Born in Alabama 1955, Tillman Crane went to Maryville College studying religion and history. He subsequently became a photojournalist working for the Daily Times in Maryville for ten years before moving onto the Governor’s staff, the State of Tennessee in Nashville, and the Knoxville Journal. He began taking classes annually starting in 1981 until 1987 when he became a teaching assistant and subsequently a full time teacher at the Maine Photographic Workshops. After commuting from Maine to graduate school at the University of Delaware for two years and completing his MFA with one year of residency, he returned to Maine teaching full time until 1995. He continues to teach his highly acclaimed summer workshops to date.
Completing three major bodies of work, with thirty shows in the last five years and five more pending this fall, Tillman Crane’s exhibitions Cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution, (platinum prints debuting in 1990 at Schweinfurth) , Spirit of Structure (platinum prints - debuting in 1993 at Vision Gallery), and Echoes of History (historical alternative processes - debuting in 1995 at Maine Coast Artists) continue to travel extensively. Crane’s work is represented by Vision Gallery (San Francisco), Klein Gallery (Boston), Ewing Gallery (Washington DC), and the Neopolitan Gallery (Naples). It resides in the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the William A Farnsworth Museum.
Crane has recently accepted a full time position to head the photography curriculum at the Waterford School, a distinguished private school in Sandy, Utah.
Crane writes regularly for ViewCamera.
To learn more about the artist visit www.tillmancrane.com.
This conversation was first seen in the September/October, 1996 issue of View Camera magazine. Find out more about View Camera magazine at www.viewcamera.com
John Paul Caponigro What was it that drew you to photography initially?
Tilman Crane It wasn’t theater and it wasn’t religion. In college I had a double major in history and religion. In my junior year I had finished my history courses, I was married and I was paying my way through school as a technical director of the college theater. Between three religion courses a term and working in the theater forty hours a week to try to pay my share of the rent. Maryville College had an interim program , in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there was a three week term (you don’t get much done in that term, that’s when they had their overseas trips) and they had a course the chaplain of the college was calling Demythologizing the Magic Eye. That was the neatest name for a photo course I had ever heard. It was a shooting class, it was all done from contact sheets. And that’s where we had to learn a hundred photographers and images. The first day that’s all we did, we looked at these hundred photographers starting with Nadar or Daguerre. He taught us a little bit of photo history without us knowing it was photo history. He taught us little bit about aesthetics and composition and design, point of view; all of the things that make up a photograph by forcing us to learn these hundred photographers. So it wasn’t religion, it wasn’t history and it wasn’t theater. And I enjoyed it.
In senior year I took another course. He was teaching an advanced class and he let me take it. Midway through that the local newspaper called to see if he had any students that wanted to work part time. I interviewed. They hired somebody else and fired them two months later. I was doing graduate work in philosophy over at the University of Tennessee, continuing to do theater work, and they called me up and asked me if I wanted to work full time. I became a photojournalist and knew nothing about photojournalism. I learned on my feet. I was fortunate in that the woman that was the managing editor had worked at the Nashville Tennesseean and had worked with Jack Korn, who is a terrific photojournalist. She forced me to get better by demanding more out of me. I’ll never forget I came in from one of the earlier assignments I had, it was the first quasi-big thing that I cover, the AP was there. I came back and I was wound so tight I was telling her about this and that. She looked at me and said, "Do your pictures show it?" She said, "You know, you were telling me wonderful things about this event and you’re not showing it to me. I hired you as a photographer, I expect you to show it to me. If you want to tell me about it I’ll hire you as a writer. But I hired you as a photographer, I want to see it." They sent me on workshops when I needed to expand and keep my vision alive. It was a terrific newspaper to work for. I figured I’d go back to graduate school and get my Ph.D. and I’m still a photographer.
JPC How did the Cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution work came about?
TC I was a teaching assistant at the Maine Photographic Workshops in the summer of 1987 and was hired for the fall term. I went down to Delaware and talked with my advisor. We eventually worked out a deal where I would commute between Maine and Delaware every three weeks. The Delaware graduate program was mostly a critique program; you brought work in on Wednesday and lived or died with what you put up. I was doing landscape work. I’d teach on Tuesday and leave at 5 p.m. drive to Providence and catch the train at about 11, getying into Philadelphia or Delaware around 6 a.m.. Friends would pick me up at the train station and bring me to class. Class would go from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then I’d get back on the train to Providence. At about 11 p.m. drive home, get back and 4 a.m., go to bed, get back up and teach the next day.
