BORROWED TIME PORTFOLIO
From the book Borrowed Time: Photographs by Caroline Vaughan,
Duke Press, Durham and London, 1996.
Son Vaughan, News Ferry, Virginia © Caroline Vaughan 1982 BT
I learned my father had three older siblings. His nickname was sonny for being the youngest. In 1982, I made my first narrative photograph called Son Vaughan, News Ferry, Virginia. I wanted to use a process that was aged as the 100 year old red oak trees on the farm. Platinum and palladium, which photographers used at the turn of the century was chosen. This process required that I make my own paper, my own emulsion, dry the paper and cut to size to make contact prints, so I used the 8x10 camera.
I experimented with various watercolor papers of differing tooth and weight (measured in pounds). A beautiful paper made by the Crane Company known for our dollar bills, had the most exquisite results, a warm tone that revealed the longest tonal scale. It was a 12 pound paper, about the weight of typing paper and often fell apart after two chemical baths and a water bath. Lifting the paper carefully out of the water bath often resulted in a tear or hole ripped in the middle. There were a lot of ruined prints if I used the lightest weight paper superior in elegance.
Hand-coated platinum printing was a non-stop process that I could only do by from Friday night to Sunday since I had a full time day job. Some of the 300 pound papers never tore but had a grain that was more crude. My favorite paper for years was Fabriano Artisto. I frequently bought a large supply. Suddenly one year they changed the chemical on the surface, the sizing, and it turned all my prints orange. Other photographers using alternative processes, found the same road block. Finally one paper company made a paper that was very good for platinum, 150 pounds, and I migrated to that paper for the duration of my printing in platinum which lasted for fifteen years. Before I cut my kitchen in half to make an 8x8 foot darkroom, I researched the process, found it liced red blood cells and asked father to designa stainless steel commercial hood which would draw the air across the trays of chemicals and out of the water. We took one window out and installed a motel air conditioner which blew hot or cold air. We took out the other window and mounted an attic fan in plywood, attaching the exhaust fumes through a duct pipe that went into the top of the hood. He even designed a drip rail, something that would catch any condensation. He drew this on a paper napkin. We both went to Comfort Engineers to have them fabricate the hood. Whenever I entered any other darkroom the chemical fumes were the first clue that their ventilation was not substantial. I wanted a clean room like Intel.
I coated the paper on Friday night, hung it up to dry over night with the warm heat. I positioned my negative against the coated paper, slipped it into an 11x14 wooden frame with glass and two metal prongs on the back which kept the negative and paper in tight pressured contact. I used a platinum printer, made exposures with a Gralab timer and walked away as you were never supposed to look at the light which exposed the plate.
A hand-coated emulsion of precious metals on watercolor paper, pressed against glass and exposed by July sunlight for six minutes, just as the turn of the century photographers had done with their negatives, sitting on easels to capture the sun’s rays reminded me how slow the emulsion was. A regular silver print made by an enlarger's normal exposure was F11 for 15 seconds. On the ground glass of the camera, father was about half an inch tall, dwarfed by the canopy of red oaks in winter. He leaned on his cane, wore a dark plaid Pendleton wool shirt and stared back at me, as I darted up and down from under the dark cloth of the view camera, seeing him upside down and inverted from left to right, the original way your eye sees before your brain inverts the image. I was trying to focus in two places at once which meant I had to tilt the lens so both were in the same focal plane. I needed his eyes and the top of the trees. The winter sky and tree branches spreading into a dendritic pattern was at the bottom of the glass, his feet at the top.
This upside-down way of seeing the world by the time I was 33 became my new normal natural perspective, not only because I had spent more than 12 years already looking through a view camera, but because in retrospect, everything in my childhood felt upside down and backwards.
