STORIES BEHIND THE IMAGES
Eskimo Spirit Mammal Breath, Nova Scotia, Canada © January, 1975 Caroline Vaughan BT
Bien note: from the monograph Borrowed Time: Photographs by Caroline Vaughan, Durham & London, Duke Press, 1996, any images that were reproduced in my monograph by Duke Press and are published on my website will be referred to as BT. In 1978, The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX exhibited more than sixty of my images (ACM) all of which are in their museum collection and some of which were later reproduced in the Duke monograph.
The Image and the Word
In Greek photography means writing or drawing with light.
In 1975, Eskimo Spirit represented the most physically exhausting image I made in cold temperatures. Guided north from Halifax by a teacher who knew the area, we drove an hour to Truro. I had studied hypothermia for years so that I would never put myself or any volunteer model at risk. Diminishing lack of brain power to know what was happening made me realize I needed to know the signs of its onset: disorientation, uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, drowsiness or exhaustion. I also knew that I could lose 40% of my body heat through my head and extremities, so gloves and hats were paramount.
We started our journey by eating a breakfast menu to shore us up with protein- steak, eggs, cheese, potatoes, and hot liquids. We repeated this after our shoot to bring our bodies back to temperature.
Our first obstacle was to reach the upper level to find the waterfall. There was a metal staircase wider than my arms could reach iced over many times. Carrying on my back the 4x5 folded Deardorff, five sheet film holders and a Gitzo French tripod gave me more weight. I weighed about 110 pounds naked. My friend, Gail Proudfoot, was tall and strong. As I stepped carefully up each tread, she spread her arms behind me, held both rails, supported my body like giant wings to keep me from falling. I dug my heels into the ice for traction as we walked the distance to the waterfall. The sight of the waterfall took my breath away but I had to work fast because I was beginning to lose feeling in my feet.
Once I set up the camera and tripod, I used the light meter and set the aperture and plunged the cable release. Nothing happened. I went to the front and examined the camera lens. The metal blades of the aperture connected to the 210 Symmar lens were frozen and did not respond. For a moment I looked up at the overcast sky. I remembered Matthew Brady, a photographer who made images of dead men lying in fields after the Civil War. He did not have sophisticated equipment. I rotated the aperture to F 45, wanting to capture every molecule of the scene. Because two days earlier in Halifax the warmest day in 75 years occured, 55 degrees F, I could see steaming pockets of fog and hear ice cracking. Two days later when we drove to Truro it was -13 F counting the wind chill factor. The one day thaw, splintered chunks of ice from the stiletto sharp icicles like saber teeth and swirled around in a circular pattern, allowing water to flow slowly until it dropped to the next level. I followed several ice bits, counted in my head how long a trajectory in time it took to make one revolution. I used a third of that time and distance, converted it to seconds (12), put the shutter on bulb, which opens the eye of the camera, put the lens cap on and when the floating ice approached the curve in front of the camera, I removed the lens cap, counted to 12 and replaced the lens cover. This is the manner Matthew Brady used. After five film holders with two shots each, we packed up the camera and retreated, finding an easier escape path. All of the shots had the vigilant waterfall, with clumps of snow but only one had this pattern that turned into spirit.
Elizabeth Beltz In The Iron Studio, Penland, NC © 2007 Caroline Vaughan
When I taught my class at Penland in 2007, I asked each student to write about themselves. I was teaching portrait, self-portrait, and equivalent portraits. Each student also gave me copyright to their writing for me to use in the future. Many times later in my career, I tape recorded interviews with people I felt had stories to tell beyond the portrait I was making of them.
On my 58th birthday I spent most of the day in the iron works foundry with Elizabeth Beltz. I have always been drawn to the ways in which people choose to define themselves, with tattoos. cutting, clothing styles, nose rings, pierced areas, jewelry, belts, holsters, head dressing design or hairstyle, and how that reveals their passion-what they choose as their immersive identity. Although I am an introvert, I find my camera becomes a passport to explore areas I might shy away from, even thought I am transfixed, mesmerized by their outward expression of their authentic self.