Doing this commute one morning around 6 am on the way back I knew I had to take my camera back because I could see a picture in my mind. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever previsualized something. Bradd Alen’s Newsstand. Three weeks later I got off the train and it was like there were little black marks saying, "Put your tripod here. Point your camera that way. And don’t screw it up. You can’t screw it up." It was really a very easy picture to make. So I continued shooting that morning. I started carrying the camera with me all the time. I had something to do while I was waiting. At the end of the year and said, "Oh I’ve made a few train station pictures on my journey." And the train station pictures were far superior to the landscapes. The landscapes were predictable; the train stations were a little unpredictable. I liked them.That ended up being my graduate project.
There were the obvious issues I had to deal with. Incredibly contrasty situations; bright exteriors and dark interiors. People ghosts walking through my three to five minute exposures. Some of them I like, some of them didn’t work. I didn’t want the project to be about ghost images so it was a matter of finding the images where there were ghosts, they worked and were deliberate and weren’t a gimmick. Where the pictures were strong and if somebody walked through and created a ghost it was meant to be there but not just long exposures so somebody could walk through it and make a ghost.
The title came to me; Cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution. The train stations were like the cathedral system with major cathedral and small parish churches. Here were major train stations and smaller train stations that were similar in design but diminutive. It was that idea of coming from a small space to a grand space where the eyes raise and the spirits soared and you went there to go somewhere else. I knew that. I did my reading on train stations. I understood the emphasis of clocks - the trains forced centralized time on the country.
JPC Interestingly the ghost images tend to be our photographic representation of motion, the recording of objects moving through time. In some they’re ghostly, in some they’re invisible. There’s one of a lady sitting on the benches - here she wasn’t a ghost.
TC No. She sat very still, for a couple of minutes. To me that image is what it felt like at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon waiting to catch the train to go home. That isolation within yourself.; now I can go home and be who I want to be. It’s a wonderful presence. It was a real gift.
JPC You seem to have come upon several pieces of serendipity. Bradd Alen Newsstand, the woman and a couple of times where vignetting started to work for you.
TC There’s one of a stairway in Union Station where it had been vignetted across the top. It was a difficult station and I had and inexpensive wide angle lens that didn’t throw enough coverage. I couldn’t see it because the tripod was right up against the wall. When I saw it in the fixer I said some very politically incorrect things. But there was something about it I liked. I said, "Well, I won’t throw it away, I’ll at least make a contact sheet of it. I’ll never show it to anybody but I’ll at least make a contact." Then I made a print of it. Again, "I’ll never show it to anybody." But I really liked what was happening. I took it to critique and somebody put it up before I realized it was up. I had no intention of putting it up, but I guess I did because I took it. Who knows what was working subconsciously? That was the one that everyone raved about. They liked the flow, the spirit, the space, the sense of grandeur, that grand staircase, the elegant ceiling and the archway was just so perfectly positioned to counter the other sweep and curves in the photograph. I just kept my mouth shut. It was vignetting. People still react to it strongly.
JPC It could be an architectural element.
TC The photo fairies bring you gifts that you don’t often recognize as gifts. Some of the others were gifts through mistakes and the only smart thing I did was not throw them away.
JPC Yes. And while technical perfection is wonderful to support great images, there are times when the spirit of something overrides that. Technical imperfections be damned. It’s a lively, interesting, compelling picture anyway.
TC So I stopped fearing vignetting. I live with it. I don’t go out deliberately and try to make vignetting a signature. But there are a half a dozen times where it does work. It works particularly on the ones that have that side vanishing point. Often that vignetting forces the vision down into that corner.
JPC Echoing other curves in the picture. That perspective, a lot of times it’s off the picture plane which is interesting when we’re talking about pictures where destination is so important and sometimes you can’t see where you’re going, particularly in an artistic endeavor, and here you can’t see the final vanishing point. It’s not yet clear.
