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I wanted to show you where I began in photography in the early 1970s. I was just starting college and I hoped to be a premed major. I was interested in science and technology. And yet my interest in photography was inescapable. I fell in love with photography. And I studied the Zone System with a real master, Oliver Gagliani, who was dear friends with my heroes of the time: Ansel Adams and Minor White.
This is something that looks almost like it could've been made by Ansel Adams: natural lighting out in the woods, lighting things up, making them look kind of supernaturally radioactive, the way Ansel did with his glowing aspen trees. But I was particularly influenced by the philosophy of Minor White, who believed that you should photograph things for what they are and also for what else they are. And so Oliver Gagliani and I became great friends, and we'd go rattling around the Nevada desert together, camping out for a week or so.
And this, again, was forty years ago, back in the good old days when you could come upon these old miner's shacks and just open these screen door that were just blowing in the wind, and you would go in and the tables would still have dishes on them. And so Oliver and I setup our old Deardorf wooden handmade view cameras. I was taken by things like dents in a screen door; that's simply what the subject was, just a dented-up screen door.
But what I would see would be a hooded figure, almost like a Ku Klux Klan eerie mysterious shape in the door. So there is that aesthetic in photography where photography is so earthbound, you know, as opposed to the luxury that a painter has. Someone like Salvador Dali starts with a blank canvas and he can conjure up anything that he can imagine; he can make it visible. But we photographers are so earthbound. We have to go around and stalk the wild photograph, but we still have ways of conjuring up things, looking for the essence of things, looking for the spirit of things.
For example, I call this Spirit of the woods and it looks like an owl, but it's actually just stains on a rock wall behind this pine tree. And with technical knowledge like the Zone System, you can take special light meter readings and come up with the right negative to make the print that ends up portraying the world the way you previsualized it. And previsualization is a term that Ansel came up with, that allowed him to stand in front of a grove of aspen trees that might have looked pretty banal and boring in New Mexico, but he stood there and he could previsualize how he wanted those aspen trees to look by the time the print came out of his fixer tray in the darkroom.
This way of working, working with the Zone System really matched my personality, because I have been a teacher for a long time and I think it's true that people are aesthetically artistically either born kind of tight or born loose. And I have been very meticulous and type my whole life, and the Zone System is for really meticulous people who learn the rules and play by the rules, in terms of exposure meters and shutter speeds and film development and darkroom printing.
But I have spent my whole life trying to loosen up, and I envy people who are much looser and freer, painters who splash paint around. But I think the fact that I just have this unique meticulous streak, I think that's what drew me to the Zone System.
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