It's the journey, not the destination Mel Curtis's thoughts on a life in the world of photography

Then and Now

Birthday dinners from August 1st 2010 and August 1st 2020.

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Toast to the Good Ole Days

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Ralph,

I had read the reviews of the various machines. It seems the water rowers had the nice sound and pleasant experience. But changing resistance could only be done manually by adding or removing water. Ok, could live with that, but my main consideration was the seat distance from the ground. It had to be high enough for Carter to use and going forward, me for that matter. I am on a wait list for the C2 Model E. Seems to be in big demand since the pandemic as folks looks for ways to work out at home. Plus the aging boomers need a machine they can use comfortably.

As for retirement, it really came a long time ago when the recession hit. Everything kind of went away. My income, Donna and Annie, Connie and Doug, all the activity. Almost overnight too. It was quite unsettling at the time. For everyone I am sure. It was tough hanging out at my empty studio for 3 years. When I left in 2011 it was very quiet and kind of sad. After 24 years there I thought I would leave with a big bash of some kind, like so many bashes that were held there over the years. But nothing. I filled up the dumpster, loaded the truck with stuff, closed the door and moved home. That was thrust upon me. The new back yard studio helped lift things up for a while, but when I saw that things had changed so much that I no longer knew what my profession was about, I stopped looking for new work, content to take on whatever fell into my lap. Last year I began to feel like this year might be my last. Of course now the pandemic has made sure of that. But it is all ok really. I have other projects to contend with. Personal ones. And I love my little art man cave. But I do miss working with Donna and Annie.

On our walk, I asked Annie if she missed the good ole days. The words were barely out of my mouth when she said YES. We reminisced for a while. Mostly about Donna. I still miss her a lot. Probably only a fraction of what Annie feels. But still I miss her. I can honestly say without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But things change and life moves on, right? I have so many lovely photos of her, she will always be with me.

You guys take care of yourselves. And perhaps when the coast is clear we can get together and toast to the good ole days.

Mel

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Life in the World of Commerce

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Hey Bobert,

How you be? I am doing some house and studio cleaning and getting rid of a lot a stuff, mostly paper in the form of old prints, and projects. Like a copy of an annual report I did in 1996… Anyway I have this box of your prints you sent me and wonder if you would like them back? They are beautiful prints and I hate to throw them out, but I have no room or better home for them. So I will send them back if you like. A couple of years ago my old gallery dealer contacted me with the same question. All this stuff of mine and did I want it? As first I thought to trash it, but she said she would bring it by, so I said why not. We had quit working together in 2003 and I had forgotten what she might have. Well it turns out she had a wealth of stuff. Old silver prints used as repro art for announcements, newspaper reviews, press releases. A whole history from my 10 years of working with her, stuff I didn’t have. Even a binder of beautiful 8×10 prints I had made for her to show more of my work. I tossed a few things, but kept a lot. I took the repo prints and matted and signed them and returned the to her as a record for her. I said she was free to gift, sell or throw away. So it was a pleasant surprise to get that stuff. But now I begin the task of sorting out and throwing away. It is sort of cleansing, no pun intended, to let go of things that only speak to your life in the world of commerce. As if I need evidence that I was somehow successful. Does any of that matter now?

But hey, let me know.

Mel

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I Would be so Doomed in Today’s World

 

Best_of_ShowYes, it is good to see young talent bring their vision of the world through their work. And you are right, photography isn’t dying in the sense that it is going away, but it will probably never be what it was when you and I were coming up through the ranks. It will never be the profession I was in all my life. I recall talking with a mother of a student several years ago at Inglemoor and her daughter was wanting to major in photography in college. She wanted to know if it was viable career pursuit. And I said yes. I could not say that now. But I also told her it would be best to learn other related skills like video, web work, graphic design and writing even to round out her skill set. I suppose I would recommend that now, but what if, like me, all you ever wanted to do was to make photographs? I would be so doomed in today’s world.

Thank you for keeping me in a world I love.

