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.
Vlada Petric, Harvard University
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.
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 zilch 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.
Walt Disney Company
After teaching at Harvard, I ventured out to Los Angeles where I initially worked for everyone important at Walt Disney Studios, including Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bill Mechanic, Ann Daly, Ricardo Mestres, Garth Ancier, Dean Valentine, Chip Diggins, and pretty much all the other division heads. I had the glorified title of temp. That job allowed me to get a complete overview of the Hollywood studio system. The best assignment was working for Jay Rasulo, now Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, when he worked in the Strategic Planning department. This was a select group of people who reported directly to Michael Eisner and presented him with strategic opportunities for where to take the company next. It was an invaluable lesson in how to combine merchandising with storytelling.
Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films
After leaving Disney I worked in story development for film producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer on the Paramount Studios lot. If every job offers a different opportunity to learn a new skill, then working for Don and Jerry was the ultimate lesson in reducing a story down to its essential conflict that could be communicated in a simple sentence. Some call it high concept film making but that neglects the intellectual discipline required to tell a story based on a plot structure that explores one genuine feeling in all its nuances. The art of coming up with a one-liner premise that embodies a protagonist, an antagonist, and a compelling conflict that demands resolution is no brain-dead feat. Making ideas accessible AND entertaining to a broad audience is truly a dramatic gift. From these two masters I learned how to recognize a commercial idea and understood that a good idea can come from anywhere.
I enjoy drinking what Edgar Allan Poe called emotional cocktails. Before writing a short story, he thought about which feeling he wanted to indulge the reader in by the time he or she had finished his story. The words and story formed the liquor of his tale. If he did his job right, and the reader had generously imbibed, then they would experience the exact feeling he had imagined before he wrote the story. His approach to writing is the frisson of writing. The feelings evoked by the words are for naught, however, if the writer himself has not experienced them during the writing. As the Polish like to say when offering their cheers, Na zdrowie, Edgar!
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, has a poem called Act of Union that contains the line: "I caress the heaving province where our past has grown." I love that line. It perfectly captures a feeling of connection between two people, and more importantly, conjures an image of that feeling. The use of the word heaving next to province, picking up the alliteration of the v's, along with just saying the word heaving, makes seeing the pregnant woman's belly a delight.
Attribution Rules under Creative Commons license
1. Either the caption "Photograph by Christopher Peterson." and a link to the website christopherpeterson.com must appear below the image, or, if the image is used in an online medium, the image itself may be a hyperlink to a separate page providing this information.
2. As a courtesy, I would appreciate being informed of any use of my photos in any medium for any purposes.