Openings 2016, an artist residency - part III: photographic impressions

In my two previous posts, I discussed my week at the Openings Collective artist residency, where, among my breaks editing a documentary project, I photographed my fellow artists working and as portrait subjects. I have little more to add to those words (ignoring my primary reason for attending—a project that remains to be finished and will someday receive its own account), except that I had my camera with me at all times. Most of that was habit, but I never knew where I’d find a fellow resident working, so being prepared was essential.

While wandering and visiting, I’d occasionally find a photograph presenting itself. With no human subject, I consider these environmental still lifes as patient subjects. Given all of the other activities occurring throughout the week, I didn’t make much time for this one, and most were discovered by accident. The main guest house—being quite old and large, with unoccupied rooms and even floors—proved most fruitful.

Openings 2016, an artist residency - part II: the artists

In the first part, I wrote about the Openings artist residency on Lake George that I attended last summer. My primary goal for the week was to edit a long-term personal documentary project; making photographs was somewhat incidental (albeit quite necessary) to my stay.

I had known from the beginning that I wanted to create portraits during the week. A number of factors made this desire challenging, however.

First, besides common meals and an evening group discussion, each of us (18, I think) there was entirely self-directed regarding our schedules. Scattered throughout the campus grounds, everyone worked independently. Besides our own artistic work and goals, the area (both the grounds of St Mary’s on the Lake and the surrounding Lake George region) provided many opportunities for recreation: hiking, boating, swimming, and more. Finding someone—let alone at a point in which they were open to a brief sitting—would prove difficult.

Second, while most of the artists knew one another from previous Openings residencies or exhibitions, I came as a stranger. Of course, I’m often commissioned to photograph subjects I’ve just met; but in that case, the goal is mutually known. Here, I had developed friendships over a week via discussions, critiques, shared meals, daily liturgy, walks, and simply living in close proximity; to then ask them to be subjects… It wouldn’t seem to be difficult, and I should be far more comfortable than am I, but I’ve always lacked the boldness to simply do so.

Residents presented their week’s work on Thursday evening, which left Friday for a little work, cleaning, packing, farewells, and departures. The impending deadline—it was now or never to make the portraits—provided sufficient incentive to steel my courage. Similar to my approach in photographing the artists working, I didn’t need to photograph everyone: some weren’t interested, others left early, et al. I divided my day among finishing tasks, visiting, and being on a bit of a hunt. Of those who agreed, some were eager, and others had to be persuaded

The only artistic limit I placed upon myself was finding a different environment for each subject. Given the variety of locales on the campus, this was relatively simple. (Indeed, creating a series of portraits with such variety was a great pleasure.) In many cases, I simply photographed each wherever I found him or her.

Openings 2016, an artist residency - part I: the work

The strange serendipity of discovery—meeting fellow travellers, finding new (to us) artwork and artists, et al—never ceases to amaze. In this case, I remember sometime in spring of 2016 receiving an email from a friend to a blog post about Bill Cunningham (RIP) written by author Heather King. As the documentary about his life and work is on my regular rotation of viewing material, I appreciate any scraps of critical reflection about him. Ms King, who’s based in Los Angeles, had just seen the documentary and wrote a brief piece about it. That was sufficient to begin a new adventure.

As I wandered around her blog, she mentioned in a post that she was heading east for the summer in part to attend a residency in upstate New York. Openings, an artist collective based in NYC, was founded and is run by Fr. Frank Sabatté, a member of the Paulist Fathers. The Paulists are an organization of Roman Catholic priests who serve in a number of capacities around the world. That a group of working artists had formed a collective with these shared goals was intriguing. Their week-long residency at St. Mary’s on the Lake (the Paulists’ summer retreat in Lake George, NY) was open to anyone. I had never attended a residency, and the thought of focusing my attention solely on art for a week was enticing.

My goal wasn’t to create new work. I had been working on a long-term documentary photography project since 2011, and I needed to edit. I decided to apply and pitched this project in my application, and it was accepted. Months later, I traveled a few hours, bringing about 700 proof prints, to begin a long process organizing this body of work.

That task was arduous, and while I made great (if not slow) progress, I needed breaks from staring at prints for hours a day—indoors, no less, during the beautiful summer days in Lake George. Much of my respite was found seeking out my fellow residents and photographing them at work. I didn’t seek to create anything of a catalog: some artists were more accessible, working in the open, usually outdoors. I wanted to create around my editing schedule, and that meant finding people as they were—a haphazard approach.

I truly enjoy observing artistic process, and the residency offered so many opportunities to see artists working in a wide range of media: drawing, painting, sculpture, woodworking, cyanotypes, and more. I was also intrigued by the variety of impromptu “studios”: indoor common areas, dorm rooms, open air, dockside, utility spaces, various sheds—even the house attic (which, incidentally, was full of old treasures and, more importantly, interesting light). These provided a brilliant variety of environments.