Category Archives: Inspirations from others

Getting To The Core Of Who Your Subject Is

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have been able to write or post a new blog.  I have been super busy lately working on more commercial work that needed priority.  One of the projects I work on this time of year is the promotional images for The Montana Rep Theater Company’s national tour that goes out at the end of January.  So much of my work has a theatrical quality to it.  I worked in theater for so long that it still sticks with me.  I guess it is just a part of my nature.  I love the idea of tapping into the emotional resonance of an image.  One of the things that most people first learn when working with me on images is how quickly I connect to others.  I once read an interview with Robert Mapplethorpe where he talked about the importance of establishing a relationship with his subjects.  Meeting, talking, getting to know, and sharing with the person you are about to create images with.  He would never shoot anyone cold that he didn’t know.  This stuck me at the time and I have modeled my own approach to photography in this manner.  It shows in the image how strongly the subject connects to the photographer.  I mean in a sense we are all photogenic.  But I see so many young or beginning photographer’s images and it feels they are only revealing the surface of the subject, because the subject seems distant or aloof.  Yes the image may be pretty and technically good, but that is only a small fraction of creating an image.  Establishing the working relationship first breaks down some of those barriers and creates more of an intimacy in the final image.  Somehow people trust photographers in ways they don’t trust others.  At my first meeting with a subject that I will possibly photograph nude, often revealing insights that are intimate and personal.   Perhaps I know the right questions to ask, perhaps they know and trust my eye and body of work, perhaps I have a reputation that whatever they say or reveal will not leave the walls of my studio.  I am not sure, but it gets me closer to the core of identifying who they are.  The actual photographic process can often be distracting due to all the technical elements involved in creating the right exposure and adjusting the lighting as I begin to discover what works best with their skin and personality.  The subject somehow trusts this.  My focus always remains on them, discovering the nuance of who they are.  I shoot a lot of images during a shoot, but with each shot I try to discover more about who they are.  I never work on the surface.  Part of my theatrical training is the ability to constantly coax out their best, each image becoming a step further.  I guess this is what I really love about the process.  To me, my segue from working in theater to photography was just a natural progression.  In a sense it’s still staged, but I have just moved from the box of the proscenium arch of the theater to the box contained within the frame of camera.

Paul Richmond: New Featured Artist on the Project

Paul Richmond is an artist I always adore and admire.  I finally connected with him earlier this week, mostly just to say howdy.  We spent most of the morning exchanging message.  It turns out the publishing company he works for was looking for photographic work as cover art for some of their publications and I was very interested in featuring him as one of the artist in this project.  By the end of the day he had sent me a selection of his images and I was able to create a gallery of his work.  I love his images, they are filled with so much color and the concepts are hysterically funny.  He plays on images we are all familiar with and twists to fit within our on gay mythology.  I know growing up in Montana there were no iconic images that even hinted at anything gay, it what kept so many of us in the closet and fearful of coming out.  Now Paul has taken those marketing concepts and fashioned them into what I think are brilliant gay iconic art.  They are playful, they hint at the naughty and they are revealing, often exposing men’s bare bums.  The subject’s faces often filled with shock in a feigned innocent compromising vulnerability.
Paul’s history has been primarily as an illustrator.  He illustrated comic books as well as probably hundreds of pulp fiction style book covers.  Paul now live in Columbus, Ohio with his partner Dennis Niekro and teaches painting classes.  I wish I didn’t live so far away I would love to take a class from a master like Paul.  Last summer Paul had a show with friend and other featured artist Tom Acevedo in P Town.
This morning I feel I am getting back on track now with this project.  It has always been my vision to create a community of like-minded artists and begin showcasing their amazing talents.

Gilbert M: A Lust For Life

Today I wanted to write about a man to which I owe much of my creative life. His name was Gilbert Millikan, probably one of the greatest champions for arts in the state of Montana. Gilbert passed away in 2003 from brain tumor and I cannot let this year’s project pass without paying a tribute to him.

