Huntington Witherill was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1949. He moved to California in 1953 and began training in classical music. Upon entering college as a music major, Witherill became interested in the study of two-dimensional design. This shift in artistic medium eventually led to a career in fine art photography beginning in 1970.
Witherill’s photographs have been exhibited in more than fifty individual and group exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the world. His photographs represent a remarkably varied approach to the medium including landscapes, studies of pop-art, botanical studies, nude studies and digital imaging. Recently, a selection of botanical series was shocased in LUX/ONE, published by the Center for Photographic Art, in Carmel, CA. Additionally Witherill, who currently lives in Monterey, CA, teaches photography for a variety of institutions and workshop programs around the country.
John Paul Caponigro What was your earliest memory of photography?
Huntington Witherill My folks would pile everyone into the station wagon and take us camping each summer. I loved being outdoors. I thought it would be nice to have some souvenir, some remembrance, of what I’d seen. I was interested in capturing moments that I had experienced while camping. That’s what initially got me interested in photography.
The first camera I ever had was a 35mm. After purchasing the camera, a Nikormat, I took a few rolls of black and white film, Tri-X, and sent them away for processing. When the prints came back I was so disillusioned that I took the camera back to the camera store and insisted on getting my money back because the camera was no good. I said, “The camera’s got to be broken, look at these lousy pictures!” So the salesman suggested I go across the street where there was a commercial photography studio. I went across the street and a nice fellow by the name of Andy Galinsky introduced me to the idea of developing my own film and making my own prints. Within two or three weeks he had hired me as a darkroom assistant. After a few months I was doing much of the printing for him. I got a lot of practical experience and made a life-long friend in the process.
Upon learning to process and print, I realized that one of the things that enticed me about photography was the idea that you could reproduce minute details in any given scene. But I quickly realized I needed a larger camera to really do that effectively. A friend loaned me a Brand 17 4×5 view camera and I was hooked!
Since that time, with the exception of occasionally using the Noblex 2 1/4 x 5 inch camera we were working with today, I’ve pretty much stuck to using view cameras. I’ve worked with cameras as large as 11×14. Working with an 11×14 camera is basically a wrestling match most of the time. If you really want to take the spontaneity out of photography get yourself an 11×14 camera. You really have to make a reservation to take a photograph. It’s such an arduous process. The camera itself, with a normal lens of 600mm, dictates that you can’t reach around to the front to adjust the movements. So each time you want to do some movement you have to get out from under the darkcloth and walk around to the front. I’ve also worked with 8×10’s, but eventually settled on both 5×7 and 4×10.
JPC That’s still a lot more cumbersome than a hand held camera, yet you must be getting something out of it that makes it worth the struggle to you.
HW I believe so. I think that tonal rendition is often more important than sharpness. I found that when I started doing the high key photographs, for example, they would tend to block up in the highlights when I used a smaller format camera. And I should also admit that the larger format allows me to make more mistakes. I can be a bit more casual with my exposure and development and still pull off a usable print that reflects the tonal qualities which attracted me in the first place. I found that, while 4×5 is perfectly capable, as is 35mm, of approaching that quality, you’d better be right on the money every time with your exposure and development, or it’s not going to work. For me, the 5×7 and 4×10 are great happy mediums between the portability of the 4×5 and the wonderful tonal quality of the 8×10.
JPC Still it slows you down. You can’t shoot as many frames in a given period of time, you tend not to work all angles of a subject and some things just happen too fast to be captured with larger formats. Large formats prompt you to shoot in a more considered way.
HW Oh, there’s definitely what I would call “view camera seeing.” You have to look for things as though you’ve got the limitations of a view camera. You can’t go around looking for things that you would look for even with the Mamiya 645, the camera you were using today. The view camera does narrow the possibilities, but then all cameras have their limitations.
There’s also something about relating the size of the image, as you see it in the camera, to the resulting print. Morley Baer once told me he liked the 8×10 camera because he liked to look at the image on the ground glass at the same size it would be as a print. Those spatial relationships and how they work are important. I have a hard time seeing what’s going on in a 35mm camera. And I’ve always had trouble with square formats. One of the reasons I went with 5×7 and 4×10 formats was for the longer proportion. You can take a line or gesture and exaggerate it with the longer narrower format.
