J.J. Lankes on creativity

Of the many unexpected pleasures and discoveries from my July trip to Aurora NY, one occurred as the result of a lake-cruise chat with a fellow student also at the Wells College book-arts summer institute. She started to talk about J.J. Lankes (1884-1960) of whom I had not the foggiest notion. He was an American visual artist who lived and worked in Virginia, New York State, and North Carolina. For some years in the 1930s he was a faculty member of Wells College and his wood engravings can still be seen in the hallways of Morgan Hall (where many of this summer’s courses were located). He and Robert Frost were good friends.

What enchanted me about the boat conversation, however, was the fellow-student’s description of Lankes’ book entitled “A Woodcut Manual”. Published in 1932 it was very well regarded, but bad luck in the form of the Great Depression not only affected sales but also his ability to survive as an artist. The University of Tampa Press issued a lovely reprint of the book in 2006 with additional essays and images by Lankes, and in October I managed to get my hands on a copy. The “Manual” is a joy to read, the character of Lankes streaming through his text in a way that is full of charm and yet never garrulous. I experienced many moments of LOL, and this seems to be what my fellow student told me to expect.

Although he was addressing those making woodcuts and wood engravings and otherwise interested in the medium, much of what Lankes had to say seems apropos for those with an interest in the creative life, those who hope to thrive in such a life. The rest of this month’s post consists of snippets from his writing.

From “Creativity and the Machine Age”: As I see it, creative effort is about the only justification of existence; although some people say it is for the making of angels. The degree in which an institution increases or reduces the opportunities for those creative efforts determines its importance to life. The development of the machine itself has induced a tremendous amount of such effort, but the power and glory of creation has gone to the machine-makers; to the rest of the world the opportunities have been curtailed when not utterly deprived. To preserve the psychic balance, other means to exercise the creative faculties must be found.

From “A Woodcut Manual” (“Other Subjects”): It is up to every artist to divine and define art after his own concepts. There is the talk against literary and associative content; of introversion and extroversion—the subjective as opposed to the objective—the inlook against the outlook; conservatism against modernism; the emotional against the intellectual, and so on. Nothing comes of the talk, for the people who make the big talk are not the artists.

From “A Woodcut Manual” (“Editions”): It is a great pity because a thing is beautiful, or at least meant to represent art, that it has to be rigidly restricted in production in order to sell it. For myself I would not be bothered by the knowledge that a picture in my possession which gives me aesthetic satisfaction is one of two copies or one of a million. But that is a state of mind not to be encouraged in the buying public.

From “The Creative Impulse”: You will find that the person who is not giving vent to his urge to make things is an uncomfortable person to live with. On the other hand, many artists are hard to live with too—but for another reason. Their creative impulses are abnormal and they cannot brook even normal interferences. I have wondered why some hobbies, such as button and match book collecting, are creative. It must be that the items in such collections furnish the excuse for getting a little order out of chaos—organizing them. That is what the artist does; he organizes too—lives, masses, tones, colors, sounds, forms, words.

From “Creativity and the Machine Age”: For the city dweller there are all the modern institutions that will later be superseded by more effective methods. The laundry, pool and lunch rooms, all the varying apparatus catering to modern needs. If the filling station with its glaringly colored pumps had been an institution of the Middle Ages, what a romantic subject it would have been. Imagine a woodcut by Dürer of one with its accessories—an attendant swishing a rag over the windshield, while another feeds in the gas. It would be wonderful. Today the filling station is the most ubiquitous object on the landscape. Someday it will be only an historical fact—a past phase of a social institution. It will be preserved for the future because, before it disappears it will have served as subject matter for the artist. Now is the time to capture it in its greatest glory.




“That looks like a …”

It was a month of significant passings in the world of photography. First news of Robert Frank (+ September 9), then news of Fred Herzog (+ September 9, too). There were other photographers who departed in the month, people who made images at the edges of my vision, such as John Cohen (+ September 16) who was just in Göttingen in August to prepare a book with Gerhard Steidl; and Peter Lindbergh (+ September 3) who helped create the “supermodel” esthetic. When I visited Portland OR a few weeks ago together with GH, we went to the Blue Sky gallery and amongst other things saw a corner set aside as a homage to Frank (part of this seen in the picture above). He was there for the gallery’s opening in the 1980s. In his hand is written the injunction, “And keep yours eyes open …” – always good advice, and one he constantly gave to anyone with authentic aspirations.

