I found these photographs in a box of old stuff last week. (December 2018) They are photographs I took in New Orleans in 1961. They are 2¾ in. x 4 in. prints produced by a commercial drug store or camera store photo-printer. A few have “May 1961’ stamped on the back by the film processer, but the photos were probably taken earlier. There are no texts with the photographs. Frankly, while I had not forgotten the protests, I had forgotten that I had made these photographs. They are of a civil rights demonstration made by CORE, associated with sit-ins at of some Woolworth’s five & dime stores, which had not allowed blacks to eat at the lunch counters.
There were a series of these sit-ins in the in late 1960 and the Spring of 1961; and by this time a process had been worked out between the New Orleans police and the demonstrators. Early on, there had been some arrests, some of them violent, as demonstrators tried to actually sit at the counters. By the time of the event depicted here, the demonstrators, specifically pledged to non-violence, conservatively dressed and orderly, picketed the stores, walking carefully in a demarcated lane on the outside edge of the sidewalk. The police presence was there to protect the demonstrators from any mob action and then, at this time, arrest them without undue force, take them to a judge to be charged with some minor felony like public obstruction, and then be released on bail. The photos depict an arrest after one demonstration. The white male carrying the upside-down sign is Sydney Goldfinch. The name “Barbara Brent” is hand-written on the back of the print of the white woman carrying the sign “Don’t buy where you can’t eat.” I don’t know who any of the others are. I have just looked up some background information on the web and found out a lot more about the events than I knew at the time.
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“In 1960, almost 40% of New Orleans’ population was African American. The city’s main shopping avenue was Canal Street, where all stores were white-owned, predominantly Christian, had segregated facilities, and didn’t serve blacks at lunch counters. The second busiest shopping avenue was Dryades Street, where the stores were also white-owned, but store patrons were almost all black. Blacks could use the facilities, but were not employed in the stores aside from an occasional janitor. Many of the white storeowners were Jews, themselves prevented from owning stores on the more high-ranking Canal Street by the white Christian majority.
Late in 1959, Rev. Avery Alexander, Rev. A.L. Davis (SCLC), and Dr. Henry Mitchell (NAACP) organized the Consumers’ League of Greater New Orleans (CLGNO), an all-black organization, to fight employment discrimination by the Dryades Street merchants. Their lawyers, Lolis Elie, Nils Douglas, Robert Collins, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, and others, provided free legal counsel. For several months, the League tried to negotiate with the Dryades storeowners, but made no progress.
In April 1960, the League launched a boycott of the Dryades stores that wouldn’t employ blacks for anything but menial labor. The boycott was effective. The week before Easter was traditionally a good time for business, but on Good Friday the streets were empty. Shoppers were replaced by community members picketing the storefronts.
A few stores began to hire blacks, but most continued to refuse. The Consumers’ League claimed credit for thirty jobs for black people on Dryades Street. During the boycott, students from Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), Dillard University, and Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO), New Orleans’ three major black colleges, and white students from Tulane and the University of New Orleans joined the picket lines on Dryades Street.
Over the next months, the boycott continued and customers took their business elsewhere. Many stores closed or moved to white suburbs rather than hiring Blacks. Dryades Street, once a bustling commercial center had become a ghost town.
The Consumers’ League boycott, apart from stopping business as usual on Dryades Street, helped cohere the black community in New Orleans. Lolis Elie claims the League was “in many ways a spiritual movement.” The boycott inspired other protests which led to the formation of the Citizens’ Committee, a federation of black organizations that worked on desegregating downtown stores, businesses and employment between 1961 and 1964. Also born out of the boycott was the Coordinating Council of Greater New Orleans (CCGNO), a federation of black organizations that organized voter registration drives between 1961 and 1965.
While the League’s pickets were temporarily stopped by an injunction, college students formed a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter led by former XULA student body president Rudy Lombard, Oretha Castle from SUNO, Jerome Smith (one of the students who withdrew from Southern University in Baton Rouge), and Hugh Murray, a white student from Tulane. Lawyers Collins, Douglas, and Elie agreed to represent the students in future actions after the ACLU refused.
On September 9, seven members of the new CORE chapter staged a sit-in at the Woolworth store on Canal Street. The integrated group of blacks and whites were arrested and charged with ‘criminal mischief.’ In contrast to the Dryades Street actions, the protest on Canal Street was seen as much more of a threat to the existing order because it threatened not the Jewish storeowners but the wealthy Christian elite of Uptown New Orleans.
On September 12, city mayor Chep Morrison issued a statement in response to the Canal Street sit-in claiming “the effect of such demonstrations [was] not in the public interest of [the] community” and “economic welfare of this city require that such demonstrations cease and henceforth…be prohibited by the police department.” The mayor banned further sit-ins.
Four days later, September 16, CORE field secretary Jim McCain, Reverend Avery Alexander, and other members of CLGNO were arrested for picketing stores on Claiborne Avenue. The following day, Rudy Lombard, Oretha Castle, Dillard student Cecil Carter, and Tulane student Sydney Goldfinch were arrested for sitting-in at the McCrory’s department store lunch counter. Goldfinch, who was a Jew, was charged with ‘criminal anarchy’ with a $2,500 bond and potential ten years in prison.
As police control increased, not only were sit-ins and picketers arrested, but also those handing out leaflets were arrested for ‘leafleting without a license.’ Halted by lack of bail money, CORE sit-ins continued sporadically as funds became available. Raphael Cassimire led the NAACP Youth Council, picketing storefronts to protest segregation and the arrests. Angry white crowds taunted, abused, and attacked the CORE and NAACP demonstrators, beating them, scalding them with hot coffee, and throwing acid on them.
Lawyers Collins, Douglas, and Elie asked John P. Nelson for assistance in representing those arrested on September 17. During the days following the arrests, almost 3,000 people attended a support rally for those in jail at the ILA (longshoremen’s union) hall, and SCLC leader A.L. Davis opened his church to CORE activists for meetings and training sessions in nonviolent action.
The most acute stint of action was over though some protesting continued for the next year. By late 1961, the economic elites of New Orleans were feeling the impact of the boycott.
Members of Chamber of Commerce and other local economic leaders formed a coalition to negotiate settlement to the protests at Canal Street stores and lunch counters. Storeowners were becoming nervous about continuing demonstrations and picketing by CORE and the Consumers’ League after news of struggling storeowners in Birmingham reached New Orleans.
Business leaders and leaders of the black community formed an informal conference to negotiate the desegregation of the town. Lolis Elie and Revius Ortique represented the black federation, known as the Citizens’ Committee, and continued negotiation that lasted for more than two years, eventuating in steps toward desegregation of the city. CORE agreed to remain passive during the negotiations as stores removed signs from toilets and drinking fountains and slowly increased black employment.
The New Orleans sit-ins, boycotts, and arrests continued for years, culminating in a large Freedom March in September of 1963. Very slowly, more public facilities were desegregated. Even though New Orleans integrated slowly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Dryades and Canal Street boycotts and pickets helped black solidarity in the city and involved students in the civil rights struggle.” rights-1960-1961 (Dec. 28, 2018)
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THE PHOTOGRAPHS. Copyright by William S. Johnson.

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I photographed this demonstration, but I also actually participated in a later demonstration, although I hasten to add that I wasn’t very political and I didn’t even know any of these people or any of this history until I read the above post today.
I was a sophomore at Tulane with a very simple, unadorned belief in justice and, apparently, a mild death wish. A friend of mine named Leonard Kratzer did have connections with some of these CORE activists and he told me about an upcoming demonstration and arranged for me to join it. On the day of the demonstration, edgy about both mobs and the police, obsessively humming Come by Yah to myself, I showered, put on dress pants, a white shirt and my only tie, (My normal clothes were blue jeans and a sweat shirt and I did not own a suit.) stuffed a pencil stub and folded paper in my shoe (for taking notes while in jail), and then Leonard drove me down to the demonstration on Canal street.
The way it was organized was that two people at a time, each carrying a sign, each starting at the opposite edge of the public space facing the store front, would walk up and down on the outer edge of the sidewalk in front of the store, crossing each other at the midpoint of their route, for the duration of their turn of picketing. (I can’t remember if the turn was for one or for two hours.) Then that pair would be relieved by another pair for their turn of patrolling the store. Everyone was supposed to be very polite, very correct, and very non-violent in their demeanor and actions. There was one other white person there that day, a blonde girl, who I didn’t actually meet. All the other demonstrators were very conservatively dressed, young, and black.
Leonard introduced me to the black girl who was my partner, whose name I didn’t really catch in the heat of the moment, I picket out a signboard, and then we started patrolling. I was 6 ft. 3 in. tall, weighed about 220 pounds, (The previous summer I had worked in a steel-fabricating plant in Ohio, and so was in pretty good shape.) and had a beard. (At this time beards were still so uncommon that they sometimes called for public comment, and I would be asked if I was Amish, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Hippie, or part of a rumored new social phenomenon that identified me as a Beatnik. I didn’t happen to be any of those things, but it comforted my questioner to place me in one or another category.) I was a little nervous as I picketed, which I dealt with by making some jokey comments to my partner while I paraded up and down. The point was that I didn’t look very respectable to my fellow demonstrators, nor did I show a sufficient gravitas to my colleagues, for whom this was a very serious, even life-threatening business, and everyone in our group seemed relieved when my turn was over without incident. My shift over, I left immediately – so I never even met the other demonstrators.

This photo has a date stamp of May 1961, so the demonstration had to have been sometime before that. But I may have waited until much later to get the photos developed up North, after I got back to Ohio. Oddly, this is the only photo that I have found of me demonstrating, although I’m sure the White Citizens’ Council files would have a few more.

And, to my mingled disappointment and relief, there was no confrontational incident. For reasons best known to themselves, the police did not make any arrests that day; and there was no howling mob of counter-protesters. This was, after all, not Mississippi, but New Orleans — the city which prided itself for being the most cosmopolitan in the South. The racism was a little more discrete and constrained in New Orleans.
There were only two small confrontations during my patrol, both, in retrospect, faintly risible.
The first was from a very old couple who strolled by me as I picketed. The man, probably 80 years old at least, almost five feet tall and, I swear, looking just like the Colonel Saunders — goatee and all — of modern TV advertising fame; quietly asked me as they went past: “How can you do this to your own people? To which I was quick enough to answer — “I’m doing this for my own people.” before they went out of range.
The second event was even less satisfying. As I paraded with my sign-board, another much younger but equally short, slight man kept dithering around, approaching me and breaking off his approach two or three times — clearly nerving himself up for a physical confrontation. Then he began to walk directly towards me. I caught his eye, slowly lifted the sign-board over my head with both hands and, basically, flexed my 220 pounds of steel-handling, hardened muscles, and looked like I was definitely prepared to fail the non-violent proscription of the CORE marchers. This fellow immediately spun around on his heels, ran across Canal Street — which was then thought to be the widest main street in America. (Several lanes for cars, a middle berm with two parallel trolley-car tracks, then several more lanes for cars) and from the opposite sidewalk yelled his angry opinions at me; (Curiously, with a heavy Spanish accent.) from several hundred yards away. Far enough away that I couldn’t really make out what he was actually saying.
So — with slightly deflated expectations for the day, I went back to the Tulane campus and the routines of student life, having played no very heroic role in the local movement for racial equality in America.
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In fairness to myself I should say that I did do a little more on this issue while at Tulane University.

This staid and rather innocuous flyer created a small storm on campus when it was published. (Additional texts and other signers on the verso not reproduced here.)

Once or twice Leonard brought some of his CORE friends to the Tulane student cafeteria and I would casually join them for a chat at the table which was surrounded by a large circle of frozen silence. After a while, everyone finished their coffee and left without incident. But this was really a small form of political theater and an even more awkward social situation than normal for me, and I didn’t really get to know anyone during these events.
And as a Junior, the only semester I actually lived in a dormitory on campus, I was picked to share the dorm room with the Sydney Goldfinch who had been active in the CORE demonstrations and who was now out on parole; as the administration thought we might be willing to room together. I met Sydney once briefly at the beginning of semester, then he never showed up in the room again. But I did get used to picking up the phone to a stream of vile and obscene threats and calmly saying, “Oh, you are looking for Sydney. I’m afraid that he’s not here now,” then hanging up. One byproduct of the sit-in demonstrations was that the White Citizen’s Council, a right-wing, racist group would create a dossier on you, with photos, etc., and then tend to follow up with harassing phone calls and the like from time to time. Sydney, being high profile, got a lot more calls than I did.
More significantly, I was a member of a small and very unofficial student group of political activists (mostly graduate students) who were determined to integrate the University. My role there was mainly to be the token undergraduate; however, I was also the editorial cartoonist and “Managing Editor” of the small journal/newspaper The Reed, which this group sporadically produced; running off several hundred copies on a mimeograph machine and distributing them around the campus. I worked as a part-time student assistant at the Tulane University printing office, so I had the skills and technology necessary for this position. I had earlier been refused a job at the university cafeteria because of the beard.

Curiously, given my Jackdaw nature, this is the only copy of the Reed I am now able to find, although I did get a complete set together for the Tulane University Archives, at their request, before I left town. I remember publishing several editorial cartoons on segregation, etc. in other issues of The Reed.

As “managing editor,” I recruited a small group of other undergraduates to hand out the paper around campus. Most of these were students from up north who had already decided that they were not coming back to Tulane next year anyway for academic or personal reasons. But, despite vague fears, there never were any violent confrontations about these matters on the campus. Tulane, calling itself “The Harvard of the South,” prided itself on its urbanity, had heavily recruited both students and faculty from around the country and abroad, and it was more liberal in its thinking than the surrounding city. Any overt hostility was suppressed, maybe only breaking out in the ferocious passion with which some of the fraternities — some southern, some New York Jewish — played each other in the intra-league softball games.
In any case, this informal student activist group did manage to embarrass the administration enough that the University did in fact integrate, admitting a single black man to the graduate Medical School program the year after I graduated, and within a few years there were black players on the Tulane basketball team.
But, never one for looking into the past, I lost track of what was happening at the University after I left, and afterwards I did not become involved in any type of political action, beyond signing an occasional anti-war petition during Vietnam. The equal rights movements intensified over the next few years, became extremely violent and vicious in some places, creating true heroes and many tragedies. Like most of my fellow citizens across the country, I followed these events with horrified disgust – but I was never again in a situation or place to actively participate again.


There was one odd situation that did arise later out of the White Citizen Council thing, and it was the only time that I personally felt actually threatened during the entire time. I happened to know a student, a former Marine, who, during the Christmas break, would buy an old banger auto, sell rides in the car to two or three students, then drive the car up to Cleveland, Ohio, dropping the riders off along the way, and then sell the car to some junk dealer – thus providing the cheapest ride for the students and a free trip home and maybe even a little pocket-money for himself. My parents were living in Wooster, Ohio at the time and I took this trip with him a few times. The only problem was that sometimes these cars didn’t always completely work, like the time we found out that the heater was broken when we got far enough north for it to matter.
Or, on this trip, as we were driving late at night through the endless pine forests of rural southern Mississippi, when a fuse blew and all the lights on the car went out. There was a full moon and a bright, clear sky that night, and one could almost see the trees by the side of the road in the milky moon light. So, the driver decided to try to tuck in behind some trucks and drive without lights until we would come to a truck stop where he could replace the fuse. So, we did this for about forty or fifty miles, suffering only one or two hair-breath escapes, along the way. I was sitting in the back seat behind the driver, when I realized that we were in Mississippi, and that if any police should see our car we would be stopped. The other students would probably be released without too much trouble, but with my beard and scruffy appearance I might have a little more trouble. This was the time when I began to seriously wonder about how connected the White Citizen’s Council’s files might be to other organizations throughout the South. In fact, I have to say that I really began to obsess about it during the hour it took us to find an open truck stop. But we did get to the truck stop, did find a fuse, were able to fix the car, and were able to drive out of Mississippi by morning. I have to admit to being very relieved when we drove over the state line into Tennessee.



Copyright for all photographs published here rests with the artist or with his Estate.

First, one must understand that for me, as for almost every other individual growing up in the 1950s who was interested in photography, W. Eugene Smith was considered the greatest living photographer by far. We had marveled at his LIFE photo-essays, which also helpfully kept pointing his talents out to its vast audience. And the various photography magazines were then heavily dominated by journalism and commercial photographic practices; and tended to publish articles titled “The World’s 10 Greatest Photographers,” etc., and W. Eugene Smith was always the first name to be brought out as the leading exemplar of creative practice in the field. At the time few museums collected photographs, fewer universities taught it as a fine-art. Photography was though by the art establishment to be a craft, or at best a semi-creative profession, and only a handful of photographers had any higher “artistic” pretensions. Smith was unusual in that he successfully co-mingled his extraordinary professional skills with a compelling creative aspiration; often lifting, through the force and beauty of his work, his professional tasks into works of creative art. His stubborn insistence that he could and should do so in the face of the system he worked within had cost him severely, both materially and emotionally, and his personal story had made him legendary among those people who followed these issues. And Smith’s liberal-humanist beliefs, which he so powerfully conveyed through his essays, also struck a responsive chord in my young mind.

In fact, my first formal photohistory lecture was on Gene Smith, in Len Gittleman’s beginning photography class at Harvard University. Interest in the visual media of film and photography was running red-hot among students in the US universities at the time and Gittleman, who taught the only course in photography at the university, had courageously allocated one of his precious twelve positions available for the class to me, a lowly employee of the university, instead of to any one of the two hundred or so legitimate students who had applied for the position. Gittleman required that each student in his class give a talk about an established photographer to the rest of the class. When my turn came, I loaded a book-truck up with about twenty bound volumes of LIFE magazines containing Smith’s photo-essays, wheeled the truck across the campus, and did a show and tell by opening and spreading these folio-sized magazines all over the large table that the class gathered around for these talks. (I could get away with this, as I was in charge of the circulation desk at the University library, and so had a privileged position vis-a-vis the issue of dragging a book-truck load of magazines around the Harvard Yard.) Later I became active in discovering the history of photography and, through several unusual circumstances, wound up teaching it part-time at Harvard and at Tufts University and elsewhere while still working at the library. Later, growing bored with librarianship, I left the university and became involved in teaching photographic history on a full-time basis. I was teaching at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY when I was offered the job to go to Tucson and help Gene Smith put his archive collection together at the newly organized Center for Creative Photography.

Of course I accepted the job. I had thought that it was my resume, experience and charming personality that had got me the job and only when I arrived did I realize the truth. An administrative quirk at the University of Arizona meant that the position had to be offered to a professional librarian – and I happened to have that degree. The only other available candidate had been a young woman who was described as fairly “frail.” On the other hand, I was 6 ft. 3 in. tall, and weighed in at 210 pounds, and when I got to the university I was immediately faced with 44,000 pounds of stuff ranging from extraordinarily beautiful photographs to what seemed to be street litter (requiring over 3,000 square feet of storage space) stuffed into hundreds of boxes that had been hastily stored in whatever available locations that could be found around the campus. I was told the reason we knew that there was 44,000 pounds of stuff was that the eighteen-wheeler bringing it all from New York had been stopped for being overloaded at a weigh station somewhere in the Midwest, and the shipment had then been split into two loads on two trucks for the remainder of the trip. When I got there these materials were scattered all over the place and in the most chaotic disorder imaginable, and they were being anxiously and jealously defended by a grizzled old man who otherwise seemed barely able to stay upright for any great length of time.

Some additional backstory is necessary here. When first founded, the Center for Creative Photography was established with a very interesting premise. Initially, John Schaefer, the then President of the university, an ardent amateur photographer and Ansel Adams enthusiast, had wanted to acquire Ansel Adams photographs for the university. Adams, or his representatives, countered with a different proposal. He suggested that, instead of just collecting his photographs or any other random groups of photographs, that they start by collecting the complete archives of five or six of the major living photographers who formed a generation which, mostly by working in relative obscurity from the 1930s up to the fairly recent present, had regenerated or sustained the creative photography movement in the United States. The suggested artists were Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer. W. Eugene Smith was soon added to this core group. If Smith seems out of place in this listing of Modernist practitioners, please remember his role in raising photojournalism to an art form and the fact that during the second half of his career he had established himself as a “creative” photographer with those individual’s intent on establishing a new paradigm for American photography.

Adams’ plan was that the Center would collect a complete set of “master prints” of these individuals, as well as other work or study prints, correspondence, documents and all other pertinent materials from the artist. The artist, still living, would actually reap the benefit of their own work. (For example, Aaron Siskind, who had retired into a rather gentile poverty after a lifetime of teaching, was very grateful to the Center – in that the deal allowed him to travel broadly to keep extending his photographic vision until his death.) Each deal was different for the different artists. For example, Sommer, who has made and retained a very limited number of prints over his career, would have a very different type of contract than Smith, who, as previously noted, managed to bring 44,000 pounds of stuff to Arizona.

Smith’s deal, very roughly defined, was that he was to move to Arizona to teach as a full professor in the even more recently established photography section of the Fine Arts Department. (Harold Jones, after functioning as the first Director of the Center, had moved to the Fine Arts department to establish a MFA program in creative photography there – a move perhaps made to buttress the need for the museum of photography that had been summarily imposed upon the university by the enthusiastic President Schaefer.) Smith was also promised, or he thought he was promised, assistance to initiate a publishing program for Sensorium, a journal on the visual arts which he had attempted to start in the 1960s, and possibly for his own long-deferred semi-autobiographical “Big Book.” As part of the deal he was to select 200 “master prints” each year, over an extended period of years, for the Center’s collections, and also edit, sort and organize the other materials for their eventual transfer to his archive.

The size of W. Eugene Smith’s oeuvre is hard to comprehend. Gene Smith’s mother once publicly stated that he had made 40,000 images before he was twenty-one, and I later found that statement to be almost believable. And he continued to photograph at a prodigious rate for another thirty-five years after that. For Gene Smith, the finished work of art was not a single photographic print, but a complete photographic essay, which, for him, sometimes extended into hundreds of individual images about that story. He worked as a photojournalist who took hundreds of photographs to create his photographic essay, which he always felt was larger and more complete than it was possible to publish in any magazine of that time, he was never satisfied with any published version of his essays. Thus, whenever he could afford to do so, he printed up as many as five or six sets of 11 x 14 inch prints of the more complete version of the essay that he felt he had created.

When Smith came to Arizona one of his intentions was to sort through the collection of thousands of prints to determine which were, in his opinion, “master prints” representing the best of his vision, ideation, and technical skills. By agreement the Center of Creative Photography would then purchase a few hundred of these “master prints” each year until they had collected a complete set of “master prints” of his work. (Smith had estimated that there ultimately would be roughly several thousand prints in this collection, and, although at the time no one thought that the number would be that high, in fact his estimate was correct.) By the terms of the same agreement with the Center, Smith’s negatives, contact sheets, examples of his “work prints” and “study prints”, his book dummies and magazine layouts, his tear-sheets, his papers, his personal and business files, his memorabilia, books, magazines, records and audiotapes would all go into the “W. Eugene Smith Archives” as he released them, or at his death. So, originally, the terms “master print,” “study print,” “work print” were simply technical definitions which allowed the Center to handle the large collections of archival materials it possessed in an expeditious manner.

Unfortunately Gene Smith had a near-fatal stroke soon after arriving in Arizona, a stroke so bad that most people thought he would never walk or talk again. Yet within a year, although severely incapacitated, he was walking and talking and driving himself to meet those obligations he felt he had to the University of Arizona: planning and teaching classes, overseeing the construction of a darkroom, putting together a “Faculty Exhibit” the university had innocently asked from him, planning the revival of his magazine Sensorium, thinking about finishing and publishing his semiautobiographical Big Book, and sorting through the dozens of cartons containing his prints jumbled together with everything else he owned.

