IF THE photos in Tom Fischer’s new book have a passing familiarity to those of Ansel Adams, there’s a reason: Fischer actually studied with the late, great nature photographer.
Now SCAD’s chief academic officer, Fischer — who taught photography at the college for 17 years — has taken his time spent with Adams and added his own twist to it in Paradise/Paradox, which explores the juxtaposition with humankind’s need to find a perfect place and our disturbing propensity to destroy that place when we do find it.
We spoke to Fischer last week.
Tell us about working with Ansel Adams. How did you get involved with him?
Tom Fischer: He had a workshop he ran in Yosemite for many years. He selected small groups to study with him. I was interested in teaching and I was drawing and painting, but I was also an avid photographer. So I sent in some of my work and got accepted as a student in 1978. I went to Yosemite and was inspired by him and the landscape. I continued in that path and I was fortunate enough to get an invitation to assist him in his workshops. Over the ensuing summers I worked for him as a workshop assistant, so I had access to him and the people he got into programs. I was a teacher so it sort of came naturally. As his heart problems got worse toward the end of his life, he stopped going to Yosemite, and we did the last three workshops in Carmel.
Was this a freewheeling dialogue, or more like a learning-at-the-feet-of-the-master sort of thing?
Tom Fischer: It was a combination of both. Ansel would bring usually half a dozen or more of the most important photographers around the country to his location either in Carmel or Yosemite. He’d bring them together with groups of students selected by their portfolios. Sometimes it was technical instruction, but mostly it was critique and discussion about their work and its meaning. As assistant, I would take students out in the morning or evening to photograph, and I also did darkroom demonstrations.
Looking at your photos for this book, they’re obviously heavily influenced by Adams. Intentional, or is that just how you shoot?
Tom Fischer: In terms of material and equipment, I was using large format photography and sheet film, so there was bound to be certain amount of influence. And of course it was black and white photography. But my work was a lot much more related to the human influence rather than the grand landscapes that Ansel photographed. You can’t discuss the elements of environmental issues just by showing the beauty of a primeval landscape. The funny thing is, even though Ansel was known as a straight photographer, his prints were actually highly manipulated. I don’t mean to imply that my work is more truthful, but my work is manipulated more in how I frame the image than in the dynamics of how I print the image. I don’t darken skies or use any filters.
So it’s almost photojournalism.
Tom Fischer: In a more documentary style, I would say.
Tell us why about the theme of the book and why you chose it.
Tom Fischer: The idea of Paradise/Paradox came to me after looking at hundreds of my pictures and laying them all out. I was looking for something fairly universal. In my search for this idea about beauty and land, it was very much like everybody’s search for perfection or paradise. There’s this universal human desire to find the perfect place to live in and enjoy — maybe it’s the afterlife, I don’t know. But in the contemporary world over the last 100 years, most of the great and exquisite places we would want to visit have been dramatically changed by the human presence. The search for paradise is unending, but our visiting paradise on earth often alters it so it’s no longer recognizable.
But you avoid political commentary.
Tom Fischer: My essays in the book are all fairly personal about my search for paradise, but I don’t pretend to have any real answers to difficult issues of today that we all recognize, such as global warming and the economic issues that revolve around the search for energy and all that. In art you can either pound people over the head with a message, or you can be open to the world and let people see as you see. I fall into that second category.
I’ve heard some grumbling that most colleges today, including SCAD, are shortchanging traditional darkroom photography. Your response?
Tom Fischer: We’ve transformed our curriculum where digital is the first thing we teach. In the most traditional curriculum, you would teach black and white photography and darkroom work first. We teach that also, but we start with camera vision, and we use digital technology for that. We actually teach every aspect of photography, including 19th century processes. It’s just in a different order than traditionally.
It seems as digital technology gets better, the old divides are no longer as clear-cut.
Tom Fischer: Well, for example, my work for the book was all shot in black and white sheet film, processed in the darkroom. But every image in the book is a digital image, scanned at extremely high resolution for print. They stand up beautifully. Technology has finally caught up to traditional print quality. But there’s a sense that now every picture can be manipulated in any way one wants, and there’s a danger in that. That sort of goes against the old idea that there’s truth in a photograph. But that just leads us to teach ethics again, doesn’t it? cs
Paradise/ParadoxTom Fischer gives a lecture and signing Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. at The River Club, 3 MLK Jr. Boulevard. Info: paradise-paradox.com