Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things Acquired Along the Way 2

I'm mostly done with this long photo and video road trip; I start heading from home on Saturday, although I have planned one or two more stops along the way. I plan to visit Yellowstone, and the Tetons, the places I frequented the most, when I was first studying geology as a freshman in university. It will be good to see them again; I anticipate a sense of returning home.

I'm in Portland, OR, at the moment, having just ridden the city bus to and from the legendary Powell's Books, the store that takes up an entire city block (not counting, however, the technical book store annex a couple blocks away, and their warehouse, and other branches, etc.). It's a dangerous place for an obsessive reader to find oneself. I came away mostly unscathed, but I did acquire a few new books that match my current obsessions. Two of these books were on photography; one was purely poetry; and the fourth combines both.

I realized in the past few days, thinking and reading about poetry as I was traveling, that the poetry that speaks to me is the poetry that engages all of the senses, the soma, the embodied self. I have little taste for, or use for, poetry that is disembodied and overly-intellectual, that is all mindgame instead of experience. So I found myself in Powell's, in their extensive poetry section, guiltlessly skipping over most of the poets currently lauded and praised in the literary capitals of the east coast, and hunting for books by poets who I feel close to, who I never tire of reading. I skipped over the Ashberys and the Language Poets, I skipped over the hip younger poets. I went directly to the shelves where Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers, Loren Eiseley, Odysseas Elytis, Octavio Paz, Rilke, and others live. I took my time, and fingered no small number of titles, choosing my way carefully in view of my already-overburdened travel budget.

I circled around Robinson Jeffers again. He is mentioned, or is a topic, in three of the four books I acquired at Powell's today. I held in hands some expensive first editions of his books of poetry, although I did not feel I could justify the expense.

Loren Eiseley: All the Night Wings. A posthumous collection of all his previously uncollected poems, making up a fourth book of poems that ranges from his very early, formalist verse, to the poem he left in a drawer to be found after his death, Beware, My Successor. Jeffers is mentioned as an influence in the preface.

I tend to be a compleatist, finding and reading everything I can by an author I have come to love; but I would have bought this book anyway, on the strength of Eiseley's last poem. It's a poem I feel an urge to read aloud, for others to hear. "Successor" is a technical term in geology, and it is this meaning as well as the human meaning that is in the poem: those who come after us, in the long eras after we are extinct. The poem is a meditation on the many trees he has known, in many parts of the world, all of whom whisper to the poet that he, too, will pass, while they remain. The poem ends with a very Eiseley-like warning to us all, not to be complacent about the poet's passing; some essence will linger to haunt us, as he has been haunted.

Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition, by photography historian and biographer Nancy Newhall. This is the final edition of Newhall's overview anthology of Weston's work, begun as an exhibition catalog and expanded several times into a very expansive book. The book includes numerous photos from all his periods and subjects, with excerpts from Weston's Daybooks and letters. (The only thing missing here is Weston's late explorations in to color photography.) It's a good place to start digging into Weston, and further into Adams, as I see now I must do. The reconciliation I must make with black and white photography and the unavoidable influence of this generation of early photographers on their successors, myself included. In Yosemite, as I was photographing, I was often thinking in black and white as I framed a composition, and I was thoroughly haunted by my awareness of the presence of both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston as photographers who had seen what I have now seen. Let no one ever convince you there is no such thing as the magic of place; Yosemite and Big Sur and Devil's Tower and Joshua Tree prove that there is.

Two pages, one text and one a portrait, are devoted to Jeffers in Weston's book. Weston describes the poet's self-awareness, which at first he thought skewed the portrait session away from the natural but then realized that Jeffers in fact was a person who knew exactly who he was, and that was what the photos captured. Una Jeffers thought these were the best portraits of Robinson ever taken.

Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast; Lines from Robinson Jeffers. (This is my second copy of this book, bought ultra-cheap here, and to finish my travels with, since I have just been there, seen that, photographed it, and have been thinking about it.) Originally published by the Sierra Club, this is an anthology from several photographers, including Weston, Adams, Wynn Bullock, Eliot Porter, and several others. The book sets many lines from Jeffers; poems side-by-side with the photographs. This is a book that can serve as a good introduction to Jeffers, as well as to what the landscape was in the middle of the 20th century. (It's more "developed" now, although many places have been preserved as pristinely as possible.) To bring this all full circle, Loren Eiseley contributes the Foreword to this volume, and there is a color portrait of the poet made by Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams, Our National Parks. This is a book I've been seeing on the shelves at all the shops at all the state and national parks along the California coast, this past week and more. I've picked it up to look through more than once. Today I succumbed, and took it home with me. The book contains many well-known Adams images, and focuses on the "national park idea" that Adams' work as both photographer and founder of the Sierra Club were instrumental in bringing before the public's eye. It is in some ways a polemic, in other ways a celebration, in yet other ways a history. What ties it all together is the gorgeous sensuality of Adams' diverse photographs, every one of them beautifully presented.