Elizabeth and I talked that day and later I asked her to write something which I could copyright and use in my future work.
She wrote: I can't write about being an empowered woman because I don believe that's what I am. I am tough and strong because I have been kicked around so many times. I was addicted to meth for eight years and for years before a good friend of mine wrote a note & shot himself in the head. Not long after that I was asked to bail my father out of jail & I ended up there myself.
I quit making every kind of art because abruptly I came to realize @ that time Art meant nothing. No matter how beautiful you or someone else thinks it is, it will always be just stuff.
And in the mind frame I headed right into the American workforce. Working 2 jobs @ nursing homes, 80 hours a week. I took care of the people that families and friends pushed aside. I cleaned dead bodies & saw things people should never have to deal w/. I came to the conclusion that it wasn't something I could do anymore. So I got up one day & I didn't look back.
I have been homeless now for 6 months. Traveling around w/just my backpack from place to place. Trying so hard to rediscover that reason I lost so many years ago about trying to answer the question, "Why create art?"
Often I come off to people as being older than I am & sometimes people think I know who I am & what I am about. I don't. I have just learned to fully accept the facts that; Life is really fucking short so don't do something you don't want to & don't waste time trying to be someone you're not.
I left the man I love standing alone @ the alter, I walked away from what used to be my entire life. I am not here to make a point or a statement. I stand here now trying to collect & gather all the pieces of my life that I lost or threw away.
This image was accepted into the Polaroid Collection in 2008, as I was still a participant in the Young Artists' Program which began when I was at M.I.T. when Marie Cosindas, famous for introducing color into photography using her Polacolor portraits for Helena Rubenstein, was my mentor. Elizabeth Beltz studied at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC in 2010 after working with Zach Noble at Penland in blacksmithing. She interned at the North House Folk School in 2016 in Minnesota, apprenticed for two years at the Metal Museum in Memphis and now is owner of Black Widow Forge, LLC in Memphis.
Waterlily Celebration © 1974 Caroline Vaughan BT
Waterlily Celebration was made in Durham in 1974 in the backyard of Dr. Stephen Wainwright, James B. Duke Professor of Zoology, friend, mentor and patron for more than forty years. Steve gave me a stipend to travel and make personal photographs to complete an exhibition for the Amon Carter Museum. I had presented my portfolio from eastern states and wanted to photograph in the west to make a more complete presentation. Once the exhibition was scheduled for October 1978, I began to travel in three month journeys. As I traveled, to insure my negatives were good, I had to kneel down by bathtubs in motels to develop my film in trays along the way at night, darkening the windows with plastic garbage bags. After traveling to Tallahassee, Florida, I traveled around looking at water lily sites and saw thousands in ponds, opening to the sky, bursting with light but with no way to reach them. I needed a long pier to reach them with my lens. Where I found water lilies I saw alligators in the shallow water.
When I returned to Durham, I always finished the negatives and made prints to show Steve my progress. One afternoon I showed up at his house complaining about how beautiful and inaccessible the water lilies were in Florida. Steve just said: Why don't you walk through the house towards the garden. There's a brick five foot pond that has them. I went to see and nearly fell over laughing. Three blooming water lilies in a brick pond four feet wide. I immediately left to return with my camera, used Polaroid film type 52 (print only) to check my approach to the image, then shot five identical images and developed them in Pyro, a hand mixed film developer with a longer tonal range than ones sold in camera stores. Pyro was used by Edward Weston and other photographers in the F64 club.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Sometimes I travel far only to return home and find what I searched for right at my feet. Minor White taught us that we could see nothing except what was inside of us, what resonated with our solar plexus. His first print critique consisted of an astrologer's critique of our work. She nailed me by saying most of my life I would spend with women, that my core form, the shape that always seduced me, was an S curve and often repeating or making double images in my work were a result of my sun sign, Gemini, known as the twins.
