Colin J. Clarke began experimenting with cameras and darkrooms when he was still a boy. From being a young family photographer to an experienced photographer, sculptor and painter based in the United States, the multi-talented artist takes us through his prolific career and shares his passion for every minute detail of the process of photographing.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I was born in Australia and lived there for many years. Around 20 years ago, I moved to the United States, where I live now, with my wife and two cats (both of which run our life, it seems). I travel often, to Europe, in the US, and back to Australia to see family.
You started making images when you were only eight years old and at nine you were already developing negatives. That is quite impressive! How crucial was this early experience for you to become a professional photographer?
My mother was a very talented singer and also played piano. In the small Australian country town there was no opportunity for her to progress in that field, especially with raising four young boys, and living on a farm. However, she instilled in us all our abiding interest in music and the arts, and I dutifully took piano lessons for four years in my early school days. I also found drawing and painting much to my liking and did well at school in these subjects.
I realized early on that photography was yet another genre which offered me a chance to express my thoughts and visions of my surroundings. Using the family Kodak folder, I learnt by trial and error how to try developing roll film in a darkened bathroom, and how to contact print the negatives using (then available) sunprint/azo type papers. From these early experiences I learnt (often the hard way) that light was my friend, and that the end result — the print — was the most important piece. In a self-directed way over five or six years, through trial and error, I came to understand how photographs were made in the purest sense. I became the “family photographer” when I was perhaps 10 or 11, I can’t recall exactly. No more heads cut off in family portraits! Finally, a small point, although you have mentioned “professional photographer,” I prefer to be known as a simply photographer, simply because I’m also a sculptor and an artist (but not a professional one of either, if there is such a thing).
Once you said that the photographs find you. The complete process of making a photo, from choosing the subject and scene to finally registering it is extremely personal and can be decisive. How would you describe yours?
Well, it is true that I feel strongly that photographs find me. The key is to know this will happen and to be waiting for it. I’m sure many photographers or artists in general find the same thing. For me, I am open to the universe guiding me in my work, and this means that if I am concentrating on landscape, and a macro detail in the forest speaks to me, I am happy to turn my full attention to the macro detail. If I am making street images and an architectural detail whispers to me, I will eagerly change direction to details.
This often happens deep into a ‘session’ and invariably, when I get that sudden urge or inspiration, I truly do move into that “zone” others speak of, where everything else is a blur, and it is me and my subject only. The camera becomes an extension of my mind, and as strange as this may seem in the reading of it, I can sense the image being “burnt” onto the emulsion. When this happens, invariably the results are pleasing, and others will ask why and how I came to make that particular image. I can say, without hesitation, the image found me.
Although about 90% of your work is in black and white, you also said that sometimes, you need a break from it. A perfect example is this photo below that screams vibrant color. Please tell us how the shot below was taken.
The image I made in the wheat field in Australia (quite close to where I grew up) was really a photograph that found me. A few days before, I had finished a commission to photograph the activity in a grain processing factory in an Australian city a few hundred kilometers away. This commission was completed in color using my Hasselblad and negative film, and concentrated on workers using various machinery to create products derived from grain. On my journey, I noticed a range of hills which had some nice small clouds in formation and I thought this would make a nice landscape. I used my HB, a back loaded with BW film, and an orange or yellow filter. To get the best composition, I walked off the road and into the edge of a field. After making a few exposures, this image found me. I could see immediately that this was actually the beginning of the story for any factory processing grain. It was the beginning of the grain. I still had a back loaded with C41 film, and with a polaroid filter, I was able to make several images with an emphasis on slight underexposure to strengthen the already deep blue sky and the resonating colors of the wheat and the dirt track. Barely two or three minutes later, I had to move off the track and out of the field to allow farm workers to go about their business. This image also endorses one of my personal rules – always look behind you after you have made your exposure. Something better may be there! It works.
Not only C41 or black and white, but alternate development methods including palladium and bromoil are amongst your interests. How do you decide on a process?
Without checking for accuracy here, I would guess that 85%, perhaps 90% of all my photography is monochrome, and that is because I grew up with monochrome, I understand how it works in relation to my subjects, and without the influence of color (which can be wonderful, by the way) my images have to speak to the viewer through form and light and composition. Without color (the “pop” of a primary color, for example) the image must have its own “pop” as a story, or an abstract form, or a startling composition and so on. Once you have an image, there is then the issue of how best to present it to the viewer. And although the computer is a wonderful and convenient way to show images, there is nothing quite like holding a print in your hand, or having a well matted print on the wall. I like to print via digital means with the latest museum grade papers of course, but the real joy comes to me, and the craft “feels” right, when I take time to make a silver print in the darkroom, or better yet, a palladium or platinum print. These gems can only be appreciated “in person,” but are worth the effort and the cost for good negatives. The decision on what printing process to choose often comes from the end user, and the budgetary issues. At the lowest end will be giclée prints, followed by normal silver prints, and then the alternative process (salt prints, palladium etc) all the way to platinum and bromoil which can be time consuming. That is not to say, however, that every negative is a good candidate for every type of print.