TC That design keeps coming back. There’s and arch leading down and a front leading down and back and away. Almost like you’re going beside everything and past it to something.
The deeper meaning of the train stations work dawned on me years after finishing the MFA part of it. My first wife had died, I’d gone to graduate school, mentally and emotionally it was a transition of going from one place to another internally. Tilmann Crane was in the process of evolution, as we all are constantly. But the major upheavals had happened and it was going somewhere else. The disappearing figures, the ghosts, my first wife, leaving one life behind and moving into another, and yet there were presences of earlier years and earlier things. The ghosts are not in every picture so you can’t say, "Oh he just did ghosts because his wife had died." It’s not that kind of thing at all. It’s that idea of passage and transition. That sense of light; there is a spectral quality of light in many of the photographs.
JPC There are big empty spaces but the light has taken on a presence in them.
TC Please quote yourself.
The idea of sanctuary. I think that’s why the train stations appeal to me. That’s what they were. You went and sat on a pew under vaulted ceilings to raise your eyes, to ascend, to be transported. I think that is a very large part of why I love the train stations; that was a structural vocabulary that I understood. On a much, much grander scale than any church I ever went to. That idea of a piercing, penetrating, revealing light is in a lot of my photographs. Rather than an enveloping, later afternoon, quiet light: I photograph at that time of day, but it always seems my best photographs have a different sense of light.
Somebody else would have to write that essay. Whether the light signifies a presence or not, it is. If I start thinking about it it becomes contrived. I’d make some awful photographs. The photographs will tell me what’s happening much more. I don’t try to tell my photographs what’s going on. I’m not a conceptual photographer. There is a voice that says "You’ve got to go make pictures of train stations. Don’t ask me why. We’ll tell you eventually if you’re lucky. Go photograph train stations." Or "Do this Echoes of History show." There was no logical reason to do it. Other than to explore new materials. But it was a wonderful experience.
I believe the "photo-fairies" give you a good picture at the beginning, then you’re stuck. You’ve got to get the rest of them to go with the first one. It’s almost like the first picture in a new project will ring all the bells.
JPC In innocence grace comes to us so easily.
TC I just never know if or when another good photograph will come. I look at photographs like Easter eggs. To me photography is a lot like an Easter egg hunt. You pick up a lot of colored ones but finding that golden egg is tough. I know I can pick up colored ones. I can make technically okay photographs. But finding those few images that really ring the bell is different.
I’ve gotten to the point that if and when I’m ever blessed with another picture like that I know what I’m in for; a long hard row. But you take it and say "Okay, that’s what I’m condemned to do. I am condemned to be a photographer. I can’t be anything else."
JPC It’s interesting that here you’re in great transition but it also seems to be through this body of work that you started to clarify your own voice, came to know it more clearly than ever before.
TC Probably. I have a great belief in that voice within that says, "Make a picture there, take a picture here, go photograph this." I’m not smart enough to know why I have to photograph places. I’ve heard other people talk about it, "I don’t know why but I’ve got to go." That is for me is a very big part of the way I work on a number of things. I tend to work in projects. Often it’s simply a physical structure; I’m not actually photographing a location but I’m using it as an allegory for other things. I did a body of work back in east Tennessee. Did a show. It was nice. I came up here to Maine and showed my portfolio. And the response was, "This was made in Tennessee? Boy it sure looks like Maine to me." Then it hit me a few months later, when that work was done I really wanted to be in Maine. So I made Maine in Tennessee. I was not aware of doing that but I photographed images that could well have been made in Maine.
JPC Call it possession by a muse or the wellings up of the subconscious. "An artist knows more than he thinks he knows."
TC That’s the only way I can work. If I try and make a photograph and I think I know what it means, it’s really a bad photograph nine times out of ten. I just have to trust that voice within.
JPC I suspect most of the great work gets produced that way. We produce a lot of sophisticated craftsmanship and we repeat ourselves. I think we have to go beyond our preconceived boundaries to produce radiant work.
TC I just have to trust whatever it is. The old adage "The harder I work the luckier I get." is very true. Inspiration only happens when you’re working. If I’m sitting home watching the Olympics waiting on inspiration and it hits, by the time I’ve got my camera out and gone to wherever it is, it’s gone, it’s history. Inspiration hits between two bad pictures.