There’s also the mechanics of setting up a view camera and working with it, for lack of a better word, it’s a zen-like thing to do. There’s relaxation and a feeling of accomplishment just setting up a view camera. It causes you to really concentrate on what you’re looking at and to refine the way you’re looking at it. You simply can’t do things quickly and haphazardly. You really have to commit yourself to what you’re doing beforehand. The only disadvantage to that is that one tends not to commit oneself as often. I’m sure there are many photographs that I’ve missed because I’m driving along and say, “Well, I don’t think I’ll commit myself to that.” That is a disadvantage. But once you do decide to commit… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a smaller camera, that when the resulting image was sitting before me I thought, “If I’d just taken the time to take out the 5×7.”
JPC What do you think you would have gotten?
HW A more refined vision. It’s the difference between having an original tape recording of a piece of music or having that same tape copied. There’s simply greater fidelity.
JPC What does the high key represent for you? A lot of your landscapes favor the higher end of things; zones seven, eight and nine. How did you become attracted to that kind of vision and does it have a personal meaning for you?
HW It does have personal meaning for me, but I couldn’t say that one day I consciously decided to begin making high-key photographs. The higher contrast work was really what I started out doing. And at some point I probably felt the need to move away from the more traditional approach to west coast landscape photography as it was practiced in the forties and fifties. Getting into the high key work was more the unplanned result of a conscious decision to avoid repeating myself. I got to a point where I felt that my photographs were all starting to look the same and I wanted to do something different. At the time, I couldn’t conceptualize what it was I wanted to do. I’ve never been able to look ahead for directions to go in my work. I like to describe it as a situation where you’re driving down the road and the only reference you have to guide you is by looking in your rear view mirror.
JPC Have you ever tried to premeditate where you were going and execute it?
HW Too many times and it rarely works. Because it’s not true. It’s forced. The moment it becomes forced it just falls apart. The only thing I’ve consciously been able to do, is to steer myself toward the idea of accepting the fact that I’m on a ride– a journey so to speak– and go with the flow rather than trying to push ahead and do what I intellectually think I should do.
JPC There is in photography, in any art form, a great sense of discovery. I’ll sit down with a thousand thumbnails, cull twelve for my next show, and invariably six of these make it, while along the way new images come. These new ones have a special life to them, a freshness, that exploration and a sense of discovery lends them.
HW Absolutely. I think what got me into the high key, like so many of the other things I had photographed, was that the images were simply different than the work that had occurred to me prior to that time. Some of the changes I’ve gone through are the result of conscious accidents. By that I mean, consciously looking for new lighting situations and photographing under different lighting situations. I have always felt that the lighting in a photograph was certainly more important than the subject matter. If one takes the definition of photography literally, it is drawing with light. Without the light there is no photography. I’m more interested in what is going on with the light than what is going on with the subject matter. Now, obviously, we all tend to gravitate towards certain subject matter. In my photographs there’s a conscious decision to pay attention to certain subject matter (I do a lot of desert work, for example and there’s also a whole series of flower photographs), but it is the light I’m recording– the light and the interrelationships of the object as defined by the light. And so I’m constantly trying to photograph under lighting situations that I am unfamiliar with.
JPC To get away from the formula?
HW Yes. I’m consciously saying, “You’re repeating yourself. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. Do something you know isn’t going to work. Push it. Experiment. See what happens.” I think we all tend to get in these boxes, and society likes to put us in these, and we sometimes like to get into them ourselves. I feel as though a lot of my photographic exploration has been trying to climb out of boxes. I climb out of one box and fall into another and then I get tired of that one and I try to climb out again. The key to the whole thing is, hopefully, that there is a thread that runs through all of your work, regardless of approach. You keep looking at your work as you’re doing it and you start to recognize a thread that runs through all of it and that helps to guide you forward. You’re never going to get a literal road map to show you where your going, but you can always “look in the rear-view mirror” to see where you’ve been.
