I had the good fortune of teaching in Cortona, Italy, for the University of Georgia for two months this summer. The experience ran the whole gamut of exhilarating to challenging, with some melancholy thrown in. I was a graduate student in 2001 when I first visited Cortona, a handful of months before September 11th, and this was my first time back in 18 years. I had no recollection of many aspects of the town, but sometimes I would take a turn down a small alley and long-forgotten memories would come rushing back.
With all the students cleared out of the darkroom in the last week, I was able to open up the windows and get in one last chemigram session in the Severini darkroom. I had already done some work in the classroom with more readily-available light, but something told me to get into the darkroom proper, to pull open those heavy Italian window shutters. I had been weighing all the possibilities of everything else I should be seeing in Cortona that I had been putting off all summer, but something told me to get to work that day. I was a few hours into my work session when I realized what that voice was about.
The Severini Darkroom was somewhere I never set a foot into as a student in 2001. At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, I was at war with Photography when I was there. I attended a Printmaking-intensive Maymester in Cortona, as I had found in my first year of grad school that printmakers understood my drive to experiment with process, whereas the realm of Photography was fraught with landmines of “right” and “wrong” practices. I felt relieved to escape its obligations and judgmental glare. Printmakers had no problem calling themselves artists, but photographers were photographers.
For years I have relayed the story of how on my one-day trip to Rome during that month, I didn’t even bring a camera. I think it was a conscious act of defiance, but the details are fuzzy. The huge unexpected takeaway of that day was that being cameraless freed me to truly see my surroundings. I learned the difference between the pictures I take out of tourist obligation and the pictures I choose to bring into existence because I need to. Everyone around me snapped with their point and shoots all the relics they needed to show their friends back home; I found myself falling behind the crowd, lingering, looking. I saw details that I needed to be in person to really absorb — the textures, the craftsmanship, and the incredulous realization of how much more history was present here than in my shallow American existence and own personal family details. I could have long awkward staring sessions with everything — I didn’t feel the pressure to snap my shutter and move right along, as seems to often be the proper response to such experiences. I got to share this story with students of my own this summer, in the very environment which taught me those valuable lessons. And I made sure that they made photos of Rome this summer, about their own experiences there, rather than took them of things they could have just bought postcards of.
So that last week in Cortona, when maybe I should have experienced a dip in the city pool, or taken a hike to Le Celle, I instead started furiously making chemigrams alone in the darkroom, for the last time on July 24th. And partway through, I could sense that the moments making the work were far bigger than the seconds from which they were composed. I felt calm, I felt lucky to be making art right then, right there. In 2001, the darkroom was basically the only method of making photos that had any validity, it was the default. In 2019, being in the darkroom is a conscious choice, and all of the reasons that made me so angry and wanting to avoid the darkroom all came around full circle — here I was making artwork in a place that relied on analog processes to even be possible, in the very place I refused to walk into for all of that frustration with the Photo world. I’m thankful to have been doing this photo thing long enough to have participated in the whole purpose for a darkroom shifting, transforming, and turning into something far more wondrous and exciting than I was even taught that it could be 18 years ago.
Long story short, I think I made peace with the Severini Darkroom that day. We’re good, and I hope we meet again.