The newly-founded Center for Creative Photography was then located in a former bank building, complete with its own vault, located on a commercial street which dead-ended at the west side of the main University of Arizona campus. One portion of Smith’s materials were being stored on campus in a nearby building, which is now the elegant Arizona State Museum (North). (See photo on-line, if you care.), but which at that time was apparently awaiting renovation for the School of Anthropology, and which was mostly being used to store thousands of bags of dirt filled with the shattered fragments of pots which were locked behind wire cages in an otherwise seemingly unused building. This was a large building with a basketball court in the center front of the building, with several large open work spaces located behind the court, then all the shelves of carefully ordered bags of dirt, behind the locked cages. The front area of this building had been sectioned off to hold Smith’s materials and I never saw anyone else in the building either in the daytime or at night during the couple of years I worked there sorting through the materials. When I arrived the basketball court area was literally covered with dozens of cardboard boxes piled to a waist-high level, with narrow pathways winding between them. These boxes were filled with a random assortment of Smith’s smaller photographs, negatives, equipment, tools, slides, pots and pans and the like. None of these boxes were identified in any way, nor were they in any order. I found Gene Smith wandering around the basketball court, straining to open random boxes in his search for his teaching slides which he wanted to use for the class “Photography Made Difficult” he was scheduled to give when school started in the Fall. The near-fatal stroke Smith had suffered soon after arriving in Tucson the year before, and from which he was not fully recovered, had made even this task difficult for him. Smith was a badly-damaged man, suffering from the consequences of a terrible, almost fatal stroke from which most people had thought he would not recover, and living in the unfinished aftermath of what must have been one of the most chaotic moves ever attempted by any individual. He was fifty-nine years old but looked like he was eighty.

Portrait of Gene Smith, 1978, Copyright by Day Williams. Day Williams was a MFA student at the university who had been designated Smith’s assistant.

Gene Smith had a cane to help him walk and a straw cowboy hat, which was all the protection he took against the brutal sun and the 100 degree plus temperatures of summertime Arizona. He could not drive a car anymore, and there really wasn’t much public transportation or much of any other familiar lifestyle options available to this former New York City dweller. His palate, damaged from his World War II wounding, the physical damage from the beating he took in Minamata Japan, the near-fatal stroke had left him almost voiceless and groping for words that he once knew well – and yet he was indomitable, walking around the campus with a Nikon camera around his neck with a plastic milk bottle-top as a lens cover, groping through tons of stuff to put together his initial lectures, sorting through his thousands of photographs to supply the “Master Prints” owed to the Center as he selected other groups of prints to go to his other dependents, while also planning his first faculty exhibition at the University, setting up a darkroom and hoping to start his long-planned and long-deferred creative photography magazine and revive his dormant “Big Book Project.” He had understood that these projects would be supported by the University and felt responsible that his stroke and subsequent illness had kept him from initiating them at once and fearful that if he lost control of the situation he would lose this opportunity to complete these long-deferred projects. His body was that of a frail old man, but his will was prodigious, just stunning. I soon found myself in awe of this cranky, difficult, and amazing man who had engendered so many legends during his lifetime. I began to try to help him find his slides for the lectures and other things he needed, and even built him a bed/cot frame in the auditorium so that he could lie down and rest during the heat of the day. I generally tried to be as helpful as possible, as I attempted to develop an overview of where and what all this stuff was.

The second body of Smith’s materials was stored about ten miles away from the campus in one building of an abandoned public school near the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which was located south of the city proper. This military base was one stop on a training route for military jet fighter pilots flying from base to base situated around the country; and during the winter months one or (more often) a pair of jet fighters would be landing there every hour or so, all day long.

Jet fighters landing at sunset, Tucson, Az.” Copyright by Harold Jones. Harold Jones was the first Director of the Center for Creative Photography, then he became the Chairman of the Photography Section of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Arizona.

These fighters approached the base from the north and their glide path, as they slowed to almost stalling speeds to land these planes, was over the city. The pair of fighters drifting down over the city became a familiar part of everyday life in Tucson. I’ve been told by Robert Heinecken, an ex-Marine Corps fighter pilot, that just flying jet fighters was automatically a dangerous activity as the jets were intrinsically unstable, and that if they lost power they had the aerodynamics of a brick. There had been several accidents in Tucson over the years. (In fact, I was working in the Center one day when I heard a loud boom, and running outside, saw a huge column of black smoke. A fighter jet had flamed out while landing and the pilot had, at great personal risk, guided the plane into a street in the middle of the city, barely managing to miss a nearby school, before ejecting from the plane at far too low an altitude.) Apparently this sort of thing had happened at least once before, with a plane crashing in the playground of a grade-school complex located near the airbase’s landing path. At that time the southern edge of Tucson was still a few miles away from the air force base and some clever and forward-thinking town manager had built a fine new modern grade school for the expanding city on that open land. Which plan worked well until a fighter jet suddenly landed in the playground swings. So the pupils were moved somewhere else and the buildings closed. The State then turned that small campus of several one-story brick buildings into a locked, fenced-in storage facility, and rented or loaned some of these spaces to the University. The Center had grabbed some space in this otherwise empty facility when the second truckload of Smith’s materials showed up.

Actually, I remember rather vividly the day on one of my visits to the otherwise unpeopled site, when I stood there unlocking the gated fence to this facility and watching two Marine Corps jets in the final stages of their landing, flying much too low and much too slow to do any maneuvering, then seeing a piper cub plane meandering directly toward them from the southwest. I calculated that the three planes would come together about forty feet directly over my head sometime within the next three or four minutes, and so I just stood there calmly waiting to die; until some frantic radio operator got through to the piper cub and he jerked away about three hundred feet short of the collision. Just another near-miss, probably not even officially reported.

The storage space rented by the Center had once been a school-band practice room, with a semi-circular floor of stepped levels where the students sat and played, and with a smaller lockable room located inside the larger room. Dozens of large boxes filled with Smith’s huge collection of records, audiotapes, books and magazines were haphazardly piled up in this space; in some instances, stacked in piles higher than my head. These things may have been in the second truckload that had been put together after the weight-station stop. Also, the large retrospective exhibition of hundreds of framed prints that Smith himself had organized for the Jewish Museum, and which was then sent to tour Japan, then returned to the US in their wooden crates were placed there. This last was significant, because in the confusions of moving and his first stroke Smith had never been told or he had forgotten that this location existed, and it was only during a casual conversation with him one day that I realized that for months he had thought that all these materials had been lost during the move. I immediately checked out a pick-up truck from the university and drove him down there and at least relieved him of that worry.

The third body of materials were all the potential “master print” photographs. I did not see them at first, as Smith, with his long-held and possibly justified paranoia about all individuals in authority, had had an argument with the Center’s Director, and had removed them all from the bank vault to his rented ranch-style house in the outskirts of the city; where he was sorting them to decide which were to go to the Center and which were to go to his family and others. During his entire lifetime, when Smith was flush with money or resources and time he printed multiple copies of his favorite photographs, usually to an average size of 10” x 13” inches, and then mounted them on 16” x 20” boards. He did this for some of his early Black Star, pre-LIFE work, for several exhibitions of the World War II photographs, for many, if not all, of his LIFE essays, and, less completely, for work he accomplished after his career at LIFE. In some cases, as in the Pittsburg essay, he made at least six complete mounted sets, each consisting of at least 300 separate prints. However, there were times when he could not afford to do this with his work, and his essays in Haiti and Japan and later were not so completely documented. Nevertheless there were literally thousands of mounted prints or prints approximately 10” x 13” or better that Smith was sorting through in his house at the time of his death.

Smith had a second, fatal, stroke two or three months after I came to Arizona, while searching in the heat for some of his cats that had escaped from the house. After he died I checked out a 16 ft. open-bed stake truck from the university, gathered several students together, and we went over to his house and removed all the photographic prints. Smith had been renting a typical one-level ranch-style house, with a connected living-dining room, a bedroom, kitchen, bath, and with the attached open-sided carport that was standard for that area. He had furnished the house minimally with a bed, a couple of chairs, and a food processor for the smoothies, (Which, because of his damaged mouth, were all he could eat.) and with very little else. The story of the many cats that got so out of control and which had so damaged the rugs and drapes of the place that Smith was being evicted by his landlady is already known, but I will state that the entire place was a scene of even more chaos than that found at the other locations. The entire floor and almost every other horizontal surface of the house, except for the bathroom which was covered in cat feces, was crowded with dozens of one or two-foot high piles of photographs, with narrow paths winding through them. There was even a foot-high stack of photographs sitting between the burners of the gas stove, over the (fortunately) covered pilot light. It seems, from the arrangement of these piles of photographs, that Smith was attempting to make groups of prints to fit different purposes, or to go to different individuals. But there was no apparent system or order to the groups, other than Smith’s possible intentions, and any information or understanding of his intended purpose for these piles died with Smith’s death. After the students and I emptied the house and filled the back of the stake-bed truck with dozens of carrying cases of the photographs and as I was just about to drive away, I thought to check in the little closet-like utility tool-room located in one corner of the open-sided carport attached to the house, where I found several hundred more photographs piled up inside this barely weatherproof cubbyhole.

The previous agreement was abruptly terminated by his death, and suddenly the Center had to restructure its arrangement for the Smith archive. Smith had made a will, and its instructions came into play. By the terms of the will, the “master prints” made by Smith were to be divided among the Center (which would buy them all at once from the Estate, instead of over many years as had been the previous plan.), the Estate of W. Eugene Smith, (Which consisted of his first wife and their three children. John Morris was the Executor of the Estate and the person representing the Estate that I dealt with most often during this time, although I also met Pat Smith and his wife Phillis several times.), Aileen Smith, (His second wife.) and Sherri Surris, (The woman who had come to Arizona with him.)

Aileen Smith was to receive 200 “master prints,” and she had the absolute right of first selection from the prints. In theory she could have taken every available “Walk to Paradise Garden,” or all the copies of any other photograph she fancied, but she gave over the right of first selection to the Center, and when she chose her prints, she selected only one copy of each image. (I should mention here that a fourth group of prints also existed, kept separate from all the other prints throughout this entire process, which consisted of the photographs from the “Minamata essay” on industrial pollution which Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith had worked on together in Japan. Again, by the will, that body of work was owned by Aileen Smith and although stored at the Center, those materials were from the beginning handled separately from the main body of Smith’s earlier work.)

Sherri Surris was then to select her choice of 200 master prints.

The Estate of W. Eugene Smith was to receive all remaining “Master Prints,” as well as the cash payment from the Center for those which it had selected and purchased.

Everything else left in Arizona: the negatives, contact sheets, work prints, papers, the books and magazines and record collections, everything that was not designated a “master print,” would automatically go to the Center as part of the “study print” or “work print” collection in the Smith Archive.

After Smith’s death I collected and dispersed the cameras, tools, and other personal possessions as directed to Smith’s heirs and acquaintances. But my primary task was to bring some coherent order to the entire collection, then attempt to identify and bring all the images in the same essays together, then bring all copies of a specific image together so that the provisions of the will could then be carried out. So I began the task of locating, identifying, and sorting the various photographs while also sorting out and organizing all of the other random materials. For example, I mentioned that Smith had been using a milk-bottle cap as a lens hood on his Nikon camera when I first met him. After a year of winnowing through everything I had filled up a 16” x 16” x 20” box completely full of dozens of lens caps for many different types of cameras, some of them long obsolete – but none, unfortunately, for a Nikon.

More importantly, I had located and sorted all the potential “master print” photographs into some order. It was not easy, as there never was a complete or even adequate record of any part of the collection. And while Smith was one of the most famous photographers to the general public and the broad outlines of his career were well-known, there was no accurate chronology of his career in print, especially after his period at LIFE magazine. There was no real scholarly monograph on Smith. Furthermore, to most people he was known for perhaps a score of images which had been republished again and again over the years; as this was the practice of the journals and photographic history books at the time. That left thousands of photographs in this collection which were undated and unidentified; therefor it became necessary for me to attempt to identify the prints from Smith’s own unorganized and incomplete personal files and to embark on a detailed bibliographic search to attempt to create a more complete chronology of his career and of his work. Thus, almost by default, I became a sort of Smith scholar, tracing and identifying which prints belonged in which essays and thus tracking the development of his photographic vision and of his career.

It took almost a year, often working sixteen-hour stretches, to sort everything into the groups that could be used to identify the master prints and bring them into an order where they could be selected by the various parties designated by Gene Smith’s will. (My fiancé was in Boston, I felt that hanging out in a bar drinking beer and playing pool, which was the local dominant leisure activity, was boring, and the materials I was sorting through were fascinating; and so I was free and open to the idea of working very long hours.)

A late evening, after a rainstorm, in the Smith Collection sorting area in the Anthropology building. Photographer unknown.

“6 A. M., Sunday Morning, Center for Creative Photography,” copyright by Day Williams. Normally I did not sort prints on the floor, but the Pittsburgh essay had so many prints in it that I needed the space, so I waited for the Center to close on Saturday evening, then I brought those prints over from the Anthropology building and began to sort out the individual images. I worked all night and was just finishing up when Day Williams, who had been photographing around Tucson that night saw the lights on in the building and came over to investigate. I let him in, and he made this photograph. Then I packed the prints up again and took them back to the workspace in the Anthropology building.

At this point I was employed by the Center but was necessarily also working pro bono for all the other beneficiaries of the will as well; as no one could receive their portion until everything was sorted and brought into order. There was a degree of pressure from everyone to resolve all this as soon as possible, as some of Smith’s children needed money rather urgently and everyone involved wanted to get through the process as soon as possible. With Smith gone, everyone involved agreed that the task of designating what constituted a “master-print” should fall upon the Director of the Center James Enyart. As the only guideline that could be inferred from Smith’s actions was that he had been sorting through the dry-mounted prints on the 16” x 20” boards when he was still alive; that size of photograph was taken as the first guideline to designate a master print. This meant that the seven or eight thousand prints of 5” x 7” or similar size were designated “study prints” and would automatically go into the Center’s collections. Some of these prints were lovely, but it had to be inferred that, at least for everything up to and including his Pittsburgh essay, Smith had already during his lifetime selected and printed up and maintained, (In spite of the chaotic order.) multiple copies of those images he felt strongly about. This “documenting” of his own work was far less complete after Pittsburgh, but he still had hundreds of larger prints for his major bodies of later work. So there were still literally thousands of the larger prints to deal with. My sorting process was to bring all copies of the same image printed up to about 10” x 13” or larger together into a single pile. At times Smith had placed a negative in his enlarger and then printed a half-stop at a time up and down from what would become the ideal print, so in some cases there could be a pile of twenty-odd prints of the same image, of varying quality. Five or six or more of the prints in this pile would be of sufficient quality that they could be designated “master prints”, the remainder became “study prints” or “work prints” and would automatically become part of the Center’s collections. At other times there might be only one or two prints from an image that was in Smith’s possession at his death.

After everything was sorted, the Director and I went through the photographs together, essay by essay, print by print, and he would, with me providing any information if needed, select the “best” print for the Center, then determine how many of the other prints were good enough to be labeled “master prints.” I don’t remember the exact number now, but the Center selected somewhere in the range of 3000 individual “master prints” to purchase from the Estate, which still left thousands of prints for the others to select from.

Then Aileen Smith flew into Tucson and she and I went through the prints as she selected her 200 choices. My role was to present the prints to be viewed in a coherent order, record potential selections, answer any questions about their history that I might have found out during the year, and just be helpful in general. This process took about a week or two of concentrated work, talking about the prints, and recording the selections.

Then Sherrie Surris came back to town and took her turn, selecting her 200 prints.

At this point, something surprising and quite wonderful happened. All this organizing of the materials took more than a year of intense, often sixteen-hour days, of work by me – work that I suppose could have been considered beyond my obligations to the letter of my job description. Apparently there had been some discussion among the members of the estate with Aileen and Sherrie about giving me some prints for all the help I had been giving to them. I don’t know who first brought up the idea, and each handled the matter differently, but Sherrie was the first to give me a print from her selection. Sherrie had selected the specific print without my knowing her intentions, and then had to petition the others to allow her to choose it, because the particular image from the Nurse-Midwife essay was one of only two master prints of that image. The Center had the first print, and other beneficiaries had priority of choice over Surris for the second print. But everyone agreed to defer their right in this case and Surris was able to select that print and then give it to me. I had not expected this to happen and I was completely surprised, and further surprised that Surris had picked up from our general conversations that I loved this portrait of Maude Callens so much.

Gene Smith had indicated to me that the “Nurse Midwife” essay was one of his favorites. Maude Callens had spent her adult life daily facing and overcoming extraordinary obstacles and issues while delivering medical assistance and aid to the poorest residents of the rural, racist, segregated South. Smith had worked very hard to craft a photographic essay which he thought could stand up to the quality of the character that he had found in Maude Callens. And he was proud that his LIFE story had unleased a flood of financial support from readers which enabled the construction of a new, modern medical clinic for Maude. I, too, was moved by this woman, and by Smith’s beautiful, compassionate and moving photographs of her.

Maude Callen training another nurse midwife assisting a birth. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “Nurse Midwife. Maude Callen Eases Pain of Birth, Life and Death.” LIFE 31:23 (Dec. 3, 1851): 134-145.

The Estate and Aileen had each also decided to give me a print for helping them during this long process. Their conversation or decision had not been revealed to me and each gift happened separately. But both the Estate and Aileen at some point during these procedures informed me to select any print I wanted from the available collection.
Suddenly I had become the possible owner of a small collection, however tiny, of the work of an artist that I loved. Presented with this situation, my wonderful problem then became a curatorial issue. It constituted a tough decision that museum curators frequently have to face. Which one or two images does one select from the body of work of any artist to represent that artist’s work? I was not selecting to balance a collection as a curator must often do; nevertheless, some factors had to come into play as I thought about the issues. First, I was not interested in turning the photograph into cash. For me these were treasured items that I would hope to keep in my home and on my walls as long as I could do so. Thus I didn’t necessarily want a “Walk to Paradise Garden’ or a “Spanish Spinner” or anything with an established market value. (If you don’t already know this, it is a dirty secret that in the commercial world certain photographs by an artist are worth more than others. They are not necessarily even the best ones by that artist, but images that by some accident or other, have become established in the marketplace.) For example, at a later stage of this entire process, when I was showing the Estate prints to one of several art-dealers who had come to Tucson to evaluate the collection for a potential offer to purchase; this individual was rather crassly muttering aloud, “…$1000, $1000, $1000, $3000, $1000, $1000….” as we flipped through the prints. Curious, I asked him why he estimated the one so much more than the others. “It was on the cover of the Aperture monograph…” he replied. I told him that I knew for a fact that the publisher had selected that print for the cover and printed it in spite of Smith’s angry insistence that he wanted a different image. “Doesn’t matter…” was the reply. In fact, several of the prints I selected were not among the prints published in Smith’s essays.

Another of Smith’s major essays that had struck a deep emotional response from me was the “Spanish Village.” When John Morris, the Smith Estate executor, and I were going through the prints together, for some reason I went into a long, involved, and excited commentary on this print. Later he offered it to me and I accepted it. I selected this print rather than some more famous images because I felt that Smith had summed up the lingering weight of Spain’s feudal history, with its connections to the land and its rigid social hierarchies in one superb image, and that it also encapsulated the dominant idea that Gene Smith had wanted to convey in his essay about the impacts of the past upon present-day Spain. The print was never published previously because Smith made it as he was driving around Spain to familiarize himself with his subject, as was his practice, and while it is an iconic image of the theme he eventually developed for his essay, it was not near the actual village that he finally chose to photograph.

Harvesting grain, copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “Spanish Village. It Lives in Ancient Poverty and Faith.” LIFE 30:15 (Apr. 9, 1951): 120-129.

For Aileen’s gift I selected a photograph from Schweitzer’s hospital in Africa. Gene Smith had said that the essay never reached publication in anything like its complete form, and as I had had the unique privilege of locating, reassembling, and studying the scores of photographs that Smith had made into his version of the essay, I felt that Smith had indeed reached a creative high point in his art while working on this essay. The work is subtle, humane, passionate, and compellingly beautiful, and, in my opinion, a defining masterwork of the humanistic photographic essay, a genre which briefly held a dominant position in the leading edge of creative photographic practice after World War II. For me, Schweitzer’s Africa held a key position in both Smith’s work and in the history of the medium.

Nurse with flowers, patient’s funeral in Africa, copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “A Man of Mercy. Africa’s misery turns saintly Albert Schweitzer into a driving taskmaster.” LIFE 37:20 (Nov. 15, 1854): 161-172.

After the Center for Creative Photography, Aileen Smith and Sherrie Surris had made their selections, as mandated by the will, the remainder of the Master Prints then belonged to the Estate, but they were continued to be held at the Center for practical and administrative reasons. The beneficiaries of the estate had each selected a handful of favorite photos, but the bulk of the collection, which still consisted of thousands of master prints, was then offered for sale as a unit to a few dealers. At this time photography was just beginning to have a serious market value, with auction houses and a few dealers specializing in the medium. The Estate wanted to sell the entire collection of Estate prints at once, rather than selling it off piecemeal. Over the next few months several dealers came to Tucson to look through the collection to be prepared to make an offer. As part of the cooperation between the CCP and the Estate, I would show the prints to these dealers whenever one would show up. Some dealers would show up and just leaf through everything rapidly and then leave. A few spent more time and energy looking at the prints.

The dealer who actually purchased the collection from the Estate was Ken Heyman. Heyman was himself a known photojournalist who had had essays published in LIFE and had a book or two illustrated with his photographs of children, and who simply loved Gene Smith’s work. I was told that he had “family money,” which owned some of the largest copper mines in Arizona. Heyman bought the collection for what was reported to be the first million-dollar deal in photography, and then he opened a very elegant photography sales gallery called PHOTOGRAPH at 724 Fifth Ave., in New York to sell them. I had spent several weeks going through the collections with him and his assistant. Somehow hearing that the others had given me some prints for my help, he asked me to choose a print for my time and help and he said that he would mail it back to me after the collection was inventoried in New York. I selected another photograph from the essay on Schweitzer, simply because I loved the image. Ken did in fact send the print as well as Suris’s gift, (Which he had held for some obscure administrative reason.) to me several months later, as he promised.

Leper in Sun Helmet, copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “A Man of Mercy. Africa’s misery turns saintly Albert Schweitzer into a driving taskmaster.” LIFE 37:20 (Nov. 15, 1854): 161-172.

In terms of building my own little collection, I now had images from three of Smith’s major essays, images which displayed his narrative skills, his compassion, and his sense of the beautiful form. At this point I thought that would be all the photographs that would ever be available to me. But Aileen Smith had another idea. Because she appreciated my efforts with her collection and because she shared my love of Smith’s photographs she separately gave me two prints from the last major photoessay that Smith worked on, the industrial poisoning in Minanmata, Japan. These photos helped lead the fight for justice for the victims, bringing the story to a world-wide audience through exhibitions, articles and a pioneering book on industrial pollution.

Tomoko in Bath. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Aileen Smith, who had married Gene in Japan to be respectable in the eyes of their conservative Japanese neighbors and colleagues as they were working together on the industrial pollution essay at Minamata; was, by the terms of the will, the sole owner of the photographs from that essay. The Minamata essay prints were also being stored at the CCP and she asked me to sort and organize that collection as well, as she was living in Japan, and had had to fly back and forth several times during this period of time. Aileen had already given me a copy of “Flags of vengeance” and a print of “Tomoko in the bath.” She then offered to pay me to organize her collection after I had finished with the first round of activity; and we agreed that I would take a few hundred dollars in cash and four more prints from the Minamata essay as payment for doing this job for her. So on the weekends over the next few months I sorted and organized that collection for her.

When I came to choose the prints from that essay I was faced with the decision of how to encapsulate the depth and complexity of a major photographic essay consisting of hundreds of photographs with just six images, two of which I already had been given. The work of art for Gene Smith was the sustained photographic essay, not just any individual prints within it, so for the remaining four images I hoped to choose some that conveyed the breadth of the narrative of the Minamata story, as well as being strong prints in themselves.

