There are a few reasons why now, after 32 years, I pulled out my dusty journals. One was a recent chance meeting with a man named Kevin Brown. Not the Kevin Brown who was my friend during my Berenice Abbott days, but rather an Indian chief who lives on the Pamunkey reservation. (The Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia is the oldest in America.) Meeting him was not only a special experience, but it also made me think of my old friend Kevin Brown, who I lost touch with after one-too-many moves on my part over the years.
This year’s Berenice Abbott Prize contest at The Julia Dean Photo Workshops led my mind to wander back to 1978 again. The BAP is an annual contest with a deadline on July 17th, Berenice’s birthday. I wanted to add something special this year to the meaning of the contest, hence the decision to put the journal entries on our blog day-by-day.
But the major event that caused me to look for the box that held the journals was when I received a letter from Florida. The old-fashioned typewriter written envelope grabbed my attention at the mailbox and I opened it immediately. It was from a 90-year-old man named Rudy Otura, who doubted me as Berenice’s apprentice. One line read, “I doubt if you ever even met her.” He thought that I must be 90 by now too. Though he was wrong, his words hurt my feelings, so I wrote him back, explaining that I was 23 and Berenice 80 at the time that I was her apprentice. I told him that I was there from June 1978 – May 1979, then signed off courteously, without any extra chatter. I wish now that I had asked him how he even learned of me and my association with my mentor.
Rudy wrote to me again after receiving my letter. This time it was hand-written and he apologized for doubting me. It was after his first letter that I pulled out my journals. It took weeks to type everything up and prepare the newly found old negatives (which we are still working on). I wrote to Rudy again, two weeks before the first journal entry was posted on our blog to tell him about the journals.
But his letter came back to me. The sticker read Not Deliverable as addressed. Unable to Forward.
I don’t know what happened to him, which makes me sad, or how he came to find me, which makes me glad. All I know is that he inspired me and I wish I could say thanks.
That spring day, March 21, 1979, was the last time I wrote about my apprenticeship with Berenice, though I worked with her through May. Had I not kept a journal back then, I feel certain that I would remember very little, as I can’t recall much about those last two months. I don’t even remember moving out. I do remember that Berenice gave me two prints. While we were working one day, I asked her if I could buy an Abbott and an Atget. (I was hoping she would give me a student discount.) She looked me right in the eyes and said flatly, “No.” I’m sure my face fell from disappointment, while she went on to say, with her endearing smirk of a smile, “but I’ll give them to you.”
Berenice was just short of 81 when I left. We remained friends for another 13 years, as she lived to be 93. I saw her several times over the years and kept her abreast of my adventures. I even lived in Maine again for two years a decade later, while teaching full time for the Maine Photo Workshops. It was then that I spent my 33rd birthday with her.
I saw her for the last time in June of 1991. When I arrived at her A-frame house in the middle of the woods on Lake Hebron, she wasn’t back yet from a doctor’s visit, so I stripped down, jumped in the lake and took a private swim in a glorious spot. Once back, Berenice poured us each a glass of white wine and we sat on the porch and talked.
I had my Leica next to me, loaded with TriX. I was determined not to let her say no.
“Berenice, I said, “I’ve been asking to take your picture for 13 years now. Please, may I?”
“Yes, but make it quick,” she said.
I shot off a roll, knowing I hadn’t yet gotten a good shot. When I reached for more film, she said, “Okay, honey, that’s enough.” Like a dutiful apprentice, I stopped, sat down, and resumed our conversation, the one that would become our last.
She died six months later.
Today is officially the first day of spring and what a beauty it is. I can hardly stay inside.
At this moment, I am sitting above the river, behind the house. The sun is warming me, the river flowing in and out of snow patches, and the blue sky surrounds me.
I am feeling rather lonely, unable to sort out what’s boggled up in my head. What’s next? Why? What are the reasons for my constant search? Is it because I’ve not found happiness? No. I’m generally very happy wherever I am. Why the search? I’m not content in one place. I must keep going, advancing, learning, doing. Stagnation scares me.
Only one life and a short one at that. A lot to do, places to go. I’d love to share my desires with someone, but so far any relationship that I might have let myself settle into would hold me down.
