Remember what it was like to have a playdate when you were a kid? The anticipation and excitement, perhaps mixed with a little dread? The warmup period when you were getting all the toys out, and maybe if it was at Marc Lurie’s house Mrs Lurie would bring out the junk food that was forbidden at home. But most of all, the play itself. Immersion, involvement, the suspension of time and that other reality called “real life”. Ah.
I’m fortunate to enjoy that kind of play at pretty regular interludes. For one thing, Duston is a true playmate – there are many episodes of play in our live together, and sometimes it feels like there’s altogether too much of it! And early last year, when Carsten Peter came to visit from Germany for 4days en route to a shoot in Kamchatka or some such (why on earth come via New York?) We both had new cameras, and ran around like maniacs testing them out(I was on the way to Peru a few weeks later). On the third night we sat in the living room turning the lights progressively lower until we were down to one candle, testing the low light capabilities (insane!) of the cameras. We were literally screaming with amazement and delight - I think that that’s when Dus turned to me and said “this has to be one of the longest playdates in history”.
Well, it was. Until now. This past weekend saw me, Peter Cunningham and Tim Trompeter holed up in Peter’s house on the island of Grand Manan, out in the Bay of Fundy off the coast whereCanada and Maine rub edges. Tim and Peter have been close friends for over thirty years; I’m a recent interloper, having only been party to the festivities (numerous) for twenty years. But I’m getting to know them...
Peter’s been living on the island for a few months (it’s a family house that now belongs to him); Tim and I, who’ve both been up there before, thought it would be good to take a break and also to check up on Peter, who seemed to be living monastic enough an existence that we were frankly a little worried about him. Friends don’t let friends live in monasteries!
From the get go, our fears were allayed. Peter is in a deeply creative and productive space, and doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen from him. To me, he’s made the transition from being a successful commercial photographer to being an artist, certainly in the sense that he charts his own course and follows it come what may. Many torpedos have been damned in the process.
I guess that as adults who know one another very well, we had tons of anticipation for the trip, but certainly so far as Tim and I were concerned, not much in the way of dread. For Peter, maybe a little different. He, after all, was the visitee, and in some way we were potentially a disruptive force – at any event, he went to some pains to let us know that we weren’t deflecting him from any of his normal activities. His normal activities up there, it happens, are absorbing and fun.
So we spent a tremendous amount of time running around taking pictures. Peter is, after all, a photographer, and Tim was a wonderful fashion photographer and is now an artist and father of two children who vibrate with the life force. My checkered past in photography included a stint in the professional world; my first paying photo job was assisting Tim on a fashion shoot (I almost plugged a Hasselblad directly into the wall, and had Tim not intervened with a look of profound incredulity on his face there’d have been no Hasselblad and, most likely, no me. I also tried to pick up the client on that shoot – about as “no” a no-no as there could POSSIBLY be for a lowly assistant in the world of fashion photography). And I assisted Peter for about 18 months, doing mainly celebrity portraiture and covering Broadway shows and such.
Grand Manan is a fishing island. Working class, a hard life. Men go on lobster boats and scallop boats out into the freezing waters of the north Atlantic, and when they’re not literally dodging death (usually successfully, but not always) they’re dealing with evaporating fisheries and bureaucratic wildernesses, and cauterizing themselves with booze or religion. Oh - they’re also pretty equal opportunity when it comes to slaughter: while professionally sea beasties are the quarry, recreationally (and for the pot) deer are in the sights. As a nor’easter set in on Saturday night we found ourselves dining on venison and moose at the camp of some of Peter’s friends, as they regaled us with stories of the hunt, and described an arsenal of available weaponry that would make even the most hardened Guantanamero drool with envy. How was the moose, you ask? Absolutely delicious. One of the tastiest meats I’ve ever eaten, and beautifully prepared with onions and mushrooms. Considering that most of the accompanying veggies came from the garden, it might have been the most “locavore” meal I’ve ever eaten (at least including meat) - and from such an un-Michael-Pollanesque source!
Photographically Grand Manan is...well, it’s paradise. The weather cooperated as well – from a balmy first day, where we tromped around the island avoiding the high tides (the highest in the world) to the epic nor’easter sluicing in from the ocean, high winds, snow and an atmosphere of altogether wretched desolation. Wheee!! Of particular note was an area known as the lobster pound, an enormous “cage” made of logs, to which lobsters are brought post-harvest. Think of it as a sort of lobster Riker’s Island. “Enormous”, in this case, means multiple football fields. When we were there the tide was at its lowest; we wandered around a surreal terrain which, twice a day, is totally submerged. Ducking under and around dripping seaweed limpeted to the huge wooden frame, and crunching seashells underfoot. Meanwhile, the tide was turning and the entire thing began to fill like a gigantic bathtub - and at about that speed.
Returning to the house, we’d all download our pictures and play on our computers. Play - that’s the only word to use. Editing, doing some post-production, looking and comparing and talking, talking, talking. Peter’s editing a couple of books right now, one he’s done on China, and another he’s doing with Peter Matthiessen, so a lot of time was spent looking and critiquing and suggesting. Peter’s work has been hugely boosted by his switch to digital; many of the technical challenges, which are dull to him, are now effectively solved by the equipment, releasing him to focus on the more creative expression of his distinct vision. It’s been a long time since he decided to walk away from the entirely commercial practice, andhe’s been through a lot of experimentation in order to get to where he now is. That, as we all know, is a key to success. Perseverance and “deep practice”, the ongoing engagement on a regular basis leading to mastery. Some say it takes 10 years, others say it takes 10,000 hours. Whatever. You can’t pick it up from the Complete Idiots Guide.
Tim, erudite and brilliant as always, was slightly hampered in his photographic output by antiquated equipment (a 5megapixel point and shoot - gasp). I think his major takeaway was that it really IS time to upgrade, and also (I hope) to start taking pictures more seriously again. Tim was an absolutely fantastic fashion photographer, and some of his “street” work from Ladakh and Morocco stands with the best of them.
And then there’s me. What about me? Well, for one thing, I just love the engagement in terms of being out there shooting, and coming back and sweating some of the images. I also love looking at others’ work, and commenting on it, and I think I’m pretty spot on a lot of the time. What I’m really NOT so good at is receiving comments and criticism, and I think that in some ways I create a subtle exclusion zone around what I’m doing - Tim and Peter have to go out on a little limb that I’ve created. I think I project that I’m not taking myself entirely seriously,and as such am giving THEM permission to not take me entirely seriously either. I come across as a hobbyist, which is what I am, but is that enough? Clearly not, but that’s the subject for another blog posting (which hopefully will follow very soon).
All told, though, I emerged from the weekend exhilarated, feeling like THIS is real life, THIS is what it should all be about. And more than anything, the fragility and preciousness of deep friendship... It gets harder as one ages.
PS: The food was just incredible. Lobsters, scallops, mussels, fresh-baked focaccia, a bottle of wine (possibly more than one...)