Through a Lens, Darkly, Part I

A conversation with San Pedro photographer Ray Carofano

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Ray Carofano is looking at an image he’s titled “Broken Palms.” It’s on the postcard that announces Terrene, his one-man show of large-scale photographic prints that opens tonight at the Warschaw Gallery in San Pedro.
“You can see that these three palm trees are in serious trouble,” he says. “One is totally bent over here on the right, the middle one almost looks like it has a broken neck, and that one on the left is not going straight up, but leaning out to the left.
“A lot of my landscape work has dealt with burnt, dying, or dead material. The reason for that is I’ve always been interested in the life cycle. Because everything evolves from the earth it also returns to the earth, whether it’s humans or plant life; even a structure will eventually deteriorate and end up into nothing but dust, and goes back to the earth.”
Well, this one’s a pretty bleak image, I remark.
“Most of my landscape images do have that feeling to them,” Carofano replies. “The whole series on the Mojave Desert – every image has this feeling of desolation, deserted homes, loneliness. The way I positioned the structure or dwelling [makes it appear] relatively small in this huge environment of nothing.”
And the silence. We wouldn’t be hearing city noises or cars driving past if we were standing inside Carofano’s photographs. I mention the Surrealist painters Paul Delvaux and Giorgio de Chirico.
“There’s always that loneliness and feeling from [Edward] Hopper,” Carofano says, “that has that same kind of feel.”
You seem to focus on the end of the cycle as opposed to the beginning.
“True. At least I have for probably the last eight to ten years.”
Which can make for visually appealing work, since things in a dilapidated state have more to offer up for the eye than something fresh and unblemished. I then indicate a statuesque form behind him. Such as that sculpture of Ron Pippen’s over there, made up of old, discarded elements.
“Exactly,” Carofano says, but points out that he’s been re-directing his focus:
“The new work is almost going back to the beginning of the cycle. When you see some of these images in the show [Terrene reprises the exhibition of the same name seen earlier this year at the Couturier Gallery in L.A.], they are more pure landscape that is not yet dealing with the decay. It just seems I went so long just showing the decay that I’ve decided to go to another part of the cycle.”
A creepy feeling
Ray Carofano grew up an only child in North Mount Caramel, a fairly rural area north of New Haven in Connecticut.
As a young boy, he says, “I experienced periods of loneliness because there weren’t other kids to play with because I had no brothers or sisters. I would have to use my imagination to make up things to keep myself occupied.” And since he lived near a forest, “I would explore the woods. I would build little forts out of branches…
“And then there was an experience I had. I was maybe six years old, and I was walking in the woods. There was a foundation of stone, just half of a foundation, from a house God knows how old. It could have been 1700s. It was getting dark, and somehow I lost my sense of direction.
“This place, even in full daylight, had this mysterious air to it. That feeling I got from it left an impression on me of mystery, solitude, scariness.” Carofano pauses. “For some reason it’s never left me. It’s not like I think about it and have nightmares or anything like that, but when I’m looking through the camera I try to isolate certain subject matter that gives me that feeling, that brings me back to that. In other words, if I can capture what I’m feeling I think the viewer, somebody who views that particular image, will get an emotional response from it.
“Photography obviously starts with the eyes, and it starts with vision, seeing,” Carofano adds; “but it isn’t just about seeing. It also has to deal with instincts and feelings that you have… Why I photograph what I photograph deals with everything that I’ve experienced from [childhood] all the way to the present time. And we still have new experiences – and things keep changing the way I see and the way I think.”
From 0 to 60
“I don’t photograph on a regular basis,” Carofano explains. “There’s painters that will spend x-number of hours each week or whatever it is, and those two days they’ll paint. I don’t work that way; there can be months that will go by that I don’t pick up a camera unless I have to do something small commercially. But it’ll start festering in me; it’s like somebody turned a switch on in my mind and visually I start to become more aware of what’s around me. When that starts to happen, then I start thinking, Okay, this is time, maybe for a road trip with the cameras, or, if it’s here, maybe I want to continue with the Faces of San Pedro [an open-ended series begun in 1998]. You just get to this point where all your visual senses are very heightened. So, maybe I photograph for two weeks, or take two weekend trips, and that’s it. Then it’s the darkroom. I mean, for every hour behind the camera, probably it relates to 10, 12 hours in the darkroom if not more.
“But there’s something that I’ve noticed, and that is when something trips my senses – when I’m out with cameras in hand looking for a subject, when I come across something – it’s important for me to photograph it quickly, because there’s a certain heightened sense, emotional feeling that I get: You’re walking through a forest or down a street in San Pedro and you see something that immediately triggers [a response], you want to photograph it. If I spend too much time thinking about it and get too technical on it, setting up tripods, taking readings, I’ll lose the sense, that emotional feeling I had, and then it doesn’t come through in the photograph.
“The funny this is,” Carofano adds, “I’ll see something – maybe it’s a landscape, maybe it’s an unusual-looking tree, a burnt tree – and I’ll photograph it. And then I say to myself, Okay, that’s good, I got that image. But that can’t be just it, there’s gotta be another angle: let me walk around this, get down low, knee-high, look at it. Maybe I’ll take several other exposures. And I’ve noticed that nine times out of ten the image that I end up printing is the first one I’ve taken.
“You would think that wouldn’t be the case, because I just walk right into a scene and look through the camera. I might make some slight adjustments – and then ‘click.’” He pauses. “So, again there’s that immediate intuitiveness, an emotional feeling that I need to capture quickly or else it somehow get diluted.”
If you’re batting, I say, and you think too hard about the pitch that’s coming instead of relying on your natural instinct, the ball will sail right past you.
“That’s right,” Carofano replies. “Somebody said, If you’re dancing and you think too much about what you’re doing with your feet, you usually end up tripping.”
And not with Dick Dale, either.
“I’ve been photographing so many years now, it’s almost like breathing; I don’t have to spend a lot of time analyzing what lens I might want to put on the camera… I just do it; it just happens.”
Light in the darkroom
About all that time Carofano says he spends in the darkroom:
“It’s processing the film,” he says, “it’s making the proof sheets, it’s studying the proofs, selecting which images that you want to go on with; and then it’s the printing stage, the toning, the staining of the images, and if you’re going to present them, then it’s the presentation.”