So the giant tree falling in the forest is Frank’s, and it is even harder for me to grasp that “The Americans” was first published around 60 years ago. There is a wonderful farewell published by photography critic A.D. Coleman that begins to touch on Frank’s complexity as a photographer, as an artist, as a human being. I’m sure there is a manuscript of a biography of Frank resting in someone’s desk drawer (if that sort of thing is done anymore!) and my hope is it will be a competent piece rather than hagiography. I’m deducing reports of his curmudgeonly persona would most likely go along with attempts at the time to place him onto some sort of plinth.

All this has led me to wonder how much of Frank’s work has influenced our culture’s way seeing the world. We have sometimes heard around us a person say, apropos of the scene in front of them, that it looks like “a Monet”, or “a Turner”, or someone’s figure being “Rubenesque”, or the illumination being “Rembrandt light”. It’s a testament to the power of those artists that we now see something of the world that we hadn’t seen before or grasped before they revealed it to us. It is harder to hear the same being said of the great photographers, and partly that might be because so many have worked in black-and-white — one might refer to a photographic print as being like “Ansel Adams”, but I’ve yet to heard that spoken about a vista when standing in the wilderness. (This might, of course, speak more about the kind of company I keep.)

What I suspect – and this is only a hypothesis – is that Frank’s work in “The Americans” was was an attempt to show how uncommonly strange the world really could appear when rendered as a sequence of black-and-white photogravures in book form, when shorn of a self-satisfied benevolence. There is a lyric shimmer present in that book as well as in his later books (let alone his films). It is hard work to keep one’s eyes open, especially when you’re resolutely not told what to see.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, et lux perpetua luceat eis.



“The Printed Picture”

All of us in our group have been busy with the various things we do, and we’ll next meet later in the month. For my part, I managed to squeeze in a towards-the-end-of-July week at the Wells Book Arts Summer Institute to learn a bit more about typecasting on Monotype machines. The course was not held on the Wells College campus as other summer-institute courses but instead at the letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler in Skaneateles NY. A pleasure each day was looking through volumes that Winifred would pull out, all of which she and Michael either cast the type or did text composition or both. In the pic for this posting is the title page from one of the limited-edition volumes for which they cast the type (here the face is Monotype Perpetua).The Bixlers have been involved in the bookwork of many top-drawer photographers and visual artists (Paul Caponigro, Minor White, Barry Moser, etc). The printed picture is a Robert Frank image printed as photogravure (hand gravure, I believe).

One of the treasures on my bookshelf is “The Printed Picture” by Richard Benson who was another character from the US Northeast. The book was published in 2008 by the NY Museum of Modern Art and was a revelation to me when I read it nearly ten years ago. I first learned of the title through an interview with Brooks Jensen published in LensWork, and that got across to me Benson’s dynamic and crusty character. Not only was he an innovative printer, but he was also a talented photographer, darkroom worker, and incessantly inventive human being. No wonder he got a MacArthur Foundation fellowship back in the 1980s. Nor was he shy of the rough-and-tumble of the world as he was dean of the Yale School of Art from 1996 to 2006 (which may impress those who know something about usual academic food chains). My shock was very real when I learned of his death not from an obit but from the NYTimes Magazine’s yearly roundup in January 2018 of important passings in 2017.

So I was over-the-moon to encounter an odd little website containing just over seven hours of talks he gave at MoMA to a small group of people in the galleries devoted to the “The Printed Picture” exhibition (2008/2009). His friend Alan Chasonoff had suggested that Benson have an opportunity to simply talk and talk until he got everything out of his system, to do so without concern for his audience, and where Chasonoff would arrange to have all this captured on video. If one sets aside some of the occasional infelicities with the way the cameras were aimed (and one simply has got to do this) then the whole result is wonderful. I learned more about why half-tones on letterpress could not get any better than they did; why photo-offset lithography took off; enough about collotypes to realize I will want to think twice before attempting that process; about the wonderful skill of wood engravers who created reproductions of photographs by hand using just a burin; and much, much, much else besides. Amongst his many other gifts, he was also a wonderful educator and an entertaining speaker. For me it was a glorious way to spend 7+ hours, and I recommend you dip into these talks as you can and as you wish.

Two down, one to go

Making progress, we are.