Please share the story behind the image below.
The black and white image of the young Vietnamese boy dates back many years to my days as an infantryman in Vietnam — I think 1968 (I was there 67-68 and 70). Although we spent most of our time in the jungle, there were also times when we were in populated areas around villages. Often, we would encircle our position with barbed wire, for obvious reasons. In the middle of all this activity, young children could suddenly appear, often wanting candy or food, and often just simply curious. Many times, I found that I was trying to see me through their eyes. As young as they were, and most having been born during war and only knowing that existence, it was heart breaking for me to see the depth of confusion in their eyes, and I sometimes wondered if it was they who were “inside the wire circle” rather than us, who ( with luck) would leave within 12 months. This young boy had a mixture of bewilderment and sad acceptance which I had to record. Almost all of the images I made in Vietnam were of the countryside and of the villages and the people. I reacted to the broken country more than I did to the acts of war.
You also paint, draw and sculpt. Do you believe the connection between those art forms can result in a more accurate perception in photography?
Actually, for me, I think that my early entry into photography has helped me quite a lot with drawing and painting, and even the aspects of sculpting — especially when I am sculpting life models using clay. (If you think that using a large format camera can be slow and maybe tedious, clay modeling from life goes beyond that — but is thoroughly enjoyable). With photography and painting, we are concerned with reducing three dimensional objects to two dimensions, but giving depth and form with light and shade or tones and values. Each genre is something the other can lean on.
The photo selection for this feature includes images from 1963 to 2012 and includes landscape, portraiture and street life. Do you identify your different styles according to the period?
I don’t think I can see a marked difference in styles (perhaps I’m not the person to ask) although I can see a change in my interests perhaps as I moved from early black and white family portraits to color landscapes (in the days of Kodachrome etc) and then into more specific work which perhaps deconstructs my earlier interests. Throughout my life, I have enjoyed working with the figure, and with making portraits which told stories from the environment or the process. I do find it interesting that I went from my days of black and white to the days of color, and more recently back to black and white with a touch of color here and there. I think that has a lot to do with my confidence, and the ‘aha’ moment when I finally “broke the code” for making images which were able to record all the “zones” championed by Ansel Adams and others.
Some of your portraits show some influence of the work of Yousuf Karsh. Who or what do you consider your biggest source of inspiration through all those years?
There is no doubt that the image of Churchill by Karsh has been one of my favorites for many years. But there have been so many great portrait photographers, and I can honestly say I am a student of many. I have perhaps 200 books on art and photography, and many are well (and repeatedly) read. And harking back to a previous question, there have been times when a book of paintings by a master has inspired me to look for a way to make a photographic image using the same light and shade and treatment.
Can you choose a favorite camera?
This is a question which I am asked quite often, and it is a hard one to answer. First, I recall the story of the well-known chef who told the photographer at his photo exhibition first night that the images were wonderful and that he would get the same camera. When the chef was leaving, the photographer asked the chef what oven he was using, because he wanted to be a great chef just like him. To the question: I use 35mm rangefinder and SLR, medium format HB and Rollei, and large format Toyo. So I choose what I need for what I am preparing to do.
I do not engage in brand versus brand discussions. Cameras are lightproof boxes. I have used a catfood tin as a pinhole camera with good success. However, let me say that on my recent vacation (and as I also did last year) I carried a Leica rangefinder (M6) with a 35mm lens, and a Voigtlander Perkeo II folder 6×6. I like to travel light, and uncomplicated, unless I have a need for something else. Oh, and my color work is often handled by an iPhone.
You talk about photography in a very poetic way; hence your photos are an extension of your emotional, lyrical view of life. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, please tell us how you read the image below.
This image was made when I was taking my Rolleiflex for a walk, looking for majestic trees which I quite enjoy to photograph. I was not having good luck but I made an image, from a tripod, and thought I may have something usable. As I was sliding the tripod legs, I saw these small and nondescript flowers highlighted somewhat by sunlight filtering through the top most branches. They were ‘shivering’ just a little in the breeze, and for a moment or two my mind flashed to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. I decided I would like an image (it found me) and because the background was messy and the breeze was causing movement, I elected for a wide aperture and a fast speed to shorten the hyper focal coverage, and freeze the ‘fairies’. I chose a sepia tone, and burnt the edges a little to focus the viewer onto these little forest nymphs. Later, I was thinking of a suitable title, and went back to a very old poem which I like. It seemed perfect, and (who knows) accurate.
The image title became: “Just past the bottom of the garden …”
“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
It’s not so very, very far away;
You pass the gardner’s shed and you just keep straight ahead
— I do so hope they’ve really come to stay.
There’s a little wood, with moss in it and beetles,
And a little stream that quietly runs through;
You wouldn’t think they’d dare to come merrymaking there —
From the poem by Rose Amy Fyleman (1877–1957)
Learn more about Colin J. Clarke and his work on his website.