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MY TIME WITH RALSTON
An old guy used to come into the Marci Studio where I was working with a piece of photography equipment and ask for advice or opinions or just make a brief visit. He introduced himself to us as Ralston Crawford. It turned out he was an artist famous in the 30s and 40s and some what out of fashion when we met in the 60s. He was a painter and photographer and had a studio upstairs.
Marci was owned and run by Dave Sussman, an excellent commercial photographer, I was the darkroom man, and all around assistant.I had been working for Dave for a few years while he had taught me how to be a capable NYC assistant and darkroom worker. I was just beginning to do some personal work. The building was at 10 East 23rd St, New York City. It faced Madison Square Park to the North. My memory is that Marci Studio was on the 4th floor, and Ralstons studio was above us on the 5th floor. We had views of the Park. Michael Chassid photographer, and later Sydney Kaplan the very fine photographer and commercial darkroom printer were in the back on the 5th floor. Sids place was a hang out for photographers. Some of the people he made prints for were famous.
After a few years Ralston invited me to his studio to see what he was up to.There was this very abstract looking oil painting on the easel. I looked and looked. Ralstonsaid, “You don't have to say anything if you don't want too.” I didn't say anything. For quite a while.I would sometimes take a print I was working on, or had finished and would show it to him. He was very nice and would point out what he liked about it. I guess over time he saw my printing improve and asked if I would do some printing for him after work.
He would sometimes tell a story to illustrate a point. One of the stories he told often, and itwould be used to make different points. One about rich white people in Hawaii who had a Japanese gardener. The gardener wanted a tree cut down. The owners said No! After a while the gardener cut down the tree while the owners were away anyway. The owners were pissed. As time passed the owners came to see that the gardener was right, the landscape was markedly improved and the gardener got to keep his job.The point was that sometimes you really love something in your picture, but if you remove it,the picture would be better. You need to be a severe editor of your own work.
The point was that you must stick to your artistic guns no matter what.As I worked in Ralstons darkroom I began to see that those abstract shapes in his paintings were in fact not made up but were rooted in reality. These shapes might be extracted, condensed or simplified, modified in some way but they were real.One time he had finished a pretty large canvas in. as I remember in black white and gray.It was on his easel drying for quite a while. I came to work one day and he was it the process of repainting the entire gray area another shade of gray! Only he knew that that was not optimum. It looked great before and looked great after.
He said that if one day I wanted too I could spend the day looking at his old work. I could go in the darkroom another day or later that day.I had become interested in the print as a physical artifact and was exploring black and white printing. I grew to hate kodak and the ugly yellow and brown of their papers. GAF Vee Cee Rapid, Dupont Varigam and Variour, Agfa Brovira and Ilford were to be prefered. The whites were white and the blacks were not brown.Ralston agreed with my findings and would get the papers I liked best. I was also learning about selenium toning and its use to make the image more stable, archival.
I would develop a roll of his film and then make a contact sheet. He would then choose which ones to print and I would make 5 x 7s of each. He would then go through them and of the ones he liked I would then make 8 x 10s. Then to 11 x 14 and then to 16 x 20. I don't remember if it went to 20 x 24.
The prints were always selenium toned, 2 fixer baths and perma washed. It was the only job I ever had that the point was to make the best print I kew how to make.We were both W. C. Fields fans and would sometimes engage in reciting dialogue from memory bits from a movie or two. I would sometimes tell jokes that he thought were funny.Ralston thought the cartoonist George Price was great. “When George drew a drunk, you could smell his breath,” he said laughing.
He once described who a guy who got snippy and said he never looked at the comics page in the newspaper after Ralston asked him had he seen Pogo that day? Ralston said the man was a jerk.One time we went with a couple of other friends of mine to the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks to hear Lee Konitz, with whom I had taken lessons a few years before. He liked jazz a lot, his jazz he called good time music. He didn't know too much about modern jazz but on several occasions quoted Charlie Parker. “Monk runs deep.”
Keeping records is not my strength but I think I worked for Ralston, off and on from about the mid 60s to the mid 70s. He was my boss, but also my teacher and my friend. He taught me how to see and had some success teaching me how to reason.
Sometimes I will make a picture and wish I could show it to him. He was a great artist and I miss him and think of him often.