This image was presented to Minor White when he was selecting work for an exhibition at M.I.T., which would include an edition of Aperture called Celebrations. The Waterlily Celebration was purchased by the Polaroid Collection, and later reproduced in Borrowed Time published by Duke Press in 1996. Waterlily is also in the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State in Raleigh. I made notecards published by Harper Prints in Henderson, NC and used them personally since 1983. The note cards for sale in the ACM sold quickly. I received a note from the founder of the museum, Mrs. Ruth Carter Johnson, asking if I could send her some for her personal use. I packed a box with ten note cards with envelopes in Ziploc bags and sent her about 50 of each with a note thanking her for the exhibition and that no further payment was necessary. Ruth Carter Johnson's second marriage was to John R. Stevenson, Director of the National Gallery of Art, so I didn't mind that my notecards were used by two great philanthropists.
Two Callas ©1974 Caroline Vaughan BT
Callas and Human Sexuality
Callas remind me of the whole spectrum of human sexuality. The undulating curve reminds me of the feminine, the stamen projects the phallus of the masculine and their dance along these boundaries seems almost androgynous or bisexual, neither pinpointing nor limiting our potential for connection. In their dual features they remind me of the quote from William Butler Yeats: Who can tell the dancer from the dance?
I’ve always thought flowers were like skin, except that they undergo a very fast version of how we age. In hours, the buttery young undersides of the flower create tension, wrinkles, then turns brown at the edges and finally droops, curls up and turns dark. In some ways, I am always on the quest for the perfectly shaped or ideal specimen of any particular flower to which I am drawn. I must work quickly before its freshness, its youth, turns in hours, to two or three decades of our own aging, and over a period of days, dies. A friend from Israel, The Minister of Truth and Justice, with whom I corresponded, wrote: Calla in Hebrew means bride. And is it not on your wedding day, when you are a bride, that you have an inner glow emanating from the prospect of your whole life before you? -- Dina Feldman.
Developed in Pyro to bring out the long tonal range these images sold quickly at $50 each dry mounted as was the fashion of the day for all serious photographers. A few years later I took an evening class at NC State in retouching. The instructor told everyone to take a ball of cotton, wet it with alcohol and rub until the image was clean. No one else used Pyro in the class which created a raised emulsion and a brownish stain, like bas relief. I put 45 scratches into that negative, ruined it.
Who Does My Digital Printing?
Twenty-five years later I met the digital master printer and photographer, Wojtek Wojdynski. He made my first large digital print from a 4x5 negative of an artichoke cut in half, 23"x 30". I later asked him to retouch the Callas. Wojtek spent five hours removing every scratch the size of a cat hair. I could print the image again, but never in gelatin silver, only in digital form. At his studio, Fotografix, Wojtek has printed entire exhibitions for every photographer who once worked only in black and white for most of their career, does not have the resources or interest to learn digital printing, which takes specialized equipment, and the brain of an engineer. As a practicing fine art photographer himself, Wojtek prints for us all. He remains our silent partner who makes us all look good, but he never takes credit for himself.
Moon Flower © 2020 All Right Reserved Caroline Vaughan
The Moon Flower Project
Finding the perfect specimen by luck in a florist is very different from growing a flower from seed on a trellis. Each day I arranged the vine for four months so that the buds and vines eventually created a pod which opened and bloomed in the evening. I found after asking around on Facebook that many people had prolific vines that bloomed in late July. It would be difficult photographing even a huge array of flowers as they opened and closed depending on the time of day and the amount of light. I never suspected that this year no one's moon flowers bloomed. I had to find a starter pot and grow them myself.
After I shot several hundred images on a small film card, I found my card reader would not read it. I bought the old-style film cards which are larger, and which new card reader could read. I had been spoiled by the iPhone which immediately showed you the image, much like Polaroid film. This was the longest single project for one still life subject in my life. After I captured the images that best expressed the movement and nature of the night blooming flower, I was pleased that I had at least two I liked out of more than 700 attempts. I had shot only one other night blooming flower, the Cereus, but that only took one night and six hours indoors.
