I’m considered to be a Southern photographer. But I didn’t move to the South until 1989 when I was 36 years old. Before that I lived in the Garden State, which (you may be surprised to learn) is New Jersey.
When I was a boy, my family vacationed at the New Jersey Shore (yes, that Jersey Shore) usually during the last two weeks of August. We’d spend sunny afternoons on the beach. As the sun went down, I’d sense a shift in the atmosphere—not only did the fading light change the way things looked, it changed the feeling of the place. (Years later, working as a route driver in Northern New Jersey, I noticed similar shifts as weather and the seasons changed. I’d drive the same roads through the same towns, and yet no two trips were identical, either visually or emotionally.) Light’s effect on the appearance of things, and its influence on mood and atmosphere, was starting to make an impression.
Photograph by Harry Callahan, Cape Cod, 1972
Photograph by Harry Callahan, Cape Cod, 1972
When I was fifteen, I began taking pictures with a Kodak Instamatic camera. (This was in the late 1960s.) The drugstore prints I had made never matched the impact of what I had originally seen. To my disappointment, those drab color pictures always seemed to diminish the subject.
That disappointment might have ended my interest in photography had it not been for the gift of a Swinger. The Polaroid Swinger  was a popular camera made of white plastic manufactured between 1965 and 1970. The camera produced black-and-white prints in ten seconds, and provided me with a unique and different way of seeing things.
The first time I shot with the Swinger, I walked the same route I used to get to high school and back. It was Saturday and the sun was shinning. I took the first picture of someoneâ€™s front yard, and put the resulting print in my shirt pocket. When I approached that same yard an hour later, the sky had clouded over. I pulled out that first print—and in the print the sunlight remained. When I compared the two—the scene in front of me and the black-and-white image—it proved to be a revelation. The light was different, of course, but the subject looked different, too.
The photograph allowed me to see the subject as geometry and form. In the print, the lawn appeared as texture, the house as a rectangle, the roof as a trapezoid, the bushes as ovals, and the power cables as lines. The print also retained the light that was present when I took the picture, and that light was transformed as well—the leaves on the bushes glittered. If the camera was capable of capturing sunlight (or any kind of light, for that matter) the photographic process could distill it and make it stronger.
I was hooked, and eager to look at more photographs. I became a regular at the local library.
Peter Simon’s Moving On, Holding Still (Left) Photograph by Kiki McEntee, Peter Simon, Tree Frog Farm, June 1971 (Right)
Peter Simon’s  Moving On, Holding Still (1972) was one of the handful of photography books in our "library," two large rooms in the downtown Municipal Building. Although the others were how-to books, Simon’s was the most instructive. (Since I’m self-taught I used photography books as textbooks.)
Simon’s monograph is composed of black-and-white pictures of an array of subjects—from protests in Washington, DC, to the celebration of a sunset on a commune in Vermont—that reflect the dynamic nature of the 1960s and early 1970s. Poring over these images again and again was my "foundation class" in photography.
My first lesson came courtesy of the cover image. The subject, a tire swing, is very close to the center of the frame—something the how-to books advised against. "Rules" shouldn’t be taken too seriously, I realized.
The book also introduced me to the consideration of scale in the presentation of photographs. Some of the pictures filled the page while others were considerably smaller, and yet the size of each suited the subject. Also new to me was the concept of pairing images to form diptychs. I saw that by placing images side-by-side you can introduce narrative, enhance compositions, etc. These are concepts I still keep in mind when presenting my work today.
One other lesson was perhaps the most valuable. In studying these photographs I noticed that, in a picture, things in the background and things in the foreground are all equally visible, and therefore equally important. (Emmet Gowin has stated this succinctly: Everything in a photograph matters.)
Photograph by Peter Simon, Isolation, Iowa, 1968
Photograph by Peter Simon, A late winter snow…, Mass., 1970
Simon’s book led me to a crucial understanding of one of the things I find so challenging and stimulating about photography—it is the construction of pictures, the careful putting-together of everything in a scene. When working within the two-dimensional limits of the photograph, the spatial characteristic of depth does not exist. Foreground objects and background objects need to be dealt with equally; they’re your building materials. Move the camera even slightly, and your composition changes. Ever since then the idea of making pictures versus taking pictures has been more than mere semantics.
