Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I look back now and feel fortunate to have come into a peculiarly creative family. I suppose I haven’t always carried this perspective, yet with the world the way it is on high-speed and so many things to distract oneself, I am grateful to have cultivated a creative practice. It acts as a fulcrum point keeping some balance in my life.
My mother, Nancy was a painter and a designer and my father, Walter, a photographer. They met one another while exhibiting in a gallery in Boston. They fell in love, started making a family and in a few years moved toward the freedom and expanse of the West. They were drawn to the rugged creative haven of the Big Sur Coast. That is where I came into this world.
I was born in 1964 in a small cabin on the cliffs above the great Pacific. It was just down the highway from the coast gallery where my father was having a two-person show with Wynn Bullock. He was also building a house up on the ridge to bring in some money along with commercial jobs shooting Hollywood starlets and stills on the set of MGM’s “Sandpiper”.
We moved quite a bit in those early years and the family continued to grow. We mostly settled in rural locations in California and New Mexico. Each move seemed to come with the building of another darkroom, some as temporary as black plastic stapled to the ceiling and hoses coming into it’s sink set upon on saw horses. Growing up, my notion for the purpose of a living room was where you do creative work, where you do life, where work tables were set up with a dry mount press and boxes of photographs, a painting easel in another corner with mayonnaise jars full of paint and this and that. My brothers and I would have our hotwheels tracks set up all over the place until our parents finally hollered “kids outside”!
As a teen I rebelled by trying to be “normal” whatever that meant. It meant something like wearing underwear, getting a haircut, playing sports, not doing what my parents did . . . being eccentric artists and its apparent feast or famine lifestyle and having a living room that wasn’t really a living room. In the scope of things that phase didn’t really last very long. As I grew disillusioned with my studies at college learning business and computer programming I thought, “is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life”!? At which point I quit my cook job, took a three-month sojourn in the Colorado Rocky’s, worked on a dude ranch and visited my father, in Santa Fe, on the return trip to my home in Northern California. He gave me an old Canon F-1 and I started taking photography courses at the Santa Rosa Junior College. I took to it like a fish to water. Everything seemed familiar, especially the smell of it. John LeBarron was my first formal teacher and the perfect mentor at the time. He had a kind and nurturing way of suggesting directions and nudging me this way and that. Giving me various pieces of equipment and supplies to try. He taught me the rudiments. I can still hear his voice suggesting “try another one, a little darker this time, a bit more contrast . . . . yes, now you’re getting some where. Try another one.”
At some point I mailed some prints to pop in Santa Fe. He called me up and said “ok, it’s time to come out and do a printmaking apprenticeship, time to refine your technique”. Well, that was quite intensive lasting over a month and included field trips, studio visits, gallery visits and many bowls of posole. Haagen-Dazs bars just came out and he had a freezer full of them, the chocolate ones. I had brought with me dozens of 5×7 inch negatives to enlarge on his old military Omega – coldlight. I felt like a kid in a candy store, spending hours upon hours in there with his stacks of Zone-6 Brilliant fiber paper. I assured him I would contribute to the paper fund or he could pick out the finest prints I made as to ease his transparent reaction to all the paper I was going through. He simply chuckled, gave me a one-armed side-hug around the neck and said nothing more of it.
I finished up my formal art education at Sonoma State University under Marsha “Red” Adams and several other great art professors. The school demanded a well-rounded art education, not just holding up in the darkroom day and night. I took many studio courses, as well as, art history and more art history. I actually considered turning towards painting/drawing at the time . . . well almost. I was so inspired by art and creativity in general. My parents were both pleased with my direction and whatever I wanted to do. They were encouraging. I felt lucky of that, seeing pressure and weight some friends and classmates had to sort through with their families about their educational choices. I realized I had a certain modeling of what was important to engage in and even essential for one’s soulful fulfillment in life.
My home base has always been Northern California. I love to travel near and far taking impressions along the way, always returning home to find some of the most powerful impressions right out my back door or just underneath the surface of the bath.