I selected one of Aileen’s prints and three others by Gene Smith. These photographs were not necessarily the most famous images in that essay, but they do refer to several of the main points of the Minamata narrative of disaster and protest, retribution, and eventual restitution.

There was another consideration as I made these selections. I had noticed just how important the hands and the gestures that people made were to Gene Smith throughout his career. I had already, within the very limited opportunities available, selected several prints that featured this interest. When I chose the Minamata images I thought it important to include an image of the twisted and crippled hands of a mercury-poisoned victim, photographed with such power by Smith; even though it was a poor choice from an economic point of view.

Fishing in Minamata Bay. Copyright by Aileen Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Fish for lunch. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Iwazo Funaba, Poison Victim. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Shinobu Sakamoto, poison victim, Dressing for school. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Flags of Vengeance, Minamata Protest. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

So, in addition to having the wonderful opportunity to meet and work with a great artist and a personal hero, followed by the extraordinary experience of spending several years of studying and working with one of the most remarkable collections of photography created by any artist, and that followed by several years of being able to bring a more complete picture of that work to the general public through several exhibitions and books, I have also had, through the unusual and kind efforts of individuals who I came to admire and respect, the luck to have a small collection of wonderful art hanging on my walls, and which I can always draw great pleasure and joy from any time I look up from this computer.

I later had to turn away from Smith to pursue other projects, and meet other wonderful artists and individuals during a long period of engagement with the multiple histories in photography, but I have always treasured the time that I spent working with this collection and with this artist.


“W. Eugene Smith: A Memorial Exhibition.” (Nov. 12, 1978 ‑ Jan. 5, 1979) Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. (74 prints)
A Memorial Exhibition in Honor of W. Eugene Smith. (Nov. 12, 1978 ‑ Jan. 5, 1979). William Johnson. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. 1979. 8 pp.”W. Eugene Smith: Early Work.” (Nov. 15 ‑ Dec. 16, 1980) Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. (110 prints).
W. Eugene Smith: Early Work 1937‑1948 (Nov. 15 ‑ Dec. 16, 1980). William Johnson. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. 16 pp.
“W. Eugene Smith: International Fotofestival Malmo, 1983.” Malmo, Sweden (80 prints, traveled throughout Europe)
“Foto presenterar: W. Eugene Smith.” Foto (Stockholm) 45:7/8 (July/Aug. 1983): 51‑66. 30 b & w. [Also issued as a separate offprint, as the exhibition catalog for the Malmo exhibition.]
“W. Eugene Smith Retrospective Exhibition,” (Jan. 22 ‑ Mar. 17, 1984) Barrett House, Poughkeepsie, NY. (89 prints, from the Smith family collection.)
W. Eugene Smith Retrospective Exhibition. (Jan. 22 ‑ Mar. 17, 1984) William Johnson. Barrett House, Poughkeepsie, NY. 16 pp. 1 b & w, 1 illus.


“W. Eugene Smith: Early Work.” Center for Creative Photography No. 12 (July 1980): 2‑20, plus a 99 plate portfolio. [Plus added section “W. Eugene Smith. A Chronological Bibliography. Section I, 1934‑1951.” 44 pp. (550 references).

“Deleitosa revisited: Unusual welcome given at location of Smith’s Spanish Village essay.” News Photographer 35:13 (Dec. 1980): 20-23. [Photographer Gary Chapman visited Deletosa, received cold welcome. Prompted “Smith expert discusses essay,” by Johnson on p. 21, “Archives spark interest in noted photographer, pp. 21-22,” with Day William’s photo of Johnson sorting Pittsburgh essay on p. 22, “Fellowship awarded,” on p. 22 and “Publication presents early years,” with portrait of cover, on p. 23.]

“Letters to the Editor: When is a copy an original?” Portfolio. The Magazine of the visual arts. 3:3 (May/June 1981): 96. [Discussion of W. Eugene Smith’s photographic practice.]

W. Eugene Smith: A Chronological Bibliography 1934 ‑ 1980. William S. Johnson. (Center for Creative Photography Bibliography Series no. 1) Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 1981. 165 pp. 1750 plus references. [First issued in two parts: “Part I: 1934‑1952” was included in “W. Eugene Smith: Early Work.” Center for Creative Photography Research Series no. 12 (July 1980) and “Part II: 1952‑1980” was issued as a special supplement to the Research Series no. 13 (Nov. 1981). The two parts were then reissued as no. 1 in the Bibliography Series.]

W. Eugene Smith: Master of the Photographic Essay.
Edited, with commentary, by William S. Johnson. Forward by James L. Enyeart. New York: Aperture, 1981. 224 pp. 1878 b & w. [A modified catalogue raisonné of this artist’s work.]

“Yujin Sumisu: Kamera to tomo ni shakai ni ”taimatso” o kakageta shashinka.” (W. Eugene Smith: A photographer who lit the world with his camera.), pp. 7‑23; “Chronology,” pp. 102‑103; “Bibliography,” pp. 104‑107 in: W. Eugene Smith Exhibition. (Mar. 19 ‑ Mar. 31, 1982) Odakyu Grand Gallery, Tokyo. Pacific Press Service, Tokyo, 1982. 112 pp. 156 b & w, 19 portraits, 11 illus.

W. Eugene Smith. Introduction by William Johnson. (“Photopoche series, 7.” Edited by Robert Delpire.) Paris: Centre National de la Photographie, 1983. viii, 61 plates, 6 pp. 61 b & w.

W. Eugene Smith. Testi di William Johnson. (Series “I grandi fotographie”, edited by Romeo Martinez.) Milan: Gruppo Editoriali Fabbri, 1983. 64 pp. 66 b & w.
“W. Eugene Smith: The Middle Years.” The Archive [“Center for Creative Photography Research Series No. 20”] (July 1984): 4‑18, 54 plate portfolio.

W. Eugene Smith: A Chronological Bibliography. Addendum.
William S. Johnson. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 1984. 72 pp.
“Public Statements/Private Views: Shifting the Ground in the 1950s.” on pp. 81‑92 in: Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography. Edited by David Featherstone. [Untitled No. 35] (1984). [Discussion of Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith.]

Preliminary research, conception, and layout for Let Truth Be the Prejudice. W. Eugene Smith: His Life and Photographs. With an illustrated biography by Ben Maddow and an afterword by John G. Morris. New York: Aperture, 1985. 240 pp. 250 b & w.

“Focus on America: Portraits of Pittsburgh: The Vision of W. Eugene Smith.” Text by William S. Johnson. USA Today 114:2490 (Mar. 1986): 36‑43. 9 b & w.

Quoted briefly in: “Upfront Images: 150 Years of Photography. Of One Man’s Work. In a lifetime of photos, Eugene Smith aimed for the viewer’s heart,” by Reed Johnson. Times-Union. (Rochester, NY) (Friday, August 25, 1989): C1. 6 b & w.

Primary historical consultant, coordinator of the team making the hundreds of copy prints of Smith’s photographs, and one of the “experts” interviewed in the documentary film, W. Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult, produced by Kirk Morris and directed by Gene Laslo. With Peter Reigert as W. Eugene Smith. [Aired in the “American Masters Series” on Public Broadcasting Stations on September 25, 1989 and afterwards. Later released by Kultur DVD (no. D4543), running time 87 minutes.]

“W. Eugene Smith,” by William S. Johnson on pp. 172 –177 in: Original Sources: Art and Archives at the Center for Creative Photography, edited by Amy Rule and Nancy Solomon. Research assistance by Leon Zimlich. Tucson, AZ: Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, 2002. 448 pp.

“Letter to the Editor.” Afterimage 26:3 (Nov./Dec. 2006): 2. [Letter correcting an earlier article’s misconceptions about the role of photojournalists before and during World War II and the misrepresentation of W. Eugene Smith’s activities during that period.]

“Introduction,” on p. 11 in “Volume 3: Essays and Texts.” in: W. Eugene Smith. The Big Book. Foreword by Dr. Katharine Martinez. Introduction by William S. Johnson. Essay by John Berger. Notes by Leslie Squires and Jennifer Jae Gutierrez. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2013. 3 vol., with slipcase.


John Wood

Eagle Pelts – Ithaca, 1984. by John Wood. Silver print with toning. 16 x 20. Copyright by John Wood.

In an act of great generosity, John Wood’s daughter, Carol Wood, contacted us by e-mail in 2022 and offered to give us our choice of any one of John’s photographic prints – apparently simply because we had championed John’s work when he was still alive. As we had sent everything by John that we had previously owned (Including another copy of this print.) to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin as part of the “Creative Project” in 2018, this allowed us to replace the print which we had loved. As well as being a beautiful photograph, it was also the image for the first page of the sixteen page original artist’s signature that John, like the other three artist’s in the collaboration, had chosen to make for the Project. Thus the print held an extra meaning for us.

John’s Story by William S. Johnson
The first and most lasting impression one takes from John is his quietness. John is now eighty-four years old, and his once trim, straight posture has been hampered by an illness that leaves him slightly canted. He also wears hearing aids now. And his voice, never loud, is even softer than it was twenty years ago. But John was always quiet and it has always seemed that his quiet came from a thoughtful calm tied to his subtle sense of balance and order. His dress, manner, and conversation still suggest the self-effacing competence that has traditionally characterized the classic New England character, and John does display many of those attributed characteristics. He listens more than he talks. He is reluctant to discuss his personal opinions casually and only when pressed will he express his thoughts on a subject. He is soft-spoken and misses being laconic only through a natural generosity that forces him to share ideas and ideals with others when he is requested to do so. John is firm in his conviction about public issues such as protecting the natural environment and ending nuclear proliferation, and he practices those beliefs within his everyday actions – but he will never tell you how to act or what to believe. In conversation, John uses a language and style of discussion that is open, non-coercive, and reasoned, even to the point of diffidence. When John is forced to talk about himself, he turns the discussion to his work instead. Even there, in an era when artists are often expected and frequently required to explain themselves and their work, John says little to force any specific direction for the reading of his work.

John’s heritage, his family, and portions of his upbringing during the 1930s and 1940s did, in fact, take place in New England. John, the second of three sons, was born in Delhi, California in 1922. But his father had come from an established New England family. The Woods were among the first settlers of Concord, Massachusetts. Members of the family still owned land in and around Concord when John was growing up. John’s father’s family was large, established and reasonably well-off; they held the tradition that the men would go into engineering or the professions. John’s father, however, loved the land and he studied agricultural sciences at the University of Connecticut. After graduating in the early 1920s, he moved his wife and children to California to homestead a ranch there. But the post-war depression in produce markets plus several years of continued drought burned up that dream, and others that followed. After the ranch was lost the family returned to the east just as the Great Depression was settling into the country at large. So John grew up in a family that lived on the unsettled edge of hard times, never quite as desperate as some, but always needing a little help from the more successful and established members of his extended family. While John was growing up, his own family lived with the maternal grandparents in Kinston, North Carolina, then with his uncle near Rochester, New York, then with John’s paternal grandmother in Concord, Massachusetts. The family also lived briefly in other places as well. John attended nine different schools before he reached the eighth grade.

We were all over the place during the Depression. My father tried to manage a number of farms during that time, but it didn’t work so well. We moved to North Carolina
[where John’s mother’s family lived] where I went to school from the first grade to the third grade. Then we moved to Rochester, New York, and then to a raspberry and potato farm in western New York State, then back to North Carolina. At times it got bad…

I moved too much to make many friends. Because it was always a new situation, I retreated, I backed away. I was uncomfortable socially, and that has lasted through to this day. But I felt comfortable when I was out in nature.

My mother was a great reader and she read to me a lot. When I was young I wound up with an entire set of books by Ernest Thompson-Seton, who was an artist/naturalist. They had these nice, small illustrations. They were very important to me; I read them often. Except for my father, nature was more influential on me than any other thing when I was young.

Before we moved to New England we lived in North Carolina for several years. My mother’s father was a civil engineer and her family ran a piano factory in Kinston, a tobacco town. My grandfather spent a lot of time in Africa getting ivory for the piano keys and he had a lot of tales about that. But Kinston was difficult for me… However, after a year, we moved to Swansboro, which was a little fishing village on the coast. I was about eight or nine and Swansboro was a very interesting place. All kinds of things happened to me there that have to do with motion or water. The entire system there was meaningful to me. The fact of the South, the facts of Swansboro itself, a small fishing village with no electricity during the Depression, the experiences that I had there in relation to the water…. We went boating a lot, it was a very rich fishing ground then — it’s depleted now — but at that time it was very good and I became aware for the first time of all the different things that happened — fishing with gill nets for mullet, going out at night with torches to get flounder, reaching down into holes to get rock crabs.  We would go off and do things…it was an adventure.

[The core of this essay has been adapted from Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures: Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood, by Susan E. Cohen and William S. Johnson. Belmont, MA: Joshua Press, 1986, 242 pp., 36 slides. This was a privately printed, limited edition book produced as one part of the artists’ collaboration , observed by Susie Cohen and Bill Johnson. Unless otherwise credited, all quotations from John Wood are drawn from a number of conversations with him by Susie Cohen and Bill Johnson during 1983-1985 during the course of this project. These were supplemented with several additional interviews with John in 1992 and in 2006.]

“For a time Louise [John’s mother] and the three boys, Norman (“Nonny”), John, and Jimmy, lived in Swansboro, North Carolina, near her sister Jenny who operated a small restaurant. Norman [John’s father] stayed up north to find work and irregularly sent down money. In Swansboro, Louise was particularly distressed with the schools and the poor atmosphere available for the boys. John remembers those years as difficult and fraught with tension, yet he loved the seaside landscape and the life of the small fishing village. He has strong visual memories from this home.

[Another source of information and quotes is the “Monograph on the Work of John Wood – Artist and Teacher,” by Laurie Sieverts Snyder, M. F. A. Thesis, Department of Art Media Studies, College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, 1987. 69 pp. p. 7.]

There was a church for blacks across the street where we lived. Sometimes I would sit (hide) in the bushes behind and listen to the singing. I was nine (?) and the church was in a small fishing village in North Carolina. No black person was allowed in the village after sunset. Maybe they were more white in God’s sun and day. There was a bridge that crossed the Neuse River and connected it to a small sand island. At rip tide the water under the bridge was almost violent. I would walk across on the railing. Often we crossed to the sand island for a picnic. My first look at death was on that island. I found a man in the water. He had been dead for a long time and was black. His skin had changed to white in many places. I sat and looked fro a long time and I think I felt compassion for the first time. I know I was sad for another human being. I ran back across the bridge in some terror and told the man at the drug store. Later I found out that a black man had been murdered. Nothing was ever done about it. I didn’t understand. I never talked to my mother about that. My father was in the north trying to find work. (1932, maybe) My aunt ran a restaurant in town. My uncle was no help – he was usually drunk and often violent and I was afraid of him. One day he brought a black bear cub into the restaurant. I never found out what happened to the mother and I don’t know what finally happened to the cub. I did notice that he was very gentle with the cub. There was a lot of violence in that town smoothed and hidden by kindness. I just began to think about this.

[LSS “Monograph.” Unpublished letter, JW to LSS, postmarked 5 March 1985. pp. 7-8.]

This passage reveals many aspects of John Wood’s personality. In retrospect, this memory marks the first self-conscious moment when John felt compassion for another human being outside of the family constellation. This compassion or caring remains an integral element in John’s personality: it is present in his art work, in his relationship to his friends and students, and his concern for people in distress. The awareness that nothing was done to find the cause of death and the murderer was a lesson about the racial inequalities in that North Carolina town, and even as a small boy he realized this. Another important element in John’s childhood was his pleasure in the outdoors. Exploring alone was exhilarating and educational. To keep his mother from excessive worry about his safety, (Like tightrope walking the bridge rail across the riptide channel to the island) John developed the habit of not telling her what he did. Keeping his actions and thoughts to himself allowed John to develop independence and confidence in his own abilities to explore and observe. He found pleasure in his own company and he liked to look “for a long time.” He still does. He looks leisurely at everything: the landscape, work in museums, student’s work, his own work….”

[LSS “Monograph.” pp. 7-9.]

“The issues of subdued violence comes up frequently in John Wood’s memories….There were silent tensions between Louise and Norman. John remembers no angry conversations, but he does remember his father’s silences and absences and his mother’s complaints and worries. The anxieties in the home were never discussed with the boys – yet the intensity of feelings were present, covered over by “kindness” and silence. The notion that unpleasantness might not exist if you did not talk about it was strongly present in John’s childhood and replays itself over and over again. Compassion, careful looking, keeping your feelings to yourself, and enjoying the environment were enduring qualities developed by John in his childhood.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 9.]

“The marriage [of Louise Cheney Wood] to Norman Wood was not happy. After all the uprootings and insecurities, and finally moving to Concord to live with her domineering mother-in-law, she decided to divorce Norman in 1942. At the time of the divorce, John was an adolescent and doesn’t remember a great deal of fighting or major family discussions centered around the divorce. After the divorce, Louise had several jobs…”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 11.]

John spent his high school years in Concord. Concord was a town that rode out the Depression better than many other parts of the country and John’s acquaintances and friends in school always seemed to have more money than he did. The Woods were a large, close family, and they provided John with much companionship, but he always felt that he was the poor relation, the son of the son who had not followed the correct direction or who had had the bad luck.

It was a nice family. My grandparents had four boys and one daughter. There were lots of cousins around and there were always family activities going on. I remember everyone always getting together. And I had a cousin, Hank Coolidge, who was wonderful. He took all us kids skiing and mountain climbing, and he was a wonderful storyteller. He was the first adult outside of my parents that I had any real attachment to.

I was brought up in a good New England family where you always did something artistic – but the Lord help you if you did it seriously.  My mother and my father’s brother were accomplished musicians. My mother’s family manufactured pianos at one point. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a wonderful family photographer. He documented all the family occasions, at any family gathering the old folding Kodak would come out and he would make portraits of all the kids. My aunt was a painter and a fairly good one, but never really committed to that. She taught Physical Education at the University of Connecticut. My dad became a freelance carpenter and cabinetmaker when the farming didn’t work out, and he worked as a patternmaker at the Navy shipyards in Chelsea. He made beautiful little watercolors all his life. I was aware of artists from a very early age. My great uncle was Thomas Hill, and a number of his paintings were in my grandmother’s living room.

Thomas Hill was an accomplished and successful painter working at the end of the 19th century. His best-known painting, “The Last Spike” (1881), commemorating the building of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, hung in the rotunda of the California State Capitol for many years. John has a very fine painting of Yosemite Valley that Thomas Hill painted as a wedding present for John’s grandmother.

I took my first drawing class at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. It was a Saturday morning class and I must have been in the third or fourth grade. I don’t remember any of the paintings at the museum, but I do remember that there was a photo show there and that I kept a catalog of that show for years.

I made watercolors when I was growing up; at some point I even took a watercolor course and a “How-to-Draw” course one summer down on Cape Anne. I liked to draw and I also made photographs all through high school.

I knew that there was such a thing as an artist but I didn’t connect that with me. I didn’t have any sense that it was possible to be an artist. It was possible to make watercolors and things like that but I don’t think I really knew what an artist was until later.

My mother and father were very sympathetic for creative work and they were supportive from the very beginning. But it was harder with the rest of the family. My uncles and my grandmother were demanding and disciplined people; they expected you to amount to something. I always got the feeling that it was necessary to do something important in the world, and art didn’t count. It was a kind of Puritanism… All my uncles were engineers. My father and one uncle tried to get out from under that, but they didn’t quite make it. They spent their energies getting out, and they didn’t have enough left to do anything else…. So there was a lot of art in the family but somehow I felt that it wasn’t open to me.

When I graduated from high school there was a great need for industrial draftsmen, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was offering a program to train high school graduates in drafting. It was a competitive program, but I was accepted into it. It was a short, intensive course that combined mechanical drawing, calculus, and physics. I went through that course, became a draftsman, and then worked at the Raytheon Company in Waltham for a while, then drafting for Sturgis Architects in Boston.

In 1941, I volunteered for the Air Force. I was nineteen, and for a normal kid growing up in our society at that time that was the only thing to do and that’s what I did.

John was commissioned as an officer and trained as a bomber pilot in the Air Force. His first assignment was to the Training Command, where his task was to verify that the new pilots and bombardiers knew their jobs.

“The Air Force gave him an opportunity to explore new areas of the United States: he was trained in California, Arizona, Texas, then stationed in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska. He learned to fly a variety of large and small planes, and he spent most of his four years teaching pilots to fly…. He never saw active [combat] duty – a situation that was both a relief and a disappointment. He was an excellent trainer and he started to develop attitudes towards teaching that would prove helpful ten years later when he started teaching art. A hallmark of John’s teaching style is an ability to allow a student to find his way, to make mistakes and find his own solution. Wood explained to me that this was a lesson he learned repeatedly in the Air Force; the student pilot can only learn to fly by flying, so the flight instructor has to let go, allow the trainee to fly, even to make mistakes, and to solve them.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 12.]

Later he trained to fly a B-17 bomber for combat, but the war in Europe ended before he was assigned overseas. He then was reassigned to fly the B-29 bomber, but before he finished training for that aircraft, the war with Japan ended. His last task in the Air Force was ferrying B-29’s down to Texas for mothballing. He was demobilized at Lowrey Field in Denver, Colorado in 1945.

 I loved to fly; I was intrigued by the whole business, the entire kinetics of flying is like skiing… The Air Force wasn’t a wasted time for me because of the special and kinetic characteristics of flying; the ways that you perceive perspective, the way that things line up from the air, and the importance of these things all influenced me a great deal. For a long time I was unaware of those influences, but I know now that they were very important for me. My experiences determined a lot of the ways that I go about organizing things. The idea of a static one point perspective had always been uncomfortable for me and my experiences while flying let me escape from that concept a little bit.

I separated from the Air Force in 1945 in Denver. I spent the first winter just bumming around, skiing and such, and then I enrolled in the University of Colorado on the G.I. Bill.

John studied architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, seeking a discipline that would satisfy his own interests and still be viewed as practical and acceptable by his family. But he soon began to feel that the technically-oriented program at the university was not for him.

It was totally provincial. A lot was happening in structural architecture and design. Buckminster Fuller, Nervi, Mallart, and others were doing a lot in those fields, but I didn’t hear anything about it at the school. So I didn’t even know about those issues at that time. I came home at Christmastime a year later and I just never went back.

John moved back to Massachusetts where he lived with his mother in Boston. The city offered him personal freedom and cultural nourishment. He started a small commercial photographic studio (Anderson & Wood Photography: Aerial & Commercial) in Concord with his high-school friend, Bill Anderson, who had been a Marine Corps fighter pilot during the war. Bill and John began their business by flying a Piper Cub around Concord, taking aerial photographs of commercial greenhouse farms “with a Speed Graphic that we stuck out the door.” They then sold their work to the businesses they had photographed. In time they began to do portraiture and other commercial work as well.

I had been taking photos since I was twelve, but Bill and I both took a course on studio portraiture from a photographer named Shaw, I think, on Newbury Street in Boston. He had been a student of William Mortensen and he had all the print retouching techniques that Mortensen was famous for, but his original negatives were clean and well-made and we got a good technical training in lighting and negative making. The idea of Mortensen is a little embarrassing to me but I did keep the idea of reworking prints from that experience. And later, at the Institute of Design, when I got used to cutting up images and fitting them together on the page with typography, these things led into collage techniques in a very natural way.

As John worked over the next few years in his and Anderson’s studio, he gradually developed and fostered an interest in contemporary art and in creative photography.

I wasn’t aware of art photography, just what I’d seen in the magazines, photojournalism and the like. I feel that there was a real lag in my awareness, almost ten years of my life. In a way I consider myself, in terms of contact and influences, to be ten years younger than I am. I wandered around Boston in my spare time taking photographs. I was a street photographer for a time; it seemed necessary for me to do that, but I didn’t know where it was going to lead.