One big challenge with our current work for the next issue is the nature of the response (as in “Call and Response”). In the second round it was my turn to make images in a manner rhyming (so to speak) with Kim’s images. However, that response needed to be informed by my memory of Kim’s work, our conversations, the meetings we’ve had in her home, what I know of her connections in our community, etc. etc.  That is, the response covers a much, much larger window of time than has been our practice for previous issues. My secret hope was that by insisting on having Kim in this current round I could depend upon the fullness of a Victoria spring — foliage, flowers and all — to put a little wind in my sails. It didn’t work out that way, and that is all to the best. I do not have a green thumb (the last thing I grew from seeds must have been radishes in grade school), nor do I have a green eye. I envy those with a green eye.

I wonder how much great art doesn’t get made because we insist on seeing the way we think we see? My friend Gerry keeps feeding me books of essays by Robert Adams, From the title essay in his collection, “Beauty in Photography”, Adams writes:

The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the truth.

Part of what has made these current rounds so challenging and so exciting is that they have forced me to get away from what I think I see, to get away from what seem to be my own “indisputable facts”, to use a lot more “intuition” and a helluva lot more “hope”. All of this is me trying make sense of the way Francis sees, the way Kim sees — and, coming up, the way Paul sees — and to do so in a way that is not incoherent. It all feels a stretch, and that’s a good thing.



The end of round one cometh

I learned a new word today, one from linguistics: calque. One of my ideas for this month’s blog post was to be about photographic equivalents of an Ohrwurm – that’s German for a tune you cannot get out of your head. Turns out the English “earworm” is a direct translation and borrowing of the meaning of this German word. That is, “earworm” is known as a calque. Yet the levels of meta go even further as “calque” is itself a direct borrowing of the French word calque which means “to trace” or “copy exactly” (thanks Google Translate!). But… I was in the airport (YYJ to YYC) when this whole idea just got out of hand. It’s one thing to write as a way of learning what you think, and it’s quite another to cut one’s way through the word hoard with such a slim idea in your head to begin with.

Then again, imitation has been on my mind these past few months. We’re now in the midst of work for “Call and Response 2019.1” and this time around we have chosen to use each other directly for inspiration. At the start of the year each of us secreted into an envelope a half-dozen or so images we believe are typical of our own individual photographic style. (None of us have shown to the others what we’ve placed in that envelope.) So there is one envelope in each of our homes, and our task each round is to create a set of images based on the typical photographic style of another member. Indeed! After all three rounds we will trot out what we placed into our envelopes, and there will then be four sets of images for us all (16 sets in total). That will be a most interesting gathering!

I drew Francis for the first round, and for the life of me I cannot remember how everyone else is matched up. Oh boy… it is a good thing that I’ve had several months for this first round! His imagemaking is so inventive, the control of colour and contrast so precise, and his compositional eye so clear that I had to make the decision to avoid imitation or mimicry. Instead I’ve been walking around, looking at the world about me with Tri-X in an Olympus XA, and wondering “What would Francis see in that?”. The liberating thing is the fun of just looking, even stopping suddenly on the street after a double-take and having an excuse to walk back, making a few exposures using the energy of “What if?”. I’m now very, very curious about what will appear on the contact sheets after I develop the film (four rolls so far, maybe a fifth will be in the can).

Keeping the hope

Many years ago a student once popped their head into my university office and after seeing a picture of mine on the wall that appealed to them said, “You must have taken that photo with an expensive camera!” I chose to treat this as a compliment, although I’m sure many of us having heard the same thing from others feel a bit weary of it. (Another common compliment-attempt is something like, “You could sell that photo for a good price.”) It may be the hard work of sustaining a photographic practice-of-making is forever hidden from those distracted by the noise of sixtieth-of-a-second clicks.

But maybe that comment of mine is itself is a form of special pleading. There is the famous (albeit disputed) quote attributed to Michelangelo where he observes that those who admired the skill of his creation might not be so in awe and wonder if they saw how much work was needed to attain such mastery. (Imagine my horror discovering The Angry Cheeto has even tweeted Signor Buonarroti.) Singing, painting, dancing — our world is full of overnight sensations who have led lives of intense & complex labour.

And so to these past two months with the day job plus other life events leading to nights ceasing – more often than not — in a fog of trembling exhaustion. I have had nearly no moments devoted to the current VI Zine project, and this despite my enthusiasm for the task set before me this current round. Now is the time for some hope, yet rather in the way expressed by Vaclav Havel: “Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” Hope in the sense that the moments which will come for this crazy way I’ve chosen of being a creative humanoid are themselves good, regardless of the outcome of that work. That our work together is good. That the effort is good.

My night tonight, though, is a walk around a big city block plus a cookie plus some time to jot down these thoughts. I did get into the darkroom earlier today for a few hours. Hooray!