I drove father on trips to the Virginia farm as he was awaiting cataract surgery. It was an hour and half drive. I asked him what it was like to see with cataracts. He insisted that he could see fine, he could be driving and didn’t need me to drive him. I told him I wanted to meet the forest ranger who gave him advice about the thirty acres of pine trees planted on the farm. He finally said he could see fine in the center but towards the outside of his vision it darkened. An idea came to me. I would use a short lens to vignette the image. This would reflect his vision. Every lens makes a round image and all photographers used rectangular or square film. The appropriate lens is one in which the “circle” is sufficiently large to cover the square or rectangle. That is a normal lens. A lens that does not cover the area would make a circle, and is called a short lens. The darkness along the edges is intentional. The dendritic pattern of tree branches reminded me of the veins in his eye. The word play on his nickname “son, sonny and sun” vignetted the sides similar to his sight. Son Vaughan became my first narrative, the first image that reflected the story he told me.
I continued to photograph my father four times a year for fifteen years. He lived to be 97 ½. I have many images of him in platinum in the same shirt and cane. The longitudinal process documented how he aged. I called it the life series. Mother was included in all of the portraits. My parents hated being photographed at first, but over time they came to enjoy being the center of attention for at least an hour on Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Birthday, Father’s Birthday, my birthday and Thanksgiving. As they aged, mother gardened or rather pulled weeds and father planted tomatos. Often when I appeared at their home while I worked for Duke, at noon they were still in bed and cared less about their appearance. Before every portrait, I took them for haircuts and kept the clothes dry cleaned at my studio so they would not be lost. For their portraits together I started around 1982. This Life Series morphed into a larger project named Home Ground which also documented two farms my parents owned, one in NC and the other in Virginia.
In the book Borrowed Time, I wanted to show relationships and how often we misunderstand who people are by looking at their wardrobe. I learned that if wanted to photograph drag queens I had to find where they performed. Later, I found they worked temp jobs as waiters or bartenders and changed jobs often so that it was hard to find them. I heard about the annual pageant and decided to go backstage handing out my business card as they were getting dressed for their appearance in the show. I told them that if anyone wanted to come to my studio and allow me to photograph them as I wished, then I would have a separate sitting and do free publicity photographs for their portfolios. Only one man showed up but he brought a friend which was perfect since I was photographing relationships of two and three people in different clothing, what they wore to work and how they dressed when engaged in their own pastimes. Bennye and Dwight arrived carrying fishing tackle boxes filled with their cosmetics. I showed them my tackle back where I kept tools for the camera and gave them separate areas to adorn themselves. When they arrived one sported a mustache which I realized he would shave, so I stopped them and said the first image would be just as they entered the house before any changes were made. Later I went upstairs to the studio and saw them half dressed and said we needed to make another photograph so that people would understand how much creativity they used to make their costumes and that we were, in effect going behind the curtain to see the magic as in the Wizard of Oz. When viewing the images later, I noticed how uncomfortable they both looked and how relaxed they became as they began dressing in drag. My next door Baptist Minister's son shot all my windows out because I was gay. I hope he saw two men enter my home and leave as women.
Bennye and Dwight, Durham, NC © Caroline Vaughan 1990 BT
The Fraziers, In Work and Motorcycle Clothes, Durham, NC © Caroline Vaughan 1990 BT
A grant from the Center for Documentary Studies allowed me to rent space in the Snow Building in downtown Durham to photograph strangers. I often asked two or three people who were working together or were related to make their portrait. The man on the left I met at a motorcycle club rally where only the two of us showed up. We talked and he offered me a small bottle of liquor the size flight attendants use.
I thanked him and put it in my pocket. I asked if I could photograph him and his wife in their regular work clothes and then in their leather outfits. He said yes. I asked if he needed to ask his wife about this endeavor and he said no, he made the decisions for his wife. They met me at the Snow Building, bringing their wardrobe and I shot both images on Polaroid 8x10 film as well as film to later make prints. I always showed them the Polaroids but explained I owed them to Polaroid for giving me the free film. These were published side by side to show the difference in their wardrobe, body language and expressions.