It was sort of ironic in a way, when I was really making a switch to digital working I moved out to the mountains of Mendocino county. I was falling in love once again. We settled on an off the grid 40 acre ranch, literally unplugging. The flora, the fauna, the streams, the quietude all supported a healthy life for our family and creative inspiration for my photographic work. Here I produced the exhibit “20/20 – twenty years twenty photographs” showing at the Bodega Landmark Gallery as well as completed a digital catalogue of my father’s body of work. Although, gallery showings and private collectors have supported my work over the years, selling prints often did not meet the demands of the monthly bills, “the 3 headed dragon” as Paul called it. I have also at various times worked as a cook, a carpenter, counseled teens, taught Waldorf education and worked as a postman. Most recently we have moved to town. Here I built a studio and Sherri started a school for young children. Last summer I took over the classroom and transformed it into a framing studio for my current exhibition at Sonoma State University.
Where did you get your photographic training?
As I said above, both formal schooling and apprenticing with my father. However, as an artist, I feel like your training never ends. Especially with a technological medium like photography. Learning new methods and techniques keeps inspiration and discovery alive. The jump to working digitally was almost like starting over in a way. An incredible translation needed to occur. It is not as easy as most people think. Even though I have my workflow, I have trouble explaining it verbally to inquiring colleagues. John Paul Caponigro has helped my process quite a bit with all his pioneering into digital technique. The man’s a digital wizard as well as an impressive artist.
Did you have a mentor?
My father was my closest mentor, always encouraging . . . “break the rules. If you have the inspiration to do something, do it. Don’t think about what others might think. Do what moves you and it will move others.”
Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?
In my upbringing I was surrounded with art, photographs, paintings, books, dad’s Aperture Quarterly’s, lively dinner discussions and beyond. Informally I feel sort of hardwired with what imagery was powerful and beautiful and supposed to be “real art”. When I began my own work with photography and formal study of it, I certainly gravitated to and still admire the work of the classic black and white master’s, Steiglitz, Strand, Stichen, Cunningham, Edward and Brett Weston, Adams, Minor White, Caponigro , Bullock and my father among many others. Despite my grounding in the “Equivalent” trend, the Heliographer’s of NY and the f/64 tradition, I love to go see real shows with real prints of many differing styles of photography. I will never forget an exhibition I saw in the early 90’s at the SF-MOMA of the work of Sabastio Salgado. It was the first I had seen of his work. Aside from the obvious power of the imagery, it affected me profoundly in a more personal way in regards to how I viewed my own work making art. It may sound silly, but until I viewed this exhibit, I didn’t really take seriously the notion that you could make large fine art prints from 35mm film. I did believe, although, you could make a powerful image and even art using a 35mm camera. However, it was just that witnessing these amazing prints sort of jarred me out of one of my pre-conceived notions hardwired into my neurology from my upbringing about how you do and do not make fine prints. Staying open and examining your own opinions can be so freeing in your own work, opening up new possibilities. I love that about continuing to grow, seek and learn. I also appreciate the deeply personal work of Emmit Gowin and Sally Mann, the portrait work of Joyce Tenneson and Irving Penn, the 8×10 contact prints of Linda Conner, the moving architectural details of Blaine Ellis and the color infra-red work of Lorenzo De Santis. I could go on and on. I have a deep love for photography and respect those who strive to make a masterful image . . . and “print.”
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Well, there are many. Often when I think of a certain photographer there is a certain image of theirs which pops in. Paul Caponigro’s ,”Reflecting Stream” 1968 is one I carry in the recesses of my mind. It also hangs in my studio offering tireless inspiration. The image possesses qualities that are grounded to the earth as well as ethereal and fluid. It is fixed in the reality of the physical landscape yet seems to be a veil through which one can see or feel another realm… a very special realm. When you spend time, and very quietly look at this print you come to learn and believe there is something else that exists behind the surface of things. If you can make a photograph that is a portal in that way, well then, I think you’ve made a masterpiece.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
There are a few images that come to mind right away. They each carried a similar lesson. It was my camera, my film I developed and then printed, yet somehow I felt I couldn’t really take full credit for the image. With each image the afterthought was that I was only a humble conduit in making the particular image. Perhaps a lesson in humility. Perhaps a lesson to trust and stay tuned into that quiet inner voice calling to you . . . saying “look, something is here. Look close, something marvelous! Make a photograph.” A gift from Spirit, a sort of co-creation. Perhaps that is what we are doing as artists anyway.
