After the forced seclusion of the past couple of years, I’m always eager to meet people, make new friends, and extend my connections with likeminded people. Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in San Francisco: I advertised my trip on social networks and bothered all of my friends with some ties to the Bay Area hoping to secure some meetings, but it did not work.
This was not all bad, though, firstly because I was able to fill my schedule with an amazing day-trip to Sonoma and Marin counties. Secondarily, I treated myself with an experience that the recent times had disenfranchised me from: visiting museums.
The two museums I visited during my stay were the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum (together, they compose the San Francisco Fine Art Museums). I must say I kind of tricked myself into visiting the first museum, the Legion of Honor. Part of me craved it, part of me did not, but the Legion of Honor was in the Golden Gate park and promised a striking architecture (it is indeed the replica of a Parisian building) and breathtaking views of the bridge. As per the outdoors, I sure was not disappointed.
The construction itself was stunning and the surrounding vistas were delightful, allowing the eyes to frame the coastline and the Golden Gate Bridge in a way that reminded me of Japanese esthetics, just reversed: the Japanese language separates natural wonders from man-made landmarks, and the latter are usually disposed in a fashion that highlights the former. At the Golden Gate Park, you can play with the natural scenery so that it bests enshrines the Bridge.
At this point it would have been a pity to stand on the doorstep of a museum and not enter it, and so I did. Little did I know that this simple decision was going to majorly disrupt my artistic production.
Before I go on, please allow me this aside: modesty is not one of my defining traits. I used to say I preferred a great display of honest pride to any shade of fake modesty. I also quipped that Modesty is the virtue of those who have it not. Now I avoid most statements that could get me in trouble.
Most of the art of the museum was representational, including landscapes and portraiture. Now I can immodestly say that the landscapes did not bother me. The ratios of land and sky and clouds and water, the clarity of the trees, the preference for idyllic vistas, even some double rainbows: I looked at all these and figured that my landscapes were classical enough. It felt reassuringly good.
The portraits, au contraire, they struck me and sank me. It was clearly not my first time seeing portraiture from the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth century. Instead, it was my first exposure to such an array of masterful portraits after shooting people with my cameras almost every week for the past three years.
My mind was blown away: the lights, the colors, the intensity of those portraits. Each expression was carefully chiseled. Symbols and references abounded, affording and encouraging multiple readings. Flemish masters and Baroque drama filled my eyes, together with picaresque French paintings, timeless Italian canvases, and Pre Raphaelites in all of their red matte glory. I could go on, but you know what I am talking about.
On the morrow I visited the de Young Museum, and this feeling grew stronger: I decided that I wanted my portraiture to go more towards that direction. Out of excitement and because public statements make one stick to their commitments I also announced this decision to many friends.
Back in Los Angeles, I could not get rid of this feeling. Two days later, a serendipitous observation set the machine in motion: I noticed that a spotlight shone through a yellow backdrop, lighting it from behind, produced a kind of a halo. I started experimenting with it. I arranged the lights and set my medium format camera on the remote trigger mode.
As Americans like to say, I went to town. Some exploration with my beloved red sweater that make some people wonder if I that is the only one I own led to this image, incorporating a tool of my trade.
And then all of my selves awakened. Tom the photographer, Tom the doctor in philosophy, and Father Tom the disappointed religious scholar finally coexisted in an icon. I wish I could say this with a little bit of shame, but the output of the reunion was one of those images that are ludicrous at first, but the more you look at them the more sense they seem to make. At least to me.
At this point I was content and I called it a day. I was very excited and very satisfied.
I still am. My satisfaction was not the satisfaction you experience upon reaching a destination or winning a far sought prize. My satisfaction was the forward-satisfaction that electrifies you when you move your first steps in a journey and have the feeling of knowing where you are headed. When you set foot on the trail and you are confident you packed right and know where to look for what you don’t have gathered yet. I feel like I am starting to understand what many master photographers mean when they say you must understand painting to understand photography. Even if all of my next work won’t obviously look like this, even if most of my future work most certainly won’t, I will understand some facets that were always present in my work and that I cherished but did not understand nor knew how to let shine. Now I know where to look for that. In other words, I know a little more of what I don’t know.
Unknown, here I come.