Don Worth’s close-up, organic vision.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
“My style is very straightforward, with things seen as clearly as possible,” photographer Don Worth says. “That is the most important thing in my work—clarity.”
Worth, who signs copies of his new book, Close to Infinity, this Saturday at Carmel’s Photography West, has been creating photographs since the 1940s. Made with large-format cameras—an 8-by-10-inch Deardorff and a 4-by-5-inch Linhof—Worth’s black-and-white images, mostly close-ups of plants, delicately glow.
“Succulent Echeveria Radiance,” 1968, shows the teardrop-shaped leaves of a sculptural looking plant—which are Worth’s favorite kind of plant—with subtle varieties of light and shadow making the photograph almost three dimensional. Seeing the leaves so closely, lit up in such detail, puts an otherworldly layer on a natural image.
This gives some of his images an abstract quality, which Worth describes as resulting from an organic process.
“Of course sometimes they look like things that are unidentifiable,” Worth says. “But it happens because of the intense way I present the plant in the photograph, not because of manipulation on my part to try to have the subject transcend its own reality.”
Worth’s love of plants developed much earlier than his photographic interests; raised on a farm in Iowa, he says he started experimenting with growing succulents and subtropical plants at age 10.
“I became more and more aware that our whole existence depends on plants for food,” Worth says, “and intrigued by the plants’ importance to mankind, and their beauty.
“My mother was greatly interested in geraniums, and she always complained that the plants that I was growing never bloomed.”
Worth started experimenting with photography in his 20s in New York, while attending the Julliard School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, where he graduated with a master’s degree in piano and music composition. His photography hobby got serious in the 1950s: while he was teaching music at Mills College in Oakland, the chairman of the music department introduced him to Ansel Adams.
“Ansel liked my work very much, and showed my work to Edward Weston in Carmel,” Worth says. “Little by little I eased out of the music world into the photography world.”
From 1956 to 1960, Worth worked as Adams’ assistant, helping him in the field and in the darkroom, and traveling with him to Yosemite, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon.
“I learned a lot from him in terms of technique,” Worth says, “but I think my way of seeing was already fixed. When I saw my first Ansel Adams’ photograph it resonated with me. But I think I’ve been more influenced by painting than by other photographers—like Georgia O’Keeffe’s precisionist type painting.”
After working with Adams, Worth taught photography at San Francisco State University for 30 years, placed his photographs in museums around the world, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He retired from teaching in 1993 to work out of his home and large garden in Marin County. But the photographs (some in color) and the traveling to photograph nature—in places like Australia, Hawaii, Figi, Tahiti, Singapore and Bangkok—continued.
“Quite a large number of photographs deal with what I call atmospheric landscapes,” he says. “They are done on misty days early in morning or late in day. There are quiet, minimal kinds of subjects.”
Now in his 80s, Worth says that making pictures is more significant than ever.
“The most exciting thing about photography is how it can see the world in such a precise kind of fashion,” he says. “How it can preserve a moment and it can become an object we can hold in our hands for years afterwards. It’s the stopping of time, allowing us to see time in such a clear fashion. That feeling becomes intensified as one grows older.”