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Lock Me in an Old Building

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Like you I use the camera to paint as well. I always wanted to be a painter, but also lack the skill. And frankly, think I lack the patience and temperament too. I like the instant aspect of photography. And the ability to capture, there’s that word, information and then interpret that information any way I choose. Even re interpret it over time. I also learned over time that my vision is about discovery and not creating from scratch. A blank canvas scares the shit out of me. But lock me in an old building with a camera and magic happens. Go figure…

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Beautiful in a Haunting Way

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David,

Attached is a contact sheet to get you something to look at. The high res files are on my website for you to download. To give you some context of the work, the first 4 images on the contact sheet show the origins of the current project. I have been interested in out of focus imagery for over 20 years. The first 2 book covers show early explorations. Since the process is somewhat hit or miss, it was difficult in those days, working with film to get just the right image. Too out of focus and it was an abstract composition. Not out of focus enough and it looked like a badly focused photo. I wasted a lot of film in those days. The annual report in 2015 renewed my interest in the method. Digital allows you to make adjustments on the fly which is very useful given my subject tends to be moving targets. The 4th image shows an example of what I did personally after the annual project was completed. Over the years, my gallery at the Seattle Art Museum has had strong interest in the works. I was preparing 3 new prints for them when the pandemic hit and everything shut down. The framing materials sit in the corner of my studio. I wanted to do new work, to see what the empty streets looked like, but was reluctant at first to venture out alone at night with an expensive camera. Finally in early May I asked a friend to drive me around, so I could photograph from the safety of my car. Most of the previous work I was on foot. Being in a moving car changed the dynamics a bit. I had to respond quickly and initiatively. But it also allowed me to cover more ground.  At first I stayed near my home, about 5 miles from downtown Seattle. One rainy night I decided to head downtown. All I can say is that it was eerie. A ghost town. Yet beautiful in a haunting way. Like wandering around an amusement park at night after closing. Lights on, nobody home. The biggest difference between the older and new work is the lack of human activity. All the work still conveys a sense of order and beauty. What has struck me these past few months is that for all the bad craziness that has been going on, there is still beauty in the world, both natural and urban. I walk my dog in a beautiful park down the street from me and all seems normal. Then I turn on the television or internet and have this disconnect. So I use my camera to try and make sense of it all. To somehow bring order to a chaotic world.

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1960s Cyan Cast Ektachrome Look

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Matthew,

You raise interesting questions about my older work and how I might bring it to my newer work. For many reasons, is not entirely possible really. My older work was mostly black and white. I saw in black and white. I have lost that ability, or should I said  am rusty at it. I see color now, and converting to black and white is easy enough to do technically, it is not that easy for me to do emotionally. But all that can be debated. My older work was deeply rooted in methods and materials. My favorite films are gone, my favorite silver papers are gone. I suppose I could have adapted to what is currently available, but even if I did, the process is expensive now. My lab that processed my film is gone, my darkroom is gone. The physical infrastructure, the supplies I used are all gone. Even my favorite subjects are no longer accessible to me. So when I closed my darkroom down in 2006 I felt it was time to move on. I have no regrets, digital sparked an interest in color. But where digital is instant and highly controllable, analog was always a leap of faith. And I liked that. What I like now about returning to old film is that there is no stinky chemicals and hours in the darkroom any more. I can scan old film and frankly make superior prints in many ways. I have dug up negs I could never successfully print in the darkroom and now bring to life with the magic of digital processing. And there is no waste, unless you count my time. In the old days I might spend hours in the darkroom and make dozens of prints, trying this or that. And those prints now fill my boxes and drawers in my archive. 1000s of them. With digital, the final image lives on my hard drives, until such a time I may need to print it. And the beauty of it, I can print it any size. I can’t tell you how many times someone want to buy a print of my old work and ask, do you have it in a different size? Often I reprinted to get the sale. But often I couldn’t match the first print. It was a one of kind…

Another big difference between analog and digital is in the capture itself. In analog days, when you and I might go out to photograph together, and we came upon a scene we wanted to make images of, our results would depend up on what materials we were using. I might be shooting infrared in a 35mm camera and you might be shooting color film in an 8×10 camera. We would have radically different results even if we shot the identical scene. Now, with digital, we all have more or less have the same stuff. The same cameras, the same sensors and they capture the same scene in the same way, more or less. Of course there is some room for difference with lens choice and ISO setting and such, choice of aperture and what not. But essentially we would capture the same thing on the sensor. And only in processing would results diverge. There is a certain homogenous quality to digital photography I now see. The analog world was much more diverse. I find it interesting that some folks shoot digitally, but then they emulate the look of film. Using various filters or techniques to get that 1960s cyan cast Ektachrome look. Just converting to black and white is throw back. I dink around sometimes with such techniques to amuse myself.