“Whenever he could, John looked at pictures. In 1949 he bought his first Rolliflex twin lens reflex camera for his own pictures and had his own, “very junky” enlarger in his mother’s Boylston Street apartment. In addition to the photography classes [with Shaw] he took drawing and watercolor classes and later he took night classes at Boston University in aesthetics and psychology. His relationship with his mother was very pleasant. He enjoyed the location of her apartment because he could walk to the museums and the Boston Public Library.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 14.]

I began to look for connections. I read some magazines like
U.S. Camera and American Photography, and I went over to the Boston Public Library and looked for books. They had an excellent collection of books on photography. That’s where I discovered Edward Weston and then Paul Strand’s portfolio on Mexico.

About 1948 or 1949 I saw an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York which was the first time I’d ever seen actual [creative] photographs. Some things were happening in creative photography and some people were out there but I didn’t know anything about it. My first contact [with contemporary art] was also through books. I remember very distinctly being in love with Kandinsky’s work, which I knew through the little Skira book. I didn’t have any friends who were artists, and the museums around Boston didn’t show much abstract work then — that movement was just getting started — except the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston which was open at this time. I remember hearing Oskar Kokoschka talk at his exhibit. I even took his portrait and had ideas of photographing other painters.

I was getting tired of the commercial studio and I was really ready for a change when I found Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s
Vision in Motion in the library one day. I think that you discover people [as influences] once you’ve discovered it in yourself. Moholy-Nagy came to me after I’d already worked some of the ideas out for myself. But Vision in Motion really connected for me, and somehow I learned that Moholy-Nagy had set up the Institute of Design in Chicago.

I married Suzanne Watson in the Spring of 1950, and the idea of my stopping working in the studio became even stronger since the business wasn’t big enough to support both Bill’s family and mine. That summer we drove out to California to visit Zanne’s father. On the way I stopped at I. D., applied, and was accepted into the program.

John was twenty-seven years old. He had amassed considerable practical experience and had had brief contact with a broad range of art forms, but he still had not considered art a valid career. When he enrolled in the program at the Institute of Design in Chicago, he and Suzanne began living in a converted store-front. A colleague of his from that time, Ray Martin, recalls:

John Wood was especially important to those of us whose interests extended beyond commercial design to the fine arts…I was influenced by his experimental approach to art and design. …What made his presence at the school more impressive was the fact that he set up a complete living and working space in [the store front].  He had a photo darkroom, type cases and platen press, proof press, etching press, work tables, etc.  Because of John’s generosity, many students spent time there, talking, working, glad to be part of his creative realm.”

[Quote from LSS “Monograph.” p. 15.]

At I.D. I trained to be a visual designer, I wasn’t training to be an artist. I had practical issues to consider, like how to make a living. Even during the program it didn’t dawn on me that that was a way I could go. But when I got to I. D., I began to meet artists. Harry Callahan was the first person who impressed on me the idea that you could commit yourself to some kind of thing that was called “art.” Several people at I.D. were real artists — Callahan, Siskind, Hugo Weber (a painter), Misch Kohn (a printmaker) — and for the first time I began to get a feeling for what that meant. Even at that point I was choosing between different media; I started in photography but then I went into typography, print making, and design. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I was beginning to try to decide.

I knew Harry Callahan, but Aaron [Siskind] got there after I switched away from photography so I never took any classes with him, although I did get to know him. There was a young fellow from Denmark, Keld Helmer Petersen, who had published a book of color photographs — very abstract — who was teaching there, and that was the first color work like that that I had seen. Remember that everything was still isolated in those days, in the early 1950s, a small number of books were out. Maybe if you were really into things in New York City, then you might have known what was really going on, but otherwise it was pretty scattered.

Harry Callahan had his first show at the Art Institute of Chicago the first year that I was there and I think that that was the first photo show that they had there. Frederick Sommer came in for a week to teach and I was impressed by him. Art Sinsabaugh taught there as well, but I had become interested in printmaking by then.

There was a three-semester foundation course that everyone from graduate students to people just out of high school had to take, and a lot of the people were veterans, so it was a pretty lively group. Just because of the group that was there then, we became very interested in printmaking and we set up some presses and all that. That group consisted of Ray Martin, Ivan Chermayeff, Michael Traine, Norman Kantor, Marty Moskov, and others. Len Gittleman was a good friend of mine.
[Len Gittleman was a photographer and filmmaker who taught the still photography courses offered to the undergraduates in the Visual Studies program at Harvard through the 1960s and 1970s.] Len and I made a movie, THE PRESS, about the printing press. It was a nice movie but we had problems clearing copyright on the score that we borrowed from a recording of a work by Stravinsky and we never were able to get it re-scored.

While in his fourth year at school, and still a student, Wood began teaching a course in visual fundamentals at the Institute of Design. John graduated from the Institute in 1954. He had intended to move to San Francisco after graduation, find a job there, then buy a printing press and print his own graphics and books as well as work for other artists. But he was offered a job while still in his last semester at I. D.

In 1954 Charles Harder, the director of the New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, New York was touring art and design schools in New York and Chicago searching for someone to teach printmaking and typography at Alfred. Alfred University is a small school founded in the 1830s and located in a tiny village in a rural portion of western New York, amid the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The school has always had a strong arts program and its New York College of Ceramics was highly regarded. Harder visited the Institute of Design during John’s last semester there, and, on the recommendation of the I. D. faculty, offered the position to John.

“At the time, the Alfred program was narrowly focused on industrial design, “pottery production,” and teaching, although it had continued its original objectives combining scientific, technical, art and practical training.  Charles Harder had become head of the design program in 1944 and, with his beliefs about teaching and education “in hand,” he was searching for a new faculty member.  His search would lead him to New York and to the Chicago’s Institute of Design.  Faculty there recommended John Wood as someone who met the criteria established by Harder.”

Harder’s philosophy and vision is well-documented; a potter would benefit by being taught concepts and skills other than pot-making.  By hiring John Wood and giving him the flexibility to teach what and how he wanted, the program could develop into what it is today.  John Wood brought his experience with foundations from I.D. and his own sensibilities about broadening students’ choices to the program.  He “didn’t want things to be isolated.” (Shefrin, et al.)  The environment of the department nourished an interaction between and among faculty and students that provided the opportunity for creativity and change, invention, and experimentation.

Harder’s belief in the importance to an education program of exposure to high quality media (music, art, design), was the beginning of the change process, but its form and success can be credited (in large part) to John Wood’s philosophy, creativity, adherence to specific values.  Harder had selected Wood on the basis of these traits; the person and the environment were a good match.”

[Wood, Carol. “John Wood…” Unpublished Essay, 1997. 6 pp.]

When I first got to Alfred I was just going to teach one class. It was nice for me to be earning a real salary after so long. I really loved teaching and I still do. I have a great deal of difficulty with the bureaucracy in schools and with the interpersonal politicking that goes on, but I like the teaching. ‘Zanne and I decided to stay for four years and take one class through the school… but, for one reason or another, we’ve been here ever since.

“Changes were often brought about because of Wood’s own personal experimentation and desire for ways to manipulate and move images.  For example, his experience in Chicago had included work at a graphic design company doing big posters.  When he arrived in Alfred, he really wanted to continue that work but had to develop the technology here in order to keep it going.  He describes adapting a photo-silkscreen process in order to combine photography and lithography, and building a complex system for developing movie film.  Through his work and exploration, the crossing of media happened.  (Shefrin, et al.)

The course in visual design was conceptualized and taught as a foundation program–Wood was left to his own devices about what to teach. Again, his quiet commitment to typography and photography led him to provide his own equipment so that the students could explore those media.  He did not serve in an administrative position; from the start he effected change from the classroom. As early as 1955, one year after he arrived, the curriculum was changing to offer a “track” considered fine arts, for the first time, rather than strictly design.”

[CW. “John Wood.” p. 3.]

“When he arrived at Alfred John taught visual design, typography, book design and printmaking. However, for his own work he wanted photographic facilities and this he set up with his own equipment at the college. The students became interested in photography so he started teaching photography on his own time. When he started to have as many students in his photography classes as there were in the ceramics classes, Ted Randall, chairman of the art department, suggested they start a photography program.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 18.]

“By 1965 the Department of Design became the Department of Art — “reflecting more accurately its work and activities” (NYSCC Annual Report 1965, Appendix F)  In the period of time between the first mention of fine arts and the structural shift to the Department of Art, Wood’s ideas about visual design permeated the program.  The first team-taught course, however, was almost accidental.  Eric Renner (faculty member during the late Sixties) who taught 3-D studies, and John Wood decided to teach their classes together.  Wood remembers this as an historical event, and also as an exciting, collaborative time period in the history of the school.”

[CW. “John Wood.” p. 3.]

“The BFA Program in Photography “…began in 1970 in response to the need and demand for such a concentration… and by 1977 was offering five courses to about one hundred and sixty students each year…”

[“Video History Project: Resources: Groups: Alfred University.” (Aug. 22, 2006).]

There is a thread of tension running through John’s quiet narrative of his early life; a sense of pressures felt and possibilities denied. Alfred must have seemed like an unexpected turn in the road, and possibly something of a haven. Suddenly John had the opportunity to live amidst the type of countryside he loved. At the same time he was permitted –even encouraged- to unleash the suppressed creativity that had always been a part of him.

And John did exactly that. He taught at Alfred with care and commitment for nearly thirty-five years, until his retirement in 1987. Former students of John’s, at all levels of accomplishment and commitment, respond with affection at the mention of his name. In a statement published when she was appointed Dean at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, E. Jessie Shefrin began her list of important influences with John Wood’s name.

[“New York State College of Ceramics. College News. Veteran art professor leaves to become dean at Rhode Island School of Design.” (Aug. 22, 2006)]

Shefrin had earlier stated John’s importance to the teaching program and its students at Alfred in a ceremony honoring him at the reopening of the design study studios at the school in 1995.

He came to Alfred in 1955.  He came as an artist, to teach and to learn.  He left in 1987 to continue to teach and to learn.  He is teaching something right now by being here.  He is teaching something about re-turning, about re-making, about re-visioning.  He is teaching about being present.  And don’t look now because he is probably doodling on a napkin that will probably find its way into a book, which we will probably end up buying in a few years for our rare book collection.

And that’s the way things go with John. One thing turns into something else right in front of your eyes and often without words.  So, you have to pay attention.  You have to learn how to listen visually.  You have to learn how to get your own attention, or you might not hear the voice of Black Elk speaking to you about Wounded Knee on December 12, 1890 in one of John’s drawings.  You might not notice the small article in today’s paper on page twelve about the thousands of Rwandans murdered by government forces in a makeshift refugee camp.  You might not stop on your way home to look up and see the woodcock circling above your head about to dive down, telling you it is spring.  You might miss the connections.

And that’s the way things go with John.  They connect.  Sometimes now.  Sometimes then.  Sometimes here.  Sometimes there.  Sometimes circuitously — sometimes so clearly and simply that nothing can be said, and you are left dumbfounded, not knowing how you got here or where you’re going but knowing that something profound has just happened to you.

In recognition of all the small and indestructible gifts that you, John, have given to the many people who are seated before you now and the many people who couldn’t be here, to the students in all the studios in this school working right now, who aren’t here, because they aren’t alumni yet but who somehow feel who you are, because the gifts get passed on.  They get passed on in the tools that get made and used.  In the vessels that hold tusche.  In the lines drawn around the bend, on the top of the hill.  In the light that gets captured in a moment and then gets reprocessed 20 times, 20 different ways.  In the moving images that spur dreams.  In the marks that float off the pages and turn into angles of repose.  In knowing that to get to a place you have never been, you must go by a road you have never taken.

We celebrate the opening of our new studio facilities by naming them not after you, not for you, but in the spirit of you.  And in so doing, we challenge ourselves to create open studios where ideas, energy and conversation can move freely up and down the stairs, around the corners and across the building; to be mindful of the boundaries, the borders and the territories that come with doors that lock; to re-dedicate ourselves to the practice and joy of teaching and its intricate relationship to the living process of making work.

We offer you all our love and all our thanks.”

[CW.”John Wood.” p. 1. Quoting from pp. 4-5 in VITA (alumni publication) School of Art and Design, Alfred University, 1995-1996.]

“When Wood retired in 1988, former students and faculty were invited to write their “testimonials” for presentation to him at the formal retirement dinner.  The response was overwhelming; testimonials were sent in from all parts of the country and from every generation of alumni.  Writings, drawings and photographs were included in the packets; demonstrating the impact John Wood had on their lives.”

[CW. “John Wood.” p. 4.]

Yet in 1984, when the Society for Photographic Education asked John to be the “Honored Speaker” at its annual meeting, John hesitated for several weeks before accepting the honor; for he was neither a member of the SPE, nor was he certain that the honor should come to him.

John had participated in the Invitational Teaching Conference at the George Eastman House held in November 1962 which was one of the seminal meetings leading to the formation of the Society for Photographic Education. And John sat on three of the panels presented during the conference. When asked why he did not join the new organization; John simply shrugged and said, “Those things are difficult for me. I attended once in a while, but I don’t particularly like organizations.” Later, choosing to expand his answer, he continued:” I don’t have an intellectual relationship to photography, I like to read about it, but...” In response to the statement that he made very smart photographs, he said, “Those are two different things.” When pushed a little further, he stated his philosophy of teaching.

I’ve been teaching now
[1984] for thirty-one years and that’s occupied a lot of my energies. The first five years at Alfred I was learning how to teach. I guess I’m a good teacher partly because I listen and I’m also willing to meet the student exactly where he or she is. I don’t impose my philosophy on the student. I try to have them discover their own position. If I would take pride in anything it would be that I feel all too often that some people will go to a person’s work and say why didn’t you do this or that, but I’d much rather go to the work, find out what’s there, see if I can find out whatever the seed is that’s going on, and then let the student find out what that may be.

Also, I was trained at the Institute of Design, which grew out of the Bauhaus philosophy. And their foundation program was very good and exciting and a lot of my ideas came out of that experience. One of the interesting parts of that philosophy was that it is much better to teach a philosophy of tools and materials rather than a specific tool. And I also happen to believe that process is more important than what the final product looks like. I seem to be good at putting together problems that lead people towards that discovery. A good problem for me is where students at any level, no matter what their background, can approach it equally.

And I’m not cynical with the students either.

I manage to teach one or two workshops every summer. I’ve been doing that for about fifteen years now. I’ve taught at Penland in North Carolina, at Haystack, the Parsons School at Lake Placid, New York, and I’ve taught quite a few summers at the Visual Studies Workshop. I like the workshops, particularly if they are short. It’s a different relationship than in the regular school sessions.

In addition to teaching, John has continued to create his own art with a relentlessness that is only partially hidden by his modest manner and his lack of self-promotion. John creates art continuously, moving across the various mediums of drawing, photography, painting, printmaking, and bookmaking in a process that sifts, reorders and extends the ideas, concepts, and processes that are combined within his organic, elegant body of work. The consistency of this long effort was pointed out by Aaron Siskind in a 1978 interview. Aaron stated, in the context of a conversation about an artist’s concerns with and dedication to the creation of his art, “...more recently, …we have a person like John Wood, whose motivations are of the purest – I mean he’s one of the most dedicated human beings you can find in this world.

[“A conversation between Aaron Siskind and Diana Johnson,” Spaces. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I., 1978, p. 15.]

Although John will freely explain how any specific work that he has created was generated, he usually does not care to discuss any meanings that it might have. He becomes uneasy if either he or someone else starts to interpret any pieces in terms of a specific, thus limiting, critical framework. He is more articulate and at ease when he is discussing his own discoveries and the directions he has chosen to follow to create his art. The free-flowing form of such a discussion, pausing at one point for an embellishment, jumping to another point to add a highlight or some coloration to his discourse, is in itself a most apt delineation of the evolution and dimensions of his creative process.

I’ve been accused of spreading myself thin and I admit to it. My studio is full of the different directions that I travel, which range from purely abstract exploration to image making of one sort or another. I cut through several mediums. I do go through a whole range of things. I’ll do one thing, then that will lead to another, then to another. It’s hard for me to say where things stop. I’ll make a collage which leads to a montage which leads to the next thing and so on…my objects are always going through different transformations.

John will photograph a pile of pebbles he had gathered and placed outside his studio to break the runoff of the rain from his porch roof. He may make a silver print from that negative, then later make a xerox enlargement from that print and use that xerox as a negative to generate a cyanotype contact print, which, in turn, may be collaged into a larger work with other prints or drawings, or combined with handmade paper, or maybe bound into an artist’s book. And the image may appear in a different form or a different configuration in another work the following week, or the following month, or five years later.

I’m continually recycling things; I hate to throw anything away. I’ll recycle images back and forth for a long time until eventually I get embarrassed that a particular image is showing up so often. Then I’ll remove it. When I’m making a piece and I’m in the process of searching for something I need in my studio — a negative or a particular print or whatever — quite often I come across something else. It’s a kind of continual process that goes on. It can get exasperating if I can’t find what I’m looking for, but I don’t object because a lot of my images grow out of that search. It looks chaotic but the process works for me. I’ll start over here at this spot [in my studio] and then on the way over there to pick something up I’ll get stopped by something interesting. I used to fight against that but I don’t anymore. That’s the way I work and it’s where the things that I’m most exited about come from.

John does not claim to have total control over the act of creativity. The idea of process is very much a part of his work. He leaves the work open and the process ongoing to include the viewer as the final link in the creative act.

When I’m putting images together I don’t have a narrative that I’m trying to tell. I locate images randomly and then move them around until I find things that I feel have some relationship to each other. That relationship may be in terms of color, an aspect of geometry, or some sense of how an image works. At some point, if I’m lucky, two or three things will begin to operate: the colors, the formal aspects, or perhaps the shapes. Shape is very strong with me. I like the idea that shapes have a life to themselves which is not a narrative life but some kind of feeling that effects us very strongly. I think these things are universal…

So I play with this material until some kind of connection begins to be made. They certainly are not verbal connections, but some kind of vibrations begin to happen and the pieces begin to echo each other. When I work best things are just flowing out. I trust my subconscious; I think it knows more than my conscious mind does.

The way I work with the doublet collages, for example, it’s like a poetry structure; it’s like Haiku, the form lets you put disconnected things together and the viewer has to connect them for himself. It’s in the connecting that it becomes important.

John was quietly amused when asked if he were religious. He denied any adherence to a particular belief, although he commented that he was impressed by the lifestyle and ideas of Zen Buddhism. Transcendentalism, a philosophy born near 19th century Concord, Massachusetts, with its precepts about the close and quiet observation of nature and the assertion that intuition should dominate empirical experience, also forms the backbone of John’s thought. He has found even more direct influences in people and events closer to his own time.

I started out studying architectural engineering, so I’m very interested in structure. Buckminster Fuller was the first person to make me aware of a different kind of structure that I hadn’t intuited before. He was important to me in the sense that all of his world ideas really hit a chord and so he was a kind of hero for me. I like a lot of the “primary ideas” that he had about things. Fuller was great at distilling things down to one idea. He would start with a little triangle and gradually the whole world would evolve out of that. He preached continually that we have the knowledge to solve our world problems and that we must do so now. He was an optimist. It’s obvious that we have the information; but the work isn’t being done, is it? But Fuller came to I. D. to lecture when I was there. He talked literally for three days straight; the energy was amazing.

The idea of structure informs John’s way of seeing the world. Both his heritage and his training stress systematic thinking and creative solutions to practical problems. At the time he leaves space for the beneficial possibilities of intuition. John feels most comfortable when he senses the presence of a pattern or perceives a congruence within his own art and a system of order within the larger world. He feels best when his work alludes to an interconnectedness within the structures and events of the world. This is apparent in the pleasure John shows when describing the principles behind a model of an icosahedron made by the intersection of three golden rectangles that he built out of card-board and string years ago, which now hangs in a corner of his living room; or at demonstrating an elegant solution to a difficult carpentry problem; or in the little wooden “figures” — balancing tightrope-walking katchina figures, birds, or little fantastic animals he makes as presents for his now grown children — works which display a touch of quiet whimsy and a delicate artisanry hard to match outside of Calder’s Circus.

Much of John’s artwork is set up to demonstrate the rule of some process, or the dominion of a form, or the nature of a structure within the medium, which John then explores or expands through the deft play of his ingenuity. These principles fuel John’s continued interest in the “system drawings” and the folded-paper drawings, as well as his experiments with the multi-framed photograph series.

While John takes pleasure in working with aspects of the materials he uses, which he then can play within and against a continually renewed series of innovative solutions, this is not the sole or even the primary aim of his art. John insists that his works contain combinations of meanings – multiple associations, groupings of visual possibility, personal meaning, and metaphoric potential. In short, he insists that they function as poetry. And, in that context, his continued investigations of the boundaries of rule and the possibilities of intuition take on the dimensions of questioning the boundaries of order and freedom.

Landscape is one of the major sources of nourishment for John and consequently one of the major themes in his art. He has drawn upon several different landscapes over the years. First, there is the landscape that he has lived in for years, the gently rolling hills and rural meadows around Alfred, New York. It is a countryside of farms and reverted farm-lands, with open fields bound by hedgerows of scrub timber and patchwork blocks of deciduous forest. In the summer this country can be beautiful, the meadows full of flowers, butterflies, and birds. The winters are harder, laden with the heavy snowfalls common to the snowbelt on the underside of Lake Ontario. It’s a quiet country. Those parts of John’s work that reflect this landscape are also quiet, private, and gentle.

The light is different in Alfred than in New Mexico and the gestures of the landscape are different and the whole kinetic changes — the wind and the rain, and all the rest of it — is different. And those are the things that I react to. I don’t draw them specifically, but I react to them when they come up. Although the landscapes of Alfred and New Mexico are different, my relationship to them is the same.

It isn’t just that you look out there and see a mountain. It’s how things fluctuate with it. If a gesture is very important to me, if it’s something that moves and so forth, those are my sources to develop from. Sometimes I’ll have a mountain in my drawings, but almost invariably there will also be some situation that moves with it.

The other important landscape for John is the more flamboyant, colorful countryside of northern New Mexico. John fell in love with that country years ago when he and his wife Suzanne camped there while traveling to California. John spent a sabbatical year in Santa Fe in 1965, painting and drawing and establishing contacts with the local people. Since that year John has spent almost every summer in New Mexico. His son, Michael, now lives in Santa Fe with his family. And old friends such as Eric Renner, a colleague of John’s since they taught together at Alfred in the mid-sixties, live in New Mexico as well.
John frequently includes images of his friends in his work; it is one of the ways that the works resonates for him. An important figure which has appeared throughout John’s art during the past years is a portrait of a friend he made on his first visit to New Mexico in 1965.

At some point I was photographing in Chimayo, which is a little Mexican weaving village up in the mountains, and I met this Malacio, who was a Spanish man who had lived there a long time. He’d worked at the YMCA in El Paso for years and years and then retired and moved back up to his home town of Chimayo. I met him and rented a nice little studio room from him that year. I used to go up there three times a week to draw during the entire year that I was out there. I would arrive up there and start down to the studio and Malacio would always come to the door and ask me in for a cup of coffee. I’d go in, have a cup of coffee and we would talk, and then I’d go down to the studio and work.

After that, I’d go out there and rent the studio from him every year until eventually he sold it. He wanted to sell it to me and I wanted to buy it, but it never happened and eventually I figured out that all the deeds are held by the “ditch people” (who run the irrigation ditches) and if I had bought it I would have been one of the first Anglos in there and I think that they just wouldn’t accept that.

Anyway, he was just a wonderful man and we became very good friends. His mother had been an herbalist and the studio room was filled with dried herbs. I would ask him if he knew anything about it and he would always say “no.” But as the years went by he gradually taught me some things, so I learned several good teas and things like that from him.