I've had it in my mind as a personal project to visit as many of the National Parks as I can, and photograph them anew. I'm well on my way, but again I am confronted with the precedence of Adams' own body of work. How do you deal with your predecessors (who haunt us a Eiseley warns us they will)? You sometimes feel the futility of trying to replicate, or even match much less exceed, their examples. It all seems worthless. Yet you have to keep going, keep making your own art. If you must ignore the early masters, in order to not feel paralyzed by futility, then by all means ignore them; reconciliation and understanding can come later. Work only in the present moment. All other considerations are secondary. Weston writes about that: focus on the work, and ignore everything else. Usually it falls into place, anyway, whether or not you expend much worry on it.

If you stop in Coos Bay, OR, there is a used book store on southbound Hwy. 101, in the Koski Bldg. located next to the old Tioga Hotel building (the huge "Tioga" sign is still there); northbound and southbound traffic streams are split in downtown Coos Bay, as though they were rivulets around an inner island of city blocks. The writing section is in the back of the store, and a real treat. I got several very good books very cheap, including William Maxwell's book of review-essays

I picked up from their One Dollar Bargain Room two books, including a collection of Auden's essays, The Dyer's Hand. The other book is a history of printing in the 20th century, with examples of the lithographs and other prints by well-known artists throughout the century.

And I found a slim volume published in 1974: A Yosemite Album: Fifteen Photographs by Ansel Adams. This contains many beautiful photos of Yosemite, some not as well known as his most famous images, with an introductory excerpt about the Valley by Nancy Newhall, and a postscript by Adams called "Photography in Yosemite" that is essentially a guideline for the amateur or professional photographer. It's Adams in teaching mode, and it's all good advice about photography in general, not just in Yosemite. One wonders if this volume was produced, like a portfolio, for sale in the Park, or for promotional purposes. The reproductions are lovely, the imagery iconic.

It's interesting to me, looking back on Adams and Weston, and feeling it necessary to finally come to grips with their work as a photographer myself, now that I have seen and photographed many of their archetypal locales: Big Sur, Carmel, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley. There was something self-consciously heroic about this first or second generation of Art Photographers (as opposed to snapshotters, who have always been with us, and will always be, since the invention of the Brownie camera and cheap Kodak film; now they have cellphone cameras that upload directly to the websites, for example). This first generation fought a lot of battles for artistic respectability, and their legacy is that some photography, at least, has indeed become artistically respectable. As I've discussed before, at least some black and white photography has; color still retains the aura of the dismissed snapshot. It colors their rhetoric. Their writings are sometimes defensive, as well as explanatory. There are times when you can hear them implicitly explaining themselves to those who refuse to listen, vicariously, via essay or memoir or letter, rather than directly. One feels as if one is overhearing the early statements in an argument that is still going on, although the photographers thought it would be settled, if not in their lifetimes, then soon after. This creates a historical context to one's own work.

I have yet to reconcile the younger Adams—who is full of teacher's joy and infectious enthusiasm as he leads groups into the mountains for long hikes, as he shows his photos in the nation's capital in part to promote the National Park system and environmental preservation—with the older Adams, the master printer and writer of photography how-to books, the inventor of the zone system, and the occasionally stubborn cuss. I find the younger Adams very appealing; his friendships with Stieglitz, his mentor in photography, with Georgia O'Keeffe, with whom he shared many subjects of interest, and with Weston, with whom he worked side by side to articulate and sell the idea that photography is a valid artform. The older Adams I have found harder to embrace. Having been to Yosemite now, though, and feeling haunted by Adams' legacy when I was making photographs there, I see I need to look again at the old master, and find a way towards a deeper empathy.

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

Oh, how I envy you that trip. Glad you saw Powell's, which almost resists description. No other bookstore in the country that I've ever seen or know about is remotely that big, that unassuming or that cool.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

This is not my first visit to Portland, Powell's, nor is it the first time I've not escaped unscathed. It's a dangerous place: one never leaves empty-handed. Had my travel budget not been running towards its end, I would no doubt have spent a lot more cash there than I actually did. LOL Ah well. Future visits, perhaps.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

Interesting shopping. I like the way you make your decisions!

9:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Rachel, that may be the first time anyone's ever complimented me on my style decision making whilst shopping! LOL Thanks for that.

When I lived in California, I almost always called a trip to the market "grocery hunting." Takes a wordsmith to play with the concepts, I guess.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Dave King said...

I found myself agreeing with you over embodied V over-intellectualised poetry - but uncomfortably. I feel exactly the same way, but worry that it's ablind spot I have. Do you know Hugh Macdiarmid's "The Kind of Poetry I Want"?

3:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Dave, thanks for the thoughts.

I don't think it's a blind spot if one has actually read the stuff one dislikes. I'm pretty voracious. I even have a couple of the LangPo anthologies and ideological (erm, theoretical) tomes on my shelves; I'm reluctant to get rid of them till I've written up my definitive essay on the topic, someday, maybe.

Anyway, I don't think it's a problem because as I said I've read a lot of poetry that I've ended up not liking very much. My opinions are based on reading, rather than received wisdom. I think anyone who can say that has a firm ground to stand on. I know you read a lot, too, although of course none of us ever read as much as we would like to, so I wouldn't worry about it. In your case, I would definitely trust your instincts about literary matters, as you do about artistic ones.

I know a fair bit of McDiarmid, yeah, and that's a great poem. Thanks for mentioning it.

9:30 PM  

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