Sunday, April 29, 2012

EPIPHANY in PORTOFINO (family vacation photos)

The rain fell in short light bursts on the dock in Portofino. It was like any other drippy day in a quaint town on the Italian Riviera. And for that matter, I can’t even say for sure if being in Portofino had anything to do with my epiphany, or if it was just mere coincidence that what I heard and what I saw changed forever the way I looked at holiday cards boasting family vacation photos.  

We traveled a lot when I grew up and my Pop always asked strangers to take our family vacation photo, which often became the annual Christmas card. To complicate matters, he liked us to be walking in the photos. Asking a stranger to snap a photo of what would live in the family album to mark that specific year is one thing. Asking a stranger to snap a photo of your family walking is a far more complicated request.

One of my favorite Christmas card vacation photos was taken on a trip after my brother and I were off in college. It is a walking photo of my folks in Greece. I love the juxtaposition of the elements in this photo and always wondered what the stranger/photographer thought about Mom in high heels and Pop with a briefcase walking amid the ancient ruins. “Yes, they're from United States, Cali-fornia,” I imagine the stranger/photographer/Greek tour guide thinking, “Elena and I must buy business suits to wear when we go to visit Cousin Adelfo in Santa Cruz."

Tourists milled around the dock waiting for the next ferry. “Let’s stand over here against the wall,” says the father of four to his wife. I watch as he approaches a man explaining camera settings to his son. “Hello,” he says holding his arm out, red digital camera dangling from a tie dye strap around his wrist. “Will you take our picture?” He says opening his mouth wide to form perfect English words and adding eye motions and pleading face gestures as he hands the camera to the stranger. He holds the index finger and thumb of his left hand in front of his face as if grabbing a king size bar of ivory soap as his right index finger moves up and down as if pushing the trigger button on the camera. The stranger nods. He understands from the pantomime that he is being asked to take a photo.

The American father flaps his arms to position his clan against the wall and turns to the stranger. The stranger examines the camera. As expected, the stranger does not speak the same language. From the glare off the water, the stranger cannot see the image on the screen and the camera appears to have no viewfinder. He aims the camera in the general direction of the posed family and snaps a photo, then another. He extends his hand as if to return the red camera indicating he is done. The family is already posed so I snap a similar photo they will never see. My photo ignores their faces and captures their body language, the defining moment caught as the two smallest children strike moonwalk poses.

“No please, please, a few more,” the mother says in rapid voice, unaffected by the fact that the stranger does not speak her language. The stranger tries to hand the camera back to the husband a second time, but the husband makes the trigger finger motion again, this time more rapidly. “Tell him to leave extra room at the top or bottom so we’ll have space to write Happy Holidays from the Jasper Family, Portofino 2011.”

The husband acknowledges her, full well knowing he will not try to use hand signals to interpret his wife’s holiday inscription as she will surely change it several times before the card is printed. “Another day in paradise” it might read if it weren’t raining, or “Celebrating our 20th with the kids in Portofino where we honeymooned. WooHoo!” Whatever the message, there is no need to attempt a verbatim translation. In sign language, the father has no idea how to say leave more space at the top or bottom. He instinctively reaches above his head as if picking apples from a tree, then makes a back and forth waving motion, next with both hands at waist level he pushes his hands downward in a motion that’s a cross between air sit-ups and rinsing a bed sheet in a stream. He repeats the motions indicating to leave room at the top or bottom, but his movements are misinterpreted by the on-looking crowd.

Apple picking, window washing, sheet rinsing, trigger finger, >repeat<, apple picking, window washing, sheet rinsing, trigger finger – the gestures take on a rhythm that are accompanied by a local teenage boy slapping his open palms against the sides of a tin garbage can. First to step out of the staged photo is the oldest son, then the daughter joins in, next a buzz-cut tourist in shorts and his tattooed girlfriend, then the ticket taker by the gang plank – soon everyone on the dock is in syncopated motion: fingers high - reach the sky, fingers spread proud – wipe the cloud, hands down - push the ground, wiggle the tip - snap the pic, and with that, the new vacation photo Macarena hits the cobbles of Portofino like American Bandstand come home to roost. The crowd is in motion, young and old moving, twisting and gyrating in unison as if under a spell. When the ferry boat horn sounds, the crowd, just having participated in an Italian style unrehearsed flash mob, stops as quickly as it started and cues up for the voyage to the next port of call.

On many occasions I push myself on traveling families if I recognize a setting that will serve as a good keepsake image. I do the finger trigger pantomime and reach for their camera. It makes tourists smile and I feel good knowing they will have at least one happy snapshot to share on their holiday card…  like the 1958 Christmas card memory I hold dear of my beret-clad family snapped by a stranger with my Pop’s camera on a Paris tarmac in August of 1958.
     So, as I said in the beginning, while waiting on the dock in Portofino, I had an epiphany and adopted the role of stranger/photographer taking my own curious photographs of tourists posing for their family photos – those all-telling potentially incomplete photos snapped in an instant by a stranger that, back home, might make you think… that’s not exactly how I remembered itAs for these taken-by-a-stranger vacation photos, maybe I saw something interesting in their pose that would be better enlarged and displayed on an art gallery wall than short lived on a holiday card. My faux vacation photos were never intended to be used as holiday cards… unless you are from California where the norm is abstractly translated or you happen to be a stranger who photographed my family on vacation or you plan to bring a briefcase when you visit relatives at the beach in Santa Cruz.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The New Last Supper

My parents encouraged education through experience and took my brother, age 14, and me, age 10, for a European vacation in 1958, a time when traveling overseas was not commonplace as it is today. Pop ordered a coral colored Volkswagen which we picked up from the factory in Germany, drove around Europe, and had shipped back to the United States at the end of our summer adventure. It was the first coral Volkswagen in our county and Mom drove it until she passed away at age 89. Niece Christine is now its caretaker.

