Sybil Miller essay/Standing Still—On Millerton, Apeiron, and Mark Goodman/1999
Main Street, Millerton, 1983
Even if you stand still in one place for a generation, you only catch on film fragments of the life you see. Mark Goodman stood in Millerton, New York between 1971 and 1980, then almost annually for a month or so at a time until 1991, photographing a generation of children growing up around him. An unremarkable place, Millerton became the loci for Mark’s project due to its proximity to Apeiron Workshops in Photography, where he was initially a student. On the streets of Millerton, Mark introduced himself, talked, but mainly listened. He soon was exclusively photographing the town’s young people simply because they let him, and continued taking their pictures when he recognized an emotional connection with them, but most importantly, he loved photographing and the pictures that resulted.
In the years that followed, Mark found a great deal to photograph. Moments that, in the photographs, look so perfect, deep, and graceful ought to be remembered, you’d think, by the people photographed, but if you asked them about this dance, that spaghetti dinner, most likely they’d draw a blank. It was just another day, they’d say, nothing special except for the photographer quietly watching and waiting for a moment of clarity to appear in his viewfinder. The photographer himself recognizes such moments later, after developing the film and making the prints. Then with the requisite time for study and speculation, the search begins for the one that seems just so, the one that truly got the essence of the moment down and makes you believe.
Affection and humor inform Mark’s pictures—as well as patient, diligent looking. Few of us are capable of the kind of staring this work requires, much less staring through an awkward and obvious mechanical device—a camera. Yet as photographers know, that’s the only way to make certain kinds of pictures. One such photographer, Walker Evans, said, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye. Stare, pry, listen, and eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Mark not only dared to look, he was hungry to do so, even though the person receiving such a gaze might find it discomforting; these characteristics—observation joined with daring—are essential to any street portrait photographer.
While Mark arrived at Apeiron Workshops on the day it opened in June 1971, I didn’t find my way up to Silver Mountain until the summer of 1978, when I went there to take a workshop with Elaine Mayes and Linda Connor. Like so many others, I fell in love with the place, the landscape, and the excitement of living so closely with so many other people who loved photography as I did. At Apeiron, one lived photography. Workshops were intense, even in the longer fall and spring sessions. Every other morning at dawn, we were driven to a nearby location (perhaps a farm, maybe a town along the Hudson River about a forty-five minute drive from Silver Mountain) and dropped off to take pictures. After returning to Apeiron, we’d go into the darkroom, process film, print, eat dinner, and print again until the middle of the night.
The next day, new work in hand, Apeiron’s founder and director, Peter Schlessinger, and the teaching staff would hold all-day critiques where every picture was assumed to have meaning, no matter how uninteresting they appeared at first glance. The critiques were tiring, sometimes painful. When we ran out of things to say, we stayed, looked quietly, and waited until someone found a new insight into a picture we had tacked on the wall. There were times when a student became defensive about his or her work, or when an interpretation of a picture would bring deeply buried personal truths to the surface, truths about identity, or about family relationships, or about personal experience. Sometimes we found this humorous; at other times, we responded with tears, anger, and denial.
I remember a student’s photographs of a recent snowfall. There was one image of sloping fields covered with snow, with snow fences running along the edges of the open land. It wasn’t a great landscape picture, but it wasn’t bad. It certainly didn’t seem laden with meaning, didn’t appear to be a metaphor for anything. We looked and looked at this picture. We asked the photographer questions: “What is this about? Why did you include the fencerow? What kind of film did you use?” Etc. Etc. Then someone offered an interpretation—the deep, drifted snow, far from pure and clean, was suffocating. The fences expanded from their pictorial role as graphic elements and became oppressive traps. I noticed the photographer was crying. Someone asked him what was the matter. He replied that his father died in an avalanche, buried by snow, trapped by white airless beauty. He was as surprised as the rest of us to find this truth in his photograph. There was nothing else to say, no further questions to ask. The picture had yielded its ultimate meaning, and the critique was over.
With all the intense critiquing that went on at Aperion, it’s interesting that Mark never participated in any of them after his first workshop. The teaching staff never analyzed his pictures and since Mark was at Apeiron as an artist-in-residence and not a teacher, he did not interpret any student’s pictures. He kept his own work mostly hidden from view. And when I first showed him my pictures, his response was a decidedly anti-analytic, “Great, do more.”
As a student at Apeiron in 1978, I found Mark’s work, and his working method, impressive, even daunting. Every day he got up early and left for Millerton. Most evenings he returned to eat dinner at Apeiron; more often than not, he’d return to town afterwards looking for more pictures, showing up for street dances, school plays, or just dropping by people’s houses. Every day it was the same routine. After a time, when the exposed rolls of film accumulated, Mark stopped photographing and went into the darkroom, spending days processing, making proofs, and printing new pictures. It was an example of committing oneself to photography above all else, and one that I’ve tested myself against ever since.