TC I recently went back to my house, where we just moved out of. I wanted in the worst way to try to make some good, important photographs in the spaces that I lived in and I loved in. I loved that old house. I shot fifty sheets of film and maybe made one decent photograph. It was not one I was looking for or was expecting or could have planned to make. The rest are in focus and well exposed and they’re what an empty house looks like. But maybe there’s one picture that’s what it feels like. Sometimes if it’s a good picture and I think back over the pictures I’ve made that day or two weeks ago I can still see it. Those are the ones I have hope for. This may be one. I don’t know. I still may be too tied to it. I find that I have to separate, get some emotional distance from it. If I can remove my emotion and get within time the events were happening and just be concerned with the groundglass it came. If I’m really excited about being someplace, sometimes I get so excited that I can’t see. I see the postcards but I don’t see the pictures. Often I have to go back two and three and four times. And I go and make the predictable pictures. It may be a good picture, usually it isn’t but it may be. You keep looking, you keep going back. With me the cycle is great anticipation and if I’m really lucky the photo fairies give me a picture to get me started. They get you hooked and then they make you work for the rest of them. There’s a steep plunge into bad pictures and I muck around. Eventually I make a staircase of bad pictures to get into really seeing what’s going on that’s beyond the obvious. It takes a little stillness, a little quiet, a little patience. You sit there and just wait. I’ll occasionally take a nap and then I wake up and there are a few pictures. If I smoked it would be a great time to have a cigarette, just let everything calm down and then start looking.
JPC Photography is a wonderful way of getting us to slow down and experience what’s really there, a discipline to start to look further beyond what we would ordinarily recognize.
What were the enduring concerns of your Spirit of Structure work?
TC My father in law, after he had seen the train stations, said, "You’ve got to take you over to these buildings. (Boston pump stations) You’ll just love them." He drove me by these things and I thought, "Holy..." My father in law gotten the historic preservation documents on these buildings. He really went out of his way. I started shooting these huge windows, the sense of light, and these wonderful massive engines that pushed the pistons that pumped the water through the water pipes of Boston. What an incredible technology for a hundred years ago. We would go back three or four times a year. The exposures were so long sometimes I would take a second 8x10 with me, set it up and have a second picture cooking for an hour and a half and go make another shorter exposure for twenty minutes and come back and get the other one, turn it off and go find another one.
Also included were some images from the Olsen House. I had a chance to get in there when the Farnsworth owned it, before they turned it into an addition of their museum. I had a chance to go in there and explore that space; listen to the spirit of what was going on there. I asked myself the question, "What attracted Wyeth here?’ Was it the personality of Anna. Or was it the light in the place?" My conclusion was it was probably both. The light in the place is just incredible, but there was also that spirit, that presence of that person that he must have been drawn to. It was still there. And people still go there and still feel it. I think he epitomized that sense of personality that she brought to it. I simply photographed the remnants of what was there.
I incorporated some things I did in Portland for Downeast; the fronts of different buildings where the buildings had their own presence. That organ for example; the organ in Portland City Hall. This wonderful massive arch and these wonderful pipes and this little bitty organ with its umbilical cord attached to it. I’m a history nut, a history buff. I love to be tuned into places where things have happened, history is made. And I think that’s part of what all of these older buildings were. There were things happening there that were important to somebody. There is a spirit of that left. Much as you go to a Civil War battlefield and if you know the history of that place you can almost hear, not so much the guns and the roar but the aftermath and the stillness of fifty thousand men dying in one day. It’s almost as if something is echoing, whispering or yelling at you. Those are the kinds of places I tend to be drawn to.
JPC What led you to platinum?
TC I saw some Frederick Evans prints.They just had a presence about them; just blew me away. I thought, "This is the way I want to work." This is when I was a photojournalist and had no clue what was involved. I did the Spirit of Structure show on Palladio paper because I felt that it was more important for me to learn the aesthetic of platinum materials than it was to learn how to hand coat. I could concentrate on whether the print felt right rather than whether there were brush marks through it. To make a large platinum print you have to make an enlarged negative with the right densities, have to learn how to put the emulsion on the paper correctly and you have to learn the aesthetics of what the material does. When I got into the Echoes of History show I started hand coating everything.
