JUST TRYING TO MAKE ART
Julia and I moved into a flat on Sutter Street and transferred into San Francisco State in 1963. The flat was in a run-down three-floor victorian and the ad for the rental said, “7 room flat, very dirty, $57.50 per month.” The landlord had recently evicted the previous tenants, several black working girls, and their kids. “Very dirty,” didn’t do it justice. I had to shovel three feet of household garbage out of the pantry, and we had to scrub and disinfect everything. We painted the walls and ceilings with the cheapest white wall paint we could find and the floors with gray deck enamel.
In San Francisco, at this time the Goodwill and other thrift stores were gold mines of Victorian furniture, clothing, jewelry, and other assorted treasures, dirt cheap. We had previously lived in a large apartment complex that had been built right after the earthquake and fire of 1905, and the landlady there had let us borrow furniture from the storerooms on the ground floor. We borrowed all this stuff permanently and had a completely furnished flat full of elegant, Victorian oak furniture, Art Noveau prints, abalone shell dresser sets, framed mirrors and photos, wall hangings, etc.
Julia entered the Art Department at S.F. State and I enrolled as a Poetry Writing major and started taking classes in the Film Department and Beginning Photography in the Art Department. After a couple of semesters of this, I signed up for Beginning Color Photography, taught by a guy named Don West.
Don, as I remember had trained to be a concert pianist in his youth but was too prone to stage fright to pursue this career. The Photography Department faculty was all into the f64, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, etc. school of photography. Don was doing the same kind of thing but in color. His mission was to make and to teach how to make beautiful and technically perfect color close-ups of rocks, green and red peppers, rusty railroad cars, etc. “Eternity in a grain of sand,” kind of thing I guess.
The color class was a combined Beginning and Intermediate class so the second-semester students were already meticulously striving for darkroom perfection, and the beginning students were just being introduced to the mysteries of color balance and dodging and burning in and…and… I just wasn’t interested in this path.
Instead of shooting a lot of new color pictures I took my old black and white 4”x5” view camera negatives and scratched them, punched holes in them, and collaged them together. Then I made color prints and drew and painted on the prints. I rephotographed the prints and repeated the process until I had something I considered interesting. Remember this was 25 years before Photoshop 1.0 was released.
When the first critique came around all the Intermediate students put up their imperfect attempts at photographic perfection. Don critiqued them rather harshly, “Too much cyan,” etc. Then it was the Beginning student’s turn and more of the same with the Intermediates joining in somewhat condescendingly. Since it was done in alphabetical order I was last.
After I put up my eight or ten outrageous transgressions of the rules of photographic purity there was a stunned silence. Finally, Don muttered, “Interesting…interesting, but is it Photographic?”