Morganton, NC © Caroline Vaughan BT ACM
January 1973 © Caroline Vaughan
Imogen Cunningham at 88, CA © Caroline Vaughan 1971 BT, ACM
I skipped my graduation exercise at Duke and traveled to California to meet my heroine, Imogen Cunningham even before I received her postcard saying she would meet with me. By the time I reached California my mother phoned to say her postcard came saying she would welcome a visit. I had a speech prepared about how much I admired her work but when she opened the door and was so petite and welcoming, I just blurted out Wow!
She invited me in and offered me orange juice as she said I was too skinny. I stayed for a week in the tenderloin district, not knowing what it was, but paid $21 for the week. She called me every morning to see if I had lived through the night. I said the Police had come to arrest a prostitute, and the man on the desk had a revolver and Doberman Pincher, so I felt safe enough to leave my
travel backpack with him and told him to guard it. Imogen and I met every day, took the bus to the thift store where she bought this hat before she took me to dine Japanese style.
I had my Nikon F under the small table and set the shutter speed and approximated the F stop. I told her the light was so lovely that one of us should take a photograph. When she said she didn't have a camera, I pulled mine up, fine focused and shot this image.
Other trips included the Oakland Museum where everyone made a fuss over her and I was photographing her in her black cape with a huge peace sign necklace. She introduced me to the director as Caroline Vaughan (birth name Carolyn) from North Carolina. Rather than correct her, I changed my name after learning I was actually named after my Aunt, Jeanette Caroline Hickman.
I took a train to Palo Alto where I stayed with a friend and rented a darkroom to process the film and make a print, dry mount it and returned the following week to give it to her. She said no one had ever gone to so much trouble for her. She began asking me questions about her career--suddenly she was over whelmed with letters and postcards wanting people to review their work, meet with her and she did not know what to do. She had just received her first Guggenheim and suddenly was trending. I told her to take all the letters and postcards and put them in a big box and ignore them. Anyone who truly admires you would want you to continue your work, not write to them. She said I was the first person not to ask her not to see her work and I told her I had the rest of my life to see her work in books and museums but I wanted to just see her. We exchanged letters when I returned home and I ordered several prints. She could not locate the negative for Two Callas so I had to choose something else and decided one day I would make my own image of callas. She told me she was having bouts of vertigo. She also said the portrait I made of her was her favorite and wanted to use it. It showed up in the credits of the movie Anne Hershey made of her called NEVER GIVE UP.
I was traveling to see her for a third visit when I stopped off in New Mexico to see friends from Minor White's class and stayed three months. We were eating lunch when I heard a radio broadcast that reviewed her life. I said that sounds like an obituary. The radio announcer said she died that day at 94. The night before we received a phone call from Boston telling us Minor White died. I was so grateful that I was with friends when I learned of the death of both of my mentors.
This is an example when the image in the camera was exactly seen like this. When I went to print the image, right side up, I felt it had more balance to print it upside-down just as it had been viewed in the camera. I used the eye of the camera to up end the image and always presented it upside-down.
Three times it has been published upside-down, not like this. If you are not at press when people publish your work, often they present it incorrectly. One museum on opening night presented two of my images upside-down. I alerted the curator to change them but not during opening night. Another university publication printed this upside-down.
Image how a writer would feel if a publication printed her poem upside-down.
Leaf Synchronicity, Nantahala River, NC
© Caroline Vaughan 1974 BT
A portion of the monograph Borrowed Time is is devoted to a photography project of photographing couples who had some relationship to one another but often caused ambiguity which was one of my favorite subjects. Below are three couples, meant to allow the viewer to bring their own subjectivity to the image.
From a series (1990) in Borrowed Time.
From a series 1988 in Borrowed Time.
Journey To Inaccessible Places, Valley of Fire, NM (Cover Image Borrowed Time, 1996) © Caroline Vaughan 1976
This is a self portrait which includes my friend who was the girl in Minor White's class the year following mine. I stayed with her and her boyfriend who was in my class at M.I.T. in 1971.
