times that I’ve been checking equipment cases at the airport for a long flight somewhere that I didn’t wish I was traveling with a pencil and a couple notebooks.
But here’s the rub: when you see the bar set high, you’ve got to believe you can clear it yourself. Or, for such a person as myself, you’ve got to find a place you can claim for your own, and thereby screw up the absolutely necessary courage to string some words together.
For me that place has been in interviews, a bit of travel writing, a couple profiles, and, of late, screenplays. It took me a several years and a painful learning curve with Final Draft but I managed to actually write a screenplay. It took me another couple years to reduce 200 pages to 123, the upper limits of the screenplay form. Because getting someone to read your screenplay is about as difficult as writing one, I’ve sent “Deep Six” to some festivals, and have had some semi-encouraging results, it being recognized by the Los Angeles Cinema Festival, Los Angeles Movie Awards, and the Mountain Film Festival.
My second story, “Honor Code”, dared me to write it, but when I did, it practically wrote itself. It’s a work of fiction that tells the true story of the My Lai Massacre in 1968; it could only be fictionalized because the actual events are too horrific to show on a screen. And what happens after the massacre is equally compelling.