Crozet Calendar Clinic: Cass Girvin

Cass Girvin’s photograph is featured in the 2021 Crozet calendar.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

It’s December and that means performances of Tchaikovsky’s  “Nutcracker Suite.” Who doesn’t love that music? Tchaikovsky. He demeaned it: “I’m very little pleased with the Nutcracker. It’s far worse than Sleeping Beauty, of this I am sure.”

In an NPR interview, James Taylor said he can’t stand hearing his songs on the radio. “I dive for the dial if ‘Fire and Rain’ comes on.”

Cezanne compelled the art dealer Ambroise Vollard to sit “like an apple” for 115 sessions over two straight weeks for a portrait—a portrait Cezanne eventually abandoned.

Besides being disdained by their creators, what do “The Nutcracker,” “Fire and Rain” and “The Vollard Portrait” have in common? They are loved by the public.

To that list, add the name Cass Girvin. He is the author of the snow-covered Chiles Orchard image that I would signify as “Photograph of the Year,” if such an award existed. But would that honor mean much to Cass? It’s complicated, as he explains.

“This image is a funny one for me. I love this mountain, having suffered running up it more times than I care to think about all at one time. And, of course, I’ve photographed it countless times too, having lived in the area my whole life. But on the morning I took this photo, I was hoping for that type of big, bright sunrise I’m so fond of shooting, with maybe some clouds catching fire in the sky or a warm alpenglow highlighting the contours of the ridge line.

“So, I was pretty disappointed to see the horizon obscured by slim clouds, and I nearly didn’t even take any photos. However, I figured I’d already come out here in the freezing dark, so I might as well take a few frames. I hopped on top of my car to gain a little perspective, set up my tripod and watched the moon set, the colors change, and the cloud inversion sift up and away.
“Still, even after taking some photos, I didn’t like them. I nearly deleted them from my camera before heading home. But that’s a dangerous game and I try not to do that before seeing the images on a larger screen. I didn’t like them much better on my computer screen, but I’d had a relative dearth of recent photographic opportunities, so I went ahead and stitched* this panorama together and printed it anyway.”

Perversely, popular success doesn’t help some artists easily accept their work. Audiences adore “Fire and Rain.” Does that help James Taylor appreciate the song? No. He appreciates that his audience likes it. But to him the song is now nearly lifeless. It was the same for Cezanne. He had a vision and worked tirelessly to achieve it. But at the end of the marathon sittings he walked away from the painting saying, “Only the shirt is done well.” That caustic opinion hasn’t kept “The Vollard Portrait” from being universally admired.

Cass understands: “Now, two years later, this is one of my most widely appreciated photos. I’m still not crazy about it, but it’s been featured in numerous publications and seems to garner far more attention than I ever would’ve imagined. It just shows how tough it is to separate emotional attachment from results. If I had set out to make an image like this, I’m sure I would have been pleased. However, I was imagining a big, warm, contrast-y sunrise, leaving me starkly disappointed in the conditions I actually encountered. I just can’t seem to separate that disappointment from this image.”

Expectations. You don’t have to be an artist to have your life deflated by unmet expectations. The best thing I ever heard about college was, “Less than I expected; more than I can handle.”

But the lives of artists are unusually full of expectations. They drive work forward. They also drive spirits downward. Why? Because the expectations artists have for themselves, for their work and from life itself are unusually hard to meet. Managing expectations thus becomes one of an artist’s obligations.

I get that. Asked what photographs are on my walls, I laugh and say, “None of mine. I couldn’t stop re-working them.” But I could have Cass’s image on my wall. And he could exhibit a photograph of mine. We just can’t easily live with our own images. That’s because we see our work for what it isn’t, not for what it is.

Cass Girvin’s website: Prints displayed at the Crozet Artisan Depot.


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