January 12, 2006
New York Times
CALIFORNIA DREAMING ON SUCH A WINTER'S DAY
By RANDY KENNEDY
Winter, to put it politely, is not kind to Rochester. How many other cities, after all, are regularly in the running for the Golden Snowball, an annual award presented to the upstate city with the most snowfall? (Rochester, at 113 inches, was bested last winter only by Syracuse at 137.)
"It can be pretty bleak, let's be honest," said Anthony Bannon, director of George Eastman House, the renowned photography museum founded in the city in 1947. "There are times when it feels like you don't see the sun for months."
This was one of the reasons that a light bulb - actually more like a tanning lamp - went off over Mr. Bannon's head more than a year ago when he became familiar with an odd, obsessive experiment being conducted by a photographer named Robert Weingarten.
Mr. Weingarten, a former executive who took up a camera professionally at 54, travels around the world in search of images, and his work is now in the collections of several major museums. But in 2002, at the urging of Weston Naef, the photography curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Mr. Weingarten decided to train his lens on his own backyard in Malibu, Calif., following Alfred Stieglitz's advice that photographers should first look for pictures at home before traveling to find them.
The results of Mr. Weingarten's experiment went on view this week at Eastman House, beaming a little bit of Southern California to Rochester, at least photographically. His idea was to take pictures with a medium-format film camera every day that he was home, at exactly the same time, 6:30 in the morning, the camera pointed southeastward from his bedroom porch toward the same spot over Santa Monica Bay.
Mr. Weingarten worked with an almost scientific rigor to ensure that the way he took each photograph was identical: he bought all the film from the same production batch and even stored it at the same temperature and humidity for a year as he took the pictures from January through December of 2003. The aperture was always set at f/22, and the lens always focused at infinity. His only intervention was to change the shutter speed depending on the amount of natural light available each morning.
In a recent interview, he said that when he first started to look at the transparencies and see on film what he thought he could see with his eyes every morning, he was astonished at how artificial, almost painted, the images looked.
"The depth of the color is either something you can't see or just don't concentrate hard enough to see in the sky and water," he said, adding that he was glad he had chosen film instead of digital photography. ("People would have said, 'Oh, you just played with Photoshop and manipulated that,' " he said.)
Depending on what time of year the photographs were taken, they sometimes resemble striated Rothko paintings, the ominous light-rimmed clouds of El Greco or the candy-colored California skies of Ed Ruscha. In some pictures, the control tower of the Los Angeles International Airport is visible across the bay, but in most the water, horizon and sky blend together in fluid, fuzzy, gradations of color and sunlight.
For the sun-starved of Rochester, Mr. Bannon thought, the pictures would be especially striking. But instead of showing them in an exhibition inside the museum, he proposed something that the institution had never done, placing enlarged photographs in front of the museum, like billboards from the land of perpetual summer.
"It's our way of trying to turn lemons into lemonade," he said. "The winter is forbidding so you use it, try to turn it to your advantage."
The exhibition, which remains up through Feb. 12, includes 19 enlargements of Mr. Weingarten's prints, blown up to 40 inches square and arrayed in Plexiglas cases on the front lawn of the Colonial Revival mansion that houses the museum, originally the home of Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.
Mr. Weingarten, who was born in Brooklyn but decamped for California when he was young and never came back, said the show was a particularly personal one for him because of his gray early winter memories. "When I moved here," he said of California, "I told my friends that I was color-deprived from having grown up in New York, and they laughed at me. But it was true."
He added that he had only one further hope for the show, one that Rochesterians in January probably don't want to hear: "I really hope it snows."
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