I’m not sure why I’m such a deviate from the “American Girl,” but the lifestyle doesn’t fit.
Last night I experienced a childhood fantasy. Mark, Cully, Kathy and I skated on Moosehead Lake by a tapestry of starlight. The wind was so strong we literally sailed three miles across the lake, with a sheet of plastic as our sail.
All of my childhood dreams are occurring right now. Rivers running behind my house, secret spots to relax, lakes available wherever you look, mountains to climb and enjoy, skiing, ice skating, good people. I am now experiencing these things and am leaving it. Why?
I don’t understand myself sometimes. Always searching. For what I wonder? What happens when I’m 40 and I still haven’t found it? Mark says, “You’ll keep looking.”
Hank is here. When he comes, he brings a surge of energy with him, and it tends to rub off. I was so tired today that I could barely stay alert (stayed after hours last night at work!) I was also a bit grouchy. Anyway, despite my mental and physical handicaps, I kept plugging away. Called Kurt at 10:00 tonight. Talking with him revived me and I went up to the darkroom and printed until right this minute. It’s now 2:00 am.
Tomrrow is another full day. Work and work. I’d better get to bed soon.
It seems like just yesterday when I was getting so excited over the oncoming winter season and now it’s nearly over. Sometimes I feel like life is passing me by too quickly.
These past 2-1/2 months have been wonderful. I’ve found myself so caught up in everything and everyone around me, which is good. Enjoy where you are, when you are, because it will never be the same next year, especially in my case. I won’t be in the same place next year.
My negligence in writing is not a measure of my thinking process during the past months. One month has passed since I last expressed myself in written words. Alice is gone and it’s been heavenly without her. Berenice and I are getting along real fine and I’m developing a stronger and stronger liking for her each day. Janette told me today that Thelma said, “Julie is the best assistant Berenice has ever had (according to Berenice). Thelma said, “I don’t know what Berenice is going to do when she leaves.” I never know how word-for-word these quotes are after passing through so many people!
Anyway, I’m leaving in May and just discussed it with Berenice this week. I don’t think she’s real pleased, but she’s been good about it, helping me choose prints for portfolios, etc. I just don’t want her to take my move personally. I almost feel like I’m leaving home. It seems like home here now (since Alice has gone!)
I’ve developed some strong and binding friendships here. It’s sad to move on, but the way my life is patterned. I’m just happy for this year in Maine to experience the things I have and meet the people who have played a major role in my life. Mark says, “distance, but no direction.” In my case, he’s wrong. My direction is what is causing my distance. I like the way my life is going. I finally seem to know how to enjoy now even when planning tomorrow. Seems I used to get so caught up in what I would be doing in a month or so that I let the day slip right past me.
I’m now in the process of checking out job possibilities. I’m leaving Blanchard in May whether I have a job or not. If not, I’ll take about three weeks to travel around Maine, then head somewhere? One plan at a time.
We contact printed an Atget plate today.
I’m printing history . . . it is truly amazing. I’ll never again be able to duplicate this experience.
Berenice, “I told my students that photography was the art of the century. No one paid much attention to the comment at the time. Now they would.”
Berenice, “There are three basic things to remember and consider when photographing.
#1 Point of View. Where should you stand? Consider backgrounds, etc.
#2 Distance. Near or far from subject. Again, consider how much coverage your lens is taking in and how much do you want?
#3 Height. If you are photographing children, get down to their level. Don’t distort them by standing over them.
Today was the first time I came close to tears with Berenice. Not out of hurt feelings, but from frustration. I try extremely hard to keep things clean and in order but she always seems to find something out of place. The past two days have been nearly unbearable. At one point I was ready to throw in the towel but the stronger side of me decided to stick right with it and try even harder.
Berenice doesn’t seem to realize the value I place on her work. I wish she really knew just how much I care about her negatives, prints and the preservation of them.
I’m not here for free rent. I could have that in three different states. Nor am I hear to get rich off my mere $30-$50/week. I am here to gain insight and knowledge from a person who has 80 years of living behind her and 60 years of photographic experience. I am here because I want to be.
