Monday, June 15, 2009

Portal Perspectives

Oxford University, 1989

As long as I’ve been attuned to seeing things I wanted to photograph, I’ve been drawn to views through windows, doors, gates and other portals. I don’t know if it’s the way a portal frames a view or—this is my leading theory—the way a portal gives you the impression you’re catching a look at something secret or private. What do you think?

Some portals, of course, are meant to be looked through. Some were designed with specific views in mind, or vice versa. It’s said that Louis XIV sent workmen into the forest at the outskirts of Paris to plant trees and gardens decades before he started the magnificent chateau at Versailles so that his views would be mature by the time the chateau was completed.

Motion pictures, too, have used the portal perspective to great advantage. A window was as much the star as Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Who can ever forget the view from A Room with a View? Julia, the film version of Lillian Hellman's memoir, "Pentimento," opens and closes with long shots filmed through the frame of a boathouse door. If my memory serves me right, Sophie's Choice begins and ends with scenes framed by a high Lake District window. (See how it is? Once you start noticing them, they're everywhere.)

One of the first “portal perspective” photographs I took was made in the mid-1960s at what was then known as the Norfolk Museum. (Today it’s the Chrysler Museum, and quite a fine place, at that.) The photograph is taken from indoors looking out through an iron casement window into a private interior courtyard. Stone trim around the window frames the scene. There is no one in the image. The dark vegetation in the garden and the absence of an obvious means of entry, all portrayed on Tri-X film pushed to a high and grainy ASA, hints that this might be a secret garden. (I seem to have lost the photo, so you’ll just have to imagine a dark, grainy secret garden.)

Since then I’ve photographed a great many portal perspectives. One of my favorites is the view from Thomas Jefferson’s garden pavilion at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. The pavilion’s a most elegant little one-room brick structure with double-sash windows on all four sides and Chinese Chippendale railing around the edge of the low, pyramid-shaped roof. The only piece of furniture in the pavilion when I last visited was a single Windsor chair. But I could easily imagine Mr. Jefferson lifting the windows open to catch a breeze, sitting in that chair and keeping careful notes about the progress of the plants and trees on his “little mountain.” You can see his view here.

A whole series of Portal Perspectives can be seen here.

1 comment:

  1. Wow--I love that photo of Jefferson's view--it's really fabulous.

    Monticellos is such a magical place, and that overlook he had is so lovely. I think you're right,-- that views through portals are sort of an invitation into someone else's private vision of something, too.

    I love that Chrysler museum! One of my favorite Childe Hassam paintings is there--of the flower vendor?