John has made works in a variety of media that use portraits of Malacio. The portraits frequently are embedded within the New Mexico landscape, or juxtaposed against the New Mexico sky, to convey the interconnectedness of the man and the place.

I relate the indigenous Spanish people to that landscape and the Indians even more strongly because there are still traces from way back. The ruins that you find are Indian. So that part of what’s out there did affect me – it’s a source.

The third landscape valued by John is more metaphorical. It is the landscape of the past history of human creativity. Just as John values the tropes and concepts that allude to the presence of an order in the world, so is he attracted to those traces of past systems of ordering and craftsmanship he finds in the world around him. In the southwest, John is attracted to pictographs, or the patterns on prehistoric pots, or the patterns left by the ruined foundations of an Anasazi dwelling, which are still sitting in the terrain of the present. In New England, John is attracted to the craftsmanship of a ship carpenter’s railing or a weathervane. In every situation he chooses subjects that are intimate in scale, that are specific, and particular. Nothing of the grand vista for him: the vision is always private, the perception is always elegant.   

When John fits together his multilayered collages he is actually fusing a landscape of the past and the present, the terrain and its history, its physical presence and its psychic feeling. Within that structure John will make two major statements. The first is an honoring of certain values, of friendship, or the character of individuals who he knows and likes, or the qualities of intellect and skill that go into the creation of systems of conceptualization and actual works of art, the values of civilization. The second statement is an acknowledgement of the threats to the values and qualities he admires. His “gun in the landscape” series, his references to nuclear disaster, the implications of violence and destruction, are co-opted into his art patterning. These works frequently have a quality of uncertainty about them. John responds to the issues posed within the work with a wry, grim humor.

Drawing is the thing that affects me the most. I’m continually in a state of drawing and no day goes by that I don’t draw something. Mark-making, calligraphy, the kinetic motion of the movement of the hand, are very important to me, probably more important than anything else.

When I go out to New Mexico and draw, I don’t draw what I see. I absorb what I see, and the movement of the landscape, the space, the light, and the colors all come out on the paper. Sometimes it resembles the things out there and sometimes it doesn’t. My abstract work grows out of this as well. The gestures of the landscape are in a lot of my abstract drawings. A lot of my work is horizontal and I think that’s because it grows out of the landscape, which is horizontal for me. A lot of my systems drawings grow out of actual situations.

After I started doing my systems drawings I discovered the Mimbres pottery of the southwest. The designs on that pottery are sometimes crudely drawn but the configurations are always complex and profound. These “primitive” people must have had such a clear sense of order…

Then there are my “self-stenciled drawings,” which are based on the idea of a primary measuring fold, which depends on how many ways that you can fold a sheet of paper…It’s the simplest thing in the world and yet the space becomes very dynamic. These things grow out of some self-determining system.

I suppose that if I had to boil my work down and then do only one or two kinds of art, then I would go for the kinetic drawings and straight photography. I used to have a very nice relationship with photography. It was a peaceful thing that I did. I loved it and I did it, and so forth. Gradually it became a little more intensive. I finally discovered that photography is very hard, in that it’s difficult for me to get the images that I want since it’s such an instantaneous medium. But it’s becoming easy — or at least fun — again.

In photography the place where I discovered that I could work with the issue of any kind of system ideas has been in the multi-framed groups [as in “Nathan Left to Right and Right to Left” or “Self-Portrait Holding a Rope”] where I lined up the frames of the individual prints in ways that broke from a straight forward recording of the subject. Some of my early photographs, the multi-framed pieces, were an attempt to get some kind of kinetic energy into my photography. These weren’t movie making, although I also tried making some short films, but I was just trying to explore the idea that the camera itself could move and that I could move the camera. For a long time this was the most important issue for me and it grew out of my interest in kinetic issues. When I first started doing the multi-framed photographs I wanted my action of taking the picture to become part of the thing. The kinetics of the visual message differ from the kinetics of the taking message…

I had done a number of multiframed images before I went out to New Mexico, but when I was out there I photographed with a 4″ x 5″ and I also had a 35mm camera, and I began to really feel that I wanted the movements that I was making while I was taking the photographs to show up in the photographs themselves. So I began to think about that.
I think about these things [conceptual ideas about the medium] a lot and my sketchbook is full of little ideas about how the frame works and all that sort of thing. But it’s only when these things come together with something that I care about — a person that I know or a situation that I’m interested in — that it becomes interesting to me and I make a photograph. Just the idea by itself is not enough for me.

I think that things have a secondary life. For example, a photograph that is really loved by a lot of people does begin to have a kind of energy that it didn’t have before. And I think, although it’s really difficult to get at, to explain with words, that when a photographer is really concerned about something over a period of time, then that energy begins to enter into his work. And that it is different than someone who takes a pretty picture — I don’t know how — but it’s there in the work. I really think that if some kind of energy is brought to bear in making an image, even in photography, which is the most mechanical of mediums, that it communicates itself somehow.

I think that each artist has to think out the relationship between his work and his use of materials and energy. Each artist is different, and what may be wasteful and overdone for one may be necessary for another.

John lives a lifestyle that, while neither excessively frugal nor unreasonably restricted, is careful and modest in the use of the panoply of consumer goods available in America. His sense of citizenship extends into social and political arenas. He keeps informed on issues, he votes, he knows why he’s voting as he is. He quietly supports the activities of a number of world relief organizations. On those occasions when he has determined that an issue needs more active support, he has expressed his opinions publicly, participating in protests against ecological abuses or the Vietnam War. When social or political issues come into his art however, he is most vigilant that they remain in a controlled fashion, staying in a careful balance with other, visual, concerns.

My life is pretty simple in some ways. I live out here in the country. I think that my life has a number of threads that do interpenetrate each other. I would like to keep those things in balance somehow or other — the environmental and political concerns, my personal life. I don’t sacrifice one at the expense of the other although the concentration of my work may get sacrificed while I’m trying to maintain a balance between all that.

‘Zanne and I were active politically; we support things. But I have to say that I’m becoming more and more non-political as time goes by. But that’s separate from my image concerns; my image concerns are a much harder nut to crack. For example, I would like to have gun control in the United States and I’ve done a whole series of images about “the gun in the landscape,” but they are actually pretty mild, they are often almost whimsical. I feel funny about the fact that they are never very outspoken when I remember some of the earlier photo-collagists such as John Heartfield who used his work like a weapon. I haven’t done that and I don’t know what it means except that my imagery is more on the lyrical side. Maybe we should hang everything up and go out and fight against nuclear proliferation, but so far I haven’t done that. I let the ideas creep into my imagery. I guess I want my photocollages to interact with how I feel about my friends, people I know, and the world. I’m always in argument with myself either to do more or to tend to business.

I did a lot of protest things during the Vietnam war — I started doing collages about 1963 or 1964. I wanted to make how I felt about the war known, and the photocollage seemed to be a wonderful way to do it. I started a series that I call “quiet protests.” I very consciously did not want to create propaganda. Some people exploited all of the emotions associated with the war to their own advantage and I didn’t want to do that, but I wanted to take a stand somehow or other. These “quiet protest” pieces were never vicious and they always have an aesthetic edge to them. There were several images that were probably stronger in their protest but they weren’t as interesting to me because they didn’t meet the boundaries of my aesthetic judgments – I wanted some sense of the whole thing wrapped together.

Since then concerns have become more difficult, and things are more subtle, but they are the same. I’ve made work on the nuclear bomb and on the environment. Environmental things are much harder to get at, but I’m still dealing with them.

I no longer think that I can do photographs that are going to change the Department of Defense, or that my photographs will stop a major corporation from polluting the land and that’s why I maintain my position about abstraction in art. I’m a formalist about my own work. I would maintain that you can say something about your world with abstraction. That’s how you really get at the guts of a thing through your work. If you present some sense of life to somebody else then that’s how you’re doing it. I feel that pretty strongly. My work becomes more and more abstract as I go along. I think that art has its greatest effect when it makes people sensitive to life. And that’s more important than how well or badly images can stir people to immediate political action. That belief gives me the courage to do the kinds of things I do.

In 1970 John published a prose poem in the catalogue for the exhibition 12 x 12 held at the Rhode Island School of Design. The poem outlined his perception of life as a citizen and as an artist.

Thoughts on large numbers
and small
I’m one person and have

two children and
one wife
Some small numbers have
a direct relation to me
35mm tri-X 20 exposures
28mm f2.8 400 ASA
One at a time sometimes
several at a time
one two three
I know how to photograph
my friends and even
begin to know about
small numbers
But I’m part of some large numbers
10 photographs can be
arranged in
3,628,800 different ways
There are 3,200,000,000 people
in the world
many are hungry and
some are not
The last unpolluted air in
the USA was in Flagstaff
six years ago
Rivers catch fire in Cleveland
It takes 50,000 gallons of water
to make one ton of paper
We discard or destroy 20,000,000
tons of paper every year
There are 83 million cars
in the U.S.A.
142 million tons of smoke & fumes
Our highway program destroys
one million acres of oxygen
producing trees and green stuff
Six percent of the world’s people
use sixty percent of the
world’s resources
Large numbers are hard to feel
but the idea is there
no matter how you number it
I’m pleased that Weston followed
his vision in spite of the
depression and that Einstein
knew more about atoms than about politics
But maybe the time has come
for creative photography
to encompass the large
problems without propaganda
or journalism
No answers but I want
the large numbers to
enter my photography

[John Wood, 12×12, Carr House Gallery, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R. I., 1970, n. p.]

And again in 1977, in a statement written for an exhibition held at the Vision Gallery in Boston, John stated his belief in what made the creative act valuable for him.

I would like my pictures to be abstract
and poetic visual images
of friends and the world
no story telling
sometimes slight propaganda and quiet protest
on the edge of clear meaning.

In 1983 John, who had enjoyed his experience while team teaching with Eric Renner, was interested when Susie Cohen and I approached him to participate in another collaborative effort. Our project involved four artists—Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood meeting with us and together with each other several times over a two year span, showing work and exchanging ideas among themselves and with us, then finally all spending a week together in isolation to work out a final collaborative project. An aim of the Project was to try to document the process of creative activity rather than simply display the art product resulting from the creativity. The Project was loosely formed, with the photographers choosing and controlling what, if anything, they wanted to produce.

Ultimately, each of the artists agreed to produce an original sixteen-page signature for an artist’s book. Each did so, and the final product of the project was to be an exhibition and book of those signatures with our supporting texts plus an accompanying exhibition of the signatures as well as a body of related photographs by each artist. “The Project”, as we called it, was supported by Eelco Wolf, then a Vice-President for the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wolf was providing support for several innovative artists’ projects leading to exhibitions and books at the time. This support paid for Susie’s and my time, everyone’s travel and incidental expenses, production and exhibition costs, etc. The artists contributed their interest, ideas and time. The project was completed; the exhibition chosen and framed, the book designed and waiting to go to press, when the Polaroid Corporation acquired a new President; who established new and different policies for the company’s corporate support for the arts, and the funding support for this and other projects, over Eelco Wolf’s protests, was withdrawn. 

John’s sixteen-page signature for this project consisted of a nine image sequence of 16” x 20” black and white prints, which, for the book signature, opened with a vertical image page right and ended with a vertical image, page left, with seven double-page spreads of horizontal images sandwiched between. This sequence was later published in 1987; in the exhibition catalog 4 x 4 Four Photographers by Four Writers. Susie Cohen wrote the essay accompanying John’s work in that catalog. Her essay was in two parts. Part I was essentially the statement about John’s work that she had written for the Polaroid Project book. Part II was a discussion of the new photographic sequence itself.

“I. John Wood is an accomplished artist in a dozen media: printmaking, photography, bookmaking, painting, collage, graphic design, sculpture, installation, and a few he has invented combining those listed. “Accomplished artist” implies recognition by a knowledgeable community of a committed artist’s sustained and successful effort. This has some value for John. He is unassuming but not unworldly. The finished work, and the recognition of it are to John as clothing is to the naked body: it protects, it becomes, it provides access to the wearer. It is not, however, the essential spirit of the man. There is one medium that John uses that comes as close as an artifact can to expressing its maker, and that is drawing.

John draws every day without fail. He has described himself during this activity as “being in a state of drawing.” I gather several things from this spare phrase. John uses speech economically. He is succinct because other languages are more nearly equivalent to his feelings, and, in part, because he is shy. His spoken language is not colorful, but neither is it hyped or exaggerated. He conserves with language as he conserves with water and other resources. He says what he means.

“A state of drawing” is something like meditation, a being with the self that for John is neither analytical nor mystical, but during which he gathers and clarifies those forces which allow him to express himself wholly. In a state of drawing his perceptions concentrate as rhythms and then move through his practiced hand to paper.

The majority of sketches and drawings that John makes are abstract. The “systems drawings” use a series of spaced points to determine a symmetrical design, with roughly equal positive and negative spaces, like Mimbres pottery. Other drawings, done outdoors, refer to real objects in the landscape. All the drawings have in common marks that are both loose and certain, qualities that are only superficially at odds. And all of them, at whatever point on the representational-abstract spectrum, resonate with John’s understanding of nature as both mutable and abiding, restless and enduring. The antecedents of John’s drawings are the organic abstractions of Marin, Dove, and O’Keeffe. Some of his lines rustle as in a breeze; others erode; still others merge like rivulets into streams and rivers.

These word images are from my imagination. Perhaps they are too literal for John. But it is as tempting to describe his drawings this way as it is to conjure figures in clouds, or, more to the point, as it is to believe like Steiglitz in equivalences between a man’s being and the multitude forms of nature. I suspect that what I must name to understand, John intuits. The harm in a name is that it freezes the rhythm of a thing, which may be why John seems always in quiet stride and when he is still, he cups his body around a thing as you would cup your hands over a firefly.

John likes to be and work where nature is active, which can be almost anywhere to the tuned eye. He built his studio in a meadow and watches its cycles from a wall-sized window. He wanders a beach not far from home where a skin of white sand covers black sand, and even a casual toe print creates chiaroscuro. He makes drawings in the sand; some wash away, others he photographs. As much as the gentle east coast hills he likes the raw New Mexico landscape. In that crisp light, John draws cactus from their eye-level with bristly colored spikes that show his admiration for the strategy of their form.

It is this last, John’s belief in the relatedness of form and survival in nature and in the possibility of it in the acts of man, that shapes his perception and sets his work apart from a passive, romantic — he might use the word “rosy” — appreciation of nature. The difference, expressed in all his work by rhythmical kinship among elements, in his drawings by the record of his moving hand, is the difference between a view of nature as finite, to be imitated for its solutions and a view of nature as a process, from whose trial-and-error man might discern a method for his own survival. This is why John’s work is not primarily an art of social action: it is not the what of his work — though the people, places or things depicted can be guaranteed to have personal value to John — but the particular way they fuse that is for him a work’s meaning and power.

John surrounds himself — builds or finds or acquires — with examples of the fusion of workable substance and applicable force. These range from palm-sized stones, to a 15-foot branch used as a railing in the stairway of his house, to the ladder he built of stacked pyramids for his studio. John makes feathery paper and stick sculptures that move in the slightest breeze; installs multipaneled and folded pieces in corners so that they change with the viewer’s approach; uses the finite number of corner-to-corner folds of a piece of paper in combination with drawing to make geometry a mobile experience.

He greatly admires Buckminster Fuller. He loves to watch dance.
The components of rhythm are movement and order. In John’s case, his love of movement is a matter of personality. Order he has studied for 40 years as it applies to each of those media in which he works. He has experimented with the size, shape, and heft of pages as they turn in a book; with tone, perspective, and frame as photographic principles; with transparency, stroke and texture as ingredients of watercolor. So I modify what I said at first. To call John “an artist accomplished in a dozen media” is not wrong, but it unduly fragments his guiding passion. In a sense, John has only one subject, one technique, one piece of equipment, one medium. The subject is fluidity; the technique, integration; the equipment, hands; the medium, sight.

II. Landscape in art supposes a crucial distinction between Man and Nature – that Man is conscious, that Nature is not. Man and Nature have parallel, but separate existences. …nature’s awesome power is mitigated by our ability to think and feel. The separateness permits the artist to locate upon the unknowing planet metaphoric identifications with ourselves. Artists in all media, photography included, invent metaphors for consciousness, and use the metaphors to describe, explain or moralize our acts… Much of John Wood’s photographic works are landscapes. Like all landscapes, John’s incorporate his own and societies’ values. In past work, such as the extended “gun in the landscape” series, John juxtaposed mass-produced weaponry against rocks and beasts, ancient pictographs, the remains of native American dwellings and finely crafted objects such as water vessels and weathervanes. John used the dichotomy between culture and nature to express his concerns as a husbander of nature and America’s ambivalence toward the preservation of nature.…

In the past, John’s landscapes appealed gently for ecological sanity. His recent landscapes are darker, and more urgent. …Kinship of shape, tone and subject also coheres John’s larger grouping of images. The threat of nuclear disaster to the survival of life on earth suffuses a reading of nine photographs John sequenced in 1985. Each of the images is shrouded in dark tones; several reverse positive and negative tones; and several are seen from such abrupt or unusual angles that a first and lasting impression is one of disturbance to the natural order of things. The sequence is an anguished vision, but not a hopeless one.

The first picture, of the lower half of an eagle with an identifying label strung on its talons and dangling on its belly, is a vertical image. The last picture, of a tiny baby scrunched in a car seat, is also vertical. The visual equation of symbols – the first, national: representing great and unfettered freedom (alas, the bird is dead) and the second, personal and universal: representing regeneration (the baby is John’s grandchild) – acts simultaneously to heighten a sense of loss and to engage a sense of protection. In these key positions, nature’s fate is matched to our own.

The seven internal images are all horizontals, and with the exception of the mid-point of the sequence, all are landscapes. The first of these is positive/negative reversed, so that open sky above a field of grasses looms darkly above oddly shadowed, broken stalks. The second landscape, again in reversed tonalities, is a rephotographed collage. A postcard of a Golden Eagle, in proud profile, has been placed on a tangle of star shaped leaves. While the third landscape is in correct tonality, it echoes its precursors in subject and shape. Two trees, tightly grown together, are photographed so that they appear to be falling. This angle emphasizes their roots, which seem like talons clutching loosened earth unable to hold them.

The sense of disorder in the second set of landscapes is even more disturbing than in the first. Now , it is not an overcast field, a nearly extinct bird, one rotted woods, but widespread and profound destruction. The first of these images is another view of the star-shaped leaves. The bird is gone; above the leaves, between them, dusting their surfaces, the air is choked with charcoal smog. Then, the woods again. From dead center of the image, to the edges and past the edges, are concentric rings of energy so violent they literally shake the earth: trees fall helter-skelter bouncing like matchsticks. In the last landscape, a river rushes forward, carrying torn branches over a waterfall that seems to spill into the viewer’s space.

In all of these landscape images, the formal devices are used to conjoin our destiny to nature’s. John has attempted to go beyond identification with nature, even beyond empathy with it. He has tried to subdue his consciousness by moving his eyes and hands in ways that resemble the gestures of things moved by natural and man-made energies. But we are conscious and nature is not. The Pathetic Fallacy does not work in reverse. John, the picturemaker, knows this very well.

The fifth image of the sequence is its core and key. In it, an American flag unfurls across a house. A cast eagle, wings spread, rides atop the flagpole. The stars of the flag look like the leaves; the house leans precariously, like the trees. American flag, family home, bronze eagle – all are inventions of the imagination. They are symbols of the human needs to bond, to believe in things, to shape a world. In this sequence, the symbols and what they stand for, are endangered.

It  takes an act of courage to present sophisticated formal expression as a means of “quiet protest” (John’s words) in this postmodern age, an age in which pictures are litter and image inundation has numbed us equally to violence and to the magic of simple things. John combines simple things – the matching of shapes, the continuity of gestures – to cohere a complex world. For John, the interconnectedness of subject and form, of the natural and made, stands for the possibility of a peaceful coexistence between ourselves and nature.”

[Cohen, Susan E. “The Art of John Wood.” pp. 30-37 in: 4 x 4 Four Photographers by Four Writers: Eileen Cowin by Mark Johnstone, Nathan Lyons by Leroy Searle, Mary Ellen Mark by Shelly Rice and John Wood by Susan E. Cohen. Boulder, Colo.: University of Colorado, Boulder, Dept. of Fine Arts, c1987. 39 p. 9 b & w. 1 color (on front cover) by Wood.]

In the 1980s John experienced two major lifestyle changes. He separated from his first wife to live with the artist Laurie Snyder and in 1989 he retired from full-time teaching at Alfred University, although he continued to teach workshops throughout the decade. Laurie Snyder had attended Swarthmore College in the mid sixties, then married and had two children. In the 1980s she went back to school, describing herself as “An over-thirty undergraduate at Cornell, formerly a potter, …looking for a better way of expressing myself…” I found it in photography. I attended a lecture by John Wood at Cornell in 1982, and was impressed with the work and the man.” More than a year later she took a week-long summer workshop with John where they met and fell in love. Laurie submitted a “Monograph on the Work of John Wood – Artist and Teacher” in 1987 in partial fulfillment of her MFA degree requirements at Syracuse University. This is an extensively researched document with a detailed look at Wood’s biography and body of work. Laurie lived and taught in Ithaca, New York and John moved there in 1987, joining Laurie and her teenaged sons Noah and Benjamin, living in a converted farmhouse in a picturesquely rural setting surrounded by the extensive fields and woods of the Cornell Agricultural Experimental Station crop testing sites. When Laurie was hired to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1993 they began to divide their time between Baltimore during the academic year and Ithaca during their summers, with frequent trips to give lectures and teach seminars and offer workshops at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, at the International Center for Photography in New York City, the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY and elsewhere through the 1990s. They married in 1996.

Each is an artist with their own interests and ideas, and each has developed a uniquely personal style to best express those interests – but they both also share many similar concerns and interests in the same mediums and materials. Both work freely across photography, drawing, printmaking and collage as favored forms; and both are strongly committed to the artist’s book as a means of expressing their ideas.

In a 1992 interview both artists responded to the question of mutual influences:

Susie Cohen: I would like to ask each of you what it is like to move into a situation where you have a partnership with a person who is equally creative. I know that you are both strong advocates of each other’s work, and I’d be interested to know how the partnership affects your work and also what kinds of seepages there are from ideas between you and among you and the way your work looks? What does it feel like to be living with a person who you consider a peer and a creative partner as well as a life partner? Is that fair?
John Wood: Sure, it’s a good question.   Laurie…? (laughter)
Laurie Snyder: I was curious as to what you would say first.
JW: Well, first of all I think it’s very desirable –so far anyway. We’re very compatible. I’m talking about not just in our general living, but in terms of working. I’m very happy to share with Laurie some of the skills that I’ve developed through the years –particularly in binding and stuff like that. And we share images back and forth. I think her sense of work is quite lively and I think that influences me. Well, simple things, like we do share images. Some of my images are in Laurie’s work and some of Laurie’s images are in my work and that hasn’t created any problems for me. I don’t know if it has for her.
LS: I’d say that of those pictures that we share, we also have some that we clearly think of as separate pictures. If there were, say, a thousand negatives then there are probably about twenty percent on either end that are yours or mine. Then there are some in the middle that are general domain. I sometimes think of them as if we were sharing a box of crayons.
JW: Well, for example, we both do use the cyanotype as a gestural medium. You can put the cyanotype chemicals down on the paper as a gesture. [In brushstrokes rather than as an even coating.] We both do that. So there is going to be a certain similarity to the work.  And, yes, there are specific negatives that usually appear in a piece that really works for one of us and we each generally claim those negatives as our own.
LS: It seems to have one’s signature on it, in a way.
JW: Yes.
LS: But then there are others. We have a sort of generic pine tree that it seems like we both use. It’s just this pine tree smack dab in the middle of this big negative… And we have several of the mountain pictures where we don’t even know who took the slide. We used the same camera at the same site and we each took ten or twelve slides. I made enlarged negatives from those slides and either one of use can use those negatives in any way we damn well choose. But there are certainly other negatives that one or the other of us has taken that’s to be in the box [negative drawer] that says “Laurie” or says “John.” And then there are some negatives that just float around… And we ask each other’s permission, too.
JW: For instance, Laurie’s working on some family things. I wouldn’t dream of taking one of those images. If there are any negatives that are just generic images, then I’d feel free to use them. But I wouldn’t dream of using images of any of the immediate things that she is dealing with.
LS: We started using each other’s negatives during our residency at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado. It’s so easy to take pictures there that you could have gone to the drug store and bought on a post card. It’s the goddam mountains just sitting there and the picture looks the same whether you take the picture or I take the picture. The first pictures you make look just like other people’s pictures. You think, ‘God, this is hopeless. It’s sort of comical when you realize it. On that trip we took one 35mm camera, one 2 ¼ camera and one 4 x 5 camera between us and we used them interchangeably. And the negatives sort of became part of our private public domain.
JW: And I’ve been in this type of situation for a long time, because I made negatives of pictures taken by other people in the newspapers and magazines during the Vietnam War to use to create some of my early collages; where I added color or the textures of the collaged materials to create my own statement. I made them until eventually I became embarrassed, because the collages were always reproduced in black and white, which took away all the hand things I did to create the new image and those things were not there anymore and the borrowed images in the piece would pop out at me and I just felt that it was wrong. So I stopped then….

