THE CREATIVE CIRCLE
This catalog and the Leica Gallery exhibit it is based on are the product of 45 years of a concerted effort to create a complete thought. From youthful attempts to envision alienation in photos such as Hamburgers (1967), to evoking Tarot archetypes in my hand color series (1980s-90s), to capturing the hushed quality of snowfall in First Snow (2002), the journey continues.
Initially, I had proposed the title An Artist’s Life for this exhibition in half-seriousness. But the title stuck, and the concept began to make a certain amount of sense. It also became a challenge: Many of the photos in this collection sat in files of negatives until very recently. Necessarily, presenting them as a group challenged me to define what it means to be an artist and how that plays out over a period of 45 years.
How does a photographer account for a lifetime chasing shadow and light? Consciously or not, every artist borrows or steals. We seek inspiration, copy it, and if we are introspective enough, break through to invent our own perspective. My interpretation of what it means to be an artist is impacted by the photographers and painters who have influenced me and whom I’ve emulated: Edward Weston, Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Brassaï, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Edward Hopper.
Lartigue’s photographs and life made the biggest impression on me. Here was a man who could do anything he wanted, and he chose to photograph his world without seeking recognition for it. Lartigue’s unfettered vision seemed to me the ultimate luxury for any photographer. I realized early on, however, that combining a professional photographic career with my artistic interests would not be possible.
The lure of true love and the city drew me to New York in 1974. Trained in photojournalism, I slipped easily into the world of news photography at the Associated Press. The City was a frightening place in the 70s, but I connected with the Imperial Spartans, a group of young men loosely organized as a street gang in Spanish Harlem. They were close to my age, and I identified with their social logic and camaraderie.
Motivated by the ideal of the ‘concerned photographer’ propagated by Magnum and other photo agencies, I was pleased with the way my photos of the Spartans captured youth and innocence coexisting with violence and lawlessness. But the reactions of friends and colleagues, who mainly saw delinquents and hoodlums in the photos, were extreme and often cruel. Meanwhile, my subjects fixated on the project as an avenue to money or fame.
Ambivalent about photojournalism’s place in fine art photography, I turned from the animate to the inanimate, focusing on abandoned toys and detritus I discovered on the street. Unleashing my imagination, I found myself interacting with these broken and abandoned objects. The project, started in 1979, evolved and eventually became the inspiration for my 2010 exhibit and book, Dutch.
In the mid 1980s, when the Three-Card Monte street hustle added playing cards to the refuse I collected from the streets, I became obsessed with Tarot cards. By coincidence, I received an exhibit catalog featuring a Renaissance Tarot deck on display at the Morgan Library. The detail, craftsmanship and treatment of archetypal symbols in these gilded miniatures astounded me. Inspired,
I proceeded to manipulate many of my photographs with oils and gold leaf. Reactions to this hand-color work varied, but in the photo world, these pieces were largely viewed as deviant.
In an about-face, I embraced Photo-Secessionism, an early 20th century movement led by Alfred Stieglitz. The Photo-Secessionists held the then-controversial viewpoint that what was significant about a photograph was not what was in front of the camera but the intent of the photographer who took it. I too felt I had seceded, if only temporarily, from the photographic world.
In the 1990s, I redoubled my efforts to communicate images from my mind’s eye in photographs of the decaying relic of Coney Island, dusty shop window displays left unattended for decades, scenes caught in automobile headlights, tar-top roofs bathed in blue twilight.
In the last decade I have returned to the theme of alienation. I now refer to these images as moments of presence and absence, an interpretation inspired by Edward Hopper's scenes of solitary individuals caught in introspective moments. This mature use of photographic technique to evoke a sense of separation of subject from environment brings me back to early works like Hamburgers and Military Plaza (1968).
For me the creative odyssey is a cyclical undertaking. Start one place, move on, and start again.
Carlos René Perez