looking back

‘Looking Back’ had its beginnings in January 2009, when I climbed up into my attic and began to bring down some old boxes. I hadn’t opened them for decades, perhaps in some ways wary of the contents and what thoughts they might generate. But it seemed to be time. I found about ten boxes of old photographs, negatives and cameras untouched since the early 1980s and maybe even earlier. Despite extremes of heat and cold and many moves, they remained in good condition under a deep coat of dust.

Maybe I sought out the boxes because I had recently returned to taking pictures a few years after leaving an intense and challenging career in investment banking. I felt that I was beginning to ‘see’ once again. Over the years, I had always carried a camera with me on my travels, but it didn’t get much use. There was never that much time to reflect and compose photographs. Nevertheless, I still noticed the quality of light, and the textures and angles of people and objects in a city or landscape. I just didn’t do anything about it until that Friday evening in January – predictably cold and dark – when I began the journey that led to this exhibition and book.

Looking into the boxes, I felt comfort and familiarity, as if I were becoming reacquainted with a long lost and cherished friend. I was carried back through the years to the many hours spent creating the photographs and also to my earlier life. The next few days passed quickly, devoted as they were to recalling places, people and experiences from another time. I found my old 8×10 view camera, which produced all the circular photos here, and thousands of negatives of varying sizes, and perhaps thirty or so vintage prints. But there were a large number of images that I had never had the opportunity to print.

I decided that very weekend that I had to find the time to edit and print the images, and over the next few weeks I became even more certain. Family and friends were tremendously encouraging. I hadn’t photographed seriously for nearly 30 years; meanwhile the entire medium had been transformed by digital darkroom technology, and it was as if I had woken up in another world. Technically, there was a lot of catching up to do. I felt exhilaration, self-doubt, and everything in between. But the journey had to begin.

The Hamiltons exhibition consisted entirely of circular images made from original 8×10 negatives scanned and printed using a photographic process. Here, I have included a few rectangular images, also largely from 8×10 negatives. The circular format, inspired by my former teacher Emmet Gowin, is created by a lens made for a smaller camera projected onto an 8×10 negative. While all lenses project circular images, the camera crops them into the more familiar rectangular format. With a smaller lens and a larger negative, however, the field of the lens does not entirely cover the negative. As a result, everything the photographer sees through the lens is captured on the negative and nothing is lost at the periphery. Since the eye itself is a lens, and sees round images, the viewer of these photographs sees almost exactly what the photographer saw.

As I got to know my photographs again, I thought they evoked an atmosphere of silence and tranquility, accentuated by composition and perspective as well as by the greater detail and more subtle tone of an 8×10 negative. The circular format, ringed by encroaching blackness, creates an intensity of focus which draws the viewer into its center and enhances the overall mood of the image.

Where did all this begin? At around the age of 13, I was given an old press camera which had belonged to my grandfather, himself a photographer and journalist, and I was immediately attracted by the experience of taking and developing photographs. My mother never complained that I spent many hours in the basement darkroom of my family home, reappearing only for meals. When I attended high school in the early 1970′s, I had access to much more extensive darkroom facilities and great teachers. Later, in college, I had the opportunity to study with Emmet Gowin, mentioned above, and William Eggleston, each of whom influenced and inspired me in different ways.

I continued photographing seriously and passionately over the next ten years. But, increasingly, family, career and travel absorbed me – in wonderful ways, I might add. I had to make difficult choices about how to spend my time and where my life should go. That meant cataloguing the photographs and putting them in the boxes that I discovered all those years later. What I found suggests I stored them with great care; certainly the images and the way of seeing remained in my mind’s eye, ready for a future moment.

Where will it take me now? Looking back at these photographs, I have also begun to look forward to new directions for my work and further exhibitions and projects. The influence of 30 years of life remains to be seen. But discovering that may be the best part of all.

Scott Mead,  2010