Not Just Another Pretty Picture
Sometimes a wacky stunt will confirm the course of a lifetime.In Chicago, in 1968, Dan McCormack was a recent college grad. He had studied with Aaron Siskind, Joe Jachna and Wyn Bullock at the institute of Design and graduated in ‘67. He had enrolled in the MFA program at the Art Institute where Barbara Crane was a big influence. So his interest in photography was serious and he was taking it seriously. However, Dan McCormack did not want to take himself too seriously.
It was summer. He heard about a love-in: 50,000 hippies. He was a puppy photographer, heading for something.
Dan McCormack is telling me this story over the phone. His voice, naturally rather high, gets thinner and higher. It is almost as if he is a kid again, and he still cannot get over how it happened.
He decided to go, but not just go, but go and be noticed. So he went to a store that sold Styrofoam and bought a cylinder that was 8 inches around and 8 feet long. When he got to the park where the love-in was happening, he sat down and put the 8-foot long Styrofoam cylinder between his legs.
Here Dan pauses in his tale, perhaps just to remember, or perhaps to make sure I get the image.
A young woman, Wendy, sees his “display” and comes over. She is an artist’s model. He tells her he is a photographer. She tells him she models in the nude. He tells her he has never photographed the nude. “I’ll teach you,” she says. As he writes in his internet bio:
At the Art Institute of Chicago around 1969, I began photographing the nude with Wendy, my wife, and I began making multiple image prints. Then for over thirty years, I explored various techniques and processes while photographing the nude as a central theme.[i]
Over the years, McCormack worked with all types of cameras and films. In 1998, he started shooting with the pinhole camera. He develops black and white images. After he scans the results into Photoshop, he “pulls curves” to colorize the image.
At a day’s shoot, McCormack sets up 15 pinhole cameras and takes a two minute exposure with each one, one at a time. So a photo session generally takes 2-3 hours. At the end of a shoot, he may have one or two usable images, but he does not find that out until he gets to the darkroom. The extreme wide angle and distortion means that even the initial results are always a surprise. “I love the surprises. I think I know the best shot,” he says, “but often the best shot is something else.”
McCormack explained the reference system he uses to title his work: model’s name, Sara C.; date of shoot, 8-19-05; film negative number, 6 (of the 15 shots); and finally, pulling curves in Photoshop and saving them within two sequences of multiple steps, DG, meaning the 4th step in the first sequence and the 7th step in the second. Based on the reference title of the work, McCormack can always locate the exact version of an image stored on his computer.
I asked McCormack about Sarah_M_5-08-09—4BC which I found to be one of his most surreal images. He laughs:
That was in the Unison Sculpture Garden in New Paltz. We had gone to McDonald’s and they were giving out happy smiles on sticks as a promotion. So I took the photo with the model standing next to the sculpture of an eye, and she bent over and held the smile up behind her butt.
In Helen_W_4-27-08—7BB, the image is less colorized. Here McCormack mentioned that he likes to center the model in the frame but in this case, the model is pushed to the side and her shadow has taken center stage. This was taken on Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day at the Barrett Art Center workshop in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Another image in the “Nude at Home” series is Bridget_L_5-20-12—14AD. In this shot, at her home in Rhinebeck, NY, he intended the duality of the image in the mirror and in front of the camera. McCormack knew Bridget as his student at SUNY, New Paltz, and later as a model and friend.
Robbie was holding what McCormack described as a contraption that “seemed magical.” She stood in front of the open double door. He explained that the doorknobs were so high, that Robbie looked small. “Like something out of Alice in Wonderland,” he added.
Holding the contraption motionless in one hand at arm’s length for a two-minute exposure, making 15 attempts to get a usable image without a blur, and succeeding --- well, maybe that is a bit of magic.
©All images copyright Dan McCormack