Gilbert was born, raised and spent the greatest portion of his life in Missoula. His father was a smart businessman who invested in properties and owned the original Bitterroot Market, which is now where the Bitterroot Flower Shop is located. Gilbert’s mother was involved in many social organizations throughout the valley so Gilbert inherited the best of both those worlds. He is probably the kindest, most generous man I have ever known. He was somewhat of a philanthropist toward the creative process, the creation of art, and artists of all sorts. There were two sides to Gilbert, one his outgoing social butterfly, and the very reclusive man who often chose to remain hidden. He lived in an old Victorian Mansion, with his two little yappy dogs Sunny and Happy. He was passionate about gardening and developed the grounds of his Victorian Estate into the most extraordinary gardens. This is how I sort of got to know Gilbert. I was a student in college and rented an old carriage house on the property that had been converted into a self-contained guesthouse. I would occasionally help him with the upkeep and planting of those gardens. Movies were another passion we both shared and every Saturday afternoon we would go off to see whatever was new. His passion for movies so astonishing that he bought a video rental business that he grew to become one of the biggest and best in town outlasting any franchise that would dare enter our small community.

Probably the deepest level Gilbert and I bonded was that we were both gay. Though he was much older then I was, he was fascinated by how open I was and how the culture around us was becoming more open and the world seemingly more tolerant. The reclusive side of Gilbert’s stemmed from a certain amount of shame he felt from being gay and the difficulty he was having with his own acceptance of his sexuality. He had a long time partner, but they had become estranged and lived in separate houses in the same block. Anyone who would meet Gilbert would instantly recognize he was gay, as much as he tired to conceal it. I worked off and on for Gilbert for many years whenever I was in town, eventually becoming his personal assistant until his untimely death. I nursed him through his final months as he struggled with the tumor taking command of his life. Upon his passing, he endowed everything he had owned, properties, massive art collections, and estate to four arts charities in the state of Montana, which were considerably under funded at the time.

All those years with Gilbert I learned to face a lot of my own fears and anxieties. Gilbert had instilled in me a passion for what was beautiful and that all creation comes from the soul weather you are photographing, gardening, or cooking. He was a man of amazing means that lead a humble life. Everything was done and approached with as much enthusiasm one could muster with no expectation of an end result. Though he was not an artist himself, he was fearless in his approach for cultivating other artists and brought humanity to the creative process and instilled a passion for others to create. He became a great patron for many artists in the region, filling his house with the works of others. He believed in me when I couldn’t see it within myself. He believed that we had to earn everything, and didn’t hand it to me, but always created an exchange. The honor of artistry was something that had to be earned, like any other business and that anything was possible with a lot of hard work. This instilled an ethic in me for my own creation that seems to drive my passion deeper.

My dear friend, though it has been many years since your passing I wish you could see the seeds you have laid in my heart for what I have become this year. You would ever be so proud of what I have been able to accomplish. The best of everything you ever were I now carry forward. I have now become that artist you had always believed in as a young man. My compassion, honestly, lust for life, and ability to see into the humanity of others I owe to you. Thank you for the gift of such a precious life.

A Flicker Of My Past Desire Realized

Last night I watched an old western called Red River directed by Howard Hawk originally released in 1948. It was a John Wayne classic featuring one of the most beautiful men to ever be photographed, Montgomery Cliff. This was his first major feature film and made him an overnight sensation. He was 26 years old at the time of shooting and is just stunning to watch in this old black and white epic. Part of what makes the film so brilliant is the lighting is fantastic though out the film and though I have seen this film a dozen times it still mesmerizes me. After watching it last night I began to see how much of an influence it has had on my style of photography and the development of my approach to lighting. Of course growing up in the west, I identify with the sexual allure of the cowboy, particularly Montgomery Cliff. In this film he embodies it all, handsome, strong yet sensitive, compassionate, and secure in his masculinity. He was my role model and became the one icon I could always look up to because he stirred such strong feelings of desire within me for this sort of male figure and I began to recognize my sexual attraction was definably toward men. There is a very wonderful scene in the film in which he and another wrangler named Cherry admire each other’s guns in a very homoerotic flirtatious manner that is quite suggestive of something other than shooting. He was one of the first movie stars that I found out was gay which deepened my desire. Though he often play emotionally tortured men, his characters seemed to become a mirror of his personal life and struggles which seem to somehow personify everything I felt. Every time I saw him on the screen I become absorbed by the depth and pain he brought to each character. He was a man who was able to tap into this own pain and reveal his very soul for others to see. Few movie stars have brought this much honesty to the screen, except maybe James Dean. This is a quality I strive for in my own imagery, a moment of bearing the humanity of ourselves and exposing who we are in our existence. Cliff is one of the few actors to consistently maintain this intensity making almost every film an instant classic: A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, The Heiress, Raintree Country, Suddenly Last Summer and even the Alfred Hitchcock classic I Confess.

