Ideas and sensations motivate my impulse for taking pictures, which is really just a sneaky reference to Buck Mulligan declaring to Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “I remember only ideas and sensations.” Ideally these simple principles exist on an instinctual level so that when the button is finally pushed there is only pure emotion at work which, hopefully, is also experienced by the viewer.

christopher peterson

A vintage self-portrait taken by an uncredited photo booth for a youth hostel ID card as preparation for my first trip to Paris. My memory of that trip includes being approached by a photographer on the street and being asked to pose as a model. I had grown a beard before the trip, which must have looked a little ridiculous on a naive kid from the suburbs. Instead of embracing the possibility, though, I spent my time frequenting Shakespeare and Company envisioning my future as a writer. Now I find myself approaching strangers absolutely thrilled by the possibility of photographing a visual quirk that piques my aesthetic obsessions.

Vlada Petric, Harvard University

vlada petric ross mcelwee

© Ross McElwee

I taught undergraduate film at Harvard University with film scholar and professor Vlada Petric. Film seminars included Film Classics and Silent Cinema. Professor Petric was also curator of the Harvard Film Archive. His teaching method for studying films involved a rigorous application of an aesthetic based on form-content issues. A director’s choice of a particular shot was worthless unless it was intimately connected to the thematic content of the story. As an example, in Ingmar Bergman’s film, En Passion (The Passion of Anna), Max von Sydow plays Andreas Winkelman, a middle-aged man suffering after the dissolution of his marriage and feeling a profound sense of emotional isolation.

passion anna ingmar bergman

In one scene, a bird breaks its neck by flying into a porch screen. Andreas picks up the bird and decides to put it out of its misery. Andreas picks up a rock and raises his arm while holding down the bird. Just as he brings the rock down to kill the bird, Bergman flash pans the camera up to Andreas’ face, perfectly mimicking the sensation of a viewer gasping at the thought of the bird losing its life. A brilliant moment where form and content perfectly communicate a precise feeling through moving images.

I should also mention that I got the teaching fellow job at Harvard by random luck. I arrived in Cambridge thinking I would take a summer playwriting course and found myself mysteriously drawn to the Carpenter Center every night watching movies. The Archive projected films seven nights a week, from documentaries to world classics to silent cinema, and I became obsessed with seeing everything. With Vlada’s previous teaching fellow, Barry Strongin, gone, and the school year quickly approaching, he asked me to teach with him for fall semester. Mind you, I had never taken a film course, written a paper on film, and knew nothing about film history.

What I did have was an eye trained in art history courses. While studying economics as an undergraduate, I managed to audit quite a few art history courses. Victor Miesel at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, was particularly memorable. During summers, I would read classics by the likes of Joyce, Proust and Tolstoy and drag my ass to endless galleries and museums around the world. Staring at so many images, accompanied by a friendly story and a provocative idea, developed my aesthetic eye to the point that analyzing a film was no more difficult than eating a piece of fresh apple pie off the stomach of a sleeping woman, minus the fork and plate.

Since I didn’t have a degree in film, I figured my career at Harvard was limited, so I ventured out to California where I talked my way into USC’s film program. I managed to enroll in classes, but quickly realized Vlada had spoiled me. I had already seen most of the films being taught in the film history courses and couldn’t fathom the idea of analyzing films for the rest of my life. So after a brief stint of helping David Shepard, owner of Blackhawk Films, clean old nitrate films out in a valley warehouse, I found a temp agency that placed people at the Walt Disney Studios.

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