Summer House, Block Island 1985
Meridian 4×5 Camera Tri – X film, 90mm Schneider Super Angulon lens
I made this photograph on a clear winter day on picturesque Block Island, a tiny island off the southern New England coast. Barely 3 ½ years into my Black and White photography career, I was quickly moving away from the spontaneous shooting of roll film photography towards a developing passion for a more contemplative approach using larger 4×5 sheet film. My decision was clearly influenced by the popularity of Ansel Adam’s imagery of the grand Western landscape. Later on, I would become more aligned with Edward Weston’s vision and aesthetics and likely continue in that mindset to today.
Block Island is dotted with unique architecture so much so that many structures actually carry a name. Summer House, as I titled it, is appropriately named “Bit of Heaven” and sits on the southeastern side of the island, where the cliffs are highest and likely drop 120 feet down to short rocky beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. I quickly knew this grand structure had to be in the most powerful quadrant of the composition, and with a deep sky as a backdrop it seemed I had arrived in the right light. However, standing on flat ground looking at the house, I noticed the electrical wires and light pole were distracting and my only recourse was to back up. Fortunately, the land began to abruptly drop off as the short “front yard” approached the cliff’s edge. This vantage point would now allow me to almost lose the wires and diminish their significance in the composition. The image is framed just inside a light pole on the left, positioning the house in the most powerful of the compositional rule of thirds. My super-wide 90mm lens allowed me to keep the parallels straight and eliminate any convergence of the verticals and to shoot objects at an angle which would show a third dimension. These were things I was just learning in commercial photography. Now, years later I am pleased that I was aware enough to make those corrections. To be honest, I didn’t realize then that the lower vantage point would also project the house as a grand structure from a higher vantage point. Although I had no knowledge of the name “Bit of Heaven” then, it all seems to project that theme even thirty years later. Looking back over my 35 years, this photograph is one of my more important images and most likely was instrumental in having the prestigious Robert Klein Gallery in Boston represent my work for much of the ‘90’s.
Again, this was early in my career and I knew a polarizing filter would darken blue sky but didn’t yet realize it does so predicated on the direction of the light source relative to the axis of the camera lens. In this case one side of the sky is darker than the other and has to be corrected during the printing process so that all tonalities are balanced and don’t distract from the beauty of the house as the clear focal point of the image. As an FYI, the digital image you see here is actually of the finished print since correcting the tonal differences in the sky in Photoshop is not accurate enough for my tastes.
Possibly the most interesting part of this story wasn’t until several years later in 1987 when I was actively involved with the Connecticut Professional Photographers Association and would attend monthly meetings and annual conventions. These meetings were attended almost entirely by working photographers who were earning their livings from photography, so that the underlying theme of most meetings was succeeding in business and the promotion of one’s skillset. Still green behind the ears, I set out to find the name of the ad agency that handled the promotion and advertising of my favorite Silver Gelatin enlarging paper, Agfa Portriga Rapid. After locating the agency, I wrote and basically told them my images were so good that they shouldn’t do another ad campaign until they saw my work. Low and behold an art director contacted me to ask me to bring my portfolio down for them to view. The art director and president of the agency fell in love with Summer House and quickly offered to include me as part of their Signature Series of photographers. Naturally, I was excited to be chosen. They then told me to get a “commercial release” for the image to be used in publication and they would begin mockups on their end. What’s a commercial release I thought ??
As it turns out, I had to contact the owners of the property and ask for written permission for the “likeness” of their house to be published in ad copy in periodic magazines. I researched who owned the house and contacted them with a well-crafted letter asking their permission for my photograph be used for advertising purposes. They abruptly declined asking that I respect their privacy !! Naturally, I was disappointed !! I regrouped and made the owners an original signed and matted print, wrote another letter explaining these magazine periodicals targeted a niche market and there would be no filming crews on their property and that the agency just wanted to use my image with no identifying locations or otherwise means to learn the location of the house. Again, they declined…but thanked me for the print !! I later learned that the actual owner of the home was a retired judge, whose daughter was now taking care of the property and was also then the sitting Attorney General of Rhode Island !!
I had to tell the ad agency I could not get a release to use my image in an upcoming ad campaign and my shot at fame quickly swept away in a dash, I thought. Fortunately for me, the art director remembered another image of mine from Block Island and asked to use that one, an image I was not crazy about but nevertheless would put my name in print. How could I complain. The image they used is attached here as seen in what is called a “tear sheet” of how the ad appeared in various photography magazines.
The lasting irony came some years later when I was giving a workshop with my mentor, Jack Holowitz, right on Block Island. A high school student got wind of our Photography Workshop and asked to sit in and learn. We agreed and during one of the print viewing sessions I told the aforementioned story about “Bit of Heaven” to which the student chuckled and found hard to believe. He told me there are post cards of Bit of Heaven in gift stores all over the island; I suggested he must be mistaken given my past experience with the land owners !! I would soon learn there were, in fact, color postcards of “Bit of Heaven” and a sunset and on the back of the postcard the actual name of the home, “Bit of Heaven”
The final chapter to the story exposing my lack of understanding of how the fast-paced advertising world worked came when Agfa, pleased with the response my Light House image received, wanted do another campaign using my name and another image they already had in mind. They forwarded a likeness of one of my Southwest abstract images they wanted to highlight in their next ad campaign and asked if I would allow them to turn the image 90 degrees to make it a horizontal since it fit better with their ad copy. I declined, citing artistic license…I never heard from them again !!
I was, however, smart enough to take my payment in the form of $2,500.00 in Agfa product, all Portriga Rapid, and as many silver printers have come to learn, not long after 1987 Agfa was forced to change the emulsion of Portriga due to environmental hazards and the paper was never the same again ! For the next 10 – 12 years I searched for a silver gelatin paper that could rival Portriga Rapid’s characteristics. Finally, Ilford’s Warmtone Glossy paper emerged as the clear choice to replace the drama of Portriga, with the added benefit of producing all degrees of contrast in a single sheet of silver paper !
My Power of Process Video Tip will be published on the 15th of each month to a more targeted list of Analogue Process Photographers only…watch for Feb. 15th.