I would like to dedicate this book to my professor, mentor and friend Bernie Freemesser. His untimely death in 1977 brought an end to a photography program that was unique, and one that gave me a vision and a foundation to build a lifetime of experiences in teaching and my personal work in photography.
SO THE STORY GOES
I started my career in photography right out of high school as the head photographer for a small, daily newspaper. The newspaper job paid my way through college and after I graduated I taught high school art for three years. When I decided to apply to graduate school in 1969, I looked at a number of photography programs at different schools (there was only a short list at the time) and I finally decided on a program with a professor named Bernie Freemesser at the University of Oregon., I wanted to get an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) so that I could eventually teach college level courses. I contacted Bernie and he convinced me that his program was unique and he assured me I would meet some of the most influential people in photography of the time. He was right, of course, and I have never regretted the decision to go to Oregon.
THE PROGRAM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
The program at the University of Oregon had an intellectual “bent” to it, so theory and critiques about student work and the work of other fine art photographers of the time were a large part of the learning experience. Bernie would hold forth every Tuesday evening at critiques where each student was expected to show new mounted work. Bernie would set up an easel with a high intensity lamp on it, and we were to talk about our work and make incisive comments about the work of others in the class. All of this took place at Bernie’s home and it was intense, but a great experience. It helped to define each of us as photographers and gave us an understanding and appreciation of photography that still resonates for me today.
Occasionally Brett Weston would come to Oregon to make photographs and he would stop and visit Bernie and come to our critiques. He would always show his work and make comments about our work that were helpful. After the class a number of students would linger and listen to stories about Brett and his famous father Edward and some of their photographic adventures. It was a motivating experience for me as a young man and an experience I will never forget.
Bernie was one of the founding fathers of SPE (Society for Photograrphic Education) and invited many photographers to do workshops, give lectures, and have debates at the school. Imogen Cunnigham, Wynn Bullock, Ansel Adams, Eugene Smith and Minor White to name a few, and these were the people who influenced me the most in photography. On one occasion Bernie arranged a student exchange with his friend and colleague Minor White who was teaching at MIT. A few students, from the graduate program went to study with Minor. This change of venue, and Minor’s startling difference in his approach to teaching and critiques, made a lasting impression.
The photography program at the University of Oregon was stiff and rigid compared to today’s standards. I personally needed to be in a graduate program that had boundaries. It reigned me in from an undergraduate art school where I was exploring non-objective painting and studying abstract expressionism. In Oregon I studied photography as an art form in the purest sense. For example, if you were using a medium speed film with an ISO speed of 400, you would change to a slower speed film with an ISO of 25 so that the grain structure would be smaller and the tonal range of the print would be increased. Everything was about the natural beauty that can be obtained by technically overcoming what were considered to be the shortcomings of the medium at the time. Everyone used a large format camera, (4x5, 8x10, or 11x14). The quality of the finished silver print was so important that there was a constant search for photographic paper with the highest silver content. Such questions as what developer should be used for specific brands of photographic paper and film formed a common discussion in critique classes. Old photographic formulas were resurrected and used to gain just a little more depth or a little more tonal range or a little more control of shadow areas in the negative and print. It was also imperative that the DOF (depth of field) was extreme and that no subject matter was out of focus. That was considered to be a no- no and taboo. The technical standards of that era were stringent but content was never abandoned and the fusion of aesthetics and technique were also of great importance. This attitude and this way of making and producing what was considered fine art photography, was an example of the collective conscience of some of the most serious photographers of that time, particularly on the West Coast. Since that era of fine art photography, volumes have been written about “straight forward – representational” photography. However, I don’t think anyone has written as eloquently and lucidly about the art of photography and what it meant to them as Minor White and Edward Weston.
The work in this book was done between 1969 and 1973, when I graduated. I was always interested in black and white photography, but I completed my thesis work in color which, at that time was a new part of the program at the University. Unfortunately, all of my color work was destroyed in a flood, so I only have my black and white work from Oregon. With this book I am finally able to pay tribute to Bernie and to all of the creative photographers that I met and studied with during my years at Oregon.
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