Formative Artistic Experiences

Experience: Studying with an artist, and what I learned


I studied with Andrès Segovia while I was concertising in Europe as a young man. From this artist who played an average of one concert every three days for eighty years, I learned that it is better to move an audience than to amaze them, and to accept the fact that artistic endeavor is an unrelenting endurance event. I also learned something else of importance: that great artists can have equally great aesthetic blindness (when Stravinsky offered to compose a guitar concerto, Segovia replied: "Sir, I would not play what you would write.") From Segovia, therefore, I learned not only to value emotion and endurance, but, inadvertently, to value the examination of my artistic repulsions and attractions; and further, to apply critical judgement to artists in a way that does not override the appreciation of their contribution.

In recital, Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Siena, Italy. 1962 (age 18).



Years ago I started a multimedia workshop at Columbia College--an inner city, open admissions institution with a high minority student population, specializing in the communications arts, and with the largest film school in the world. I believed that the ease with which multimedia techniques could be learned might allow those who had never had a voice to experience it for the first time--and in experiencing it, to learn how to learn. It was true: the artistic work issuing from this workshop was exhibited nationally (including venues such as the George Eastman House and San Francisco Cameraworks), and grade point averages increased. From this, I experienced the value of the penetration of art into daily life, and committed myself to the artistic potential of those who are educationally poor but experientially rich.



While making El Movimiento, at the encouragement of my dear friend John Mulvany, I agreed to inaugurate the post of Associate Academic Dean for Technology and Faculty/Staff Development for three years at Columbia College, knowing that it would remove the film from my life for that time. What took its place was the creation and implementation of technology policies for an institution with 10,200 students and 1,130 faculty. These policies impacted all areas of the college: organization, planning, instructional delivery, training, retraining, networks, administrative services, and technical support (see the complete "Information Technology Report" with budget and appendices). These initiatives have had a profound and continuing impact on the daily and artistic lives of students and colleagues. From this experience, I understood that my time as a dean was a form of artistic community service--that it was a "work" as grandly structured, detailed, nurtured, risky and valuable to its audience as any film I could have made.



My films and photographs are intercultural. My hope is that each might take up its place in the world and exercise its social responsibility in ways similar to Universal Hotel:

"As the Director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial, I have had the opportunity to view a considerable number of documentaries recalling the fate of those resisting or suffering the fate of the Nazi regime. Often filmmakers are striving to reconstruct history on a large scale…. Your film uses a completely different approach. Indeed, you offer the viewer a new mode of vision. Using only a few photographs and drawings which you collected from different people and in different countries, you concentrate on one person, only. With minimal sources, underlined by the account of your search for information, the film becomes an extraordinarily moving experience…. Visitors from more than one hundred different countries visit Dachau each year. Most are young people. There are many discussions and seminars where these young people coming from different cultural backgrounds try to find the meaning of the lesson that can be learned in Dachau today. Your film "Universal Hotel" has proven to successfully stimulate intercultural discussions. Spectators are moved by this forgotten piece of history presented in an unconventional way. It might help them to understand and perhaps learn from the past."

Letter to the filmmaker, July 3, 1989, from Barbara Distel, Director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

Dr. Distel describes a process which is itself the goal of all my work: to allow an historical moment to take up residence; to stay within the opportunities provided by the specifics of that historical moment; to shape it so viewers of varied backgrounds might gain access to it through the artistic experience of it; to overcome the futility of action through communal remembrance; to bring the work home–to lodge it within the living heart of the social context that produced it.



When I first went to Point Lobos, I took along a copy of NOT MAN APART and, with book open, tried to locate the rocks of my tradition. A year later I was still locating rocks but working from MIRRORS, MESSAGES & MANIFESTATIONS. I had already done the books of Wynn Bullock and Brett Weston. I was a well grounded photographer.

I knew what was what. I knew that you bulk ordered your pure white Stoller mat boards from Germany. You ordered Amidol from England. You froze your stash of Adox film. You printed with one inch borders. You looked into East Street Archival Washers, couldn't afford one, and worried about it. You never took portraits. You were serious.

It was during this time that my first wife and I wanted a child. We drove to the pound and picked out a dog, took her home, gave her a bath and named her Troika. She grew accustomed to the smell of stop bath and fixer. She was a photographer's dog.

Her tiny seizures we passed off as tics until one night--Troika slowly raised her head, eyes wide and deadened. I whispered --Get your face away! Izzy rolled at the tone in my voice. Her face missed the snap. The three of us spent a bad night. Izzy and I on the bed where we had barricaded ourselves with clothes, pots, pans and pillows, and Troika under the kitchen table where she had sought refuge from herself. Throughout the night jaws snapped shut.

The next morning I stalked Troika in rubber boots and netted her in a quilt. Izzy and I wrapped her up gently. She did not struggle. We drove out the valley to the vet. It was a long drive in bright day.

--Its distemper, he said, and shrugged.

We buried Troika in the quilt under her favorite cypress.

Two weeks later we were back at the pound. --Troika would want us to do this, we said. We picked out another dog that looked a little like Troika, took her home and named her Pooh.

Izzy's fever we had passed off--but now here she was in front of me, collapsed in the supermarket aisle. A fast drive, many hands, the sounds of game shows from TVs in waiting rooms. Three nights later, doctors announced that the operation had to be performed in spite of the fever--soon: in the morning. Izzy said nothing. We looked at each other. I took out my camera, leaned over her in the shadows of the sheets, took one exposure and put the camera down. I then entered into a time of extremity and photography slipped from my mind.

One year later, I developed the rolls of film that had accumulated on my darkroom shelf. The last negative on the last roll was different from all the others I had ever taken. It was the portrait of Isabel taken on the night we learned we would not have children. I saw and understood that this negative was my first photographic response to the way things happened. I stopped exhibiting and began again from my own experience, which has no tradition but uncertainty and time.

Copyright © Peter Thompson, 1973. All rights reserved.