Giacomelli and Blossfeldt

As I walk in the meadow each day I see many of the same people also making the rounds.  Almost all of them have dogs.  One woman has a very sweet, thin black dog.  The dog and I have become friendly and she always stops for a few pets. However, for several months, the most that I got out of the woman was a courteous nod.  However, the other day, with a distinct accent, she asked “Are you a botanist?”.  I had to ask her to repeat it because I didn’t understand at first.  “No, I’m just a photographer,” I replied, and with that she was off.  I’ve been aware of how odd I must look to people, as they pass me, contorted on the ground pointing up at plants with my iphone.  Usually, I’m so focused on the image I’m making that I’m unable to look up.

The other day when I posted some of my meadow photos to facebook one friend commented that he took photos in the meadow but they “never look that good”.  I quickly replied, “get closer”.  After a moment I added, “and lower”.  There’s a common refrain in photo circles that if one’s photos aren’t good enough then they haven’t gotten close enough.  As I look back through my photos from the last few months I can see a clear progression among the images as I have gotten closer, and when I typed that response the other day I realized that I too, needed to get lower.  The next day I did.

I think that the “closer” adage has a lot to do with photographs of people.  We need to get close enough to them to connect perhaps.  I have always been a people photographer, and I have never been all that interested in nature as art.  When I first got into photography I was impressed by Anesl Adam’s work at first, but I got over my fascination pretty quickly.  The work quickly became too predictable to me.  When I discovered Mario Giacomelli’s photos of the Italian countryside they made much more sense to me.  They were chaotic and organized at the same time.  They weren’t about nature, but instead about perspective.  They felt more like art to me than photography.  For our wedding, my aunt and uncle in law gave us a print of a photo by Karl Blossfeldt, of an uncurling fern. I liked the image very much, but it didn’t inspire me to take up nature photography at the time.  However, now that I have been training my camera on the plants I am very aware of his images.

Writing, like walking, often leads me to places that I didn’t know I was going.  I sat down to think about the work I have been making, and the balance between botany and abstraction that I have been playing with.  I have been conscious of the possible influence of Blossfeldt on the work I have been making but I hadn’t thought about Giacomelli for several decades.  However, the other day I was going through old boxes of photos and books and I found the Giacomelli book that I had picked up when I was in high school.  When I stumbled over his name as I typed this I went to grab the book.  I immediately realized that the work I have been making in terms of focus on plants has a clear connections to Blossfeldt, but the arrangement of shapes, and the inclination towards black and white, strongly recalls the feelings evoked for me by viewing Giacomelli’s photos.

I don’t recall the exact circumstances of finding that Giacomelli book but it might have been on one of my family’s trips to the museums in Washington DC.  In any case I do remember opening the book and having a familiar feeling in my chest when I saw his images of the Italian countryside.  For a moment I wasn’t sure what I was seeing because the images were so filled with contrast.

There was a painterly, lithographic quality to the images that boiled the shapes and lines down to their essence.  The sense of chaotic balance appealed to me in an emotional way.  I didn’t go out and copy his work or his style, though at the time I was already interested in pushing the boundaries of contrast.








I had been making contact prints in the darkroom, and pushing my film to make the images severely contrasted.  Viewing the Giacomelli images made me feel like I wasn’t crazy to want to push things in this way.  I was probably 16 at the time. I don’t remember myself as being impressionable as much as being impressed.  Looking at these images right now I think about perspective.  While I exhorted my friend to “get lower”, for the most part Giacomelli got higher in order to shoot down on the countryside to give him the vantage he needed.  Blossfeldt tended to shoot straight on to his subjects, but with his homemade camera he got closer than anyone else had at that point, revealing details and structures that had gone unseen.  In many ways, for me, photography is about looking at things differently, so that I might push the boundaries of the frame that holds my thoughts.  This frame is aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical.  I don’t intend to destroy the frame, because that is the definition of madness, but instead, to expand it, because that is the definition of freedom.

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