In The Light

Philippe Pache in San Quirico d'Orcia, July 2003

December 30, 2003 (updated September 5, 2020)

It was the day before New Years Eve. I stood among the Times Square bustle on a windy winter day waiting to meet cousins for an annual holiday jaunt around town. People rambled by with digital cameras pointed upwards close to where the ball would drop one night later and turn the clock to 2004.

The 40th sector of my life began a few months prior at the end of August. Some friends call it the buoy—our midlife marker. We’re out in the ocean backstroking to shore for what could be another chunk of forty or more.

In June, I pitched the tour manager of the rock group Yes with an idea initiated by the coverage of the Gulf War in the press. I would travel on the band’s tour bus for a two-month stint in Europe, a thirty-city leg, as their embedded photojournalist. In addition to stills, I'd record audio interviews, then upload the data each night to their official website to give enthusiasts an intimate behind-the-scenes recount of the tour. It came very close to being green-lit, but the band instead chose to utilize the idea with a video production company for a DVD release which became Yesspeak (2004).

Mid-summer temperatures reached record highs, especially in Europe. With dollars to miles adding up on one account, it meant a free flight to anywhere. The New School in Manhattan offered photo workshops in Tuscany given by renowned photographers in association with the Toscana Photographic Workshops (TPW). I booked three weeks in Italy.

Before arriving in Siena, I still wanted a taste of Yes. I set aside the first few days in Rome where the band were playing at Foro Italico.

The workshops were held in the Tuscan town of San Quirico d’Orcia amid scorching hot days and communal suppers flowing free with wine every evening under a sky of stars. My first five-day session was led by Bob Sacha, a photojournalist who worked primarily for National Geographic (and later shifted into short films and taught more regularly). Bob's methodical approach was all about getting the story. Dig deep for images that reveal something. The goal, as I’d see throughout my days at TPW, was to foster creativity empowered by a communal effort. Far less importance was made of gear or even technique.

Looking at my notes seventeen years later, these ideas laid out by Bob Sacha still resonate:

  • Ask stupid questions / be careful to take risks / allow events to change you / forget about good
  • Don't think about what other people think about your work. Go with how you feel about it. Decide for yourself what you think is good. The politics of selling and publishing will always interfere.

Towards the end of the last workshop day, we spent a long session editing each other’s photos into stories presented at the weekend slideshow event. Mine was called “Lunch with Lalla” which I’ve posted in a separate journal.

For my second week, I chose a workshop with notable Italian documentarist Gianni Berengo Gardin. After his Sunday intro session, I met another photographer speaking with people at dinner. It was Philippe Pache, a Swiss photographer known for his emotive and sensual portraiture. His style of composition, using soft or defocused technique, lent itself to the painter Balthus and 1970s photographers David Hamilton and Ralph Gibson. It reeled me right in. I thought I wanted to go deeper into photojournalist mode but was more enticing to explore a session out of my comfort zone.

This was a good decision. It was Philippe’s very first class at TPW. His direction was all about feel, emotion, light, and connecting with our models. We saw how the look of his images differed from fashion or glamour. His prints were powerful art that transfixed the class. This was my point of entry into seeing more deeply. Philippe’s images remain moving and unique.

Photo by Philippe Pache (2010)

Photo by Philippe Pache (2004)

The project-gone-bust with Yes was a disappointment for only a moment. It put me in a place I couldn’t have imagined—the genesis of a lifetime vocation. This was a point of departure where I realized I knew nothing about photography. (And only a bit more now....)

My selection of photos that follow are from the TPW sessions, plus one other image from Catania 2004 where many of us met again with Philippe and a cast of friends and photographers.