To me, schools in the summer are one third peaceful, one third harmless, and one third sad.
After all those years, the sight of a school in June still whispers “September” and I frown a little bit.
Even a school that has no relationship to my past, and that is six thousand miles away from where I grew up, such as the Malaga Cove school in Palos Verdes Estate.
I have a bit of a difficult relationship with schools. I have a PhD, I have a strong drive towards teaching. One of my favorite things over the past year was when school-buses got back in service and I saw kids going back to school. At the same time, I was the not-so-popular, high-achieving, often lonely and sometimes bullied kid from elementary school till halfway through high-school. Every time I see a school, old Tom and young Tom kind of clash: aspirations, ideals, and memories forming an interesting cocktail ranging over a curious mix of emotions.
But I think it’s nice to put all of this into photographs.
We went to Crystal Cove, OC this morning. It was somewhat overcast. As you know, I’m all about colors. When it’s overcast, and colors don’t shine as bright, then I play with black and white.
The light and the textures looked great in black and white as I was shooting. Once at home, I kept processing in black and white. It was lovely. Then I started trying out different colors, and I loved them too.
I loved how each processing gave our a different vibe. Each photograph played according to a different harmony.
The story each photograph tells is so unique that I cannot pick one and say “you are the one”.
I hope this gives a little insight into my editing processes. To me, editing is not different from cooking. It’s like preparing a salsa for the pasta. Different ingredients will call for different spices, and different spices will be suitable for different occasions.
Filters, you say? I don’t know. Call a rose by a different name, and it will smell just as nice. I don’t like the notion of filter because it’s often used in a diminutive way. Filters are usually a handful of one-size-fits-all presents you slap on an image.
Editing is more about the careful and loving fine-tuning of dozens of parameters, colors, shadows, textures, brilliances, emotions. I have my recipes, that are never twice the same, and that I like to think I improve with every photograph I produce.
I don’t know how I fell in love so deeply with the American West. A Latin expression comes to my mind: nomen omen. Romans believed one’s name could hint to the person’s destiny, and my parents did chose Wayne as my middle name. You could also say that the Romans got it upside down, and it’s one’s name that actually imprints their fate. No matter how you see it, the love of the West is inscribed in my name.
Fun fact, the etymology of Wayne is bound to the Westward movement and traces back to the wainwright, the wagon-builder (“wain” being the archaic word for the wagon, or the stagecoach).
Western movies have surely played a major role in my fondness of the West, and my western photography is imbued with a cinematic taste.
As I recently watched John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach”, I was elated to discover a sequence very similar to a photograph I shot in the monument valley, featuring the first butte one encounters upon leaving Kayenta, the gatekeeper to the Monument Valley.
Being born and raised in Italy, my Western imagery somewhat reflects the Old Continent’s fascination with the Old West. On the one hand, I partake of John Ford’s visions of grandeur, as I look to represent the awe-inspiring vistas reminiscent of National Geographic; on the other hand, I am influenced by Sergio Leone’s realism as I paint the Western deserts in all of their barren and blinding inhospitable beauty.
We sometimes describe the Western deserts as Martian, or Lunar landscapes. The difference, though, is that life abounds in the desert. One of the reasons why I find the desert so inspiring, in fact, is the relevance of life. Nothing lives by chance in the desert, every life form sings and celebrates its own relevance.
Living in Los Angeles, I am blessed with a unique access to the American West. On top of being, quite literally, the end of the trail, I can drive three hours and be in one of my favorite places in the world, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I can also drive little more than half a day and reach the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the countless wonders of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
This is a blessing I am aware of every day. The West is my backyard. I can access it with such ease that I do not even need to think about it. Yet, the American West retains the wonder of a legendary past, certainly romanticized, but whose epic narration had begun even before the Census Bureau declared the closure of the Western frontier in 1890. Every so often, a zealous mind sets on to seek the “real” West, the reality of the Westward movement. Even before Hollywood, the Westward movement could hardly discern itself from its own self-narrative and ideology.
Then Hollywood came, and the rest is history: still, never before in history a given space-time was narrated and mythicized so close to its very unraveling, chronologically and geographically. John Wayne did meet Wyatt Earp, the deputy marshal of Tombstone, and when the latter died in 1929 in Los Angeles, western movie star Tom Mix was among the pallbearers.
If someone can take all of these elements apart, I tip my hat to them. I cannot. The nineteenth century, the Western movies on which Hollywood was born, Kerouac and McCarthy, my 2011 Silver Mustang and the sensors of my digital cameras, all of these things come together in my eyes and in my mind. I go out there, and look where the geological history and the histories of our people fold and bend like the Colorado river.
Countless towns in the South Western states claim to be “where the West still lives”. If you’re looking for me and I’m not in Los Angeles, I’m probably somewhere out there.
First, just so nobody worries, I’m not feeling particularly “trapped in a country song.” I’ve just been meaning to shoot something with my LEGOs and the instruments that are laying around our home (there’s a lot of them) and my macro tubes.
Seeing the little mini figure behind the six-strings reminded me of that country & western trope, when the singer is behind the bars because of something he did (usually for love). It also reminded me of that line in Dire Strait’s Romeo and Juliet that goes “All I do is kiss you / through the bars of a rhyme”. Hence the title.
