Sunday, July 31, 2011

Learning to See

One bleak November morning in 1968, I woke up very early and took the R train in Manhattan up to 57th Street and Seventh Avenue.  I walked a couple of blocks south and crossed over to the east side of the street and tried to ignore the lingerie mannequins in the window as I walked up to the building at 853 Seventh Avenue and started to ring the buzzer for Ernst Haas.  Just before doing so, I checked my watch. It was 5:55 A.M. I hesitated, deciding to wait five minutes before finally reaching out and nervously placing my finger on the button.  The night before, after talking briefly with Haas, I had made an appointment to see him "at six," and as I hung up the phone, I realized I had no idea whether he meant A.M. or P.M.  On a hunch, I went with my gut, but...what if I was wrong?  No sooner did I hear the buzzer go off with a disconcertingly loud and annoying sound, than I heard a European voice through the the intercom telling me to come up.

Forty-three years later, I walked into a gift shop one day and after wading through the isles of stationery, chocolate and dolls, I came upon a woman sitting at an easel while painting.  Behind her were some of her paintings—bucolic and sedate oils of scenery along with some portraits.  Through a partition, I could see something far more interesting to me and, as I stood in the doorway, I asked her about the wall of abstract colors.  "Oh...that?" she said, in a voice both filled with amusement and dripping with disdain.  Then she added "That's where I clean my brushes and test my colors.  And to emphasize how little she thought of it, she added "We'll be painting over that wall next week!"

Untitled Abstract                                                                  © Eric Meola 2011
I asked her if I could photograph the wall, and no sooner had she said "yes, sure, go ahead. Knock yourself out" than I began cropping sections of it in my mind and in the camera.  One hundred frames later I thanked her, and as I walked out my mind raced back to that day in 1968 and to what Haas had asked me.

As I sat down in his apartment, he asked if I would like some tea.  I sat there with my portfolio on my knees, wondering what to say and what not to say; then he looked straight at me and asked "Do you paint?"   I was thrown off guard, and disappointed.  I was a photographer and I did not want to talk about painting.  I wanted advice.  I wanted to hear one of my heroes talk about making images.  The last thing I wanted to talk about was painting.

There was a long, awkward silence, and then I said "No."  Haas didn't hesitate one bit as he continued to probe.  "Why not?" he asked.  I told him I didn't know how to paint.  And then, with a twinkle in his eye, and a smile that somehow cut me in half while consoling me, he firmly said "You don't need to know how to paint to paint."  Half an hour later I walked out into the day's gloom wondering just what he meant and what he was trying to tell me.
           Untitled abstract #2                                                              © Eric Meola 2011

1968 was a good time—just how good, I had little idea.  Across the Hudson, a young man named Clarence Clemons was working as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children in Newark.  It would be three years before he would meet Bruce Springsteen and another four years before they would walk into my studio in lower Manhattan.  Stan Kanney and Larry Fried had yet to start a company called The Image Bank, and there was no "photo district."  Nor was there the "Black Book" of self promotion.  Sean Callahan, an editor at Life, would not begin to publish American Photographer magazine for another decade.  Hiro, Avedon, Art Kane, Jay Maisel, and Pete Turner were all making great images, and the magazines were filled with a kaleidoscope of dazzling photographs.  It was a time when you could stand outside the Time-Life building and see Alfred Eisenstaedt—"Eisie"—stride in after walking several miles from his apartment.  Marty Forscher, the genius of camera repair and modification, had yet to see his first auto-focus camera come into his shop at 37 West 47th Street.  And Nikon had yet to declare that "We take the world's greatest pictures."  

What Haas was telling me in those seemingly prehistoric times was to open my eyes, to learn how to see, to to slow down, to open my mind, to see the world in a grain of sand, to dream, to walk the streets, to watch the light, and to feel the wind on my face.  The trinity formed by Haas, Pete Turner and Jay Maisel, gave birth to a gallery called "The Space," in Carnegie Hall.  I had my first exhibit there in 1970.  I was still learning to walk; I was still learning to see.  These were  the mentors for my generation, who showed us the road map for where photography could and would go.  They took a staid and tired craft and made it their own.  They inspired us, they taught us, and they made us dream.
     Untitled Abstract # 3                                                                    © Eric Meola

