What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what have been some of the most important milestones in your career up until now?
I’ve been doing photography for about a half century and over the years many things inspired me. Television was probably my first real visual influence. In 1950, when I was five years old, we got the first TV set in our neighborhood. I grew up watching black and white images on a small glass screen. Today, deep into my sixth decade, I am still mesmerized by some of the things that I see on a small glass screen.
I found a broken 1930’s camera that had a two piece pop-up viewfinder. I carried it with me everywhere and looked at everything through it. It quickly became my window onto a private world. By Junior High I was carrying a 35mm camera with me every day, working candidly by available light, imagining I was Alfred Eisenstaedt on assignment for LIFE. That was my first photo dream, along with owning a Leica.
As a high school student I apprenticed with a local commercial photographer who taught me basic photo-techniques and introduced me to the darkroom. I carried his equipment at weddings and watched from the wings while he made studio portraits on film that he retouched with a graphite pencil. He let me use his Super D Graflex, a 4x5 SLR from the late ‘40s. After school I used to proof his portraits on printing out paper in direct sunlight. A decade later I was using the same studio-proof paper to make elegant exhibition prints from my own 8x10 negatives by fixing the sun print with gold chloride solution.
As a young boy I demonstrated an aptitude for the visual arts. In grade school I was given special opportunities to draw, paint and work with clay. My high school actually waived most of my science classes so that I could spend additional time in studio art classes. They sent me to the Boston Museum School for special classes. Then in 1963 I was accepted at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
The legendary freshman foundation program at RISD prepared me well for professional level study. It provided intensive training in drawing, two + three dimensional design, creative visualization, calligraphy and art history. I learned the tools and ways of the visual artist. It also prepared me for something I didn’t see coming. In 1964, at age 19, I met the photographer Harry Callahan. I didn’t know who he was or anything about his considerable reputation. He was quiet and taciturn. Photography was his first language. He struggled to talk about pictures because he knew that the picture expressed itself best. He was totally dedicated to the pursuit of his vision. His motives were agnostic. There were many ways to do photography. Find one that suits you best; but find your own way; that was his core philosophy. Harry’s concerns were purely visual and poetic, never political or conceptual. He did photography most every day, not for money, but out of a passionate belief in the expressive power of the still photograph. He gave beginning students a series of exercises that acquainted them with the inherent properties of camera work and tonal control. He gave us exercises in seeing photographically, but he never told us what to photograph. He opened our eyes and encouraged us to see the world with passion. He never claimed it was easy to make a good picture. He never hid the struggle from us. Harry Callahan didn’t just teach basic photography, he taught basic photographer. Over the three years I was with him my ideas and beliefs about the power of photography were transformed into a quiet reverence for it. Photography became a verb, an ongoing act of existence and an expression of being. It gave form to my vision. Being with Harry Callahan at The Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-60s was the most important influence I could have ever had. And the older I get the more I appreciate his silences…
I was making informed photographs by the mid-1960s, just as the medium was emerging from the shadows. I first exhibited my work with other RISD photographers in 1966. At the time many in the art world, including galleries, museums and other artists, did not accept photography as a valid art form. When I was in art school there were only a few hundred photography students in the entire country. My schoolmates included Linda Conner, Jim Dow, Bill Burke, John McWilliams and Emmit Gowin. There were a small number of important teachers and role models to emulate. We studied the work of Minor White, Atget, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, HCB, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Frederick Sommer, and some others. There was only one serious book: The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall. The final image in the book was a double exposure by Harry Callahan. Creative photography was defined rather narrowly: emotionally sensitive images, intimately scaled B+W prints with dark brooding tones and dramatic silver highlights. We serious photographers took ourselves very seriously.