JPC Obviously there was something that was calling you to other mediums. Was it just curiosity?
TC Your dad’s Voice of the Print show made a lot of sense. It allowed photographs to speak in their own voice. The use of materials, the different image colors you could get out of silver was pretty phenomenal. I knew I could get a number of colors out of platinum. I had taught cyanotype and gum. I’d been like a lot of people in photography. You hear about these alternative processes and you teach a little bit of them. So I made a proposal for a show at Maine Coast Artists; one to show a little bit of the history of photography of the way prints looked a hundred years ago and I wanted to see whether my images would look and feel differently, have a different voice or life in some of these other processes.
JPC So it was a way of extending your palette.
TC Very much so. I wanted the viewer not to look at the fact that there were brush strokes, so I deliberately masked out the brush strokes or covered them with a mat. If there were brush strokes in the image, I redid them. It’s an important part of the process but it’s not an important part of the image for me. One of the ideas I have been dealing with is the idea of process and product. That being the way I make images (large format, platinum or salt) is vitally important to me, it is vitally unimportant to anybody else. What is important to the viewer is what the print looks like when it’s hanging on the wall. If I have to justify it by saying, "This print is important because it’s shot with an 8x10, the original exposure was an hour and a half, it’s 16x20 so I had to make an enlarged negative and by the way I printed it in pure platinum." If I have to say all that to get them to look at the image I’m not doing a good job in being a visual communicator. When I look at photographs I want to see what the artist’s statement is. What are they telling me? Then if I want to question how they made that particular statement available then I want to know how all of that’s done. But if the image itself doesn’t interest me, the process the artist went through to get there is immaterial.
If I can put a title to a project, even if it’s not the final title but just a working title, I’ve got something I can hang my hat on and it tells me where I need to go. Somehow Echoes of History came to me; I wanted the feeling that these processes weren’t technologically inferior but were stopped for other reasons. It wasn’t that they weren’t beautiful; for various reasons they fell out of favor. The name Echoes of History began to give me a sense of what images of my own I wanted to look for, what images I had that could have been made anytime in the last 150 years. It dawned on me that the Maine Photographic Workshops has an archive of nearly 100,000 glass plate negatives by a photographer working in New England from about 1890 - 1930. They said "You may go through them and use a certain number." They were very generous in letting me do that. And Rod Hook, a good friend of mine, knew the collection, so he was able to go in and say "These are the boxes that have the really good images."
A woman getting into a stage made in 1895. A remarkable image in that there is one woman in the stage coach and her mother standing outside talking to her. It’s made to see the whole scene. I grew up thinking that stagecoaches were out west. They’re what you used to get from Saint Louis to San Francisco if you were in a hurry and couldn’t take the train. There were Indians and cowboys. But this was a stagecoach that went from the hotel to the train stations, but it look exactly like those western stagecoaches. It was a wonderful image about an every day event a hundred years ago. That ended up being the image I used as the comparison print. I made a salt, albumen, pure platinum, pure palladium, cyanotype, kallitype, van dyke, gum bichromate and silver gelatin print. This same image printed nine different ways with a technical description beside each one so you could look and see the difference.
I knew the show was a real possibility. It had two hooks. One, photographers might be interested in it. Two, people would come to see it because they were interested in the history of the area.
That began to give me a clue as to which of my images needed to be in which process. Several years ago my mother in law’s, down in Boston, had a wonderful vase of tulips and I made a photograph below the bulbs of the stems in the water and the light dancing on the table. It was a lousy silver print. But I thought it might work as a cyanotype. And it did. It’s a wonderful surreal blue color, toned in lead acetate, a deep royal blue. You don’t care that the flowers are cut off, you’re concerned about that light on that round table. All of a sudden, rather than being an ugly step child, the cyanotype became quite wonderful.
Other images were like that. In other media they found their voice. The tonal range of the albumen and the salt printing out papers where the shadows become self masking allow an incredible range that even in platinum you can’t get. The kallitype was a frustrating process but it was very flexible; I could make prints anywhere from sepia to blue depending on the developer.
