Jack Comments on Photography


On Sequencing photographs

Sequencing photographs is not the same thing as putting together a picture story or a document of life among the needy. If it relates to another form, it relates to poetry and some poetry puts heavy demands on the reader. In the fifties I was in a rich setting which included Henry Holmes Smith, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Gene Meatyard, Jerry Uelsmann, Van Deren Coke, Ralph Hattersley, and other like minded folks. It was an academic setting and a major issue revolved around the casual way most viewers looked at photographs. We used to have workshops which revolved around "reading photographs". Minor would put up a short sequence and we would spend hours trying to come to terms with his poetics. It required some hard work sometimes. There is nothing random about my choices. I do attempt to put my work in relationships that serve my meanings. It is up to the viewer to engage them or not as they wish. It is the only way I can see to "Preserve my vision." The internet provides you the opportunity to make your own sequence by clicking on the thumbnails. I like that idea. I also hope that each photograph will stand alone, without reference to any other photograph.

No doubt I could be better at sequencing but I fear if I really got good at it then it would be so difficult that you would indeed flip at the challange I present. What I am saying is that photography is a much deeper and profound expression than most people realize. It is a really complicated visual form that extends well beyond the iconography that is presented. Some photographs are like dreams, very strange indeed, and worthy of considerable time and patience. Few people are prepared to invest themselves on that level, and that even includes some professionals.

Minor White would sequence photographs (of disparate subject matter) in a way that could only be called poetic. It is pretty much a lost art if Gallery shows and websites are any example. Usually it comes down to fifty photographs in the desert, or f ifty photographs of some lady re-living the lives of the old movie queens, or fifty photographs of old Mexico. I am left with the feeling that nobody has any chops any more. Certainly not like my heros: Weston, Strand, Stieglitz, Cunningham, Sommer, et c. I have always measured my progress by how well I could do the basic categories: Portraits, Nudes, Landscapes, Cityscapes, Interiors, Still life, and, I suppose, local color. I do some of these things better than others. My big challange is still li fe. It is very hard to do something meaningful.

One of the problems the web presents is that few people look carefully at the photographs. They flip through them like they were looking through a magazine on their train commute to work. It surely does not match a meditative hour spent in a museum o n a rainy day, or better still, hanging a great work on your wall.

About Documentary

Allow me to discuss the divide between the documentary and the more interior investigations as characterized by Fred Sommer Emmet Gowin and I suppose Minor White, Weston, Stieglitz and numerous other people. Do we need a laundry list? Over the years I have detected a lot of up-tightness from the documentary or journalistic side (for want of a better definition). They are inclined to charge that the more interior investigations are a waste of time and elitest. I don't detect the same up-tightness movi ng in the other direction. Maybe because of my own feelings. I really admire certain of these people. I cite Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Gene Smith and, in later times, Mary Ellen Mark. I find fault with documentary's tendency to only deal with effects and not causes. Marion tried to do some work dealing with causes although that was not what the boss, Roy Stryker, wanted. The best work done on effects has been done by people who really immersed themselves in the lives of the p eople they were dealing with. I cite Walker Evans and James Agee who moved in with the tenant farmers for awhile before doing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Mary Ellen Mark did the same in doing the prostitutes of Calcutta. MPW would help the women with their chores before beginning to photograph. I guess I weary of seeing so many photographs of starving children and dying aids patents. There has got to be more to it than that. Gene Smith would have known what to do.

Sabine

Ah Sabine! Judy (Dater), Jerry Uelsmann, and I taught a workshop together in Arles. We were given a nice French house to live in. Several models were provided for the workshop and, in-as-much as Arles is "très chaude" in August, the models liked to hang out in our house. Being models, they liked to take their cloths off, the only way to beat the heat. There was Sabine, in all her wondrous glory, forever in front of my camera nude or semi-so. I delighted in taking her picture above all the models. I did not have much French at the time and Sabine had little English but we got along with signs and symbols. I often wondered why I was so drawn to Sabine and much later, while rummaging through some old photographs I came across a photograph of my Mother at eighteen. There was a striking similarity.

That was 1973 and I have not seen Sabine since that date. Awhile back I got together with Lucien Clerque and he told me he had seen Sabine and that she sent me a message: "Tell Jack I still have great breast." I would surely like to meet up with her again. I have a little more French under my belt and she may have a little English. In most instances I think Judy Dater (who also photographed Sabine) and I approached the nude from different points of view. I tended to pay them homage while Judy found sisters under the skin. Women and Other Visions (Judy Dater and Jack Welpott, eds. Morgan and Morgan, 1975) makes the difference clear I think. I suppose it is a case of anima/animus or something.

Which brings up the Nude and Sexuality in Photography

Let me address the belief that my work is about sex. That strikes me as a simplification. Certainly human sexuality is one of my concerns, but I hope there is more to it than that. Of the many photographs on this site only a few are nudes. Most or of other subject matter. Of course, the female body is of such great interest that people often head straight for that and then brand the photographer as being concerned about sex. They are smelling their upper lip. It makes me feel that they have not " read" my work very well. There are many other issues to be found there. I'll give a hint, formal problems loom high in my thinking. I have not heard negative comments of sexism in my work, except in one case. It is an interesting story. I went to the University of Colorado to lecture and to attend a show of my work. When I got there Gary Metz, the teacher, took me in his office and told me about a female student who hit the ceiling when she saw my work. She was all set to string me up by the thumbs when I arrived on campus. He told me not to worry. He had sat down with her and they explored her feelings. After some probing she discovered that what pissed her off was the fact that I had expressed my very real feelings about the opposite sex, and s he was forbidden to do so with the male nude. Gary very wisely gave her permission to do the same as I, and would even provide her a model. The up-shot was that she came on me as a kind of hero and showed me some marvelous male nudes that she had done. She discovered that interest in the body was not confined to the male only. She had the same feelings directed to the male body as I had towards the female body. When women take their freedom many find that they are just as interested in the human body of what ever sex attracts them as the male. Human sexuality is not a one sided shell game. Later on the young lady turned up at a workshop I was giving in Yosemite and willingly modeled for me. She has since become a good friend and no longer views my work as sexist. She has become a solid documentary photographer as well.

The feminist movement suffers from a tendency to over react. Especially amongst what I call the lunatic fringe of feminism. They demonize men in ways that do not help.

Cheerio, Jack Welpott


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