Alice cruised out this morning. I said I would believe it when I saw it, but I still can’t believe it. Kevin and I helped her load her car. Thelma and Pat were here working and Berenice was wandering about.
Went downhill skiing today. The mountain was absolutely beautiful. The trees were smothered with snow and ice and the sun shone brilliantly. It was like a fantasy. I felt like a character in a fairy tale.
I just completed today’s work in the darkroom. Printed a 16×20 NY image and an 11×14 from a Lewis Hine glass plate that Berenice owns. What a treat. Yesterday I spent the entire day organizing, cleaning, and taking care of a lot of little things that needed done. These are the only two days of working with photography, since Berenice is gond for this week. I’ve had a good week, accomplished my duties for Berenice.
Spent most of Monday reading, writing, and relaxing.
Bartending has been good. A job that I enjoy.
Thelma tells me Alice is upset because I’m not helping her pack (as if I don’t have anything else to do.) She thinks all I do is “run around and have fun!” I’m working 50-60 hours a week!
Alice is moving. A recent decision. She doesn’t know how to be perfectly honest, so is blaming health reasons for her departure from Maine. She isn’t in the best of conditions, but that is not the main reason for leaving. Whatever. I’m happy that she is returning to Ohio. Maybe she’ll be able to experience a little happiness herself.
When I’m unable to write down new thoughts and experiences at precisely the time they are occurring, I find it difficult to express the intensity of them at a later date.
My additional job at Squaw has put an added light to the already pleasant life style. I seem to have the best of both worlds. Bartending enables me to be around people which I so desperately need and my photography and darkroom work, my own space and solitude.
Berenice just left for Portland today and will be away for a few days. She has been staying with us in Blanchard for about 10 days throughout the past two weeks. The first five days was a real test on my patience, but I succeeded. Alice and Berenice together in the same room was nearly disastrous. They are not compatible and never will be. Alice has decided to move back to Cleveland. I can hardly believe it! She’s been talking about it for three years. It will make them both much happier.
Berenice and I had some wonderful conversations. She told me a rather humorous story about the first time she and a girlfriend got drunk on port wine and whiskey (mixed together!) Also had a 30-minute discussion on “understanding light.” Lenses versus distance. And the use of filters. She is truly a wonderful teacher.
Berenice, “If a print needs a paper of contrast between two numbers (example: 4 or 5), most generally you should use the harder paper. It will be more work, but makes all the difference in the world.”
(In talking about) A Portrait of Myself, Margaret Bourke-White
Berenice, “She (M.Bourke-White) claimed that I’m the only photographer who wasn’t jealous of her. I’m never jealous of a good photographer — just of a bad photographer who lands a job that they aren’t qualified for.”
Berenice, “It’s really contrasty (referring to an interior). Interiors are always contrasty.”
Julia, “Yes, that’s one thing I’ve definitely learned from you — interiors are contrasty.”
Berenice, “Is that all you’ve learned?”
In reference to a conversation involving black & white film and color film . . .
Don’t use both at once, it will only confuse you.
1) use one film at a time
2) use one camera at a time
3) use one lens at a time
Use the equipment that you have. Don’t neglect a subject of interest because you think you haven’t the proper equipment. Get to know your equipment.
In exposing . . . If you are overexposed, then cut back on exposure. Just how much depends on the amount of exposure you begin with. Cut back according to proportion. Two seconds makes a lot of difference if you are dealing with a 15 second initial exposure. Five seconds isn’t very much when dealing with a 40 second exposure. Percentages.
Berenice, “Nothing is clear cut black and white. It’s all relative.”
Berenice, “See how dense that sign is (Rooster)? It was a brilliant day and it really caught the sunlight.”
Berenice, “Don’t do something for praise. Do it because you enjoy it or it won’t be worth your while.”
Berenice, “It’s the invisible things that matter the most in the visible medium (referring to fixer, washing time, etc.)”
Berenice, “A person should always have a project of some sort to work on, but it has to be something that you really enjoy doing or it won’t be good.”
Berenice, “The Museum of Maine agreed to fund me to photograph the old architecture in Maine. I’d love to do it, but I need a good assistant, one who can set up my camera in a hurry without me having to teach them.”