[Cohen, Susie and William Johnson. Audiotape interview with Laurie Sievert Snyder and John Wood in John’s studio at Ithaca, NY on July 25, 1992.]

During the summer of 1992 the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. held an exhibition of John’s work which specifically featuring his concerns on ecological issues and nuclear dangers. Quiet Protest: Recent Work by John Wood displayed thirty‑three works by the artist which ranged across several media. The exhibition contained an installation piece in a small alcove, which consisted of nine willow twig tripods or teepee structures, each with a square of hand‑made paper containing a single printed word, hanging by a long thread from the tripod’s apex. A limited-edition artist’s book titled With What Will We Build Our Nuclear Waste Box? was also placed in the small room. In the main gallery were thirty-two large prints and a second limited‑edition artist’s book, titled Oil and Water, made with acrylic, paste paper, graphite, watercolor and computer text. Both books were open and available for reading by anyone attending the exhibition. There were several diptych prints and one piece, titled “Bird Names,” consisting of seven silver prints and a printed statement, among these thirty‑two prints. The prints ranged from straight silver print photographs to cyanotypes, and monoprints. Most of these works were collages, made with silver prints, applied watercolor or applied acrylic, graphite, etc. Several of the prints were identified as being from specific series, including the Fall Creek Rock Drawings, the Colorado Series, and the Exxon Valdez Series.

Two printed statements were displayed with the works in the exhibition.

“On March 24th, 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling 10 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. On March 24th I made a list of all the waterbirds with the name of a color in their name.
Lawrence Rawls is chairman of Exxon
George Nelson is director of Alyeska, pipeline company (7 firms)
Joseph Hazelwood is the captain of the tanker
Third mate Gregory Comsuis pilots the tanker
And John Wood, the artist, drives his car.

In my pictures
I try to see around
the corners of
feel objects
and touch the
enormity of what we do

I wonder if small acts
can bear on our problems
that is my hope
John Wood 1992”

In July 1992 Susie and I visited and interviewed John and Laurie at his studio in Ithaca, NY, and I published parts of that interview in the September 1992 issue of The Consort, which featured the exhibition.

“Susan Cohen:Why did oil become the symbolic element of waste in your photographs exhibited in “Quiet Protest”?
John Wood: Well, because of the Exxon Valdez event and the fact that we all personally use oil, and that it’s a full circle; which we have to think about in one way or another. And I try to find ways that add that sort of idea in my imagery.
SC: There are so many things that we waste that I was interested in why you chose that one. The picture “Laurie’s Cobble,” with 1/4 teaspoon of oil. It’s astonishing how far that oil goes…
JW: Well, when the Exxon Valdez spill happened it was ten million gallons <197> or whatever it was. That was a specific number, and it was a dramatic act. And it was the responsibility of the corporations, but it was also our own responsibility.
Laurie Snyder:Every time you get the oil changed in your car you’re asking them to throw away four to six quarts of oil. Where does that oil go, when you go to the gas station?
JW: Anyway that’s why I dealt with that topic and I think all of the things I’ve dealt with in a similar fashion are just such a complex thing. But it all comes around and envelopes us and I wanted those things to be in my imagery. In the early series on guns in the landscape, for instance, there’s nothing about that series that literally says I’m against guns. Yet I am, and I feel that those images say that, they say it very specifically, I mean, they don’t say it specifically but they say it abstractly, or metaphorically. And the toxic waste pieces, the works about nuclear waste, it’s the same thing. I list a number of words like “granite,” “glass,” “paper,” “air,” “water,” and I say how are we going to contain our nuclear waste? And there’s nothing that really protests, there’s nothing lethal about what I’m saying, nothing that’s going to solve the problem. It’s just the way I can get at stuff, I guess.
William Johnson: Your imagery refers to nuclear waste issues and to oil spills and issues of pollution and conservation, but you don’t make strident, overtly political propaganda. You have quietly produced images dealing with these concerns, about issues of conservation and pollution and atomic energy and atomic waste for many years now, so was there a specific reason to focus that on those things in this show? Or is this just a continuation of a long‑term effort?
JW: Well, the show itself is a continuation of my work, there is nothing about the show that is very different from anything else I could pull out of my files…
WJ: It’s what you’ve been doing since at least the 1960s.
JW: Yes. The reason it gets kind of concentrated in the show is that I am still doing it, I guess.
LS: Also, you and Jim Wyman (Curator of the Visual Studies Workshop Gallery, and of this exhibition.) discussed whether you could design a show that would be around a central concept to help solidify it.
JW: I think Jim wanted it to be even more specific, but I didn’t. “Quiet Protest” was my name for it simply because he wanted a name, I look at it as an exhibit of my work.
WJ: Can we describe the show a little bit? What do you call these wonderful tripod pieces? Would that be a sitework?
LS: Wonderful tripod pieces, there you go, it’s his tripod installation. It was his attempt to be a trendy artist. (Laughter.)
JW: Yeah. Years ago I did a series of sculptural things where I figured out how I could support a piece of paper in space. I ended up with about fifteen pieces, one of which is this tripod of three willow sticks with the thin paper supported just off the floor with nine threads which are hanging from the tripod. So, when I was trying to think of a project that I wanted to do this was one of the things I came up with. I repeated this thing that I had discovered a long time ago. This tripod suspending a piece of thin Japanese tissue was interesting to me. It sways on the nine threads, and it just stays there. So when I had the idea of doing a simple installation of these things I figured out how I wanted to do it and I went out and cut the willow sticks and trimmed them and peeled them and I did the string and I made the paper and I printed one word on each sheet of paper and I suspended them from these tripods.
WJ: And the words are “Granite.”
JW: “Salt,” “Paper…”
LS: “Steel.”
JW: “Steel,” “Glass,” “Lead,” “Clay,” “Wood” and “Water.”
WJ: These nine tripods are presented in a small alcove in the exhibition. One of the things that I remembered when I looked at that was that there were some air currents or something. The pieces were swaying with a very subtle elegant movement, sort of floating under these very tenuous‑looking stick tripods.
JW: A gust of wind would have demolished the whole setup.
LS: A kid on a tricycle.
WJ: Then there’s an artist’s book there in the space, which you can pick up and read, and it has the same words printed one per page, on graph paper. And this particular work was titled “With What Will We Build Our Nuclear Waste Box?”
LS: It’s quintessentially ephemeral, lightweight, and fragile and yet it’s dealing with things that are supposed to make you feel secure like granite, steel, and heavy solid things which aren’t going to move.
WJ: What else is in the exhibition?
JW: There are two books and there are a lot of my images, collages…
WJ: How big?
JW: They’re mostly in the 22″x30″ range.
WJ: And these are collages with photographs?
JW: Collages with silver print photographs, also cyanotypes and other materials, and hand applied colors, graphite, etc.
WJ: There are words in some of well?
JW: There are texts in some of them. A typical piece is the collage consisting of several photographs of corn cribs so that they have a slight shift of perspective. And there’s a big smear of liquid graphite. The title of that is “How to Hide Nuclear Waste.” And this is an ironic statement, this is where it becomes very difficult for me, because I mean this as a protest. There’s too much secrecy about the nuclear waste. There’s not enough said about it, but what is said is not true or it’s distorted or all the rest of it. So this statement, “How to Hide Nuclear Waste” is about that.
LS: You had another piece that played on the same issue, a collage which included two photographs of paper bags held closed with a clothespin at the top. It was concerned with how to store dangerous materials. In your talks with students and other people you’ve said that you felt that, in a sense, every human being should have some nuclear waste that they had to store and keep safe. It would spread this idea around that we have huge storage places that would clearly wipe out whole pockets of populations that live around those places, but if every person had a small amount that they had to…
SC: They’d be more serious about keeping it. It becomes closer to each of us.
JW: Every one of my images, whether conscious or not, has a number of different levels, for example in the picture of the corn cribs which is about how to hide nuclear waste. Well, we’re also hiding it in our food chain. And the paper bag thing was reflecting on the fact that we’re dealing with things that have such an extremely long life and we’re not really thinking about it carefully. I mean, a stainless steel canister, in terms of the life of nuclear waste, is almost as fragile as the paper bag. And its that kind of multiplicity that I’m seeking in the pieces.
SC: But there is actually nothing that we know of that can contain those wastes.
LS: We have no way of testing anything for the period of time that is required…
JW: And we’re being misled about it.
WJ: But it also seems to me that instead of pointing the finger at the government or something like that, you’re saying it’s the responsibility of each individual human being to be concerned.
JW: Well, that’s the circular thing that I feel, it all comes back to each one of us.
WJ: I don’t think about nuclear waste each day, I put it out of my mind everyday, although, as you say, it is probably one of the more important issues of our time.
LS: But if you had a coffee can that was your responsibility to keep safe from Josh and Susan and you knew that your neighbor had one too, you’d make sure that you both knew where it was at all times.
SC: I’d worry about my neighbor a lot more than I do now, that’s for sure.
LS: Yeah.
SC: But it might create a closer chain among humans…
LS: But, in a sense, what we’re talking about is that nuclear waste is our neighbor and yet we put it out of our minds. And I think that’s what John is trying to grapple with, without chaining himself to a fence at the proposed depot site.
JW: Well, I feel that this is my subject matter in a way that I can’t ignore. I still love to take nice photographs, I like landscapes and I like nice silver prints and stuff like that, but I feel a little uncomfortable with that right now. I feel that if I’m going to display stuff, that it has to go beyond that…
LS: Some of the reasons you work with the nuclear waste issue in particular is that some of your family and colleagues in Alfred are sitting on the proposed site. In fact, your former property is not more than ten miles from the proposed site of New York State’s largest storage facility.
JW: Yes, that comes very close personally. My grandchildren live less than five miles from this proposed site. But also a lot of my friends were willing to be arrested.
LS: They put their lives on the line.
JW: Yes, Bill Perry, was actually arrested.
LS: Yes, he spent the night in the jail.
JW: Blocking these inspectors who were going to survey the site and do stuff to it. Not only in Allegheny County but Cortland County, which is right next door. These people are really battling. And it wasn’t a battle of “not in my backyard,” because I don’t know what the answer to that is. They were battling more that the government has to think more about this. I mean, it has to be solved in a better way than secretly burying it somewhere. I don’t know which official said this statement, but he said, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.” They don’t know what they’re doing. And there’s no reason at all in the world to trust them, in relationship to things that have happened in the past about nuclear waste and what happens with it.
WJ: But, again, while this has become a fairly pointed and specific issue to you recently, issues of the bomb and gun control have been a long‑standing concern in your work for many years now.
JW: Ever since I’ve been a conscious artist — you know, somebody that’s dealing with ideas — these have been my concerns. And I think that’s one of the reasons why photography was interesting to me. Particularly collaging, that permitted me to feed this kind of stuff into my images. It doesn’t occur in my drawings, for instance. I don’t make drawings of protests or I don’t make drawing of George Bush and make it pointedly propagandistic…
WJ: But you also don’t make photographs of that either. You make photographs of natural things around you in your life. The picture called “Laurie’s cobble” is a photograph of a very smooth oval rock with a drop of oil spread on it.
JW: It was a pink cobblestone that Laurie brought me from Nova Scotia and originally I made a photograph of it and that was the title of the photograph. There’s a little text that said Laurie went down to the beach at six o’clock in the morning and brought me back this cobblestone from Nova Scotia so I had this cobble and I had this photograph that I’d made of it that had nothing to do with nuclear waste or oil spills or anything else. And I felt the need to bring this into the context of the oil spill and I put some oil on it and rephotographed it.
LS: Well, if we had a big oil spill in our yard, you know it would effect us very closely. We don’t live in Alaska and we don’t live on the coast, but if you take something that’s important to you personally and it gets polluted, that infects you. John took an object of love and intimacy and by putting a teaspoon of oil on that particular rock, that act made it more hard‑hitting. It practically made me cry. But then, in the end, the actual rock that the oil spill is on is just gorgeous.
SC: Unfortunately, yes.
JW: That’s one of the things that I run up against because I don’t want to make images that are ugly. I mean, I’m dealing with an ugly subject, I suppose, but I want my images to be beautiful. But this has a long history, I mean Picasso’s “Guernica” is a beautiful painting and Goya’s etchings are exquisite to me, so I guess that’s what the artist does if he’s going to deal with this. Heartfield’s images weren’t so beautiful, I mean he was much more specific…
SC: Oh, but they do have a whole unity about them, it’s that same wonderful thing about the way something hangs together, it means what it means by how it looks.
JW: I guess if an artist is really going to be cutting, he goes and does street theater or protest in some way other than his work.
LS: But that certainly is not your way.
JW: That is not my way.
SC: Laurie, do you deal with the big issues in your work? John directly addresses the big issues although he does it with a bird or a pebble <197> it’s contextualized. What are the issues of your work? It’s interesting to me because earlier we talked about how you both often use the same negative of a pine tree in a picture. I mean, I guess I’m getting to the old basic thing, the picture is not about what’s in the picture, the picture is about what else is going on in the picture.
LS: I do a lot of imagery that derives somewhat more out of personal experience, in that sense, it is more diaristic. I don’t particularly think of it as particularly about me, but a lot of the imagery comes out of really ordinary kind of everyday kind of stuff <197> a tomato that I’m peeling, or making bread, or things like that, but I don’t think of it particularly about peeling tomatoes.
SC: But what’s the transforming process that makes the personal act into something that could touch everybody.
LS: But often, as you’re peeling a tomato and you think, “God, the skin as it hangs off the fork looks like Michelangelo’s flayed skin on the Sistine Chapel that I studied in art history about 25 years ago…” And so I’m sitting here peeling tomatoes on a hot summer afternoon and I think, “Oh shit, I better photograph this thing.” I mean that’s very common for me. A lot of times I can’t make the photograph then, there are seventeen people coming for supper or something, so I write it down at night and some other time I take the photograph.
SC: But somehow the recognition of the small event as representing something larger, or something within the continuous history of art making, that doesn’t disappear, it shows up.
LS: Yes, I think so.
JW: And the photograph can do that, that’s what it can really do, I mean it’s the melding together that comes out of your own experience.
LS: And I’ve always liked that in other people’s work, that sort of attention to the little details that seem as important as the big issues.
JW: I think that could be said about my work and Laurie’s work. I mean her issues are just as important and broad as my issues.
LS: I don’t take on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
JW: But I don’t either.
SC: But the value of life, I didn’t mean to say that your work is less because it dealt with private issues, I guess I was trying to work around what that whole concept is.
LS: I have a photograph where I use strudel dough, the image is of some very thin dough through which you can see the contours of the hand, an old hand. The picture really is about skin and fragility and feelings and feelings of being punctured. I guess I use my mother fairly often in my pictures. It’s handy, she’s around all the time…
SC: She’s got these good old hands?
LS: She’s got old hands, they’re extremely capable woman’s hands that are now very old, a little less capable, but certainly heavily used tools.
JW: But you see, to me, that would be an issue that’s just as broad as a ten million gallon oil spill and I guess I would hope that some of my images would have some of that also….
[Conversation continues]…”

[Cohen, Susie E. and William Johnson. “Quiet Protest: Conversation with the Artist.” The Consort: A Calendar of Photography, Film and Video Events in and around Rochester with Reviews, Interviews and Critical Essays (Sept. 1992): 1-14. 9 b & w. (Office of University Educational Services, George Eastman House).]

John has worked across a wide range of visual media during his career, making work ranging from large painted canvases to small wooden constructions. But one strong constant in John’s art-making practice since the 1950s has been his interest in the artist’s book. He has taught artist’s book making classes and workshops to hundreds of students and he has made more than fifty artist’s books. Most of these were in extremely limited editions – either unique copies, or in editions of from three to a hundred copies. In 1996 he had the opportunity to create an artist’s book at the Visual Studies Workshop Press in an edition of 3000 copies. This book OZONE ALERT, againextends John’s ecological concerns.

The texts are short:

“the other day I read on a highway sign WARNING OZONE ALERT.” 

Miners Take a yellow canary into the
Mine to warn them of danger. The
bird’s collapse alerts the miners to bad air.

I wonder if our songbirds will warn
us of bad air and will we be able to
understand their song?

In July 1995 I took photographs of
The cooling towers at three mile island
And made a list of 89 birds with color in their name.”

This is followed by twenty-seven pages of landscape photographs, varying from distant views of the nuclear cooling towers to close-up scenes of flowers, rocks or rubble found in both urban and rural sites. Each of these scenes has a single line of text, consisting of the 89 bird’s names, printed across the middle of each page:

“blue-footed booby yellow crowned heron white ibis great blue heron yellow warbler,” etc.

The mixture of the beautiful and the mundane, the poetry of the birds’ names against the grimness of the industrial views, sets up a dynamic of attraction and repulsion, and leads to a sense of unease and disquiet that plays out through the patterns and modulations of the pages of the book. A form of communication, which John has pointed out, that you hold in your hands and view at a personal distance and read at a personal rate of speed – in other words, a private, privileged and intimate form of communication. And John sets up a dynamic in his book that is not intellectual, not a reasoned argument for or against nuclear energy – rather his tropes and figures call up an intuitive sense of possible danger and potential loss, a foreboding rather than a prediction, a call for caring concern rather than an argument for specific action.

[Wood, John. OZONE ALERT Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1996. 32 pp. ]

When I interviewed John in 2006, he first warned me with that always almost painful honesty that he had always shown me that he was “slower now” – by which he meant that he couldn’t remember some of the past events in great detail any more and that he also had some trouble finding the correct words he was seeking when he attempted to talk about issues. But the amazing diversity and beauty of his art practice over the past twenty years hasn’t seemed to have been in any way slowed down. So our interviews became sessions where I simply enjoyed the wonderful art that he showed me, piece after piece; while I tried to frame very direct, very basic questions. Looking at some lovely computer prints which had lists of single words incorporated into the images, I asked if he had ever enjoyed Concrete Poetry, to which he responded he had been very interested in it back in the 1960s. Something in the color and line of one work impelled me to ask if he had ever been influenced by Paul Klee. He answered, without an ounce of sarcasm or irony, “Wasn’t everyone?” Then finally I asked the most basic and hardest question of all. “Why do you make art?” John looked surprised, even bewildered by the question; then answered “How could I not?”

Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures: Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood, by Susan E. Cohen and William S. Johnson. Belmont, MA: Joshua Press, 1986. 242 pp., 36 35mm slides bound‑in. Limited edition, 16 copies, printed on an IBM‑AT computer, with WordStar 2000 software.

“Quiet Protest: Recent Work by John Wood. Conversation with the Artist,” by Susan E. Cohen and William Johnson. The Consort (Sept. 1992): 1‑14.

John Wood. On the Edge of Clear Meaning.
Text by David Levi Strauss, William S. Johnson and Ezra Shales. Book design by Joan Lyons. Gottingen: Steidl, 2008. 178 pp. 168 illus. [Accompanied an exhibition first co-hosted at the George Eastman House, the Visual Studies Workshop and the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY, then traveled to the International Center of Photography and the Grey Art Gallery, New York, NY, then elsewhere.]

Three Photographs by Robert Frank

Its October, 2017. My trip to Mabou to visit Robert Frank happened more than thirty years ago and I’ve forgotten parts of it already, but more importantly, even those parts I do remember are starting to fuzz a little, so I want to try to write this down before I lose it altogether….


The photograph is titled “Washington DC on a Monday Afternoon ca. 1952.” It presents an enlarged three panel strip of 35mm negatives depicting a car passing in front of an American flag painted on a brick wall, framed on each side by a half-image of the photo taken before (front end of car approaching) and then afterwards (car gone, small group of people walking by and looking at the wall – probably because the photographer was photographing something strange), with 35mm negative socket holes included on bottom of print. The title is hand-written by Mr. Frank in black ink under the bottom margin and “For Bill on a wonderful October Sunday in Mabou in 1984, Robert Frank.” is inscribed in green ink in the print. The print has irregular burned edges, which Mr. Frank informed me were created on one lazy, but bright, afternoon in Mabou by focusing the rays of the sun through a beer bottle to burn a line of holes around the edges of the print.

I was to fly from Boston up to Halifax, then drive a rental car across and up the long narrow spine of the Nova Scotia peninsula to Mabou, where Robert had his summer home, to spend the weekend talking together and observing him in that space, and then return home. As I was doing this as part of the long-term experimental collaborative exhibition project with the four photographers Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken, and John Wood, which Eelco Wolf, at Polaroid, was backing; the technical details of the trip, the plane-tickets, car rentals, etc. had been organized by his very efficient secretaries in his office, as was the customary practice.

Susie and I had already been working on and off with Robert Frank as part of this collaborate project. We had visited him in his New York loft to explain the project to him and to ask him to participate. Robert had come to Rochester, NY to meet the other artists and participants, and to decide whether to participate in the project, and there had been some further meetings in our apartment in Belmont, Mass. And I had spent several times observing him at various other points – most notably when I had functioned as his temporary assistant and observer during a commercial “photo shoot” in Boston, after Frank had been asked to make photographs for an album cover for the J. Giles Band. (I have attempted to describe this event in one of the Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletters that Susie and I published for the project’s participants as the project developed.)

I had always loved Frank’s photographs and had been impressed by his reputation; but “reputations” can be problematic and I had attempted to maintain some distance as an “objective observer” throughout these events. But frankly, in an early visit to his New York apartment I had seen some of his entirely new, post-The Americans photographs, which had not yet been published anywhere and were not known to the public at that time; and their beauty and power had simply blown me away. And observing Mr. Frank over the course of earlier meetings and events I had come to believe that he was perhaps the smartest, most instinctively intuitive individual I had ever met. I was, I’m afraid, swept away and a little bit in awe, in spite of my efforts be a neutral observer, and when he invited me to come up to spend a week-end in Mabou I was keyed up and had had little sleep for several nights before the trip.

But the trip started off poorly, in a small twin-engine airplane, which probably could hold about twenty passengers, but which had only about a half-dozen seats filled on this flight. The flight was supposed to leave Boston in the morning and arrive in Halifax by mid-afternoon. But there were mechanical difficulties and we sat in the plane at the airport for several hours while a couple of mechanics peered at its innards and pounded on this or that until they felt that it might make it all the way to Halifax after all.

After we took off I don’t think we flew more than a few hundred feet above the ground, hugging the coastline all the way up to Canada. I remember flying over mile after mile of heavy dark-green forests, only broken up by sheets of dark-grey, deeply-scored rocks abruptly abutting the foaming waves of the blue sea. This is a brutal coastline that clearly shows the weight of geological glaciation as it projects the determinative forces of nature forcefully to the eye. There were few sandy beaches on this coast, and the human footprint seemed tentative at best. There had to be people living somewhere in the hundreds of miles we flew over, but I saw very little sign of them. A poor traveler, and already tired, I must have fallen asleep for the end of the trip.

