October 22, 2012

Lunch With Peter

In the mid 1980′s I won a small fellowship to live in an artist colony in Lynchburg, Virginia. I went there to try to rediscover my old roots. I was worried that by shooting “commercial” work I maybe had strayed me from my old calling of shooting farmers, laborers and the landscape. Once I was there, my routine was up before up before dawn, returning at lunch, and then out again in early afternoon to find something to photograph that appealed to me.

Now is the time to regress for a moment. Although a Northern Yankee by birth, I had grown to deeply love the South. I had gone to university in Virginia and had traveled throughout the state on many occasions. I had grown to love Virginia, not it’s Northern suburbs, which were reminiscent of the life I knew, but deep in the hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the fields of wheat and barley and generally the life of Southern gentility. It was a pleasant diversion from the Northern confrontational style.

So it was with great anticipation that I applied and was accepted for this fellowship. I thought Virginia was the perfect place to reestablish my links to my past. The landscape was appealing to me, at times almost English. The hand of man was apparent, but not overwhelming. The landscape was cultivated, but not destroyed. It was perfect, or so I thought.

Each day I traveled throughout Southern Virginia, looking for my past, trying to find something that interested me, but to no avail. That month of hard work turned out to be a total failure. Not one picture I took, did I like then, or do I like today. I had moved on, maybe, or maybe I simply wasn’t in the mood.

What I was in the mood for was lunch. On days when I was not too far away, I would hurry back to the Virginia Center, not because I loved the food, but because I did love my lunch with Peter.

Peter was Peter Viereck a well-known Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who had been at this artist colony many times, working for years on an epic poem that was eluding him. By its very nature, an epic poem is elusive, but for him this epic was larger than him or life and it seemed impossible to corral. He struggled to contain his feelings and thoughts into something so small, yet so big. For all these years it had remained out of reach, although he often felt he was near the end.

In a way I was struggling with the same problem. How do I get this grand enormous world onto a piece of paper? How do I take my feelings and lay them down flat and then have them come alive once again for a viewer? I am always trying, but honestly, never have I quite gotten there. I come close but I never succeed. So this dialectic that evaded him lingers in my soul as well. I understood exactly what he was talking about

So while he struggled to complete his opus, I struggled to find my muse for the month. Ironically, I found it at lunch, not in the wheat fields of Virginia.

As I began to talk to him about not feeling successful, I slowly began to loose my guilt and began to really listen to the words of one of the smartest men I have ever met

One lunch in particular has remained with me since that day in Virginia many years ago. I don’t remember where we were in the conversation, but what I do remember is this.

He was talking about the struggle of writing poetry and that the modern movement in poetry (like everything else) had lost it’s way. It had abandoned its footings and had leaped head first into uncontrolled, unregulated verse.

What he meant by this was that he felt it imperative that a poet writes in iambic pentameter, which is verse that follows a rhythm and a rhyme. It is the basis of classical and traditional verse. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets were all written in iambic pentameter.

Modern poetry was leaving this tradition behind, and he was lamenting this as a great and profound loss.

This to me was the truly arresting part of the conversation. He went onto describe why iambic pentameter was not only crucial to poetry, but to all the arts and to living life itself.

Writing and working in rhythm is following the natural ebb and flow of life. Although this might seem ironic, as life is full of inconsistencies and variation, but deep down in the primordial forces that drive us, there is a natural rhythm. He believed it is in unison with our heartbeat. The blood in our body courses with its rhythm, and when we emulate this force we are in a natural sync with our very soul.

It is this deep powerful energy that we have strayed from. During the Renaissance the arts in all their variations seemed to expose this, architecture, music, theater, painting, sculpture, etc.

It led to a world that was full of optimism and enthusiasm. You felt close to the affirmative source of our very being, in closer touch to a powerful life affirming energy that drives our very being. This force gives us purpose and leads us to a better place.

I was lucky enough to touch this enthusiasm in the late 50′s and the early 60′s. America was still optimistic. Today we call this worldview naive, yet I find that quite ironic. My parents and their parents had lived through a depression and a great war, and to say that they were naive to cruelty of man and to sadness in the world is unjust. Yet despite this vision America was optimistic for the present and the future. Their music was filled with Aaron Copland, Rogers and Hammerstein. Their photography was so affirmative with the likes of Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Kerterz, Manuel Bravo, etc. These artists led us to places that were slightly out of touch and out of reach. Some may even refer to these places as surreal. It was there, possible, attainable, and reachable. You just had to reach slightly beyond your abilities. I love that world. It depicted the best that we could be.

Today it is all gone in the arts. It’s insight is small, it’s vision narrow, and although conceptually clever and interesting it is atonal and lost to any true rhythm.

The culture is lost, the arts are lost, and I have been trying in my own very small way to lead it back to a place where it belongs. Like Peter, I feel often I am loosing this battle, but I will always keep trying.

I sat with my mouth wide open listening to his insights. In my pictures, beside the basic drive to give form to my feelings, there is a need for a sense of composition. I must be in the right relationship to the subject and to the world around me. When I have failed even slightly everything falls apart. But when I succeed, and it’s all in the right place, the edges are defined, the subject is in harmony to the space, I am in true form. I have instinctively found my own classical verse. The photograph, although looking so simple is in touch with powerful forces that live deep within me.

So you see my stay in Virginia was a surprise. Although for whatever reason my picture making failed, I still had succeeded. Life is funny that way. Who knew that by feedings one’s stomach, one could be feeding one’s soul.



  1. I love your blog. It is honest and well written, much different than many of the photography blogs out there. I grew up in the area of Virginia you have written about here and go back several times a year to find my “inspiration”. I wonder if you’ve gone back since this trip, it is still a very beautiful place!

    Comment by Julia — October 23, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  2. Dear Mr. Smith

    Profound picture, easily-tasting wise words.

    Most of the times we put so much emphasis on the product, on the final stage or purpose, that we forget the process is the key.

    Thanks for your article. It was really helpful for a naïve newborn photographer like me.

    Best regards

    Pilar J. Baena

    Comment by Pilar — October 25, 2012 @ 3:55 am

  3. Haha – this is how I feel as I anticipate the week’s new blog post! (minus the lunch)

    Comment by Safi — October 25, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

  4. As a new student to photogralphy, I’m drawn to break order, In doing so I expect to learn where lines live best for me, be they inside of ‘iambic pentameter’ or outside enclosed in ‘art’

    I enjoy your creations, I’m very pleased to have found your blog.

    Comment by Stephen — October 28, 2012 @ 4:47 am

  5. Dear Rodney
    I just wanted to drop you a line to say that your work is extraordinary. Out of the ordinary. Breathtaking. Outstanding. Totally and utterly brilliant. There. I said it. Thank you so much for everything. You sir, are an inspiration. A living legend.



    Comment by Jay Rowden — November 2, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  6. I love this idea of finding inspiration and soul food in different forms and different places than expected. I don’t know about the arts these days, what they are meant to be or what their meaning is. I will be thinking more about it though and searching for that rhythm and flow of life that is so easily forgotten and missed these days.

    Comment by Kristin — November 7, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  7. Great article. This is such and informative and well thought out piece of writing. I’m really impressed with so many of your ideas.

    Comment by Mark Byron — September 21, 2015 @ 10:43 am

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