I have often pondered how a young ranch kid like myself was so drawn to work in arts and entertainment. Last night that connection became clear watching Red River, the magic, the beauty, the sexual allure of the American west, my west, stirred my emotions , presented in the flicker of a film and watching Montgomery Cliff enter my universe. I identified with a feeling where anything was possible and knew it was a place I could coexist and where I would be understood and accepted for my difference. Where the tormented soul can reveal itself and become the basis of artistic expression. Monty though you died when I was just a kid, you still live in my heart decades later and stir a desire and passion within me that will never dissipate. You only seem to grow stronger with time as the truth of your worlds real and make believe still haunt me.

The Lost World Of Tennessee Williams

For some reason I have been thinking lately about the lonely death of the American writer Tennessee Williams. Here is a brilliant man who has crafted some to the greatest plays of all time for the American Theater. Things like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. He choked to death on the cap of some eye drops he was trying to open with his mouth on February 25, 1983. How is it that a man with such a great mind for creating some of the most fascinating and complex character studies can pass away from something so insignificant as a bottle cap? Tennessee Williams is probably one of the most influential people on my life and work. As a young theater student in my twenties, when I had finally entered his remarkable world, I felt like I had finally found a home. He wrote about all the things we as culture in Montana like to keep hidden and considered taboo: alcoholism, homosexuality, addiction, beauty, the loss of beauty, fear, doubt, and self-loathing. A world where people were trapped by their often-brutal existence. Nothing seemed sacred to Tennessee. He himself grew up in a shattered world, feeling closest to his sister Rose. She was schizophrenic, in and out of hospitals, eventually becoming lobotomized; she became the wellspring for much of his characterizations. He used the dysfunction of his life to add life to those remarkable characters of Blanche, Brick, Laura, or Alma. Everything he wrote seemed to plummet into the heart of darkness whether it was a play, novel, or even a short story. His writing was filled with passion, honesty, and above all humility. When I entered this world I somehow knew most of these characters and could see so much of his despair and depression within myself. I became addicted and spent a year reading everything consumable about the man. Eventually I directed a production of The Glass Menagerie for my senior project at the University. I still get a giddy feeling when I read anything written by this master and am still captivated by the ground away versions of the Hollywood classics. That scene with Elizabeth Taylor blurting out the truths of Sebastian using her for procurement of young boys leading to his cannibalistic death before she is about to be lobotomized by his mother, Katherine Hepburn, who will do anything to keep the truth hidden in Suddenly Last Summer is one of the greatest moments in film history and still sucks me in with it’s intensity. I could write a year of just blogs on Tennessee Williams alone.

So much of my own imagery and the worlds I enter with my own photography have to do with the feeling, tone, and mood of Tennessee Williams characters and stories. There is a beauty in the darkness where we remain hidden. My work becomes about exposing the inner life of my characters in a raw and sometimes vulnerable way. There is so much depth hidden within all of us that is rarely allowed to surface. Yet there is remarkable beauty in that depth. This is the place I like to explore with my subjects. This has been a year of finding a wholeness within myself and I feel that dysfunction beginning to fade. I fear this may affect my work. I somehow doubt it because I have always got Mr. Williams to remind me of where I have been. To me he is the essential homosexual on my shelf. It’s unfortunate the upcoming generation doesn’t even know his name, as the quotes of his characters imbued my generation and gave life to an culture, fade into a lost oblivion. We no longer rely on the kindness of strangers, but instead become the strangers.