I love LEGOs, I love the stories you can build with them. Maybe not everyone knows that, towards the end of my academic career, I wrote a book about philosophy and LEGO. Right now it’s available in Italian and in French, but I have not given up on finding the motivation to finish the English translation 😉
So yes, I do I have my minifig alter-ego, and Anne-Claire has one too!
The title of this one is “Resting on C”.
So… here’s a little freebie! If you like LEGOs and songs and fun photographs, this image is cropped so that you can use it as a screen saver for your phone!
French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his 1980 book Camera Lucida, sets off his reflections by focusing on the relationship between photography and death. Portraits, he thought, are like revenants, and like ghosts, but they don’t even need their subjects to be deceased to be such. Certainly, if the person portrayed in the photograph has passed in the meanwhile, the effect is all the stronger.
This slightly macabre preamble was just to introduce how, like a bat in the night, photography has its place around death. That’s what a friend and I worked on last week as we went to Los Angeles shooting for…
The first cemetery we headed to was the Hollywood Forever, right behind the Paramount Studios (6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles). It was founded in 1899, towards the end of the neoclassical revival that had reshaped the understanding of cemeteries all along the nineteenth century. This vision of cemeteries, epitomized in the United States by the Gettysburg National Cemetery, drew its inspiration from the Kerameikos, the main burial ground in ancient Athens: the greek idea of a cemetery was a place of communion between the living and the dead, a beautiful garden in which to stroll and brood, letting one’s mind be inspired by the wisdom of the forefathers.
The Greek’s relationship with death was much different than the Christian one: if it’s true that the afterlife was considered as an unexciting, mildly depressed and mostly melancholic region of our universe, it’s also true that – unless one had committed particular atrocities such as murdering a family member or a guest – the underworld was not a lieu of torment, as opposed to the Christian Hell, or even Purgatory. Unbothered by damnation and salvation, the Greeks could wander in the cemetery and be inspired by those who came before about how to make their life worth living, and especially worth telling (and this obviously connects with the beauty and unique decoration of one’s tomb).
I could ramble for much longer on the philosophical, theological, and sociological implications of graveyards, but I would overstay my welcome in your attention and it would definitely be eccentric to our interest: just know that after the Christian-dominated conception of the graveyard as a place to bury the dead and to pray for them and hasten their way to Heaven, and after the distate for cemeteries of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, the Romantic passion for classical Greece and Rome saw fit to reappropriate the vision of the cemetery as a place of beauty, made for aimless wanderings and recollection in tranquillity. After more than two millennia, cemeteries became once again places to hang out, and to be honest I think an ancient Athenian would be less scandalized at the sight of a Yoga class by Douglas Fairbanks’ monument than many of our contemporaries.
First, cemeteries are really interesting on a compositional level. Difference cemeteries display different kinds of tombs, some are more eclectic while other present a more uniform architecture. Composing the image in a cemetery is a beautiful challenge.
Second, cemeteries offer great storytelling opportunities. There are many lines you can exploit: one of my favorites is the duality between the living and the dead, which can be interpreted either by connecting dots inside and outside the perimeter of the graveyard (as in the case of the Hollywood sign overlooking the cemetery, or in the curios alinement of the Griffith J. Griffith memorial and the Observatory in the background).
Another interesting way of exploring and resolving the life/death duality is to focus on the wildlife that cheerfully inhabits most cemeteries, in this case mostly amounting to birds and squirrels. Whenever I look at the first image, I think that Mesrobian must have been a really good person.
Third, many cemeteries include indoor mausoleums and other enclosed spaces. These force you to explore different kinds of composition and editing to exploit the architecture, the decor, and the way light plays around in those purposely dim chambers.
Last, but not least, when you visit a cemetery such as the Hollywood Forever or the Père Lachaise in Paris, you you will be looking for the last earthly home of some of the stars that will burn forever bright in your imagination. This is where your culture and your personal taste will play out, because we’re all on the same Earth but we all look at different Heavens.
The “stargazing” part was particularly rewarding at the second cemetery we visited, the Westwood Memorial Park on 1218 Glendon Avenue. Beware, this one is a little hard to find, as it is nested between high-rises and parkings so you won’t see it from the street where your navigator leads you to. Trust your GPS, park, and walk to the memorial. The weather had turned gloomy, but the overall lack of esthetic charm (compared to the Hollywood Forever) is compensated by the fame of its residents. It’s almost easier to single out who you do not know than who you do. With all due respect, it is a fun experience: many things will make you go “Ha!”, for instance seeing that Hugh Hefner and Marylin Monroe rest side by side, and many of the epitaphs will make you smile, smirk, or giggle out loud.
Aside from the revealing suspicion, aroused by the Westwood Memorial, that we won’t be equal under the grass, it was very rewarding to visit cemeteries. It was rewarding from an artistic perspective, it was a great study and exercise, and it was revealing from a human perspective, too. It makes you wonder while you are there, and it makes you wander while you are home editing your photographs, and the very editing is like a mirror of your thoughts about everything you took in.
What was my takeaway? I saw many beautiful tombs, and I read many epitaphs. Many were solemn, many were solemn and personal (I could not help wondering at many graves who said the person would be forever remembered, but I had no idea who they were), and some were definitely witty – and I appreciated these a lot because I’m a funny guy. But the one that resonated the most with me was Dean Martin’s, at Westwood Memorial. It was so simple and so perfect, because not only it summed up everything we had seen. It also summed up everything life is about, and also everything photography is about.
Everything we do, it’s because everybody loves somebody sometime, and my sometime is now.