With “Family Circle” I had no visual connection to the viewfinder whatsoever. One summer day on a campout near the river, some of the family had made a sweat lodge. Before covering it over, a thought popped in to take a picture of everyone siting on the stones in the circle with my son in the middle. Everyone (except myself) got in and just naturally sat where they wanted, Morgan placed in the center. I quickly realized looking through the camera, I wasn’t going to be able to get far enough away for the vantage point I wanted. In an instant, I just let go of any expectation of what I was wanting and of my usual meticulous mode of framing a composition. While on my tippy toes, I held the camera as high as I could, estimated the distance, set the focus according to the indications on the lens, reached back up as high as I could and pointing downward, released the shutter. I could not have and would not have made a more powerful composition if my mind was in the way, if I was looking through the lens, trying too hard for the preconceived. Whenever I look at this image I am thankful for the gift as well as reminded as to what is really most important, our relationships, our family connections. Our prints we will leave behind, our connections and experiences we will take with us.
A quote by Minor White expresses the feeling that we are perhaps destined to make certain images.
“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen. ”
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
A day where I can unplug from the many tasks of life and go into full creative mode. You know, just abandon everything else for a moment. Take that risk of being stereotyped a flaky artist and do the highest thing you can do, create. I remember on my birthday once, I gave this to myself as a gift. I had no big birthday plan and certainly had the daily “list” of things to attend to and get done. It was still early in the day, the kids were at school, the house quiet and empty. I stopped in my tracks and said “I am going to give this day to my artistic self”. I went to a windowsill in my studio and got the stones I had collected the past year. I started arranging and photographing, thinking of nothing else. Before I knew it the day had passed and I was left with a feeling of deep satisfaction. In the following weeks the satisfaction continued as I worked on the images and brought them to print. There is a feeling of completion of this creative cycle when I sit down to finally sign a print.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
Oh, I would have to say . . . . looking at prints with Imogen Cunningham, zipping down the Big Sur coast in Brett Weston’s sports car, or perhaps walking the wide open spaces of New Mexico with Georgia O’Keefe . . . . Yeah, that’s a cool photograph of Orville Cox and O’Keefe by Ansel Adams, a 35mm too.
Of the living? . . . it would be fun to spend the day with Roman Loranc, from the wee hours of first light in the landscape into the evening in his beautiful studio. It is sort of amazing what you can learn about on the computer these days . . . like a virtual tour of Roman’s studio or places he goes to photograph, but it is not the real thing. I first came to appreciate his work through seeing his prints at a gallery in Carmel, California.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
I have used many various cameras and formats over the years attempting to achieve certain results with them. It was always fun learning the limitations and possibilities various lenses or cameras could offer.
The photographer, Art Wolfe, once said . . . “the best equipment to use is the one in your hand”. I wholeheartedly agree. Your equipment and knowing it’s capabilities is surely important, yet most importantly it is about putting it to use. My father once told me, “it is not about what kind of camera you have, it is about your vision, what you do with the camera.”
There are many photographs I have made which would be impossible to make without a tripod. Then again, there are some I couldn’t have made with one. I needed the expediency of just holding the camera.
What hangs on your walls?
Our home is small and humble, yet simple and beautiful, so we keep the walls mostly clutter free. There is a wonderful painting by Marco Donner of an angel among the tree of golden leaves and ripe red pomegranates. Marco also built the special house in which we live. My studio, however, is filled with quite a myriad of things. On it’s walls are Caponigro’s “Reflecting Stream”, my father’s 1954 print of sun reflections and shadows on the water, a rare nude in the sand dunes by Weston, a recent color print by Joni Kabana of cowboy hats silhouetted among the blue sky, a print by Blaine Ellis of window light in an ancient church in Turkey, a hand manipulated SX-70 portrait I did of my mother called “the artist’s mother, the artist.” There is also a space where I hang work of my own that I need to look at for a time, currently holding an image of stones from Salt Point, CA.
Whats on the horizon ?
I’ve spent the better part of this past year putting together an exhibit comprising a selection of black and white prints spanning my career.
“A Creative Stream – 30 years of photography” ,I would like to send the exhibit off to another venue . . . to the great beyond, so to speak. I am seeking a curator interested in exhibiting my father’s body of work in which he has left entrusted to my siblings and I. Also my current inspiration is to clear the decks and get to work on imagery from a recent trip to Bali. As Imogen once said, “my favorite photograph is the one I am going to make tomorrow.”
Thank you Aryan for sharing your work with us.
To learn more about the work of Aryan Chappell please visit his site at Aryan Chappell.