George & Duane

Making Art

For years I was so afraid to look back at my photographic archives. It always felt like looking backwards would prevent me from moving forward. I would visit the film archive from the 90’s in storage – 80 files drawers, each drawer filled with 12-15 folders – each one another assignment. At first I would just run away – it was all too much. Then I would peek in the drawers for an hour or so at a time. Finally – and this is over years – I would think of the shootings as my friends. Still, owning the work and bringing it out into the world was a mountain I couldn’t seem to climb.

The first step was a meeting in NY last winter with the artist Betty Woodman, two weeks before she died as it turned out. Betty was photographer Francesca Woodman’s mom. Francesca was a classmate and friend of mine at RISD. Betty asked me about my “art.” As I fumbled that answer, her brow furled like I had totally missed the point of life. On that trip I also visited my hero, photographer/artist Duane Michals. Duane was showing two dozen short films he made in the last two years. He is 88. At the end of our visit, I asked Duane if we could take a picture. He said, “What do you want to do for the picture?” I said I wanted our foreheads to connect. As his assistant tried to figure out my Leica camera, Duane and I were there for a long time, foreheads pressed together. Duane asked me, “What are you thinking?” I said, “I am trying to download every single thing in your brain!”

The second step was my mother passing in July. She had lived in this same house for 86 years – and there were all these snapshots of her growing up right in that same place. Her 5th birthday party in that very backyard. Her running down that very driveway in high school. I also had taken a picture of her the last time she was at the dining table we both grew up eating at. The picture was a closeup of her hands holding a picture of her mother holding her as a baby. For the memorial we were having in the backyard, I decided to enlarge six of these images into big art prints and hang them on the garage door. The process of seeing these snapshots that were recently discovered in basement boxes come to life – and even the simple feel of the paper itself – really blew me away. It reminded me of my first days in the darkroom loving the paper and process so much.

The third step was setting up a new studio in Boulder with the ability to scan old film and make beautiful prints right there. I realized that all of the images from my archives carefully stored in file preservers and on hard drives are completely (metaphorically) dead. They are history that doesn’t exist. It is only when I started printing them that they really came alive for me. The images in storage could be forgotten forever, but the prints are like physical poetry. It has taken me decades to understand this idea around an object of art.

Which happily brings this story to you. As we have begun to mine the archives, I am totally blown away. A shooting with Andy Warhol I had totally forgotten about. Images from a Bruce Springsteen show where the film went through the camera twice by accident, producing the most amazing images. All the Jim Carrey and Seinfeld images I shot but have never been seen. Kate Spade painting her toenails at her desk. My first assignment on Bread & Puppet Theater. Sophia Loren wrapped in a towel doing her own makeup. Karl Lagerfeld drawing on Christy Turlington’s leg (that was the first time he had ever let a photographer in his museum of a flat in Paris.) And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

You can see the work and buy prints here:

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I can’t believe I’ve had all these experiences. I can’t believe I’ve had all this fun!!