Berenice, “Don’t expect to get funds for your projects. I was a well-established photographer by the time I wanted funding money and I didn’t get it. Go do your projects, then with good work in hand, ask for funding. They aren’t gong to just give amateur money because of a good idea. There are many amateurs around. Prove yourself.”
Here I am (back in Blanchard) preparing for my first evening of work as a bartender! I decided upon my return that another hob was a necessity, so yesterday I drove to Greenville in search of a bartending position. Luck was in store. I scored employment at my second stop, Squaw Mountain Village. I’ll be working Friday, Saturday, Sunday and possibly Wednesday.
I stopped by the cottage to see Berenice and received the low down on my salary and the work that needs to be done. Bob Feldman has made an agreement with Berenice to do three more portfolios in New York, with Crissie to print them. The agreement is such that we (meaning Berenice & I) will make the master print of each one, so that Crissie can print from them. So, we have some work cut out for us, and I’m glad for that. I’ll be receiving $50 a week.
The darkroom and work areas are clean and scrubbed, ready for production on Monday.
Yesterday was spent at RIT. Kurt picked me up from Kit’s and dropped me off at the union for my luncheon date with Dr. Smith. We spent 1-1/2 hours visiting and I enjoyed every minute of it. Then I met Elliot for about 45 minutes. My conversation with him was wonderful. He is extremely interested in what I’m doing and reminded me of the opportunity that I had. We’re going to attempt to keep in touch, so as to exchange paralleling stories.
To Jim’s office . . . he sent in my grades (13 hours of A!!), so I’m officially a graduate now. Hope I get the diploma in time for Mom’s birthday!
Jim and I discussed my future, what I want to do and how to go about it. He has a way of bringing me off a cloud and making me think objectively. A good quality, I might add. He is anxious to supply me with a few names in NYC to contact before leaving Maine.
It’s time to start preparing a departure of sorts.
Upon my return, I am going to put the nose to the grindstone, work first, play later. I have quite a few ideas of photographic possibilities.
It’s so good to be around my friends in Rochester. It snaps me out of my mellow life in the Maine woods. Can I live a peaceful laid back life in the country? No. I need stimulation, activity.
Three to four more months in Maine, enough time to print a portfolio, shoot and publish, help Berenice, read, learn and ski. Also, make contacts. I am starting to think seriously about it now.
My life in Maine is really different that what I’m accustomed to. Before leaving Maine, I was pretty content with things, and I still will be upon my return. But being around young ambitious adults and the pace of the city life has reopened my eyes to what type of situation I prefer. I have many things to reach for, places to go, people to meet.
I’m beginning to feel differently about my relationship with Tom.
Today was a productive one in some ways. Mounted up the large (16×20) prints and tried printing another image. The printing got put aside, which meant everything else was tended to.
Berenice was in a pleasant mood.
Just returned from dinner at Kevin & Cris’s and a few tokes. A good day.
Another month gone by so quickly.
Another work day — started out pretty good, gradually went downhill from there and is still going in spite of it . . .
Berenice and I began printing — Flat Iron Building (16×24). She became weary with the printing, so I took over and pleased her with my work. While I was printing, she developed. When I was finished I looked at them and saw a big line (result — crease in paper) on the last three. So, I had to print three more (160 sec each) and develop them.
Finally done, I cleaned up and came downstairs. We then had a little technical talk (about exposure), then we took out the prints that we did yesterday.
Well, my error (putting prints in press before dry) changed everyone’s mood. All hell broke loose once again.
I ruined most of them . . . so I have to print them over tonight. . . . right now . . .
I just finished mounting the Marlboro order, so hopefully when Berenice comes over tomorrow she will be pleased.
Had to miss skiing today.
Went up to print and remembered that we had used the last of the #2 paper . . . lucky for me since I was so tired, but I felt badly.
Drove over to Berenice’s with good news (prints all mounted) and bad news (unable to reprint Penn Station). After telling her this, she said, “What’s the bad news?”!!! I felt much better. Stayed for awhile, then cruised over to Hall’s.