Peter Simon, Geometric Progressions, Cambridge, MA, 1969
Peter Simon’s photographs, of both turbulent and tranquil events, are records of acutely felt moments. Decades later, I can still recall my favorites. I feel very fortunate to have found this book when I was receptive to its lessons.
In 1974, after being hobbled by a Kalimar for a couple of years, I purchased my first serious 35mm camera, a Canon FTb. At around the same time I began frequenting the newspaper store at the end of my block. There I found yearly special issues of a photography magazine, Popular Photography, and copies of an alternative New York City weekly, The Village Voice.
The Popular Photography Annual introduced me to many of the photographers whose work I admire today: Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Ray Metzker and others. The Annual showcased art photographs, not commercial shots or photojournalism. And while photography is well-suited for advertising and recording world events, the work in the Annual showed me that the medium is no less effective at recording an "event" as simple (and profound) as an artist’s perception of beauty.
Photographs from Sylvia Plachy’s Found Memories (Left) and Cruising (Right)
The Village Voice arrived at the newspaper store every Thursday morning. Week after week for eight years, Sylvia Plachy’s amazing photographs were featured on Page 3. Whether the subject was a cat up a tree or a squeegee guy at work, the images had an immediacy and spontaneity about them that belied their visual sophistication. One had the feeling Plachy carried a camera with her everywhere, and that, without preconceptions, discovered photographs along the way (a working habit I adopted).
Also significant were two more monographs, both by master photographers.
Paul Caponigro’s Landscape and Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light
Paul Caponigro’s Landscape (1975) is a paean to atmosphere and nuance. The "landscape" it explores is light and the changing seasons. Caponigro’s black-and-white photographs are intimate and subtle. I took Landscape into the darkroom with me as guide and inspiration.
Photograph by Paul Caponigro, Woods, Redding, Connecticut, 1969
Photograph by Paul Caponigro, Winthrop, Massachusetts, 1964
Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light (1978) contains exquisitely detailed large-format photographs—daylight and nighttime pictures, interiors and exteriors, portraits and landscapes—all in astonishing color. The scene on the cover appears in the book at least five times, but it looks vastly different in each depiction, due to weather, time of day and keen perception. This book is about the richness and variety of place. It demonstrated to me that by paying close attention (and sticking around for awhile) you can find ample material close to home.
Photograph by Joel Meyerowitz, Hartwig House, Truro, 1976
Photograph by Joel Meyerowitz, Truro, 1976
In February 1984 I traveled to nearby Nyack, New York. I didn’t know anything about Nyack except that it had been my late grandfather’s favorite destination.
The Village of Nyack is located on the Hudson River, which gives the light there its distinctive glow. Walking around with my camera, I thought, I feel like I’m in an Edward Hopper painting.
If you’re schooled in Art History (which I’m not) you may know Nyack is Edward Hopper’s birthplace. When I found this out, everything started adding up. It dawned on me that the light that characterizes and distinguishes a place could be captured to illuminate its portrait.
Painting by Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930
My trip provided a culminating insight. Light—with it’s ability to reveal form, convey mood and transform appearances—can itself be the catalyst for creating art (an epiphany for me at the time, although hardly groundbreaking in art historical terms). This new understanding was to inform my first serious body of work.
In 1988, I was invited to participate in the Ellis Island Project: Documentation/Interpretation, a photography project focused on the former immigration station in New York Harbor. Naturally, I accepted. Here was the perfect synergy: an incredible subject, buildings steeped in history, beautiful light and a project that encouraged interpretation.
Photograph by David Simonton, Ellis Island, 1989
Photograph by David Simonton, During the Restoration (The Great Hall), Ellis Island, 1988
For nine months, through three seasons, I photographed on Ellis Island. Two years later, in a gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina, one of the photographs from that experience would be the first I would ever exhibit.
[1.] The Polaroid Swinger was one of the fastest selling cameras of all time, selling 4 million units in two years. It retailed for $19.95. The original TV commercial (featuring Ali MacGraw) is on YouTube. (Back to Article ↑)
Editor’s Note: This piece was written by David Simonton for our Visual Influences Series.
View a selection of Simonton’s photography featured on One, One Thousand in January 2011.
You can also view more of Simonton’s work at his website: davidsimonton.com
"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one." — John Ruskin