But in the end, I don’t want to return to the old methods and materials. Been there, done that. But resurrecting old work is fun. I have so much film that never saw the light of day for lack of time. Now I have the time. So my process these days is more or less a little looking at old work, while continuing to explore the world in new ways. I really love the digital process. It is great fun, and fairly easy for someone like me, who has an understanding of the historic traditions and conventions of photography. Returning to old work is more out of respect, a way of honoring my past. But I am still curious enough to want to make new works, but not in the old way. Does that make any sense?

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Homogenous Pile of Sameness

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Thank you for the link to the Browness website. It is interesting. At first I was impressed by the thumbnails of the 2019 finalist. Looked like a nice collection of diverse work. But the more I dug in the individuals and their websites, the less impressed I became. Some didn’t even have a website, and those who did were most often academic artists, those who teach and routinely apply for grant work. It was nice to see some commercial shooters. One, a woman I think, did some very nice food photography. But for the most part the images on the website, the thumbnails, didn’t reflect the whole of their work. It was like, here’s the one cool image I made and it got me to the shortlist… And while all the work I have seen so far was strong, nothing took my breathe away. But then it has been awhile since that happened, frankly. I also stopped on a black and white image from Yosemite, a clear homage to Ansel Adams. The artist statement said he was inspired by the “captures” of Ansel. Captures? And odd word to me, especially describing Ansel’s work. It is a relatively new photo term, a way of distinguishing, I guess the difference between film and digital. We now said analog capture and digital capture. But when looking at someone’s work, I would never say, I love your captures. I would say I love your images. To say capture is too mechanical sounding. At least to me. He also didn’t have a website and so I tracked him down on Instagram. His work was all over the map and uninspiring to me. I know that sounds snarky, but I was hoping to see evidence that the photo world is not the homogenous pile of sameness it seem sot have become. More and more, I find myself drawn to older works, especially black and white. Work that has depth, both physically and emotionally speaking. And created with skill and true vision. I suppose that is why I have spent so much time working on my older works. I am not that inspired by much of what I see these days. But maybe it takes the test of time, to allow the cream to rise to the top.

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Remember this Photo from October 2010?

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Michael,

Sounds like you are doing ok, and have things pretty well worked out for your future. I think you told me at some point about building your new home. I have forgotten how large your property was and that it could be sub divided to accommodate so many more homes. Will new homes crowd you and take away that private wilderness feel you have always had, or will you welcome new neighbors? The plan for your new home and rendering of it look pretty cool. Single level, barrier free and room for a care taker. How nice. I have thought often about when and where to move, but never have come up with any definitive answers. Given it is an older home, I have done as much as I can to make it safe and comfortable. Rails and grab bars everywhere. A chair life for Carter that may serve me well one day. And my studio could be a future care takers home as well. I always felt as long as I was working in a commercial sense I didn’t want to move. But all that may be abruptly over now. And even if things do really open up again soon, will I want to go back to work? My assignment work has always involved working with people in close quarters. Will I want to do that anymore? Time will tell, I guess. For now I lay low. But like you, this pandemic hasn’t really changed my life much. We have been social distancing since Carter’s falls almost 2 years ago. I saw my work diminishing and prepared for life on a fixed income by paying off debt, and cutting monthly household expenses. When the stock market was high, I converted some stocks to cash to survive a dip in things. So it seems I did all the right things at the right time. And oddly enough, it seems the value of my home has been steadily going up. So I guess I feel safe, physically and financially at the moment. Of course I can’t say I am prepared for Carter’s future needs. But will probably have to address that when the time comes. Somehow being in a retirement home doesn’t seem like a safe place these days.

I am glad you have Luca too. He seems like a good kid and will be around to provide you support as you age. I am glad you seem to being well also. Crazy as it sounds, I still want to visit you again someday. Maybe while you build your house. It has been almost 10 years since I was last there, which I find hard to believe. But it seems time flies faster as we age. Remember this photo from October 2010? No social distancing there, eh?

Be safe,

Mel

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It’s Lonely Out There

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Still pretty quiet out there. Still pretty weird. There’s a quiet beauty to it all, but I wish the world would return to normal soon. Whenever that may be.

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