Another image (see Poetry With Images) hints at the leaves and reddish stems of the vine. The spiral white flower is not quite fully open, but the movement expresses the character of the flower which moves from pod to a slowly opening origami shaped bloom continuing to unfurl until (image on left) it is more fully the shape of the moon.
Jeanette Sarbo with Polaroid
© 1972 Caroline Vaughan BT
This image was selected by Ansel Adams
and published on the back of
for the Polaroid Corporation.
CONSISTENT MODELS OVER DECADES
Jeanette Sarbo and Lauren White © 1972 Caroline Vaughan
Two friends who modeled for me often while I was at Duke, Jeanette Sarbo and Lauren White, continued to model for me when I graduated and attended M.I.T. They were graduate students in psychology in Boston. I still needed models for making portraits while participating in Polaroid Corporation's Young Artist's Program. They both had black capes and read my Tarot cards whenever I needed direction in my Duke life. One image Polaroid purchased and accessioned into their collection (1972). Jeanette also became of my Life Series, a project I planned in which I would photograph the same people every ten or fifteen years. I never finished the full potential of the project except with my father and mother, Jeanette and Steve's niece.
In the second portrait of Jeanette and Lauren, I was trying for a Victorian look, hence the capes. My portraits always show hands as I feel they tell as much abought the character of the person as their face.
Another project, supported by a grant from the Documentary Center at Duke and funded by Thom Mount, a high school classmate, who became producer of Bull Durham, Tequila Sunrise and other movies, allowed me to rent space downtown in the Snow Building to photograph people whom I did not know. I was hesitant to bring interesting strangers to my home studio. Many of these portraits were published in Duke Press's mid-life survey of my work in Borrowed Time, 1996. Several volunteer models who trusted me brought another change of clothes so that I could do before and after shots, showing how the nature of couples were difficult to identify based on our assumptions about them in various attire. This idea came to me after I had gone back stage during the Miss America Drag Pageant in Durham in June 1990, passed out my business card, offering free publicity photographs for their portfolios if they would first come to my studio and allow me to photograph them in my own style. Many of these double portraits were later published in Duke Press's Borrowed Time, 1996. This first experience resulted in the series of Benney and Dwight, 1990, (see portfolio Borrowed Time) which was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, in platinum, shot with an 8x10 Deardorff. The series is also in private collections as well as in The Gregg Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Lauren White and Jeanette Sarbo, Boston, MA,
© 1972 Caroline Vaughan
Polaroid Collection, Cambridge, MA
In 2004, Personal Disruptions was exhibited at the Center for Documentary studies and included another portrait of Jeanette. Since she was now a practicing child psychiatrist, I made an image of her using her hands to hide her ears and make gestures to remind me of her responsibility to her client was to not reveal, show or tell anything said in sessions as doctor-patient relationships always involved confidential information.
Funded by a Duke classmate, Stephen Dunn, Personal Disruptions, an exhibition and a small book, featured portraits and profiles of students and other individuals who were involved in Duke's Vigil, a protest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968. King's death was a shock, and many Duke students marched to the university president's house to stage a sit-in in his living room overnight. Students presented a list of demands on behalf of the civil rights of African Americans on campus. They wanted Duke's president to resign from a local, segregated country club, to make collective bargaining available to Duke's hospital workers, and for the university to raise the wages of campus dining hall workers. Students also demanded the establishment of a dormitory for Black students and a Department of Afro-American Studies.
President Douglas Knight cordially invited the protestors into his home where they stayed the night. His wife eventually served them breakfast. When Knight suddenly fell ill, in a relapse from a recent, serious illness, the students moved their protest to the main quadrangle in front of Duke Chapel. Some 4,000 students occupied the quad for four days in silent vigil, the quiet broken only by occasional speeches, and music from Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Campus dining-hall workers went on strike. The protest closed peacefully after the chairman of the university trustees agreed to address the financial situation of our non-academic employees.
© 2003 Caroline Vaughan
Jeanette Sarbo, wearing a wool cape, lay in snow in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I shot with an 8x10 view camera. Later I sandwiched the two identical images front to back to make this Rorschach image. I often make double images as I am a Gemini, the sign of twins.
