Why did I pick this photo to begin a profile on photographer, James Bleecker you may be asking yourselves. Having asked myself the same question, my answer has to be this: it seems to tell a poignant story. There is a path to follow, to a place that seems a bit other-worldly with a mysterious sort of beauty that calls for you to proceed even if you are unsure what might happen when you get there.
James Bleecker has this way about his art. He has a way of creating a story with his lens...of capturing a moment in time, that is yet timeless. And James has lived quite a story himself as well. James has been creating photography in his home state of New York since 1982. Having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, James proceeded to gain prestigious commissions from The Frick Collection, The Morgan Library, the Rockefeller family and The American Museum of Natural History.
I am not just a little impressed with his skill. He has been asked to photograph some of the most beautiful and historic homes in New York, and particularly the Hudson Valley. I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with James and , his wife (and my cousin), Jenny and their son Jamie a summer ago at his country home in New Concord. There I got to see genius at work. With his studio in their red barn, James showed us how he printed his photos onto special archival paper. We got to see some of his very amazing work of prize livestock and stunning architecture that clients had commissioned.
We had begun a correspondence and James has been kind enough to agree to an interview about his recent projects, including his Tuxedo Park project for the Tuxedo Historical Society, as well as upcoming projects.
1) What drew you to photography and film as the ways to express your creative self?
There's a famous opening line from L. P. Hartley's book, The Go Between. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." I've always been fascinated by that country. Photography is my window into it. That window first opened for me in 1981, along the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island.
During a howling Atlantic nor'easter, with rain driving against the cliff and battering the mansions perched above it, I started taking pictures of old buildings for the first time. I wasn't there to express my creative self; this place, at this moment, did all the expressing itself. My job was to capture that message. Like ships, these massive stone buildings had endured countless storms. And like old ships they seemed most grand and most, well, alive, under a storm. Since then I've photographed houses not as a technician but more, I think, as a landscape painter.
2) There are so many genres/styles of photography. What inspired your subject matter choices?
The subject chose me. Architecture created between the Civil War and the Depression – the Gilded Age – captured my imagination as student, and hasn't let go.
I don't give much thought to style. I did, however, stumble upon a method of producing black-and-white slides while I was in art school. If you projected them on a screen using two slide projectors hooked up to an electronic "dissolve unit," you could create the most ethereal effects. Often an uninvited ghost image would materialize as one slide dissolved into the next. If you designed a sequence in which every two images created a surprise third, you had something that was hypnotic. Set that sequence to music and now you had a show: a seeming story or poem, and quite haunting.
3)How did your career progress after after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design?
It progressed from these student slide shows I made. Historical societies and museums commissioned me to make multi-media shows that communicated stories to visitors. My first and best show was Hudson River Gothic, produced for Hudson River Heritage in 1983. The subject was crumbling mansions along the river. Later I won several awards, including a Gold Award from the American Association of Museums, for my film, Up the River: Sing Sing Prison. Some of my commissions have been permanently installed in museums: if you visit the Frick Collection you'll see a show I made back in 1993.
4) How did you become involved in the Tuxedo Park project?
The Tuxedo Park project came to me by way of someone who attended a screening of Hudson River Gothic. This gentleman introduced himself as president of the Tuxedo Historical Society and said, "some day we'll do a book together." I didn't hear from him for several years. Then two years ago I received a call from his associate, who reminded me of that earlier meeting and said, "let's get to work."
Tuxedo Park: The Historic Houses was privately published last year by Tuxedo Historical Society, with money raised from homeowners. It's designed by a top graphic artist named Hilary Kliros and printed on sumptuous Italian paper. I've shown it to commercial publishers who said they couldn't match its quality. The project has changed my thinking about the potential of private publishing. (The book, co-edited by Christian R. Sonne and Chiu yin Hempel, is available at http://www.tuxedohistoricalsociety.org/.)
Tuxedo Park School
Tennis House Columns
Lake and Tennis House
5) What has been your favorite photography project/subject and why?
Tuxedo Park has been among my favorite projects. The place has a craggy, Picturesque character, with rustic stone houses designed by Bruce Price that seem to grow right out of the cliffs. I love rain, and it seemed to rain almost constantly during my six months of shooting there. The place became a rain forest. I was blessed each day with uncanny effects from the heavens: sun bursts through dark clouds, fog banks drifting up the steep hills; rain drops glistening on gardens. This atmosphere pervades the book. Another editor might have grumbled, "more sun." But my editors knew the Park and knew we had it right. A perfect project.
Hills in Mist
6) What is your favorite pastime after your career in photography?
Hiking with my wife Jenny, son Jamie, and our new dog. At nine, Jamie's just turned a corner: he now walks ahead of us, enjoys steep open faces, and is more or less fearless. New York City is not unlike San Francisco in that's it's surrounded with magnificent parks, mainly to the north along the Hudson River.
7) What are you reading at the moment?
The Intelligence of Dogs, by Stanely Coren. My puppy Retriever is resisting house breaking, and I hope this book will reveal whether her many accidents are truly those, or if she has, in fact, a cruel design upon our antique oak floors.
8)Where do you like to go to get "away from it all"?
We have a small Greek Revival house in the farm country that we escape to on weekends. Though it was surely built by a local carpenter, it has fine proportions. In its whiteness (no shudders) it becomes a gleaming sculpture. I can stare at it for hours. I've taken many pictures of it, some of which you can see on my Web site. (http://www.jamesbleecker.com/)
House, New Concord
9) What are you never without?
I should say my camera, right? I will correct that soon by buying a small digital camera that I can keep glued to my hand.
10) If you could be anywhere anytime, where and when would that be?
I would be transported to the southeast coast of Maui in rainy season. That's the steep side of the island. The twisty road along the ocean threads in and out of the mountains and past innumerable waterfalls dropping hundreds of feet. It's all shrouded in mist and you can only imagine the height of the peaks above you. Rain and fog: is there a motif running through this conversation?
11) Who are your heroes and why?
While he was more of a grouch than a hero, I admire Walker Evans. His iconic photos of Depression-era towns stop me in my tracks. He brings dignity and stature to simple buildings like a vernacular Southern church or a gas station. It's partly his straight-on, no-nonsense compositions, and partly his soft Pictorialism: opposing styles brought together without irony. I feel his pictures are honest and ennobling. That, to me, is close to a heroic accomplishment – at least in artistic terms.
Barn, New Concord
12. What are you up to at the moment?
I'm working on my next show in Chelsea, which will feature giant prints of the High Line. The High Line is a massive, rusting elevated railway cutting through the Chelsea gallery district of Manhattan. It threads its way into and out of the old warehouses here, the buildings actually enveloping it. I suppose it was too massive for anyone to take on the task of demolishing it, so it sat idle for years. Now it's being adapted as a greenway park; imagine walking through thirty blocks of Manhattan at an elevation of 30 feet, like King Kong.
The High Line appeals to my love of old or abandoned structures – in this case one that cuts through some of New York's swankest new architecture, making for startling juxtapositions. New York's only contribution from Frank Gehry, the new IAC building, is the backdrop for one of my photographs.
It's fun not to be photographing houses for a change. But guess what? One building along the High Line is a semi-ruinous 19th-century office that someone has stabilized. They've built a modernist townhouse within – and peeking out from – the crumbling walls. Now that's a house I could live in.
(This show opens in November at Allen Sheppard Gallery, 530 West 25th Street. http://www.allensheppardgallery.com/)
Please take a moment to check out James' website to see many more stunning photos and find out more about the book Tuxedo Park: the Historic Houses.