In 1973 I took up the 8x10 camera and used it exclusively for ten years. The big view camera reemerged in the 70s as an artists’ tool. It was a wonderful way to reconnect with traditional photographic essentials; a simple camera, a good lens, a sturdy tripod, and time. Obscure processes were resurrected. It was a deliberate and ritualized way to work. I brought the 8x10 into the streets to render the urban experience with greater acuity and a formal perfection. Every picture was a study. In 1979 I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to photograph ‘Shrewsbury Street’, the blue-collar Italian-American neighborhood of Worcester, Mass. where I was born and raised. I did the project on 8”x10” negative in classic large format manner. I processed my prints by contact in Amidol water-bath developer using a variation on Edward Weston’s and Walker Evans’ formulas. Ninety-two prints from the project are in the permanent archive of the Worcester Historical Museum, the project’s sponsoring archive. In 1981 the museum exhibited 72 of the images. Hundreds of people I’d known since childhood came to the opening. Relatives baked cookies like they normally do for an Italian wedding.
In 1982 the NEA awarded me a fellowship. I made a radical jump from 8x10” negatives to Kodachrome slides; from the subtle grayscale of AZO paper to the saturated colors of K64. One way offered incredible control, the other virtually none. The slow color slide film had a narrow dynamic range which presented artistic challenges. I went back to the street where working with such an unforgiving film required technical discipline and a lot of experience. Working with K64 for a few years broadened my visual realm. Seeing in color was like lifting a veil from my eyes. At the time, however, there was no practical way to make a good and affordable print from Kodachrome, so after a few years I stopped using it.
In the 1990s I went back to 35mm B+W but after Kodachrome I found it unsatisfying. My pictures seemed to be pinned to the past. I began to feel that darkroom work was tedious, spending hours for one or two good prints. I was growing impatient. The process that I’d used for decades was feeling stale and restricting. At the same time I began to lose interest in exhibiting. A life in photography had to be more than a long list of shows. By 2000 my friends were encouraging me to try digital imaging, advice I stubbornly resisted. Finally I purchased an Olympus 5050, a little digital camera with a good lens. Working with a digital camera restored something that I hadn’t realized was missing from my work: fun and excitement. With the 5050 I did photography with the enthusiasm and abandon that I had as a kid. Simply seeing the picture on the small glass screen on the back of the camera lifted the burden of the wet process. The rituals of craft that hovered above every potential image were gone. Digital encouraged experimentation and it reminded me why I love photography in the first place: how I love having a sense of wonder about the visible world; about the human drama that plays out before my eyes every day; about the eccentric shadows and the unexpected epiphanies. I loved looking at all of it, the post cards as well as the discards. At the start of the 21st century my old obsession felt new again.
It took several generations of Photo Shop, plus improved printers, inks and papers, and as long as five years’ time, before I was able to get the quality I wanted from my image files. Through trial and error I developed an intuitive rapport with digital printing that intensified my vision. I eventually produced a stack of color prints that were as rich and expressive as any I’d done in monochrome. In 2009 I showed the prints to the Director of the Center for Creative Photography who was visiting my studio. She encouraged me to bring them to the curator at the High Museum of Art here in Atlanta. Her suggestion set in motion a remarkable chain of events. After looking through the prints HMA photo curator Julian Cox offered me an exhibition slated for mid-2011. I spent the next two years making more images and further refining my printmaking techniques. In June 2011 the High Museum opened the show called “The Resonant Image”. The exhibit of 64 images covered ten years of work and was up for five and a half months. It was the strongest and most sophisticated presentation of my work ever mounted. The Nazraeli Press published CHROMA, a beautifully produced companion book. Following the museum exhibit I showed at Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta’s foremost photography gallery. This show was followed in spring of 2012 by a 36 print exhibit at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district. Both Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta and the Steven Kasher gallery in NYC now represent my work.
The last twelve years have been a remarkable period of personal growth. The move to digital rejuvenated my vision. Color provided an enormous emotional vocabulary to draw from. The nuanced control of digital color is stunning. I can do things I never dreamed possible. The years I spent building a rapport with digital imagery led to some of the most visually arresting pictures I’ve ever made.
All of the things I’ve described here have, in some fashion, inspired me at different times and in different ways. The most important things are also among the most difficult: have confidence in your vision; find the patience to let your vision define itself over time. Make pictures often. Pay attention. You’ll see.
