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Claire Flanders' Gentle, Eloquent Eye

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Claire Flanders's visual memoir, Claire Flanders/ Photographs, is a wonderful book that whispers at you to pay it heed. It is a book filled with beautifully seen images, beautifully printed in black and white, that offer an object lesson in how to get the most from a negative.

It is a quiet symphony by a quiet woman of grace and courage.

The book, reflected too in a small yet lovely showing of original prints at the Troyer Gallery in Washington, describes a life that began 65 years ago in Flanders' native Belgium, and which took her to wartime France, and finally to the U.S. at age 19, married to an American, Bill, her husband of more than 45 years.

"My beginning as a photographer came from the need to discover my new world and share it with my French family," Flanders writes in her preface. This, after all, was a time (the mid-50s) when most people rarely traveled great distances for pleasure, when there was no such thing as frequent flier miles. "I needed to show everything," she says – and found herself shooting just as frantically when she revisited France, so she could show her new American friends her "French World."

Like so many women who become photographers, the means by which Flanders made photographs was less important to her than "the intense relationship with light and shadow" that informs the sensibility of any visual artist. The gear was secondary. At first she borrowed Bill's camera and even decades later as a successful commercial photographer in Washington, her camera bag commonly boasted only a handful of old Nikons and a battered Leica.

Early on, Flanders discovered that seeing a picture in the mind and then through the lens was only the first part. "I soon realized that there was a very large gap between what I got back from a photo store and what I could get if I took a second step as seriously as the first."

"And so I began with an old enlarger and an improvised darkroom. And there the relationship continued with the questions, 'Does it work? Does it show what I saw?' My goal was to give substance to my original vision, to make it real. There were lots and lots of trials and plenty of surprises, good and bad. Someone once asked me, 'What do you think is most important in a darkroom?' and I replied (seriously), 'the wastepaper basket.'"

There are elements of Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and Eugene Atget here: all photographers capable of creating eloquence from simplicity in black and white. The oldest works in Flanders' book, "From My Mother's Garden," are really family snaps, but beautiful ones, showing the hand of a master printer. If you know Claire, you will know some of the people portrayed. If you do not, it doesn't matter; the images are universal.

It was Flanders' work in the village of Leves, outside of Chartres, that for the first time taught her to let images come to her. At the time caught up in wedding and other commercial photography in Washington, Flanders had remained fascinated by what lay behind the walls of the home of the late Madeleine Castaing, "the grande dame of interior decorating," whose home was but ten yards from the door to the school Flanders attended as a young girl.

Happenstance in the form of being back in France with the rare luxury of time gave Claire the opportunity to screw up her courage and ask for permission to photograph in the now old yet all the more beautiful mansion.

Permission was granted and Claire wandered the halls "just letting that place come to me."

She used a tripod and long exposures so that the light – often filtered through the surrounding trees – had time to "come in and paint on the negative."

This, Flanders says, is the difference between merely grabbing an image on the fly and "receiving it" slowly. The difference between taking a picture and making one.

As in her other work here – from a 15th century palace in Portugal, to American painter Edward Hopper's austere cottage and studio on Cape Cod, to quiet images in the cathedrals of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres – Flanders brings to each image a superb sense of composition and skill as a printer. Rarely have I seen prints that so skillfully combine intense light with shadow detail, so that light through a window or off to one side of the frame becomes not a distraction but a highlight, to be considered with a wealth of other detail elsewhere.

In particular see two of her pictures from Mont-Saint-Michel and one from Portugal: all simply wonderful images in no small part because of the skill with which they were printed.

In "Openings," of an open doorway and a series of windows, see how brilliant light from outdoors commands your attention, but never obscures detail in the fine filigree of the window glass, nor in the deep shadows of the surrounding stone work.

In "Rain in the Cloister" – made at the sufferance of guards who finally let Claire set up her tripod during a cloudburst – the grand pillars of the cathedral courtyard are beautifully modeled by light, yet what holds your attention is the highlight: the gorgeous cascade of water caught in long-exposure free-fall against the dark-bright sky.

In "The Tower Window," elements of landscape and still life combine for a riveting, poetic image that has become a favorite with collectors. 'It's her 'Moonrise," gallery owner Sally Troyer notes, referring to the Ansel Adams' most popular photograph.

Last spring, those closest to Claire wondered if she ever would see her book or the exhibition.

The cancer that nearly killed her and which still lurks in shadow had the ill grace to surface where she works.

"What a strange time," Claire wrote to Judy and me last spring. "A sinus infection explodes into this – just exactly at the spot where the camera meets the eye – what mystery all around."

It was a rare form of cancer, stealthy and fast-spreading, and it required Claire to drop everything. Still, rather than rage against the malignancy that surfaced so inexplicably, or surrender to it, Flanders made decisions that simply helped her get through each day. She cut back her commercial work. She surrounded herself with family. She sought out the best medical help she could find.

She also went back into the darkroom – as much a comforting cloister as the one at Mont-Saint-Michel.

The work in the dark was to prepare for her show at the Troyer Gallery. But so concerned was Sally Troyer about Claire's condition that she did not schedule a formal opening, lest Claire be too weak to attend, or to deal with the publication of her book.

It thrills me to say as we begin this new year that this brave, gentle colleague and friend is doing a great job of p.r. for both.

"Right now I feel well and the doctors are pleased," Claire told NPR's Diane Rehm during a lengthy radio interview last month, during which she also fielded questions from listeners. [Claire and Diane have known each other for years; Claire having shot the wedding of the radio host's daughter, as well as many of Rehm's personal publicity portraits.]

It was a thinner Claire who appeared at DC's Politics and Prose bookstore recently to talk about her life and her work.

Thinner perhaps, but no less enthusiastic.

She wowed 'em.

Claire Flanders/Photographs. Through January. Troyer Gallery, 1710 Connecticut Ave, NW. T-Sa 11-5. 202-328-7189. (Call for holiday hours).

Claire Flanders's book is available through the Troyer Gallery and through Politics and Prose Bookstore ($50 plus tax)

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

The image on the cover of Claire Flanders' visual memoir is 'The Tower Window," made in Portugal. A combination of landscape and still life, the photo is becoming one of Flanders' most popular with collectors. "It's her 'Moonrise,' notes gallery owner Sally Troyer.

© Frank Van Riper
The exhibition of Flanders' work – a small yet representative sample of what is in her book – has been extended through January at the Troyer Gallery.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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