JPC Theseus and the minotaur. What would you say that thread is for you?
HW It is the interrelationship of tonal values and the use of graphic elements within the frame. I’m big on the spatial relationships between line and form within the rectangle. I had some training in two dimensional design and it impressed me a great deal. That study and the idea that you could balance forms in space– negative and positive space– and that you could really orchestrate the way one’s eye goes through a photograph. When you think about it, the eye can only focus one or two degrees. And when you look at a scene you don’t look at it all at one time. Your eye is constantly scanning, constantly looking at different aspects of the scene. What the photographer needs to do is to orchestrate the way the eye goes through the scene. In my photograph I’m trying to tell you: “This is what I’m looking at and this is how I want you to look at it. You’ll see this first and then you’ll come upon this, and I’ll take you on a little journey.” If it’s successful, you take that journey. If it’s unsuccessful, it’s probably because poor design has misdirected your eye right out of the photograph before you’ve ever had a chance to see what the photographer was trying to show you. Any art is language – you’re trying to communicate with other people. I don’t believe in the axiom, “I photograph for myself and I don’t care what other people think.” If that were the case there would be no reason to have a camera. The memory is a fine receptacle for storing images. For example, in this desert scene where it’s very overcast, I can look at this photograph and recall how I felt that day physically, emotionally, from looking at this photograph but I can do the very same thing more accurately by thinking back on it.
JPC Interesting. So often society is using the photograph to do exactly the opposite of what you’re saying, to clarify a moment in time.
HW Perhaps it’s overly optimistic to think that your brain will retain these things.
JPC Or to think that a photograph could represent our experiences.
HW All photographs are so far from the original. I’ve sat at Inspiration Point in Yosemite listening to people saying, “This place doesn’t look very pretty at all.” Ansel’s pictures were much prettier. They don’t realize that a photograph is not even remotely similar to the real thing, if that’s what you want to call it. The study of photography is really the study of how the camera and the film sees. Most of the time people are unaware of the relationship between what the eye sees and what the film sees.
JPC And yet you take what you learn of the camera’s vision and apply it to a personal vision.
HW Yes. And hopefully that’s done when the camera is sitting on the tripod and before you push the shutter. It doesn’t always happen that way. But that’s what previsualization is. I think previsualization is, for me, doing it enough times that you finally discover what it takes to get what you’re seeing at the time. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against postvisualization. I think it’s just asa valid as previsualization. But I think it’s a good idea to try to have in your mind an idea of what you’re after. It helps channel you into doing the right thing.
JPC You said that getting away from the west coast tradition, the stereotypical way of approaching it, lead you toward the high key aesthetic and that it had a personal meaning for you.
HW My high contrast work – bold graphic statements with a full tonal range, shadows very dark and brilliant highlights – I equated with shouting at people. Trying to say, “Hey… Look at this! Look at this!” I thought maybe if I spoke a bit more softly, more subtly, people might listen (and thus look) a little harder.
And the result was that some of my audience paid more attention and some didn’t. I had a small but faithful audience that was interested in my work and gave me confidence when I was doing the high contrast work. When I started to do the high key work some said, “You’ve totally lost it.” But all of a sudden, there was this new audience that said, “You’ve finally learned how to photograph. You’re finally doing something individual. It’s you. Why has it taken you so long?” That taught me that you need to do your work for yourself. You can’t pay too much attention to your audience. You’ll always have at least a small audience, no matter what you do and you’ll never gain everyone’s attention. Nevertheless, we all like to be accepted.
JPC There is a delicate balance here.
HW Exactly. It’s like anything else in life; it’s a trade off. You need the audience; you’re trying to speak to them. That’s where the language comes in. I’m trying to communicate what I see. When I come upon a scene that works as a photograph I’m awe inspired. I don’t know that my photographs can ever properly reveal that inspiration, but that is what I hope will happen. I hope people will look, particularly with the landscape work, and gain some sort of reverence for the land itself, so that they’ll feel it’s really special and worth preserving, paying attention to, being mindful of– if nothing else for its aesthetic qualities.