How do you approach editing your work, and what advice would you give to others about evaluating their photographs?
I asked Harry Callahan how long one should work on a project. He replied, “Until you get sick of it.”
It may take decades for a picture to make sense to you. An image can move back and forth in time before it finds its place. You may have to grow wiser before you can fathom intellectually what your heart felt years earlier. It may take time to find the one image that will unlock the secrets of the others.
We all fall in love with our most recent work, but it often turns out to be infatuation and lust. Be patient. Give your pictures time to gestate. Give yourself some time to get over them. Put them away for a while and make more in the meantime. Then revisit them from time to time and see which ones stick to you. Which ones haunt you late at night? Those are the images that often hold the important clues about what matters. Be very critical of your work. Consider every aspect of it. Demand a lot from it. Pay attention to everything you see. Surprises come to those who expect them. Take them very seriously. For some of us it’s our whole life.
How do you decide on new projects to work on? Do you always shoot with a concept in mind or do you wait to be inspired as you go?
Choices about projects should be made as organically and intuitively as possible. Deciding on a project before any pictures are made will send you on a scavenger hunt for lifeless illustrations of a shallow idea. Find your pictures viscerally. Take chances. Be impulsive. Explore and discover. Photograph anything that feels like a picture. Accumulate a body of source images that trace your curiosities and echo your instincts. Look through the thumbnails to see what you’ve paid attention to. Look for patterns and subtexts. In time projects will form themselves, like gravity forms star dust into new planets. You are the gravitational force. Let the projects form from evidence of things that matter to you. Avoid cataloging things. Life isn’t academia. Of course, most of the pictures will fall short of your intentions and expectations. Learn to respect images that you dislike, especially when they’re your own. Don’t see them as failures. See them as the sacrifices that you make in order to see photographically.
Keep in mind that my suggestions may be seen by some curators, portfolio reviewers, critics and gallery owners as heresy. They prefer to see boxes of images with easy connections and obvious themes. But your job is not to make their job easier. Your ‘job’ is to get closer to understanding the nature of your creative vision and to make pictures your own way. The pictures you make are eccentric pieces of an unfinished mosaic. Each picture informs every other. If you’re lucky, this process will take a long time.
What ways have you found successful for promoting your work and finding a receptive audience for it?
I helped start a photography community in Atlanta forty years ago. In 1973 we opened NEXUS, the first photography gallery in the region. Thirteen of us rented a storefront and formed a photo collective. We had a show every month for about three years. In essence, we were creating our own audience for photography. Nexus has since evolved into an art center. Many galleries here now show photography. I have given talks at local galleries and at the museum (which now has 5000 prints in its collection). I hold a monthly critique at the Atlanta Photography Gallery for all levels. I also conduct a discussion group about photography, or do interviews with prominent members of the photo community (High Museum photo curator Brett Abbott; Jane Jackson, curator of the Sir Elton John Photography Collection). I have a high profile in the Atlanta photo community, in part, because I am now a senior member of it.
Being part of a photo community has many political benefits. Networking is very important. Information is shared. Opportunities are posted. Organizations form for photographers with specialized interests. Make your interests known. Look for a group a bit above your level. Join and grow into it.
There are so damn many websites to wade through, I sometimes question their value. But, let’s face it, you need a web presence. The photography audience has become more discerning. If you build a site to represent your creative work it better be strong, clean and intuitive with no time consuming special effects. The images must be exceptional, skillfuly rendered and tightly edited. Don’t rush to put your work out before the public. Be as certain as possible that your work is of high quality. If you look like a beginner you won’t get a second glance. Find a mentor who will be blunt and truthful about where you are in the evolutionary process. Finally, self-publishing is a good way to get work out to galleries and curators. It’s easy to produce small inexpensive books to give away. I hear the Starn Twins made slick postcards which they sent each month to a select group in the art world. It worked out well for them.
Man In Drag With Blonde Wig, 2012
Covered Couple, Chimping, 2010
Girl With Camera, 2009
© copyright all images Chip Simone