JPC I must be wonderful to have that expanded palette.
TC I really was. But the unpredictability! I started working in January six to seven days a week , eight to ten hours a day, and worked at that pace until the show opened in June. It would not be uncommon to come in and tear up everything I’d done the day before, or the week before and throw it away. Because it wasn’t right. It was okay, but it wasn’t right. It was a real steep learning curve. It’s not like the processes have never been done before and there are books on doing many of them. But I guess it’s like my grandmother’s lemon pie recipe. She can give you the recipe but it never tastes like the way she used to make it. Some of these formulas I found I couldn’t make work. So I had to figure out another way to make it work or I had to go to another source.
I found the definition of love. One is a wife that will put up with you putting in that much time into a show; which you know. But the other is a wife who will not only help you separate 25 dozen eggs but will then let two gallons of albumen age in the refrigerator for a month never knowing when you go to open the refrigerator door what the aroma is going to be. That’s love. It was wonderful to have nine months to do the show, but it cost us a ton financially. I don’t know that we’ll ever get our money back. Thank heavens my wife had a good job during that period of time. She literally supported us during that period of time.
It was a wonderful experience, but from January through May I had this dream; I would walk up the stairs to the gallery and there would be these wonderful light walls and way down at the end was one print. That’s all I’d gotten done, that was the opening. The dream didn’t go away until mid June and I got out all the prints I’d done and we went down and counted the space. I only had twenty five prints but I could get away with it. But things picked up after that and we ended up having seventy prints. We only had space for sixty. It’s been to three places so far and it’s booked through early April, 1997. I’m still looking for places to show it, because it is an educational show.
JPC I think we’ve all had mentor’s in our careers, whether it’s looking at a particular body of work that we respond to or coming in contact with people directly.
TC I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around John Sexton who was a terrific influence at one point; one way of seeing and working. When I went out and worked with him for three weeks one year just seeing how hard he worked was important. It was in the time when I was making the transition from photojournalism to grad school and teaching and becoming a fine art photographer. We’d work from seven in the morning until midnight everyday. Then we went shooting once or twice and even then went back to the work. That was about it. People would ask me, "How was California?" And I would say, "Well, it was about 68 degrees and had this feint red light." Seeing how hard he worked. It was not frenetic pace it was just steady. He’s precise, methodical, orderly and does very wonderful work.
Working around the Maine Photographic Workshops was wonderful. Craig Stevens is an incredible teacher. He’s another consummate craftsman. To work as a teaching assistant to George Tice was terrific; a very different approach. Very early in my change of careers To work with these people really got the traditional zone system, the craft aspect of it, zeroed in. That was the right thing at the right time.
Meeting Sally Mann and talking with her about her approach was so different. Her images are so powerful. She has a way of touching things. The way she does people, the way she uses 8x10, I’m just dead envious of it. I’d love to be able to take some of the pictures she makes. I can’t do it. I could do my best to imitate it and it would be a bad imitation at best.
JPC There’s only one person we can imitate with a true voice.
TC I had my darkroom next to your dad’s. Having him around, seeing him watch, having the opportunity to be in the darkroom with him has been incredible. He knows his craft so instinctively, intuitively that he doesn’t have to think about it. It’s not labored. Probably one to the biggest things your dad has taught me is to work with the materials. Making that print sing and breaking all the rules I had learned from other craftsman. Whatever it takes to get the print right. To watch the way he works, his approach to the business, to the life of being a photographer of being an artist. He is a unique man.
JPC Back to mentors, perhaps those you haven’t known personally, was there a body of work that particularly influenced you?
TC The work I look at to get inspired; Frederick Evans and Atget . To me the work is unsurpassed. The first image I saw was the Sea of Steps - the sense of light and the dance of the steps going up to that wonderful arch up there at the top. The first print of Evans I saw was of an attic. I felt that if you turned out the lights in the room the light would still come from within that print. And Atget, I keep going back to the four volume set that I’ve got. A lot of them are very ordinary pictures but they build up over time. To have photographed Paris at that time and not have photographed the Eiffel Tower or the Arc du Triomphe. He was really interested in the back alleys, the overlooked and he loved stairways. Subconsciously I probably picked up a love of staircases from his work. In my train stations portfolio there’s a picture called Icewater and it’s a water fountain with big block letters that say "Icewater" and then there’s this lion’s head where the water used to come out. It feels like an Atget. I look at that and say, "Well, you stole that from an Atget, and that’s okay. If you’re going to steal, steal only from the best."
