A Personal Dilemma
Late in Oliver Gagliani's life — he was in his eighties at the time — I visited him at his home in South San Francisco. I was there to interview him for LensWork, but during the course of my visit he was excited to show me his newest work. He was printing new images for a book he was working on about Italy. Filled with enthusiasm, he brought out several dozen prints, mostly 11x14 and few 8x10s. Oliver has always been one of my favorite photographers and I consistently find his work both exquisitely printed and aesthetically wonderful. I was eager with anticipation to have the opportunity to see his new work — even thrilled that he was excited to share it with me.
I'm usually in awe in the presence of his prints, but this time I was underwhelmed — seriously underwhelmed. His passion for photography remained and his enthusiasm for his new work was infectious. Unfortunately, his eyesight was not that of his prime and all of his prints were out of focus, weakly printed, and every one had giant dust spots that would have been impossible to spot out even if his eyesight would have allowed him to do so. I asked if they were just rough prints he was knocking out quickly in an early phase of the project. "No," he said, "these are exhibition prints ready for matting and framing." Ouch. I pointed out one of the most egregious dust spots and suggested he might want to address it before finishing it. He held the print up close and looked for it through his spotting glasses, but said he couldn't see it. I could see it with my naked eyes — from across the room. I realized that his aging physical limitations simply prevented him from seeing the prints with clarity. As an artist, his mind was still engaged and bright, but as a man his age was interfering with his abilities. I failed Oliver in that visit by not being honest with him. I didn't want to hurt his feelings, so I said nothing. I've regretted that failure ever since. I wish I had had the words to talk with him more frankly about what I could see that he could not.
As my peers have aged, I've replayed this scenario with others on a few occasions — not to the extreme of my experience with Oliver, but to one degree or another. How does one tell a photographer that they can no longer see with sufficient acuity to be a photographer? And, of course, how will I know when I must face this inevitable reality in my own work and life?
I've adopted two strategies, one for each end of this challenge. With my own work, I encourage those with younger and better eyesight than mine to be honest with me about what they see. I openly confess that I know my eyesight isn't what it used to be when I was twenty and that I value their honesty. I open the door to the topic, and by doing so I hope they feel more comfortable telling me when my prints need more work. I'll ask pointed questions — Do these seem tack sharp to you? I try to give them an opening to give me feedback that is honest and useable.
With my elders, I've practiced language that opens such delicate topics, even if it runs the risk of offending them. I'll say something like, "I'm not sure these are as tack sharp as other work of yours I've admired. Are you using a different lens?" Their response will guide the conversation. On several occasions, this has led us into a discussion of the challenges of our aging eyesight — a conversation which overcomes the awkward criticism of their prints.
There is an obligation in friendship. There is, perhaps, an even greater obligation when that friendship includes sharing a mutual passion for art making. I wish I had been a better friend to Oliver. Never again will I let my fear of offending prevent me from being the friend and fellow artist I should be. Among all the other things we can be and provide to our friends is the honesty that their artwork deserves. If approached with compassion and true caring, we will be able to find the words that hopefully will be welcomed and useful to them in their creative process.
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.