“Know your audience.”

A few days ago our group met to exchange the results of projects we each undertook individually. Paul had the brilliant idea some months back that we in our collective create for ourselves a “box set” of books or booklets, where our own contribution plus those we receive from others would make up four unique items. When we discussed and agreed to the idea it looked as if Christmas 2018 would be an ideal target date. And, of course, we all need deadlines as otherwise we will never know when we have missed them.

I myself decided to use this as excuse to try an idea combining several things of interest to me: graphic design, box making, bookarts, silver-gelatin prints, darkroom processes, fiber-based photographic paper, handmade papers, Ireland, etc. The result is a set of 12 images (each 8” x 8”, the width and height of our zines as printed by Magcloud) along with a booklet containing a slightly stream-of-consciousness travelogue relating to my journeys in Counties Clare, Galway and Mayo. I am used to personal projects executed in a frenzied white heat of barely-coordinated hands, but this one required much more patience, gentler planning, and a longer view. Even then my limited edition of six has flaws I could have avoided by simply anticipating that a lot of “unknown unknowns” were lurking. Regardless I’m glad Paul’s suggestion gave me an opportunity to stretch.

It is perhaps bit of a cliché these days to assert we should “know our audience” before preparing some work of writing or images or music or somesuch. Which is not to say the advice can be ignored – solipsistic creativity has a place, but it isn’t fair to demand a welcoming face from another humanoid, either now or in the distant future, when they encounter the resulting work. (And in the professional sphere, ignoring the cliché would be self-destructive.) Rather, I think the advice can be given a bit of a twist in that it helps to know not only what we can “get away with” given our audience, but that there exists an audience in the first place. Throughout my work on “Known & Strange Things” I had in mind Kim, Francis, and Paul, and perhaps also a few other friends and family to whom I will show the work. It is as if the audience provides a psychic trampoline, the weight and energy of creativity over time rising a little bit higher in the air, and a playfulness in that same time binding us to earth so that every so often we can absorb the propulsive & sheltering resistances from others. I’m so pleased and grateful to have had VI Zine collaborators as my audience for this individual project.

Quote calendar for 2019

I have not been at all faithful with first-of-the-month postings, but ‘tis the season for re-commitments. And in that vein I’ll continue as I did last January with a quote calendar for 2019, containing snippets and bleeding chunks of texts from humanoids describing something of the creative temperament (plus perhaps a bit more besides) in a humanoid life. Einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!

JanuaryJohn O’Donohue, philosopher and poet, 1956 – 2008. “You can’t set out to ‘do’ beauty, like in a how-to kind of manual. What we bring to beauty is the opposite capacity, that receptivity to be overtaken by it.” [from an unedited interview with Krista Tippett, https://bit.ly/2s0gegZ]

February: Grace Paley, poet, short-story author, teacher, political activist, 1922 – 2007. “The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or a roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.” [from 1992 “Paris Review” interview]

March: Gordon Parks, photographer, musician, writer, film director, 1912 – 2006. “Like souls touching, poetry, music, paint, and the camera keep calling, and I can’t bring myself to say no. All those things have become like alien wonders, beckoning. And finding no need to ask pardon of myself, I pursue them. Their mystery is as inescapable as air is from the wind.” [from his foreword to “Arias in Silence”, 1994]

April: Sylvia Plath, poet, 1932 – 1963. “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” [from her unabridged journals.]

May: Anne Truitt, sculptor, 1921 – 2004. “I take it for granted that everyone and everything around me is moving independently of any reference to me, so I looked at [my grandson] Sammy’s drawing impartially. I failed to recognize immediately that in this instance my grandson was like me: a person who wanted to make his experience real for others and who set about to do so.” [from “Turn: The Journal of an Artist”]

June: Marc Riboud, photographer, 1923 ­– 2016. “The right photo strikes the eye the way the right chord strikes the ear.” [from “Contacts: Volume 1”]

July: Alan Bennett, playwright, screenwriter, author, actor, b. 1934. “Never underestimate the role of the will in the artist’s life. Talent you can dispense with but not will. Some artists are all will.” [from “Keeping On Keeping On”]

August: Anne Lamott, writer, b. 1954. “What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forget to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.” [from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”]

September: Sally Mann, photographer, writer, b. 1951. “Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, ‘ordinary art’ is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.” [from “Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs]

October: Martin Luther, professor, monk, composer, 1483 ­– 1546. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but …” (“Sei ein Sünder und habe starke Sünden, aber…”) [Sometimes translated as “Sin boldly”, contained a letter written in 1521 to encourage a dispirited Philip Melancthon. A good translation of the whole letter can be found at https://bit.ly/2ETUpHH]