I’m actually going back and looking at a lot of nineteenth century work, anonymous photographers. The daguerreotypes and carte-de-visites that took so long; an exposure that goes on for thirty seconds or more has a different look than a portrait done with a strobe.
JPC So how will you plan your next show?
TC I don’t know with the move to Utah. That’s going to be such a major change of life. I recently accepted a position at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. They’re really doing something pretty unusual. They’re one of the few schools who have a very serious commitment to art throughout their curriculum (they start with two year olds and go through high school). They expect the people in the institute to be working artists as well as teachers. They teach only in their disciplines. In the next seven years we’ll build three new buildings for the fine arts academy. The academy will have music, dance, theater, photography, art and architecture.
JPC Having talked about your mentors, you’ve been teaching for a number of years and now you’re going to be teaching a whole new group. You’ve had the opportunity to be a mentor for many other people.
TC I hope so.
To be a mentor, to be a teacher is to exert influence. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had some wonderful friends who were students over the years and I maintain contact with them. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching.
Utah is going to be a big change.
The opportunity to teach at a school that is really interested in the arts, to work with a faculty of other working artists, I look forward to that.
The opportunity to work with people at a young age. I know we can teach them the craft. If I can teach them the craft, they’ve got the rest of their life to develop the aesthetic. When they get to college, then they can talk to people not about f-stops and shutter speeds and zones but about pointing your camera at something that’s important to you. Not just falling airplanes and presidential motorcades, the craft is so much a part of the working process that it’s not even thought about but yet it becomes the vocabulary that allows someone to express what they’re not even sure they’re saying and may not be sure for years later. I seem to figure out my work about five years after I do it. I tend to figure out one project as I’m in the middle of another one and winding the other up.
I’m looking forward to working with someone for five or six years as they develop their vision from twelve to eighteen year old ready to take on the world.
My only question is can I channel my intensity into a forty-five minute period. When I’ve got somebody for a week I own them from 8 am until midnight. I can work them to death because they’ve got the rest of their life to sleep. That’s my approach to photography. Somebody told me about as serious about photography as a heart attack. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or condemned. It is what I am and it is what I do. And I don’t tolerate those who do it at another level well. I have a motto, "Close enough isn’t; good enough won’t be."
One of thing I used to do in a class I taught down at the workshops, a philosophy class, I said, "I want you to write your obituary. I want you to write the first sentence of your obituary. How does it read?" Does it read, "Tillman Crane- husband, father, photographer?" Does it read, "Tillman Crane- photographer, husband, father?" When you do that, it’s amazing, only one thing can be first in that which defines you. What is that first thing? It gets me thinking about what is important in my life and how important my sons are, my wife, my family?
JPC We can lead a vague chaotic life, but asking those hard questions gets us to commit in ways that, while they’re painful and difficult to make, are priceless.
TC It still is a very big struggle. I feel that from forty to fifty-five is when my best images are going to be made. The work of the men and women who I really appreciate, most of it was done in that time frame in their lives. It was when they reached that level of physical and mental maturity and acuity and paid their dues. They’d been doing it for ten, fifteen, twenty years before they really began to click on different levels. Yes they made other great images earlier but in that brief period was the majority, and that coincides with my boys’ childhood. So how am I going to make that work? I don’t have an answer. I’m hoping that teaching at the school where they will be going will keep me in contact with them. And if they want to become involved in photography it will be easy for them to. And at the same time I’ll be able to do whatever it is I need to do.
Working with kids is going to be fun and different.
JPC It’s a delicate task to make sure that the challenges you put in front of someone inspires them rather than crushes their spirit. If you do that you’ve done one of the most wonderful things in the world.
TC Absolutely. And if you’ve crushed it you’ve done one of the worst. That to me would be the greatest failure as a teacher if I have ever crushed someone’s enthusiasm.