When I’d go into Millerton, I’d sometimes see Mark on the sidewalk near Terni’s store, looking for the smallest opportunity to take pictures. One day I was walking down Main Street and Mark stopped me, wanting to take my picture right there on the sidewalk. I had on a black-and-gray tweed jacket with a black velvet collar, circa 1950. He had me stand in front of the jewelry store’s shiny black opaque glass facade while he moved in close to make a portrait; looked through the viewfinder; focused; told me to look into the lens, to back up closer to the building. After making a few exposures, he released me to finish whatever errand had brought me to town. I went on with my day, and Mark stayed on Main Street, waiting for the next possibility.
Being photographed by Mark on Main Street was an experience simultaneously public and private, the photographer and his camera looking so closely and intently, while I, as the subject, noted with some discomfort the cars and people passing by, noticing our portrait session. I expect many of Mark’s subjects felt that odd feeling, too; at least at first, until they grew used to the experience, if they ever did. Looking at his pictures, though, we don’t see this: the people give something significant of themselves when photographed, despite being conscious of the public scrutiny of their encounter. Their self-consciousness falls away, leaving behind a self revealed and recorded.
A small town like Millerton has apparently little potential as a long-term subject, especially if you only concentrate on children and teenagers. To some it might seem a project easily and quickly completed. A well-known photojournalist who came to Apeiron to teach a workshop once told Mark that she could complete a project like Millerton in six weeks, implying that he must be either wasting his time or not very good to still be there years after he first began to work. Yet, students at the workshop marveled at his capacity to withstand boredom. At the same time, we took his example as a challenge to go out into the everyday world and find pictures worth looking at. Peter told us that if Mark could photograph so long and so well in Millerton (pop. 1,000), surely we could find something of value in the much larger towns of Poughkeepsie and Hudson and Rhinebeck were we went to photograph. We looked hard—and made a lot of pictures—but none of us could stay as committed to a single place as Mark.
The discipline of working is perhaps the hardest thing for a young photographer to learn. You have to work when you don't feel like it. You have to try when there seems no reason to try. And when a small opening appears in the routine of ordinary life, you have to be ready to see and seize the extraordinary visual moment that represents not boredom, but fascination. When I first met Mark, I talked with him about photography, trying to get him to reveal his secrets to me so I, too, could do something worthwhile. He insisted that I had to treat it as a job. Get up and go to work. Every day. Forget inspiration. Forget magic. Do the work and allow whatever there is that may prove to be magical and inspiring to emerge as the result of that work. It isn’t easy and it isn’t necessarily fun, but it is essential if you want the world to move through the camera and into the photograph. Mark always worked in this way: photographing for extended periods, then processing and printing—leaving, returning, and photographing again, perhaps with a different camera format. He destroyed thousands of unsuccessful negatives by cutting them in half and throwing them away. I found this part of Mark’s editing process brutal and unforgiving. I still do.
On a trip to New Orleans, I saw one photographer’s exhibition of black & white prints that were large and luminous. The young girls shown were lithesome, blond, and mostly naked. Their skin was flawless, their faces neither strangely beautiful nor plain. Their eyes stared at the camera with calmness, but did not seem to ask any questions of themselves, the photographer, or the viewer. Whatever meaning these pictures may have was unavailable to me. They were like lovely, closed, enameled boxes, perhaps containing something of value, perhaps containing nothing at all. The work, though popular, did not resonate for me with the kind of complexity I seek in photographs, films, writing, and life. The girls were beautiful, the prints were beautiful, and the poses echoed the creamy cold whiteness of 19th century marble sculptures of young females so often seen then in the homes and gardens of the well to do. I left the gallery feeling oddly blank.
In thinking about these pictures and those of Mark’s (who also photographed young girls), the question is one of photographic meaning—what is it, and where is it? As lovely and technically perfect as those prints in New Orleans were, they meant nothing to me. I could not locate myself within the work as a photographer or as a female. As a female, when confronted by young and perfect specimens of my sex, I feel inadequate. Even when I was fourteen, I was never so perfect, never so long limbed and fine skinned, and never blonde. Not so confidant. I was uncomfortable with my changing, flawed body, always in search of what I would become. I was like my female friends, and none of us were like these girls. As an adult looking back, it was just not possible to connect with those images.
As a photographer, I want to be surprised by other photographers’ inventiveness, by their ability, for example, to frame the world in an interesting way or by their implied understanding of the photographers who preceded them. For example, when I see a photograph by Lee Friedlander, I see a dozen other photographs below the surface, contained within the frame and just beyond its boundaries. He tips his hat to Evans and Frank and Atget, and in the process of deeply understanding and intelligently incorporating the tradition, he adds his own invention. In looking at work like this, my own effort learning photography is rewarded. As in layered work like Friedlander’s, in Mark’s Millerton portraits there is tension between beauty and plainness, between the photograph itself and its many reference points; but even when the kids are gorgeous, their attractiveness is not the point. The moments recorded on film are real ones, too—the tension between being looked at and looking back.
A Kind of History, page 53