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Days of Heaven

In 1976, Terrence Malick began production on his second film, Days of Heaven.  Filming each day in the last twenty minutes of daylight, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, along with Malick, produced a masterpiece that is so visually compelling that even on repeated viewings it is difficult to comprehend how it was made.  Although they filmed in Alberta, Canada, the Palouse region of southeastern Washington State is nearly as haunting a landscape.  I have returned there several times over the past few decades. Its softly undulating hills, wheat fields, abandoned prairie houses, and the last remnants of an iconic America I grew up with, are unmatched by anything I have ever seen.  It is hard to believe that it exists, let alone in an era of iPads and debt ceilings.
          Shadows on the land                                                           © Eric Meola 2011

This is a place in America without billboards or street signs, a place where unmarked dirt and gravel roads meet the horizon.  A place where God's light strikes the land at oblique angles, and a place where other than at harvest time you are unlikely to see anyone outdoors. The cafes and old movie theaters in the few small towns are mostly gone.  The landscapes are so sinuous and so sensual that it is easy to be mesmerized by the chiaroscuro of dappled light and shadow that rakes across the hills. 
Field of wheat, day's end                                                            © Eric Meola 2011

Long winters give way to an early spring rush, and by May the seed is in the ground.  Then, in late July, the green fields of wheat begin their transformation, turning gold in a wave that generally moves from south to north, bringing with it a frenzied rush of special combines built to work along the slopes of the hills.  This is where I took my first ride in a biplane, 30 years ago.  One day, just east of Pullman, Washington, I saw a plane suddenly drop from the sky and taxi to a stop in a wheat field.
Tattered shade, abandoned farmhouse                                         © Eric Meola 2011

I drove up a short, steep dirt road and got out of the car.  Suddenly, an old man named "Siggie" jumped from the plane, yelling at me that the car's catalytic converter might start the field on fire.  Somewhat chastened, I watched as he walked to one of his barns, sliding open a giant wooden door to reveal a row of colorful biplanes parked neatly side by side!  Then, turning to me, with a twinkle in his eye, he said "Want to go up?"
Contrasting fields of fallow and planted land                               © Eric Meola 2011

Rolling hills of light and shadow                                                  © Eric Meola 2011

Fields of new wheat follow the curve of the land                         © Eric Meola 2011

I looked at him for several seconds, and all I could think about was that he was probably more than 80 years old.  He looked at the camera I was holding and I caught his eye, as I heard myself saying a not too convincing "sure."  Within two minutes we were in the air, and I began photographing the patchwork quilt of fallow and planted green and yellow fields.  As I was shooting, Siggie kept spiraling higher and higher.  Distracted, I heard him say over the noise of the engine "Anything you wanna see closer?" 

Farmhouse nestled in trees for protection from the wind                © Eric Meola 2011
I will never forget the way he said it, nor my response, as I pointed down at a patch of light and shadow far below.  No sooner had my finger moved, than Siggie thrust the throttle straight forward with a demonic grin, pointing the nose of the plane perfectly perpendicular to the ground.  As I saw the ground rushing up I had no chance of holding the camera in my hands as the small biplane, despite its deceptive look of fragility, began to test its "G-force" limit along with my stomach's inability to maintain equilibrium.  As we reached what I guessed was two hundrd feet above the ground, Siggie made an abrupt vertical U-turn and climbed straight up.  We leveled off and he looked over at me and, in his unique rasp of a voice, said "Wanna go up to Alaska with me?"

American flag painted on the side of a barn                                  © Eric Meola 2011

This past month, as I drove past Pullman, I learned that Siggie had passed away.  Peacefully.  As I walked along the streets of one small town, I came across a recently renovated old theater. So old that the Empire Theater's ancient projectors did not use bulbs, but instead used a series of lenses to focus the light from a burning strip of superheated zinc. Out of the top of the projector, a series of angled stovepipes directed the toxic vapors up and out the roof.  For a moment I wondered when the last movie had been shown there.  What year, and which movie?  And the company that made those zinc strips...when did they go out of business?  I walked next door and bought a huckleberry ice cream cone for two dollars, fully expecting Buddy Holly to walk in at any moment.
Rivers of wild grass blowing in the wind                                       © Eric Meola 2011

The Palouse is all about texture—the textures of the land, the textures of the barns, the textures of the fields of wheat and wild grasses that move in the wind.  I came across a huge field of grass one afternoon, and watched for more than an hour as the tall, wispy strands of grass caught the wind, undulating like the green waves of an ocean, creating an illusion of liquid that was hypnotic, as if the land had been flooded by some great sea. In the tranquil twilight of evening, as long shadows roll a blanket across the hills and stars fall from the sky, the hauntingly beautiful light brings thoughts of the strange world we have created for ourselves.  How long will this place be here?  What force will bring its demise?  And why are we always seeking something new we think is better?
Harvest tracks in the day's last rays of light                                © Eric Meola 2011