Monday, March 14, 2011

A day with Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams at work, Bear Valley, California, May 1971.

It was mid-week in May, 1971, at Ansel Adams’ six-day Yosemite Workshop. The photographers in attendance ranged from young and excitable (like me) through seasoned seniors with (apparently) loads of money, time, quality cameras and confidence. Early Wednesday Mr. Adams announced he was leading a photo expedition from Yosemite National Park to Bear Valley, California, and would any one care to ride along with him. I was first to volunteer, then spent several hours “riding shotgun” for Mr. Adams in his Ford LTD listening to stories of photographic zones, his extensive travels and Edward Weston. I was a curious young man and listened intently — amazed and amused at the revelation that MAD was his favorite magazine.
    We passed the Mariposa County Courthouse and other sites Ansel Adams had recorded over the years. At several locations in Bear Valley, he’d plant his tripod, focus a top-quality Hasselblad camera, measure highlights and shadows with his Pentax one-degree spot meter, evaluate the scene through a yellow gelatin filter, then take his single exposure.
    All the while I was bracketing exposures with my second-hand Mamiya C330 twin lens reflex camera.
    We had lunch. I learned he used a metronome in his darkroom for a timer. (He was an accomplished pianist who chose between music and photography.)
    I developed the (long discontinued) Kodak Panatomic-X black-and-white film the following morning and had some pretty decent negatives as a result — including a couple shots of the Master Photographer himself.
    Link to one of Larry's Photos from the Yosemite Workshop:

Photograph at sunrise, Yosemite National Park

Sunrise, Yosemite National Park, May 1971.

It was the fourth morning of Ansel Adams’ six-day Yosemite (National Park) Workshop in May 1971. I’d spent the day before sitting next to Ansel Adams in his Ford LTD chatting it up to-and-from Yosemite and Bear Valley, California.
    It was dark, the cabin was cold and I was wide awake — ready to start another exciting day. I was going to be another famous photographer after all. 
    Near the cabin the Merced River snaked its way through the valley. I remembered that the river reflected Half Dome and was pretty sure the sun rose from that direction.
    When the sun did rise that Thursday, I did some scrambling to find the right place for the sun to rise between the peaks and record the famous profile of Half Dome.
    The cold May morning caused condensation on the 65mm “taking” lens of the twin-lens reflex Mamiya C330, 6x6 film camera. A soft cotton handkerchief wiped the moisture from the lens between shots. Unlike Ansel Adams, I “bracketed” the exposures by one stop from the reading a borrowed Pentax Spotmeter suggested. I was actually overexposing the film by two stops before bracketing for “insurance” because the ratio of bright sunlight to deep shadow required underdevelopment to reduce contrast. At least I thought that was right.
    Later that morning Mr. Adams saw the film hanging from the clothesline in the darkroom and commented, “That’s what happens when you get up early.”
    I was pleased that even with overexposure and underdevelopment, lens condensation, bracketing ... plus my left foot and a tripod leg in the water, I had several usable frames ... and a picture that even the great Ansel Adams didn’t have in his portfolio.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Piano keys and paint brushes

There are similarities ...  and considerable differences between teaching piano and painting.
We’ve all heard a child brutalizing piano keys. That same child, when carefully and patiently coached can eventually produce the same glorious notes and chords handed down the centuries from Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven and other notables.
However in art, we’re told from an early age to “be creative” and “use our imagination” rather than being taught accurate drawing, underpainting, glazing and Golden Mean from the get-go. Pianos have 88 keys forcing the pianist to “stay inside the lines.” There just aren’t any more keys to the right or left. Young painters, however, are often encouraged to paint outside the lines, the box, or beyond the canvas and onto Dad’s old shirt. (You won’t find musical notes splattered onto the floor of a piano studio). If these youngsters were taught art like piano students, would their later paintings be of higher quality?
Master piano and violin teacher Mary Laura Gardner says: “The goal of a successful piano teacher is to enrich her student’s life through the medium of music.  From the very beginning I integrate the three essentials of beautiful music — melody, harmony and rhythm. Whereas art is appreciated by the eye, music is appreciated by the ear.  The goal is to make music quickly. This creates a desire to learn and sets the path ahead.
    “Technique is crucial in developing an artistic performer. One must understand the various touches producing many nuances and shades of tonal color. Producing a relaxed, beautiful tone on the piano involves listening and skill. A crisp staccato requires different control of the fingers and muscles than a lovely legato touch. 
    “Learning the rudiments of harmony and rhythm are also essential tools needed to produce the outcome of a piece enjoyable to the listener as well as the performer.
    “Every student is unique and must be nurtured individually in these basic elements which require practice and skill to master.
    “Before playing The Masters in their original form, one must have worked to accomplish the technique needed to express the music.

