Imagine me as a boy of 12 or so in Graniteville, VT in the mid-fifties taking a picture of birds on a wire with a little plastic camera I had earned for having a paper route. Now imagine the reaction when the small B&W photos came back showing nothing more than a couple of lines with tiny black dots on them that faintly resembled birds.
Now jump to the present and imagine my thrill at taking a tack-sharp picture of an Osprey flying overhead and looking directly into the camera. The bird's eyes and feathers stand out clearly in the fall light over Perdido Bay in Lillian, AL. It was the outcome that I had dreamed about so many years before.
There was a long hiatus in picture taking between the disappointment of the birds-on-a-wire pictures and the exciting acquisition of a 35 mm Canon AE1 in Boston in 1966. A fellow optometry student talked me into buying this new technology featuring through-the-lens viewing, focusing, and spot metering. And Boston was the perfect visual classroom for developing a new skill. My roommates and I had a portrait studio in our apartment and my friend and I rented space for a darkroom. We actually had a few paying customers. It was, however, just an avocation since we were engaged in the labor of becoming eye doctors.
After optometry school photography was still an ever-present part of my life and my camera was with me most of the time. I captured a few slides here and there that have stood the test of time as interesting or artistic, but most were of family, friends, and events. (Anyone need some Kodak carousels to pass the time?!)
I really began to look at the world with more of an artist’s eye in the mid-seventies as a Ph.D. student in physiology and vision science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). I was fortunate to have access to a darkroom where I could make B&W prints. This was a gratifying return to having control over the final product after several years of shooting almost exclusively slides. Also, my eye was getting better.
Following the B&W period I was strongly encouraged to use color negative film so the prints could be more easily viewed and take less time to process--I was not as pleased with these snapshots, but there are a few that I have since digitized and printed.
In the late ‘90s I remodeled some space in my house to accommodate a small darkroom but never quite got around to equipping it for wet processing because I could see, however faintly, a future for digital prints. When archival paper and ink finally arrived I was hooked. With image processing and the ability to print digital images I now had complete control over the entire process and my more artistic side began to show through.
The interesting thing is that, in my mind, I did not become a “photographer” until after a second gallery show in 2007. That may sound strange in view of the fact that I had been taking real pictures for almost 40 years, had two shows, and had paying clients along the way. The epiphany came one day when someone who had been at that show remarked about seeing “a Dave Corliss photograph” while out walking with her husband one Sunday afternoon. To hear that was an exciting moment--I had actually influenced the way someone else saw the world. To paraphrase Dorothea Lange, I had become “an instrument that teaches people to see the world without a camera.” So, even if I never sell another photograph I can comfortably call myself a photographer as I create representations that resonate aesthetically and emotionally with my vision of the world.
My criterion for subject matter is quite simple: since I have my camera with me most of the time, I will shoot whatever catches my eye, just as whatever that person saw that day caught her newly sensitized eye. There are, for example, no grand Ansel Adams vistas, Salgado documentaries, or Penn portraits. I leave it to the viewer to identify the photographers whose subject matter and styles I have attempted to emulate over the years--there are several.
It would be natural to assume that my professional training in vision science and my subsequent 35 years as a faculty member at UAB would have had a strong influence on my photography. I have to say that, if it has, it has only been marginally. It certainly helped me understand how a camera works and how the eye and brain process light, dark, color, and space.
But the aesthetic sense is something that does not spring directly from technology or the fundamental workings of the sensory system. The so-called “rules of composition” and of how to render the final image are learned primarily by observing others and practicing constantly until the final images just feel right. A good percentage of all the digital images that I have accumulated, and deem worthy of printing and sharing, (including scans of negatives and slides) now resonate with some inner sense that cannot be explained by vision science.
I hope my vision resonates with yours.
David Corliss
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