We visited landmarks and cathedrals, but the experiences that made the biggest impression on my young mind came from seeing massive paintings in heavy ornate frames and statues of people balanced on pedestals. Second to the museums, I adored the fountains and public art, a concept that was new to me having been raised in California where few things were older than a hundred years. I already adored the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and became equally fascinated with the Eiffel Tower and Leaning Tower of Pisa. There is no doubt in my mind that our travels influenced my interest in art, architecture and color.
On Thursday night last week I drove beneath thunderous Northern California clouds to an event in a neighboring city. The clouds resembled those painted by the masters, the reflective quality of their colors and purposeful brushstrokes clashing waves of orange on the sky. For the thunderous appearance overhead, it was unusually calm, neither warm nor cold. There was no rain when I left my car and walked toward the door leading to the upper room. It was quiet inside the little Methodist Church. Rows of people represented a mixture of ages and races, large and small, young and old. From the choir loft, a baritone voice spoke and one-by-one, 13 costumed men rose from their positions scattered throughout the congregation, walked to the apse, and took their position at a long table covered with a white cloth. The church lights dimmed and for the next 30 minutes, each of the 12 Apostles rose and, in the spotlight, told their story.

Although my mother was a founder of the Presbyterian Church in my hometown and I attended church until I went away to college, my limited understanding of religion is not based on sermons or scriptures, but primarily on experiences, movies, festivals, and art. Every Easter season after all the church activities, mom and I watched the silver screen spectacles on television, one-after-another. Most years they were scheduled chronologically, ensuring that the parting of the waters came before the burning bush. My first one-on-one interface with art and religion came when mom’s church commissioned an artist to create a wood carving to serve as the focal point in the church. Mom signed me up for art classes and on Saturday mornings we made the pilgrimage to his studio. We children sat around a work table, our little hands positioning colorful tiles on Masonite creating mosaic pictures, while our parents spoke to the artist about the personalities of the 13 life size figures he meticulously chiseled from a monstrously large block of wood. Before leaving the studio, adults and kids alike collected bits of wood shavings from the floor as if gathering mementos from a shrine.
In Florence when told there were four “Last Suppers” within a few blocks of Santa Reparata International School of Art, my face must have expressed astonishment. “Really,” I said to Dr. Carey Rote, the art history professor. The look on her face indicated that she thought I certainly must be kidding. How I made it through art history class in college many years ago is a mystery because until her comment, I subconsciously considered the Leonardo DaVinci painting to be “the only” Last Supper. In the little Methodist church that stormy night, I faced another realization. I always imagined the 13 gesturing figures at the dinner table as two-dimensional and never thought of them as people sitting right next to me, who got up and walked to the table as these 13 did. When the dramatization was complete, the disciples helped pass the communion trays and then returned to sit in the pews to participate in the closing hymn and prayer, just like ordinary people. 

The other perplexed art history related facial expression was Barbra’s at my response to the question she posed after we visited five or six Florentine art collections, “So, how do you like the paintings?”

“I’m really impressed with the techniques and the color and the size,” I replied with excitement, “but I’m getting sort of tired of the religious theme.”   

I can just imagine her thinking, “What did she expect? Artists were commissioned to paint Bible stories.”

Fortunately, neither of these art experts scolded me for my ignorance of history, that without religion, art would not have flourished.

This past Sunday morning, I woke early and drove to the neighborhood lake where “Digger,” the local undertaker, and his family have presided over the nondenominational Easter Sunrise Service for more than 35 years. Dressed for the chill and holding steaming mugs of coffee and cocoa, a different group of young and old sat quietly in lawn chairs. We listened with interest as Digger spoke and sang, and we watched the sun glide upward from the other side of the lake, illuminating the mountains with a blush of tangerine.

Later at home, I recognized an uncanny resemblance between the sunrise photos I had just taken and a photo I snapped at dusk of the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River thousands of miles away. Both shared a translucent orange quality I find irresistible – the colors I tested with 24”x24” paint samples on my house until I was satisfied one was as close to an ethereal and unearthly tone as my eye could imagine.

The same fleeting orange haze that claims the beginning and the end, the tumult and the calm, provides a delicate nourishing balance… its glow embracing us with a soft farewell at sunset and a warm hello at sunrise. In reflection, I see orange as a significant color repeated throughout my childhood, the primer color for the canvas of my life, the color that keeps me safe and hopeful. Even on my home it serves as a promising backdrop for renewal – last week’s Primitivo bud break predicts a grand season of growth leading to a fruitful 2012 harvest.