In any case when we arrived at Halifax I seemed to be in a slightly muzzy haze. We arrived at the Halifax airport in the evening, long after the last flight was due, and several hours after the airport and its car-rental booth was scheduled to close for the night. The other five or six passengers, all apparently native to the area, quietly scattered and disappeared, leaving me in the virtually empty airport, where I didn’t even know how to find the exit to the street. However, I spotted the car-rental desk, where what seemed to be pretty much the only person in the airport, and for all I knew, the only living person in Canada, was quietly puttering around in a desultory way while preparing to go home. Rushing over, I told him that I was the individual that was there to pick up the car rented by the Polaroid Corporation; only to find out that Eelco’s normally impeccable secretary had screwed up and there was no record of any such rental agreement. After some discussion, I was somehow able to convince the man to rent the car to me anyway. (My story must have seemed so outlandish that it had to be true, and it may have been his only business of the day. And besides, aside from a tiny neck of land hundreds of miles to the north-west, Nova Scotia was virtually an island anyway – so where could I go in a stolen car?)

So the long autumn evening was turning dark as I left the airport, armed with verbal directions to Mabou from the agent, and with a map provided by him in the car. It should be easy. There was only one major highway that ran through the middle of Nova Scotia from Halifax up to the west coast of Cape Bretton where Mabou is located. I was to leave the airport, turn right, and then drive north for three or four hours for about 200 miles, then look for signage for Mabou. I left the airport and the scatter of Halifax lights disappeared behind me, the rare highway light-poles ran out, and I drove straight down the emptiest highway I had ever seen, fronted on both sides by a serried rank of dense foliage, into the heart of darkness.

Now, I am no stranger to long lonely cross-country drives. My father had worked for an oil-well servicing company then based in Oklahoma; and he had moved our small family – himself, my mother and me, – from oil-field to oil-field as they opened up. My family was from Oklahoma, but I was born in Effingham, Illinois during the Centralia Oil Field Boom in the early 1940s; then, in succession, the family moved to and lived from six months to two years each in Ohio, West Virginia, Texas, Peru, Venezuela, Columbia, Texas again, Alberta, Canada, and then Ohio again; all before I had reached high-school. And always in between these trips, we came back to my grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma to rest for a few weeks to several months and wait for the next assignment.

As a child, I had been driven cross-country several times, spending the long nights staring up out of the back window of the car at the amazing river of stars in the Milky Way and the very occasional fairy-tower of lights festooning a functioning oil-rig, the lights visible for miles on the high prairies of the Great Plains. Or on one trip from Edmonton, Alberta, driving even further up north to the edge of the Arctic Circle, with a day and a night of driving through mile after mile after mile of burned-over forest. And as an adult I had driven from Massachusetts or New York to Oklahoma, or Arizona, or California and back again more than once. I once calculated that I have driven through every state in the contiguous United States except Washington. I am very aware of the great distances and massive scale of the natural features to be found in our country, and I am experienced at driving through them.

But this drive up the Nova Scotia highway was spooking me. After driving in the dark for the three required hours without seeing, if I remember correctly, a single car, a single dwelling, or even a single road-sign, I stopped to read the map. And here I received an even more unnerving shock. The map, incredibly, had been printed in light green and yellow ink and I literally could not read it by the interior lights of the car. No matter how hard I strained, I simply could not discern the route or puzzle out the map at all, which seemed to me at best to be a badly faded piece of paper. I stopped in the middle of the highway and got out of the car and tried to read the map in the headlights – no fears of anyone running me over as I had not seen a living soul for more than three hours. But no matter how hard I tried, squatting and squinting, moving the map back and forth in the headlights, I was not able to read this map in these circumstances. Complete failure, I was shocked, feeling a new awareness of my failing night vision and a having very unnerving glimpse of my own mortality.

I started driving down the empty highway again, attempting to follow the half-remembered verbal directions and counting on my good directional sense. I decided if I just turned left at the first available exit (incredibly again, not marked with any signage. Apparently in Canada you should know where you are going, or you shouldn’t be there.) and kept driving down what by now were two-lane gravel backcountry roads, still without a single dwelling or shed or any other sign of human occupation. I estimated that if I kept going straight ahead I would eventually run out of land and there would have to be some sort of habitation on the coast.

By now it is very late at night for a rural area, but my strategy actually worked. After driving through all these interminable trees for another half-hour or so I saw the headlights of another car coming toward me and I pulled my car into the middle of the two-lane road, then got out and stood in my own headlights in as unthreatening a posture as I could find, until the driver slowly rolled up and I could ask him were I was and how to find Mabou. Extraordinarily, and fortunately, all of my guesses had been good, and I was only about 15 minutes away from Mabou.

Wikipedia tells us that Mabou is a “…small Canadian rural community located in Inverness County on the west coast of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. The population in 2011 was 1,207 residents. During the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century Mabou’s primary economic activity was underground coal mining with several collieries located in the surrounding area. The Inverness and Richmond Railway opened in 1901 to connect the mines in Mabou and Inverness to wharves in Mabou and Port Hastings. Mining activity ceased following World War II and the railway was abandoned during the late 1980s. Today Mabou is primarily a fishing port for a small fleet of lobster boats. It also hosts a high school serving central Inverness County. It is also a very strong community with many farms….”

But these events happened before home computers were commonplace, or before the internet, Wikipedia, and cell-phones existed. Back then all I knew about Mabou was that it was too small to even have a drug-store, as I remembered that Robert had taught photography to a group of women in a local adult-education class, and they had had to send their film to a drug store in a larger town down the road to be developed. That night as I drove down the main street of Mabou, there was no neon signs, no stop-lights, no roadside motels, or gas stations, very few commercial signs, or any cluster of commercial buildings as you would find in any American town of comparable age and size. Just a scattering of dark, mostly wooden, poorly lit buildings; reminding me again of that other trip that I took as a child to the far north of Western Canada, where we drove to a Hudson Bay trading-post at the very edge of the penetration of European civilization into the northern wilderness.

Everything in Mabou was closed at that time of night, but following Robert’s written instructions, I found the correct street signs and then found the road his house was supposed to be on, and I followed it for a mile or so while driving out of the town again. The omnipresent trees had thinned out, thank God, but it is still so dark I could not see anything on my left side at all as I passed the occasional farmhouse on my right. Then, just as I had driven what seemed too far and I was beginning to feel lost again, I came to a brightly-lit house backed up into a hill, with five or six cars scattered along the driveway leading up to the door. It was about 3:00 a. m., and anything going on at this time of night felt a little dodgy, but I drove up the driveway, and following fragmented memories of back-country protocol, I got out of the car, walked up to about ten feet from the front door and called out to the house.

A long pause, and a young man finally opened the door. The living room was full of six or seven other men, all apparently drinking beer and watching television. Checkered shirts, work-boots, gimmie-hats; this was a fairly rough-looking group – and with fragments of Deliverance flashing through my mind, I apologized for disturbing them and very politely asked if anyone knew of someone named Robert Frank and where he lived. Another very long pause, while the man at the door was clearly making up his mind whether to answer me or tell me to fuck off. Then, finally, with what seemed to be great reluctance, he told me Frank lived in the next house, about a half mile further down the road.

I thanked him, got back into the car, and drove up to Frank’s house. Frank was still up and waiting for me in his kitchen. As he welcomed me, I apologized for being so late, but just said that the flight had been delayed and mentioned something about his neighbor being helpful. But I was clearly spooked, tired, and hungry; and without much conversation, Frank quickly cooked me some delicious bacon and eggs on his cast-iron wood-fired stove, then showed me to a bed in a small upstairs room, where I immediately fell into an exhausted sleep.

I woke up the next morning, in a plain, dun-colored room; almost empty except for the bed and in the middle of one wall a luminescent, brilliant blue abstract rectangle, which as I muzzily watched, seemed to be in a slow motion; with irregular lacy white bands appearing at the top of the frame, then calmly and steadily rolling down the picture plane and disappearing out the bottom edge. I lay there mesmerized by this visual wonder that Mr. Frank had somehow provided for my morning entertainment, before my sluggish wits kicked into gear and I realized that I was watching waves lazily rolling on the bay that Frank’s house looked out on. From the position I was at in the room, the window framed only a patch of constantly moving water, without any horizon or shoreline to situate the image. Last night had been so dark and my attention so focused on finding Frank’s house on the right side of the road that I had driven past several miles of open water on the left without consciously realizing it. Even as my rational faculties worked out what was happening, my sense of wonder at this rhythmically calming, quietly beautiful, visual event kept me attentive and appreciative of the beginning of this new day.

Windows have somehow always held a vivid place in my memory. Long before I became a student of photographic practice, (Where I learned that the frame — what to leave in, what to leave out, how to balance the shapes and spaces within the picture against its edges — is a most, perhaps the most, important tool for a picture-maker.) my strongest recollections of childhood were frequently focused around a window.

And all echoes of my past resonating through last night’s drive brought back one of the most vivid memories of my childhood to me. Our family had travelled widely through the United States, Canada and South America when I was a child, but we always went back to my mother’s father’s farm in Oklahoma between these assignments, and that was, I suppose, where it most felt like home. This was in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but my grandfather’s farm still had many of the characteristics of an earlier age. My grandfather’s farm was in south-central Oklahoma, a little south of the small town of Comanche, literally located on the old Chisum Trail where they had driven cattle up from Texas to the Abilene, Kansas stockyards from the 1860s to 1880s. Later a branch of the Kansas-Pacific railroad had been built along that route and my grandfather used that railroad to deliver his own cattle to the stock-yards. When my grandfather was younger he ran cattle; apparently (From an old photograph I once saw.) enough cattle to rent cattle-cars on the railroad every year, hire some boys or young men to ride on top of the cars to poke them through the slats with long sticks to keep them safely on their feet during the ride, (Hence, I assume, the terms “Cow Pokes,” or “Cow-punchers.”) and deliver them to the stockyards in Kansas. By the time I was growing up all this was reduced to a herd of about twenty head — not a lot by local standards, and the homestead was more diversified, growing corn and other crops. Each time we came back to the farm, it was reduced or changed a little. More acreage sold, the remaining fields rented out to younger farmers, the horses gone, then the mules he used to plow the cornfields and haul his wagon disappeared, the pigs replaced by easier-to-manage chickens, etc. The farm was coming close to the end of its natural cycle, as was my grandfather; who had raised a family, kept everything going and together through the Great Depression as so much of Oklahoma dried up and blew away, then lost his wife, and was himself grown old. His children, or all the sisters, including my mother, were patiently waiting for this natural event to play out, but I was, of course, too young to know what was going on.

My grandfather built the first brick private dwelling in that part of the world, the bricks brought in on the new railroad. Almost all the other farm houses then, ranging from shacks to larger well-built dwellings, were made of wood. Again, unusual for the place and time, the farmhouse had two stories and a round tower with deeply curved, now irreplaceably expensive windows that were a constant source of worry for my mother (and me, just a little) that I would somehow break them or shoot them with my Daisy Red Ryder bee-bee rifle. (I had already shot out the large plate glass window in the front door, while attempting to demonstrate that the gun was absolutely empty and therefore not dangerous in the house.) Curiously, no one took the gun away from me, or even punished me, as it was clear that I had already manifestly learned the lesson not to point any gun – even an unloaded gun – at anyone for any reason. In fact, I can’t remember ever being physically punished for anything, just a long quiet talk from my mother if I had done something wrong. From what I’ve since read or heard, that seems to be a very “Indian” way of doing things. (My grandmother was part Choctaw.) On the farm there was a telephone, but no electricity, so at night the house was lit by kerosene lanterns, cleaned and filled every day by my mother – a chore she had had since childhood.

My bedroom was upstairs, and the only occupied room on that floor at that time. Every day, just before dark I climbed the stairs, scurried through the windowless dim hallway with the mysterious and scary black stain on one wall, and reached the safety of my bed, eventually to go to sleep to be wakened by the sunlight coming through the window the next morning. The single window faced the back of the house and my view took in the various structures of a working farm: outhouse, sheds, pig pens and the stable and corral and then the rolling fields of the “back forty.”

Most of the time my grandfather’s farm was a place of tans and duns. Red earth, gnarled grey-brown Post Oak trees, seared yellow grasses were the colors dominating the hot, dry summers and the cold, dry winters. Not a barren or ugly land, but it provided only a spare and contained beauty to the eye most of the year. But in the spring, if we had been lucky with the rain, the land could briefly blossom. Burned in my memory, much more strongly than more consequential things from that time, is the spring day that I woke up and saw the window frame a vivid rectangle of verdant green. The rains had brought the grass into life again overnight and meadows behind house presented a startlingly vibrant, almost pulsating, landscape so different from all those views that had presented themselves through the long, grey winter. The brightness didn’t last for long, a day or so before the colors muted down and the dust took off the bright edge, but those few days were enough to build the strength to get through the summer once again.

Waking up again to another vivid landscape somehow wiped out all the frustrations and anxieties of yesterday and I felt calm and positive as I dressed, went downstairs and found Mr. Frank quietly engaged in the household economics of gradually battening down the hatches of his home before the winter weather closed in.

As Mr. Frank cooked up another breakfast I looked around his house. I was again forcefully reminded of my grandfather’s farm. Frank had electricity and running water, but much of the house resembled my grandfather’s. The furnishings were utilitarian and rather spare, a bit worn with age and usage. An old wooden-cased clock on the mantle and a few knickknacks, which had drawn a momentary attention or embodied the memory of some small event, were randomly scattered about. Most notably, there were no photographs on the walls, none by Mr. Frank or by anyone else. I don’t remember any specific pictures at all, but if there were any pictures, they would have been inexpensive commercial reproductions of mundane scenes by anonymous painters. The radio, critical for the weather and the news and entertainment through the long winter nights, was in the kitchen, which would be the warmest room in the house, which was also occupied by a sink, the cast-iron stove, a small table and a few chairs and a scattering of useful or needed tools or utilities, such as a shovel or heavy boots close to hand in some corner.

We sat down to breakfast and loosely planned out the day’s activities. And this new day was glorious: a light-filled day – sparkling, with crisp, bright, autumn weather, the sky a deep blue from horizon to horizon, so clear that you could see Prince Edward Island across the Bay – something that happens about once every forty years, or so Mr. Frank told me. It was a wonderful day, and far too nice to spend it inside huddled over a tape-recorder asking and answering arcane questions about almost forgotten past events. After breakfast and a short, desultory interview, Mr. Frank and I played hooky.

I began to help him with some of the endless chores attendant to rural living, such as splitting wood for the stove, etc. To my chagrin this skill, which once I had mastered fairly well, had eroded so that I was clumsy and awkward with the axe, and after a while Mr. Frank politically and gracefully got it out of my hands before I did some damage to something other than some chunks of wood. Then while Mr. Frank worked on some more of his chores, I spent some time wandering around the homestead; hiking out of the yard and uphill into the trees behind the farmhouse, just scouting around, taking in the general lay of the land. I later tried to write about this experience, but never really got it down on paper to my satisfaction:

“Robert Frank lives in Nova Scotia, a few miles outside of Mabou, in a farmhouse half way up a hillside facing the sea. The hill slopes fairly steeply down to the sea in front; behind the land continues several hundred yards higher to crest, then breaks into dips and rolls, with the interior hollows filled with heavy timber. At another place you would want to head upslope to go over into the woods nestled behind the first hill, but at Mabou your gaze is always drawn out to the sea, and it takes an effort to look behind you and up.
This farm was once an early settler’s homestead, a narrow frontage extending back from the ocean for several acres into the woodlands. At some point the acreage facing the ocean was cleared for farming, then later, when the farm was abandoned, let go back into scrub brush. Frank told me he accidentally set a blaze while burning garbage when he first moved in years ago. The quick winds up there immediately whipped it into a dangerous grass fire. Everyone for miles around turned up to put the fire out, just before it reached the next farmstead – an effective, if embarrassing way to meet your neighbors.
Now the ocean-facing slope is covered with tall grass and a scattering of younger volunteer evergreens. The heavy woods behind the first hill sit there quietly accruing beauty and value, as Frank doesn’t do any serious logging. There isn’t a lot of money to be made in Mabou now anyway – the mines are played out; the farming, on this cold, rocky land, is at a sustenance level; the logging is exhausted; the sea provides some fishing, but not enough for heavy industry, and it’s just a little too far off the beaten track for Canada’s tourism promotion to be all that successful. The people who do manage to make a life up there seem to know each other fairly well, and they hold to a sense of community which seems left over from an earlier time.
Frank is considered to be a valuable member of this community, although probably not for the same reasons he is accorded value in the world of art – even though he once did teach photography to the ladies who signed up at the local adult education program; using Diana cameras and mailing the negatives off to be developed in a bigger town forty miles away. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Frank finds this acceptance both valuable and nourishing to his own sense of worth. That nourishment, and the nourishment he takes from looking out to the ocean, have kept him at Mabou, a place not easily hospitable to outsiders, for many years now.
Another nourishment sustains Frank at Mabou as well. Robert is quietly competent in the ordinary skills common to a rural economy – cooking on a wood stove, chopping the wood to fuel the stove and heat his house, repairing the house, and rebuilding the homestead. These skills are everyday fare to his neighbors, but represent hard-learned lessons, learned late in life by the city-dwelling son of a wealthy Swiss businessman. I think Robert’s competence in the complexities of living in a hard land helps him feel closer to the kind of reality he prefers to inhabit, which he finds in Mabou.
His wife, June Leaf, has built a fine forge on the farm, where she can create those wonderful metal sculptures which are so full of grace and power, and size them to any scale she chooses – not like the loft in New York, where she has either to paint canvases or work small.
Robert has also made sculptures in Mabou, though he won’t admit it, preferring to identify them as collections of found driftwood logs and rocks, which he has simply piled together at scattered spots around his homestead. Robert doesn’t have a philosophy about these structures, he just likes to build them from time to time. But, in a place where very little is wasted or in excess, they do seem to provide several valuable services. For one thing, they offer surfaces for the eye to focus on at a near distance and so provide some relief from the constant draw of the water. Then again, the seemingly random scattering of these structures around the house and outbuildings of the farm is deceptive, for they are actually sited like rifle pits, commanding and protecting all the entrances to the homestead – talisman barriers designed to deflect or impede malevolent invasion. These constructions are a realized metaphor for what Robert readily admits – that Mabou is the place where he and June come to rest, away from the other, more modern complexities of the outside world.
There is a small outcrop of rock a few hundred feet upslope from the house and off to the left. One of June’s drawings, of two hands flexing open into wings, is cut into the rock, along with Robert’s daughter’s name and the dates of her birth and death. It’s really just a boulder about the height of a man, neither very noticeable nor prominent, which has broken through the scarf of the soil at that spot. But there you will always find a clear, unbroken view of the sea.”

From: “Souvenirs. Mabou.” The Pictures are a Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, November 1988, edited and published by William S. Johnson. “Occasional Papers No. 2.” Rochester Film & Photo Consortium. University Educational Services. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY: 1989.]

Later in the afternoon we got into Frank’s car and drove around a bit, to see the countryside and meet some of the people who lived there. Mr. Frank would occasionally stop the car at a chance encounter and introduce me to someone that he knew. The most vivid of these in my memory now was a man walking down a back-country road. He was probably in his seventies or eighties, with a full white beard and matching head of wild white hair capped with a Scotch bonnet, and dressed in a kilt. We stopped the car, Frank introduced me to him and offered a ride, which the man politely refused in a Scottish brogue so thick that I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. After all, Nova Scotia does mean “New Scotland,” and apparently there was some history that was now embodied by this individual.

As we drove around in that still, pellucid, crisp, amazing afternoon, briefly meeting a few people here and there, (All of the others spoke an English I could understand, and all of them commented on the gift of this amazing day.) I noted but was not shocked by the spareness or even poverty displayed by some of these farmhouses in Canada. The country just seemed to me, perhaps inaccurately, to be just a few decades behind the United States in its evolution into the contemporary world, although my own experience of moving through a rural world into urban America may have buffered the disparities that Frank was displaying to me. A more “sophisticated” big-city resident might have been shocked by the stripped, hard lives that I was being shown. As we drove around I gradually understood that Mr. Frank was showing me the wonderful diversity and character of the people living in his rural community. Frank would later bring the characteristics of this landscape and its peoples into creative play when he made the film Candy Mountain which was shot in and around Mabou, with a mix of amateur actors and local characters.

Then we drove into Mabou to the Co-op (a square wooden barn of a building, mostly empty, but with a scattering of foodstuffs and household supplies) to pick up some groceries, and then down to the local docks to meet the lobster boats which were just coming in with that day’s catch, to buy some fresh lobsters for dinner. There, while giving a brief explanation as to why a stranger was with him, Robert introduced me, ironically, as “Mr. Polaroid” to the captain as he was tying up his boat. The captain, flushed with what seemed to be a combination of native pride and a distain for large American corporations, impetuously handed us a brace of lobsters and, over our protestations, refused to take any payment. Back at his house, Robert built a fire outdoors and set up a cookpot to steam the lobsters and then we sat in the gathering dusk, eating lobster and corn and watching the sun set “…on a wonderful October Sunday in Mabou in 1984,…” The day had been so extraordinary, the clusters of small meetings and events so mundane yet so absolutely meaningful, that the day seemed complete and whole in itself. I didn’t attempt any more questions, went to bed early, and slept through the night. (Unusual for me).

The next morning Mr. Frank dug up this photograph from somewhere, wrote the note commemorating the wonderful nature of the previous day, and gave it to me as I left to return to Boston. The trip back to Boston was routine, without incident, allowing me the time to depressurize and return to the concerns of the everyday.

As so often with Mr. Frank, the gift of this particular print to me represents a metaphor about our relationship at that time, as it references the ideas I was attempting to identify and feature within the body of his work in the exhibition – his breaking the tyranny of the perfect Modernist frame and also of the photojournalist’s “decisive moment” through his use of sequence, fostering the idea of the photograph as a crafted object rather than a “window” as Mr. Szarkowski had put it. Frank’s restructuring the medium so as to deliberately bring abstract concepts like memory, loss and longing, hope and hope deferred, into the operative emotional range of a still photograph and developing a style which could create types of emotion and feeling that extended beyond the subject content of traditional photographs. All issues which have been thoroughly discussed in the critical literature during the past 30 years, but which, as far as I know, had not been mentioned by anyone at the time. I was struggling to develop a coherent understanding of some of these ideas about the work for myself during this time, but Frank summed them up in one quick intuitive act and gave me the present of the photograph to memorialize the issue.


“U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955-1956.” Three image strip. (Frank’s wife and children sleeping in car at the side of the road in first two images, truck stop sign in third image.) Reproduced on p. 53 in ARTFORUM 33:3 (Nov. 1994). Our copy has the following inscription: “Dear William and Susie and Bethanie and Joshua. Wishing you good luck – wherever it goes…. from “old man” Robert.”
I can’t remember the exact circumstances of Mr. Frank’s gift of this photograph to us, but it must have been during one of his stops in Boston during the time of the project. Susie and I were living in an apartment in Belmont, a suburb of Boston, and Mr. Frank visited us there several times during that time, stopping over when flying up or back from Mabou, or coming to Boston in response to some aspect of the project.

The dedication on the photograph names “Bethanie” and “Joshua.” “Joshua” is Susie’s and my son, who was born in the mid-point of the project, and who was bundled up and carried around by either Susie or me to a lot of these meetings, and so was well-known to everyone involved. “Bethany” is the youngest of my three children from a first marriage, then living with her mother and brother in Austen, Texas; but who was staying with us at the time. She would have been about 13 or 14, and in her “punk” phase. She has a strong, smart, creative personality and she and Mr. Frank got along very well, which is the reason for his dedication on the photograph.