Constructivist Double Portrait
© Caroline Vaughan 1974 BT
This is another example where the image includes a self portrait, using an exposure of 30 seconds to give me time to place myself in the image. For many years I showed this vertically as it has sculptural qualities. Later I began showing it as a horizontal. I learned at the opening in Halifax, Nova Scotia that people see what they can accept in themselves. A man told me he figured out how I made the image. He said I used mirrors. I told him he was the first person to figure out that interpretation. His admission to me helped me understand that he could not imagine two women together. Everyone saw what they could bear. I never corrected anyone as my images were like mirrors and their view revealed more about themselves than about what I saw. In the beginning I showed the same image to four different people and each had a very different interpretation .
Father, Durham, NC ©1989
© Caroline Vaughan BT
I photographed my father for more than twenty years. Our sessions together involved almost no speech. This was the only way I found to make a connection to him because he was so quiet. In my own way I was attempting to preserve him and also create a singular relationship with him.
Image From A Past Life, Person County, NC
© Caroline Vaughan 1974 BT
Another example where the image in the camera was exactly the way I wanted, I found when printing the image it did not work right-side up. I used the eye of the camera to up end the image and always presented it upside-down. It was later published on the cover of CAMERA magazine, from Lucerne, Switzerland.
Diana's Bath, NH © Caroline Vaughan 1975 BT
Desert Camouflage, Edwards County, TX
©1976 Caroline Vaughan BT, ACM, Addison Gallery of American Art.
Ripsin Ridge, TN
© Caroline Vaughan 1974 BT
Managing Expections When All Else Fails
This is image is not reproduced in BT but is reproduced in the Catalogue Of The Amon Carter Museum Photography Collection.
Yin Pond, Shackleford Island, NC
© January, 1972 Caroline Vaughan
At mid-term we all went home for Christmas but had an assignment when we returned to photograph downtown Boston at dawn and dusk. It was so cold I had to lunge my Jeep over piles of frozen snow to park. I had no interest in going downtown twice a day in 32 F weather to photograph the financial district. Instead, I stayed home in Durham and then called in a favor from the Director of the Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC and asked him to take me on a boat to Shackleford Island, drop me, my friend and our gear for three days and then return.
By the time the boat was out of sight, we set up the canvas tent in time to get cover from rain. We did not know it was the beginning of a three day Nor'easter and heavy rain. Nor did we know moths lived with us in the confines of our tent through the storm. On the third day, the storm broke and sunlight appeared. My friend gathered all our gear while I took my view camera, mounted on my Gitzo French tripod, and started running towards where our boat would return. I had less than two hours and made as many photographs as I could. The light after the storm was spectacular, pierced puddles of water gleamed and slanted against driftwood. Although the storm had kept us from roaming the island, searching for the ponies or exploring for three days, I made the best of our circumstances by continuing to hope for some sunlight. I made one of my favorite images at the last moments before the boat arrived.
When I returned to Durham I developed the negatives in Pyro and printed each of them. Because I was MIA the boys in the class and Minor wrote me notes to please return. Joey even suggested we meet in Philadelpia and see the Paul Strand Exhibition. When we were all back in class and Minor began reviewing our "assignment " he found I was not the only one that had gone rogue. Donald Woodman had traveled to Death Valley and presented 16x20 prints of sand dunes. He was the oldest (27) in the class and had already apprenticed for two years with Ezra Stoller, one of the best architectural photographers in America. He did not receive the feedback he wanted from Minor. As we went around the room, the boys started looking at me as they realized I also had gone rogue. I presented my work from the island and the boys waited for me to get my spanking. Much to our surprise Minor said it was the best work I had done and that I should continue to trust my own instincts.
Borrowed Time: Photographs of Caroline Vaughan, Durham and London, Duke Press, 1996
may be out of print but can be purchased from Amazon as a Kindle book here.