November: Max Kozloff, art historian, art critic, photographer, b. 1933. “Many portraits following [Diane] Arbus reveal a current of liberalism, laced with irony, and possibly a bad conscience. Yet it was to their credit that, on the whole, they neither condescended to nor romanticized their sitters. They teach that the first real step in one’s understanding of others is to get beneath stereotypes, to show people who do not hesitate to exist, regardless of generalizations about them. These picture-makers were often upright, intrepid characters, though not on the side of the Angels. When I think otherwise, I say so, and explain why.” [from “The Theatre of the Face”]

December: Harold Speed, painter, 1872 ­– 1957. “Originality is more concerned with sincerity than with peculiarity.” [from “The Practice and Science of Drawing”]

Passing Strange

Three odd things happened last week. (1) There is a book I think I really want to read, and after looking through it in the bookshop, testing its weight in my hand, checking my own energy level, I place the book back on the shelf. (2) An interesting camera is listed in the inventory of our excellent local used-camera shop, and after setting out from the car towards the shop, picking up some darkroom paper once there, looking around the shop a bit, I decide against asking about the camera. (3) A platinum/palladium printing kit was on sale at the online store for That Important Alternative Process Shop In Santa Fe, and now that I am using a friend’s UV exposure box, it seems a good time to get back into such printing, yet I do not push the final “order” button at the bottom of the cart’s webpage.

There is no sense of me claiming any sanctity around “Black Friday” abnegation. I simply felt almost too tired to take on more stuff. Those retired men I used to see in my teenage years in Prince George BC wearing t-shirts with sayings such “He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins” now seem ever more absurd to me.

What has followed on since last week has a liberating twang to it. It is an ever-stronger sense that whatever is gestating within my visual imagination – wanting to be created – most certainly does not depend on me first getting my hands on yet more supplies or equipment or technique or physical space. Chuck Close has that famous line about how inspiration is for amateurs, that the rest of those with lives as artists simply show up and “get to work”. I am guilty of having used new stuff, new materials, additional workshops, etc., as “inspiration machines”. So the time is long past due for me to simply get on with the work – with the understanding that I will not know what that big but obscure thing to be created actually is until I go through the work of completing it (plus much else to be made along the way). This feels very strange.

Perhaps what makes this work with Paul, Kim and Francis so invigorating for me is the four of us nudging each other towards our inner, chiaroscuro-drenched psychic stages (as in “theatre stage”) where creation happens. We are showing up, doing the work, actually creating stuff!


The four of us are working away at issue #4 with the last round of work / image making now in full swing. We meet in ten days and I’m three images behind, which serves me right given that my suggested process for this #4 has turned out more challenging than any of us anticipated.

So in the midst of my procrastinating, I continue to read critical essays on photography and look through photobooks. One of the blogs I follow is that of A.D. Coleman. Amongst new writings he also posts some of his critical pieces from the past published elsewhere over the past 50 years (and in quite a wide and respected range of publications). His current series of posts are of a conversation / interview that took place in 1978 regarding photobooks, and I’m surprised at how little has changed in forty years with the way we interact with photobooks. Specifically I’m thinking of the short shrift we give to the photographic sequences themselves:

The idea that the book itself, or a sequence of photographs itself, is a thing … You can make a sequence into something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s important to experience images in a particular order, in a particular rhythm, and it’s important to sit with it at a certain tempo, slower than that which we are usually used to approaching photographs maybe, to get into the idea of spending an evening with a book of photographs. Experience them at a slow enough rhythm that you could actually get involved in the space between the images, as well as in the images themselves. This is still a foreign thought, even to most people in photography.

Yes, still a foreign thought, and it occurs to me I should also write “mea maxima culpa”. Just before reading Coleman’s observations I had looked through a friend’s copy of “In My Room“, images by Saul Leiter and published by Steidl. And looked through it far too fast. In fairness, the sequence is not Leiter’s own although he had intended to publish something like such a book in the 1970s but didn’t do so (for his own reasons, I surmise). After registering Coleman’s observation, and in essence being reminded of why I love photographic sequencing, I went back again through “In My Room” and much, much more slowly.

So is it harder today to sit with a sequence of images – as opposed to a series of images, which is a different animal entirely? And if interacting and responding to a photo sequence is a learned response, is there something about all this that makes it particularly difficult to acquire and practice?