Spirit Guardian, White Mountains, NH
© 1977 Caroline Vaughan ACM
In 2008 I found a model who was willing to pose nude in the snow for me by waterfalls. She was athletic, had worked for the FBI and had strength and stamina. That was the first time I had to actually take care of a model who was suffering from hypothermia. I remembered they don't know they have it, so I had to be very stern to get my model down the snow mountain (she furnished snowshoes) as quickly as I could, feed her hot Irish stew at a diner I had already decided we would visit after the shoot, and insist that she get into the hotel hot tub until her normal body temperature returned and she spoke coherently. Extremely intelligent, my model argued that she was fine. She resisted the idea of the hot tub but before we flew to New Hampshire to meet, I laid out my rule book, that she would have to do exactly as I said, or we would not make photographs. It was my sacred responsibility to not kill any models or no one else would sign up for impossible ideas I had in my head.
I shot nude women in the winter eliminating the danger or tick bites or snakes. I always wrapped them in warm blankets and gave them a thermos of hot tea while I did film changes.
© 2008 Caroline Vaughan
SPECIAL LIGHTING CONSIDERATIONS IN THE STUDIO AND
OLD-SCHOOL WET DARKROOM AND DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Portrait © 2020 Caroline Vaughan retouching by Wojtek Wojdynski of Fotografix
Flash photography often creates challenges such as highlights on eyeglasses. In the early days of darkroom wet photography, I used spot-tone with a 000 brush to retouch such highlights. In digital photography there are many software programs that allow an experienced photographer to erase highlights, add duplicate objects and merge one image into another. All the experience I used in wet darkroom helped me to manipulate images in a similar way, but digital retouching today is an exacting process and requires patience and greater skill.
My lighting ratio is also very different from most photographers. I like black backgrounds. I think of portraits as incomplete if the eyes and hands are not in perfect focus. I use a 1/5 ratio which is stark and more on the edge. Using the view camera, no one could ever smile, so all looked dead or worn down to their authentic self, tired of holding a pose for two minutes--I never wanted them to smile because it would look so fake. I wanted to portray the inner person, not the facade that people first offered me. Georgann Eubanks, a friend, author and teacher, once wrote that being photographed by me was like working with a lion tamer. Portrait sessions were physical, grueling and pushed both of us to our best effort. I turned dozens of people down who asked because I was sure they needed an image in color in a week to frame for their mother to put on top of the piano. I always asked if that was what they needed. If they said yes, I suggested another photographer who exhibited her family portraits in a shopping mall, or Olan Mills.
A 1/3 ratio is considered normal for most commercial photographers who photograph your family smiling with the dog on the lawn in front of your house. A passport image might be a ratio of 1/2 so to see exactly what you look like for purposes of identification.
Everyone who views a portrait will see as if looking into a mirror-- some overlap of their own self. I asked two people what they could tell about this man by just looking at the detail above. One said he looked confident and almost arrogant. Another said his journey was filled with darkness, but he was resilient and intelligent. Can we really see ourselves? We are all imperfect, have multi-facets, and rarely can be summed up by a one second exposure on any given day.
Imogen Cunningham, my heroine, who made wonderful portraits of artists and flowers once told me that when she made a portrait, she never gave it to the person because no one likes the way they look. She always mailed it and never looked back. Afterall, they had hired her to make their portrait in the manner she saw fit. She laughed when she told me that just before she snapped the shutter on her Rolleiflex while photographing Anna Freud, she said out loud I never believed any of that stuff that Freud wrote, nonsense to me. She was rewarded with the grimace she sought, showing Anna to be a fierce woman of her times. I never used tricks like that but know famous photographers who did. When shooting the portrait of Churchill, Yousuf Karsh yanked the smoking cigar out of his mouth just before the shutter clicked. The image that resulted was on the cover of Life Magazine and referred to as The Roaring Lion. What resulted was an image of a man stoked to fight and that was the Churchill we all needed to see at that point in history.