People look at the landscape and see different things; some people see condominiums other people see parks and recreation. I just see it as being a miracle. It’s form and character are far beyond the human. For me it’s like going to church. To sit in it. Revere it. Sometimes I like to go out and not photograph at all and just take it in. And frankly, I find that sometimes I’m able to take it in more effectively by not trying to photograph it.
JPC I often ask myself, “If I die tomorrow. Which one picture will I make today?” It becomes very significant. It’s one of the most telling statements any artist can make.
HW That gets into editing, which is a really important part of any art form, but particularly photography. You can’t make a hundred paintings in an afternoon but you might be able to make a hundred photographs. Editing becomes vitally important.
JPC The whole process of photography is a matter of editing. In a landscape you have three hundred and sixty degrees, moving, and you edit the landscape with your intention. You and I will go to the same point and make totally different photographs. One of the refreshing things about seeing another person’s work is that you see a different reference point. You shake yourself out of your own reference point and embrace another. You go see the work of an artist and all of a sudden you start to see the world as he or she might. It leaves an impression, ripples in the pond.
HW It does leave ripples in the pond. Sometimes it leaves the pond in great turbulence! And the ripples can be caused by a mere conversation. Your father was one of the people who shook me out of the biggest problem I had when I first started out in photography. This had to do with my attitude. My attitude was to go around and try to force images down the throat of my camera. I’d go out and I had a preconceived notion of what I was going to photograph. I’d look for this or that and I’d be on a quest to find it. Mostly what I found was disappointment. He finally convinced me that if I would just open up my mind and go out there and experience my surroundings for awhile, the photographs would find me and they’d be totally unlike what I thought they would be. This adjustment in attitude helped me more than most anything else. While I could occasionally get one of my preconceived images to work, I could never have received the gifts that were there waiting for me, but just beyond the reach of my preconceived vision. The reason I valued Paul’s approach and appreciate his advice, is that it literally opened up the world for me. Nobody can conceive of what’s possible with art, any art, until they just let art happen to them. If you open up and let the vision come to you, it’s everywhere. If you’ll stop preconceiving and making judgments about things prior to experiencing them (photographers as a group have this control problem, they just want to control everything), if you’ll just let go of the control, it’s amazing how much will come to you.
JPC You find yourself in the presence of awe and wonder far more often that way. That’s my litmus test for when I’ve done substantial work. And it’s much easier to communicate that when one is in that state rather than trying to manufacture it.
HW Absolutely. You do need technique. But technique is just a tool, it’s like a hammer or a knife. So many photographer’s use the sharpening of the knife as the focus of their photography. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to perfect technique, but if you’re wanting to be an artist, getting your knife sharpened is just the beginning. Artistic expression goes a lot further than that. One of the curses of photography has been the over emphasis on technique. I think there’s a difference between what I call “cosmetic” technique (sharpness, grain, tonal range, etc.) and “clear” technique, which I define as using whatever technique serves to enhance the image and make it more visually coherent. Often times clear technique can mean that a photograph needs to be fuzzy and tonally depressed.
JPC In any process of art, there’s the outer work, acquiring technique, but there’s also the inner work, which is much harder to describe.
HW Yes, and it’s also much harder to teach. The inner work is something that I believe can’t be squarely taught. It’s something that can only be learned by direct experience. Perhaps it’s like trying to tell a two year old child how to run the high hurdles. “Grow up, learn to walk, learn to run, experience your life, you will become a hurdler.” But I can’t make you a hurdler this weekend. I can speak intellectually about what it takes to be a hurdler but all I’m doing is telling you how to pick up your feet and go over the hurdle. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to do it tomorrow, or the next day.
JPC It’s even more difficult in art because we don’t have a single goal in mind, a finish line. Which hurdle does one go over?
HW What I’ve come to find is that you simply go after the next hurdle. There’s always another hurdle. Being an artist can be an extremely frustrating thing but the rewards far outweigh the frustrations. I feel very lucky.