The following information is not directly associated with the photograph, but of collateral interest, in a sense. A year or so later Bethany ran away from her home in Texas, somehow got to New York City and lived there on the streets for some time – for about six months. She refused to let her mother even know she was still alive and kept only the most tentative contact with me, and only if I promised not to tell her mother where she was. I did not know any of the names of her friends, or where she was living – only that she seemed to be based somewhere in the Greenwich Village area of Lower Manhattan. Literally the only person I knew in New York City at that time was Robert Frank and I knew that he spent a lot of time walking around in his neighborhood, and so I asked him to just keep an eye out for her. It seemed highly improbable that he would ever find her, but he promised to keep a watch. And they did run into each other. Bethany also knew Mr. Frank and found out that her knowing him gave her some sort of street credibility among the people she was with, as they knew he was a famous artist. So Bethany and Robert would talk from time to time and Mr. Frank would call to let me know she was still alive and healthy. This most fragile of connections was what sustained our hopes for her safety during this period. Finally, Bethany relented a little, came to live with us in Belmont for a while, and eventually went back to Texas to stay with her mother.


“Mabou, 1978.” [Clock reflection in window looking over Mabou landscape. Reproduced on p. 143 in Robert Frank, Moving Out. with inscription “For Bill Johnson – Robert Frank, 1991.”

The end point of the collaboration project between the four photographers and Susie and me was to have been a major exhibition and a book. We later published a document of the project, (Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures: Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood, by Susan E. Cohen and William S. Johnson. Belmont, MA: Joshua Press, 1986. 242 pp., 36 35mm slides bound‑in. Limited edition, 16 copies, printed on an IBM‑AT computer, with WordStar 2000 software.) on a very early desk-top computer. That book explains the conception, process and aftermath of the project in greater detail.

The exhibition was to include the work that the artists had each generated for the project as well as a targeted selection of their retrospective work. To that end the photographers had each sent their collaborative work as well as a selection of 50 or 60 of their earlier photographs which we had selected together to the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY, which was to be the venue for hosting the travelling show. The exhibition was laid out and in the process of being framed when administrative changes at Polaroid, the parent company funding the project, caused the process to pause, and later to stop. We held the photographs at the Workshop for almost a year and a half, until it was absolutely certain that the funding for the exhibition had failed, and then I returned all of their photographs to the artists; then bundled up the other materials and leavings, put them into my closet, and tried to come to grips with the waste of essentially two or more years of work. What was and still is amazing to me was that the artists, who had freely donated their own time and energy to the project, had not turned sour or vindictive during this fraught and uncertain period of delays, and that they were all, each in their own way, extraordinarily supportive and generous to Susie and me throughout the process and even after its failure.

After we had acknowledged the end of the project, we then all turned to the business of living and earning a living, and went our separate ways. I had received a ridiculously small NEH grant to write a “guide” to photographic literature, which enabled me to buy one of the first commercially available desk-top computers (with a 20 megabite hard drive, – my God, the power!) on which we then – probably illegally in terms of the grant – wrote Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures:… and on which I started compiling the bibliography for what would later become the 962 pp. Nineteenth‑Century Photography: An Annotated Bibliography, 1839‑1879., which is acknowledged to be a major reference resource by those people who care about that stuff. So the NEH never got its 90 page “Guide” but it did fund some other interesting stuff, and the poor harassed fund manager eventually got his taxpayer’s money’s worth after all.

Susie and I then moved to Rochester, NY for me to take up the newly created position of Director (later Coordinator) of University Educational Services at the George Eastman House. In that position I organized a variety of projects and programs for the consortium of universities that funded the position. Among these projects I initiated and coordinated a semester-long seminar on Robert Frank and, using my same computer, – computers were still not common and the Eastman house didn’t yet have any except in their Financial Office – put together and published the Occasional Papers No. 2. The Pictures Are A Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, NY November 1988. Edited by William S. Johnson. Essays by Susan E. Cohen, Jan‑Christopher Horak, William S. Johnson, Tina Olsen Lent. Bibliography by Stuart A. Alexander. (Jan. 1989) which has been described as: –“This scarce and much sought-after volume is the result of a film festival, seminar, and workshop with Robert Frank. It includes original articles on Frank and a lengthy interview.”

The seminar, open to anyone in the three consortium schools, consisted of showing all of Frank’s films throughout the semester, combined with lectures on the politics, culture, and the arts of the 1950s by various faculty members from these institutions, then capped with a two-day, all-day long meeting with Frank, who talked to the group about some photos taped to the walls and responded to questions from the well-informed and primed seminar audience. All of this was videotaped and transcribed into the self-published Occasional Papers No. 2, which was distributed free to the consortium members. Much of the materials in Susie and my essays were taken from the earlier Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures….

Then, as happens, I didn’t have much to do with Mr. Frank for a while, although he had rather tentatively inquired at one point about the possibility of placing his archive at the George Eastman House and even wrote me that if he died tomorrow his lawyers had been instructed to do so, but I suggested he wait on the notion, as the institution was going through some tumultuous times and seemed to be facing an uncertain future at that moment. I knew that he had offered the materials to MOMA at one time and possibly elsewhere as well, and then changed his mind, so I did not take the offer that seriously anyway. I believe he finally wound up placing these materials at the Smithsonian in Washington.

However, sometime around 1991 I had to go to New York City for some other reason I now forget and I called Mr. Frank up and arranged for a visit. From time to time different people who had known about the “Polaroid Project” had suggested I try to get the book published separately, but I had resisted the idea of returning to that failed project. However, I had finally gotten over my own negative feelings and decided that I should at least get the permission of the artists before I approached anyone else. My purpose for the visit was to ask if he would mind if I approached any publishers with the book.

When I got to Mr. Frank’s Bleeker Street loft I found that he had cleared the afternoon for me, but it was apparent that he was very engaged in other projects; one of which was selecting the photographs for the forthcoming book Robert Frank, Moving Out, and there were dozens of beautiful prints leaning against the walls all around the perimeter of his living room. After he agreed that it would be O. K. with him if I tried to get a publisher for the “Polaroid Project” book, he walked over to the far wall and picked out two photographs, brought them back to me and said “Choose one.” Both of the prints were new to me, and neither had yet been published. I was completely surprised and a little flustered, but instantly decided on the following print, which I immediately and have always thought was both beautiful and profound.

However I did not select the print immediately, because the other print held a personal echo for me. I will have to describe the other print, for, as far as I know, it has never been published. It, like the clock reflection, was a vertical print, and also an interior at Mabou, depicting a corner of what may have been the same mantel that is reflected in the clock-window photograph. On the otherwise spare surface of the mantel a small cluster of nondescript items – a ceramic figurine, perhaps a postcard, or one of those glass balls with snow that you shake – sort of a small litter of tourist memorabilia – were casually gathered together. The framing was casual, the view slightly tilted, the focus was softened, and the image was printed in a muted monochrome, the actual subject of the items not important, so much as the mood of the photograph. The personal echo for me came from the fact that I had written about something like this before, and I knew that Mr. Frank had read what I wrote, because he had referred to the statement in a later conversation -something he otherwise never did during the period of our interviews for the project.

“Not too long ago a small work appeared on the wall of the kitchen of Robert Frank’s New York City loft. Tucked between the coat-hooks and the corner, yet somehow fitting in, the piece consisted of three small pictures grouped together. The first was a small, – perhaps six to nine inch – square, oil painting. It was a portrait of a woman, it was obviously European, it was obviously old and it was set into an elegant, deeply—flared gold frame. Under this lovely miniature portrait was another small painting. This one was an unframed landscape – cruder, the work of a charming amateur. Tucked together with these two paintings was a snapshot photograph of an older woman.
These three items seemed almost casually placed together, but they were so arranged that they presented themselves to the eye as one visual unit. And somehow the same casual deftness that had created a sense of unity among these three items had also set up a kinetic or spatial or spiritual dynamic on the wall so that in a mysterious sense these pieces took on an iconic feeling. In some undefinable but definite manner that corner of the room held the flavor of a simple, unobtrusive shrine. Shrine is too strong a word – rather the place gave the sense of the French souvenir – a memory, a recollection, a remembrance.
I can’t explain how Frank tucked these items together so that they were able to establish this emotional aura; all I can do is report that they did so. Separately presented, each piece would have roused a sense of curiosity about the subject and possibly a note of interest in the individual work. Placed together as they were, the separate items conjoined to establish an associative context, create a chord of feeling, build the possibility of a history, and allude to a sense of a past and of memory.
When pressed, Frank admitted that the photograph was a portrait of his mother, that she had painted the landscape, and that the older canvas had once belonged to her. Frank had brought these three small pieces back with him when he returned from his mother’s funeral in Switzerland not long before.
This particular creative statement by Frank was essentially a private act rather than a public gesture. He put this piece up on the wall of his kitchen for his own purpose and to meet his own needs. And, given the fluid nature of the objects that inhabit the New York loft space, this souvenir may not stay where it is for very long. Yet bound up in this simple, unpretentious work are many issues of importance to Frank’s strength as an artist.
Frank must have brought a mingled body of attitudes and sensibilities into play while he was putting this piece together. By creating this little memorial he was enacting a small act of veneration, or at least acknowledging the reality of the emotional power that this subject held for him. (Since the subject is his mother and his own past that’s not at all unusual.) Frank was spiritually acknowledging his sense of loss at her absence and the paradoxical presence of her in his thoughts in a specifically physical way, through the creation of the souvenir. At the same time the act of energy and emotion directed toward the creation of the souvenir also allowed him a means of directing and controlling the larger, more diffuse emotion of his loss into some more coherent and manageable pattern.
Robert Frank lives very close to his emotions. He doesn’t seem to box them out or damp them down as far as many people do. He inhabits a terrain that would be too tough for many and which is, I suspect, very tough for him from time to time. He has often stated that his real work can only come out of what he knows. The implication, not hidden very deeply, is that his best work can only come out of what he feels. On occasion Frank expresses some distress that his work is so much based on his own self, so tied to his own biography; but, in reality, he fully understands that the singular power of his work is based in precisely this area.

“Souvenirs. New York.” The Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter & Journal of Critical Opinion. 1:7 (July, 1984): 1-2. Republished in The Pictures are a Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, November 1988, edited and published by William S. Johnson. “Occasional Papers No. 2.” Rochester Film & Photo Consortium. University Educational Services. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY: 1989.

So I stood there holding the two prints and pretending to choose between them, while, in fact, looking at the one photograph for as long as I could, because I suspected, (correctly, as it turned out.) that I would never see it again. After attempting to memorize the print for what seemed to be a very long time and what may have actually been a couple of minutes, – which was a very long time under the circumstances – I handed the other, better photograph to Mr. Frank. The memorabilia photograph was not a bad photograph, but it just did not have the power of the one I chose. I felt that Mr. Frank seemed slightly disappointed at my decision to ignore the implied personal reference in the one photograph, as was I; but he put the photograph I chose in a protective package and we went out to lunch and then over to browse in a bookstore before I left to return back to Rochester.

Earlier in the day Mr. Frank had told me he was starting to put together a new movie, and the only other interesting thing that happened that day was that he saw a young woman in the bookstore and he approached her and asked if she had been able to talk to her boyfriend about meeting with Frank to talk about playing the lead role in the movie he was starting to put together. This seemed to me to be a very casual way to organize a film, but one that seemed to work for Mr. Frank.

I suppose that for the conclusion of this narrative I should say that, other than getting the permission of the other artists as well, I actually never did approach any publisher to try to get the book published until one day in 2014, as Tate Shaw, the new director of the Visual Studies Workshop, and I were having a casual conversation, he brought up the subject again and volunteered to try to find a way to get the book published. After some research, Tate realized that the Workshop did not have the resources to fund this large an effort, and then, with Nathen Lyons, he helped introduce the idea of the project to Jessica McDonald, curator of photography at the Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Jessica responded in a positive manner, and, after a little time, the “Polaroid Archive” of research materials, notes and correspondence, and artworks associated with this project, which had languished in banker’s boxes in my closet for so long, was, to my gratitude, transferred into a public institution where it could receive proper care and be made more accessible to people in the future.

It was only then, years later, while going through those materials to prepare them for the Ransom Center that I found a notecard from Mr. Frank (He sent notes or short letters to Susie and me from time to time long after the “Polaroid Project” officially ended.) which had been tightly folded and which I had failed to open properly , which stated that he “owed” me a photograph. I now assume that he thought I had come to visit him to pick up the photograph, when in actuality I had not known anything about it. That was the last time I actually met with Mr. Frank; both he and I had gone on to other things and, except for an occasional Christmas or birthday card, we never really interacted after that. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know his son had died until several years later.


Heinecken was physically a small man – and towards the end of his long debilitating illness, he was tiny. But when he had his health you never noticed his size because he always seemed, unobtrusively but decidedly, to be at the exact center of the energy of any room he was in. His size has relevance –because that, tied to his quick instinctual reflexes and ready intelligence, made it possible for him to excel as a Marine Corps jet fighter pilot and then as a pilot instructor in the mid-1950s. And that’s significant; because Heinecken brought many of the qualities of that life into his later life as an artist and a teacher. He tied together a sort of savage dedication to searching the boundaries and forcing the rules of established “high art” beliefs and concepts with an astonishingly rigorous methodology of practice in his art and in his professional activities. (This might seem unusual unless you understand what qualities are useful for flying very fast, very dangerous, fighting planes.) To these qualities he added an exact and precise and unflinching and, one might even say, moral sense of responsibility to his own commitment to the practice of art-making. Initially, it looks like an awful lot of his art was about sex and sexism and violence and the media that carry those issues so persuasively into our lives; but actually his art was about finding and facing those powerful and confusing inner forces that make us human.
A half hour on the internet will convince anyone of his distinction as an artist and the weight of his presence in current photographic practice and I’m not going to attempt to reiterate that information here. But please remember that Heinecken was also an outstanding teacher. He taught much more than the skills and practices of being an artist. He also taught, deliberately and carefully, to his students a sense of professionalism, the necessity of community, and the importance of nurturing and contributing to that community. Something he himself did as he could, for as long as he could. William S. Johnson
“Robert Heinecken 1931-2006. A Remembrance.” Afterimage 34:1/2 (July-Oct. 2006): 2.


HEINECKEN, by William S. Johnson (revised March 2014, 2019)

I met Robert Heinecken in the late 1960s or early 1970s. I had been invited to attend a small weekend gathering at my friend Carl Chiarenza’s house in Lexington, Massachusetts. This meeting consisted of photographers who were teaching photography at various universities around the country and who were officers of a young organization called the Society for Photographic Education. It was an unusual time. Photography was burning hot in academic circles; and art departments at scores of universities, which had previously ignored photography as a creative discipline, were scrambling to cobble together programs to meet the extraordinary demand coming from hundreds of students everywhere around the country. I, myself, was a reflection of those demands. I was trained and working as a librarian, who through a series of unusual circumstances was also teaching a lecture course on the history of photography for the Department of Fine Arts (meaning art history) at Harvard University. I had never completed a course in art history, and yet I was lecturing in one of the most prestigious art history departments in the country to a class of 250 to 300 students each week. And my friend Carl, who was a graduate student in the Fine Arts department at Harvard and who was also a professor at Boston University across the river, was giving lectures there each week to an auditorium filled with 600 or more students. As I said, an unusual time.

The known history of photography at that time consisted of Beaumont Newhall’s survey plus two or three other books written in English and a dozen or so books in other languages; plus maybe a two or three dozen books that might be stretched to be called artist’s monographs. The finest library collections held far fewer than a thousand books even distantly relating to the medium as an art form. And there were few other resources available to instructors. I remember that one set of a few hundred teaching slides was available commercially through the George Eastman House – one of only a handful of museums in the country that even considered photography as a potential art form. I was scrambling frantically through the magnificent general collections of the Harvard University Library to dig up 19th century examples of the use of photography and getting slides made so that I could teach a more complete and nuanced survey of the medium. I was at best one or two weeks ahead of the students in those lectures; and I hadn’t yet gotten close to learning much about contemporary practice. What I did know about contemporary work was mostly from the half dozen or so photography magazines that occasionally mentioned “creative photography” from time to time. That view of the medium was dominated by articles about the “stars” of photojournalism or fashion photography (W. Eugene Smith, Richard Avedon, etc.) on one hand or by Modernist photographers (Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, etc.) on the other.

I knew very little about the photographers attending this weekend meeting. I knew Carl’s work, a little bit about the Florida photographer Jerry Uelsmann, whose work was causing a stir in the few magazines which published “serious” photography, and a bit more about a former LIFE photojournalist named Cornel Capa, the brother of the more famous Robert Capa, who was at the meeting to promote his intention to put together an institution in New York City he was calling Concerned Photographers. Otherwise, I knew next to nothing about the twenty or thirty other individuals gathered at Carl’s, or about the field which they represented.

The morning had been given over to SPE business. The SPE President, a short, casually dressed man with a neat beard and long straight, impeccably clean hair drawn back into a ponytail, who apparently taught at UCLA and was named Robert Heinecken, had impressed me with the professional manner in which he had run the meeting, informally held in the back yard. I had also been impressed by the concern he had demonstrated in his remarks about attempting to assess the future of the community of students he and his colleagues were representing. It had been altogether a far more professional meeting of artists and teachers than I had expected.

That afternoon, after lunch, there was a break period with people sitting around in the living room, gossiping among acquaintances, chatting casually, resting, and building up energy to get back into the scheduled program for the weekend. Very slowly what appeared to be some commercial magazines began to be circulated around the room, being passed slowly from chair to chair. They were described as the latest work of this Robert Heinecken, whose professional demeanor had so impressed me in the morning.

One of these magazines reached me and I began to leaf through it. It consisted of conjoined pages removed from various commercial magazines of every kind, which had been disbanded, collated into a new order, then rebound. In the magazine the left page consisted of a full color pornographic photograph from a “men’s magazine”, the right page a full color advertisement for make-up or clothing from an expensive women’s fashion magazine. The paired images usually shared extended similarities in form and presentation, so much so that it often seemed that the same models, positioned in the same poses, were in both scenes. First, I was startled – this was unusual for me; there were no actual photographs made by the artist, certainly nothing of the black and white, pre-visualized Edward Weston, Ansel Adams type image which I associated with contemporary high-art photographic practice. And, frankly, I was shocked. The very idea of taking apart commercial magazines, then rebinding them in new configurations and calling that “art” challenged my understanding of what I considered to be a “fine art” practice. And the overt and frank referral to human sexuality within the work seemed both unusual and a bit unnerving to me as well, as my understanding of artistic practice certainly did not extend to incorporate pornography. But I kept leafing through the work and gradually I began to understand that this was a serious and sustained indictment of the use of subliminal sexuality in the public media. This is an old story now, but at the time it was both revelatory and a bit shocking, requiring one to re-access the barrage of images one was subjected to on a daily basis. I also had to accept that this was not some frivolous act, but the work of an artist engaged in serious social commentary, and also engaged in pioneering a novel means of expression to best depict that commentary.

But as I sat there trying to understand all this I experienced yet another shock. The artist had brought together pages where the nuances of color, form and shape found within each page complemented and expanded the visual impact of the conjoined double-page spread. In other words, he had taken individual “found” pieces and worked them into a coherent visual whole which extended well beyond the component pieces that it was made from. As I leafed through the magazine I gradually realized, looking beyond the subject content, that these pages often were — for lack of a better word — “beautiful.” And that the artist had created a work that was both a serious social commentary and also an aesthetically pleasing picture. I felt that the artist had taken some mundane and commonplace magazines and transformed them into a matured, complex, and expressive work of art. Which is something to be not found every day — even in the professional world of fine arts practice.

I don’t remember much of the rest of that weekend meeting. What I do remember was that on that afternoon, sitting in a chair in that living room, I had received a profound lesson in what serious art can be, and a revelatory expansion of my understanding of the dimensions of the practice of art-making.

A year or so later Heinecken came back to Cambridge again on a sabbatical leave; where he taught photography at the Carpenter Center for Visual Studies at Harvard for a semester. We got to know each other a bit more at this time, and gradually became friends.

Robert Heinecken was the son, grandson, great-grandson and nephew to several uncles in a multi-generational family of Lutheran ministers; yet he dropped out of college in the early 1950s to become a U. S. Marine Corps jet fighter pilot – a profession not known for its piety. And he excelled at this profession, on one occasion landing his crippled jet onto an aircraft carrier after another pilot had clipped his tail rudder and crashed into the sea. Heinecken was basically flying a brick at this point, and no one understood how he was able to land the plane. In those days in order to fly jet fighter planes successfully one had to have an absolutely controlled discipline, with the ability to master and perform the very delicate, always dangerous tasks needed to keep those unsteady objects in the air, and yet be able to combine this rigor and discipline with a complete willingness to “push the envelope” of any given situation in an absolutely hair-raising way. Even a brief glance at Heinecken’s oeuvre shows both of these qualities in profusion.

Later Heinecken became an instructor, training or retraining other pilots until the end of his enlistment. I think it is here that he developed and refined the skills and procedures and understandings that made him such a good teacher at UCLA and Chicago and elsewhere after he had left the Marines and returned to art school. Because Heinecken was widely and justly considered to be one of the best teachers of his generation.

A few years later my wife and I had the opportunity to observe Heinecken over an extended period of time, with multiple video and audio tape interviews spaced over a period of several months, observing him while he created his art on several occasions and sitting in on the final day of a seminar he was teaching that summer in Chicago.
Heinecken always attempted to wrap up his teaching sessions with a final talk to his students – a talk in which he outlined four issues that every student would have to face once they leave school if they wished to continue practicing as an artist/photographer. He laid out these four points and then developed his discussion of each part of these points in a very orderly, specific and detailed manner. It seemed more like a military briefing than anything else. Relying on a thirty-year-old memory, I’m afraid that I will have to generalize a bit, but I still remember the main points.

First, he talked about professionalism, and what that might mean to a struggling young artist. He pointed out that an artist was responsible to or at least would have to respond to four major issues throughout the remainder of their career. Heinecken claimed that each of these issues would at times place conflicting demands on the student’s time and energies, but that all of these issues were important to the individual’s development and that they should consider how best to manage them throughout their future progress as an artist.
1st. To develop their art. An artist has to make art. One had to keep working hard to continue to develop and expand their mastery over their own art practice.
2nd. To develop their career. Some time, careful thought, energy and action had to be devoted into developing their own career, otherwise they would always be working in a vacuum.
3rd. To develop their profession, which parallels, but isn’t quite the same as the first two issues. In spite of the romantic ideal of the individual isolated artist, in fact, the practice of art took place within a context of supporting institutions and organizations which also needed to be developed and maintained.
And 4th, to develop their community. Heinecken took pains to point out that the students existed within a specialized community of like-minded individuals consisting of those who enjoyed the practice and qualities of fine art photography and who valued and fostered it in their lives. This community consisted in those artists, educators, administrators, curators, authors, critics and collectors who chose to spend their own time, energy and money to foster the development of fine arts practices in photography. And as many more people in the world were indifferent or even hostile to the idea of fine art photography or the practice of art in general, this was a small and occasionally embattled community which only at times marginally interfaced with the larger cultural functioning of contemporary society. So it was necessary to be aware of and attempt to respond to those forces and ideas in play at the time, from censorship to funding to the health of the organizations or institutions, which might impact upon that community. The artist should always give some consideration of these issues and strive to help maintain a healthy environment within the community the student had elected to join by becoming an artist.

It might seem ironic that the man who had the public reputation of being a misogynist, but who had such a clear vision of the fragilities and frailties of the male ego and the force of sexuality in contemporary life, and who had been considered so radical at times, would expend such care to attempt to teach good citizenship to his students. But that was Heinecken; combing irony, humor, concern and compassion to challenge careless thinking at every level.