Mary Laura Gardner encourages a student during a lesson.
Oil on canvas / 14h x 11w

Larry says: Imagine a room full of “creative” youngsters playing piano at the same time. On the other hand it’s not uncommon for an entire class of  five-year-old “ar-teests” to paint together. Using the infinite monkey theorem, would a young painter applying paint at random for an infinite amount of time eventually paint the complete works of Leonardo? Or, would it save time and materials to teach proper technique and control from the beginning?

Welcome to my glob, Volume 1, Number 1. There could be erors.

I was told to write from what I know, and I know something about art, but certainly not everything I should about the subject. And that’s why I’m counting on feedback from friendly friends and (constructively) critical critics.

As a painter I favor realism with maybe a touch of humor — from others as well as myself. I believe we should paint to the best of our ability each time, and then build on that to become better — eventually achieving artist stature. Is randomly smearing paint on a canvas declaring: “It came from in here” (pointing to the heart area) the best use of God-given talent and resources?

I was not blessed into a wealthy family, nor folks that encouraged my art, nor did I have the talent to earn an art scholarship. What I learned was gleaned from art history books and studying the techniques of the Old Masters.

When I graduated from North Salem (Ore.) High School, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to electronics school where my classmates were already ham radio operators and already knew the color codes on resistors. That I knew the primary and secondary color wheel was of no consequence. In the little time off I had, I’d paint oil portraits of classmates’ girlfriends from a tiny photograph . I learned the tough lesson that if it did not look like their love interest, or better, I didn’t get paid. In the mix of subjects I painted portraits of a captain and a major. The Air Force then decided I’d make a better Illustrator than Missile Maintenance Technician, so I painted fighter jets in acrylics and prepared informational slide shows for the remainder of my commitment which concluded in South Korea. At the Base Exchange at Osan, Korea, cameras were duty-free and I had access to a darkroom, so I retired my paintbrushes for a time and pursued my new found interest in photography. I admired the crisp landscape work of Ansel Adams, struck up a postal correspondence with him, and in 1966 purchased one of his noted photos — Aspens, New Mexico.

After four years of military service, I worked for the State of Oregon Education Division as a Graphic Artist, the (Salem) Statesman-Journal newspaper advertising department as an ad designer, the Silverton Appeal-Tribune newspaper as Advertising Manager, State of Oregon Employment, again as a Graphic Designer, and a now defunct graphics firm in Salem before launching my own design, commercial photography, publication design, and humorous illustration studio in 1976. We pretty much have to do-it-all to stay in business in a town the size of Silverton, Oregon. April 2011 marks my 35th year as Kassell Concepts. I photograph, write, then design ads, brochures and booklets.

I enjoy humorous illustration (cartooning), because humor and caricatures often best drive home a point. Photography is especially rewarding because a photographer has to actually be present at the event to capture a photo, and sometimes that requires extensive travel. In forty-plus years of photography I’ve met so many interesting people and witnessed so many gorgeous sunsets that I can’t keep it inside. A photo in an album, attic, or still in a camera or computer is like the tree that falls in the forest and nobody hears. So, I choose to share my illustrations and photos — but like home movies, they’d better be interesting. I published two photo books of my hometown, Silverton Sampler (1972) and Silverton Sampler II (2003).

As much as I love photography, film and darkrooms have gone the way of tail fins on cars (remember 1957?), and digital photography and its editing programs have made practically everyone a photographer. In December, 2007 I bought some canvases, an easel, a few brushes and a selection of Gamblin oils and launched my third or fourth career. Now with our six kids out of the nest, and with my wife Julia’s blessing, I paint, paint, paint — whenever I find time — like when I was in the service more than forty years ago.

Favorite artists

Seriously. The best artist in history was Norman Rockwell. The best impressionist was Bernie Fuchs. My favorite living artist: James C. Christensen. Others, living and not-so-much, are Adolphe William Bougerau, Nelson Shanks, Jacob Collins ... all traditionalists.

The best artist in Silverton, Ore. is probably the lady who decorates cakes at Roth’s Fresh Markets.

What I’ve been up to

This painting is from a photograph taken many years ago of a friend posing with my wife Julia’s VW Beetle, Susie. “The Controlled Beetle Hunt of 1968” takes a humorous poke at Oregon’s SUV and pickup owners who see little foreign nuisances on the road as fair game. A brush-and-ink rendering of this painting will be featured in an upcoming book I’m working on. I’ll keep you updated.

The Controlled Beetle Hunt of 1968

The Controlled Beetle Hunt of 1968
Oil on canvas, 24 h x 24 w