in conversation with: MILDRED ALPERN
Mildred Alpern grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. After a long career as a high school Advanced Placement European History teacher she is currently most interested in writing, editorial work, and photography. She found her passion in photography when the artist Christos set up the saffron "Gates" in Central Park in 2005. Starting with a 2 pixel Point and Shoot digital camera, she progressed to interchangeable lenses when Olympus introduced the mirrorless E-M5 in 2012. At the time she was in her early eighties, which goes to prove that it is never the wrong time for a new passion. Mildred scoured Central Park and Riverside Park for subject matter, while taking a class here and there to learn new techniques. She has had a number of her photos selected for curated exhibitions nationally and internationally, and she has had photo essays published in her local online newspaper, The West Side Rag.
Mildred shared her photo series "Readers", which stems from her fascination with the reader as a solitary and silent figure who is transported into a private world through the mental process of deciphering elaborate markings on a physical surface. Now aged 89, Mildred continues to expand her photographic horizons.
Tell us a bit more about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I was born and grew up in Boston, graduating from Girls’ Latin School and Boston University in 1953. I then moved to New York and worked as an economic researcher before marrying my Brooklyn-born husband. With two small children in tow, I earned a Masters in Teaching Social Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College and began a thirty-five year teaching and writing career, with a prominent role in the development of the Advanced Placement European History curriculum and test. I now live in New York City and in Copake, New York, alternating between the two places.
A four pixel Canon Elph Powershot was a 2004 Christmas gift from my son. It started me to take pictures.
You said you found a passion in photography when the Christo set up the saffron "Gates" in Central Park in 2005. Tell us more about that exhibition. What was it that was so inspiring about it and made you want to get more into photography?
Living on the Upper West Side, I trekked the few blocks to Central Park, where Christo and Jeanne-Claude were installing The Gates exhibit. The view of massive saffron fabric blowing in the breeze was magical under blue skies and during February gloomy snow days. Having retired, I had time to make the rounds each morning in different areas of the park. The landscape reminded me of Brueghel’s winter scenes with figures in varying activities.
You told us that you are a former high school and college history teacher. Did you ever use photography as a teaching aid? Has your educational background influenced in some way the kinds of pictures you take?
In my European history classes, I had integrated fine art as a reflection of the time period in which the artist lived. Influenced by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, I attempted to show how art of the past had influenced contemporary sensibilities in Western standards of beauty and gender roles. An atypical view of woman’s strength and power was Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith in her rendition of slaying Holofernes. How different was her interpretation from those of Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Klimt, among others.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
In this time of Covid-19, my favorite expression, “everything turns on a dime,” is particularly apt. From one minute to the next, the unanticipated and unexpected may occur. Defenses are fragile, yet I like to think that we soldier on with good purpose.
Where do you find your inspiration? And do you have a favourite place to shoot? In general, what do you want to express through your photography?
I enjoy experimentation and the serendipitous, photographing the same scene with different lenses and focal lengths. I want to make pictures that I can bring home from my “shopping expedition” and download in my computer. Then comes the thrill of seeing them emerge full screen, to be processed and shared on occasion. In urban New York, people, buildings, and city streets capture my attention along with Central Park and Riverside Park happenings. In rural Copake, the changing seasons evoke the photographs of Eliot Porter, my favorite natural world photographer whose intimate nature scenes inspire me.
But I am also inspired by the photographs and artistic dedication of Paul Kessel, Russ Rowland, and Susan Rosenberg Jones, contemporary friends on social media. I also have an interest in infrared photography, inspired by Nevada Wier . There is no end. Passions are driving forces that make life meaningful and never boring.
I find pleasure in taking pictures and in looking at mine and others’. I hope that my images contain the unintended detail for Roland Barthes’ punctum effect (Camera Lucida), engaging the viewer to pause and reflect - the brim of a hat, a tattoo, a wicker chair...
The project you shared with us is about readers. How did you come up with that idea?
My submission of "Readers" stems from my fascination with the reader as a solitary and silent figure who is transported into a private world through the mental process of deciphering elaborate markings on a physical surface. Readers assumes varied poses in their temporary state of inactivity and equilibrium. We cannot know the thoughts of readers engaged in their activity. Even their poses do not give them away. Nor do the varied settings in which they pursue reading. It is best neither to disturb nor startle a reader, but to respect the private bubble in which they reside.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
The subjects of my photography are far and wide ranging. Armed with a couple of micro four-thirds Olympus cameras, Em5 and Em5 Mark II, and a variety of lenses, prime and zoom, which I alternate, for the fun of it, I set out by foot and in car, driven by my husband, to record whatever I fancy.
You did not grow up in an Internet-based age. How do you feel about the various social media photo platforms that have made sharing photography with a large audience so easy? What advantages and disadvantages do you see in this?
I was teaching in the late 80’s when Apple computers became available and justified the effort to tackle the new learning curve. The ease of writing and editing was a great benefit in my work.
As for the plethora of social media platforms, I find being selective, limiting my exposure to a narrow few prevents all day consumption of web sites. “Nothing in excess.”
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
The only involvement that I have had in the artistic community was briefly through my daughter, Merry Alpern, whose Dirty Windows book and photograph series gained wide recognition in the 1990s. Dark room photography, her area, did not interest me.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
In five years, I hope to be still around. At 89, one cannot be sure, even though I may feel fine today. It would be nice to have a gallery showing in a COVID free world just for the fun of it.
How does being a mature woman help or hinder your street photography?
Certainly being a mature woman has advantages. I am non-threatening and I know that. I try to be unobtrusive, but if I want a portrait shot, I ask permission, approaching in a friendly way, and respect a person’s wish not to be photographed, which is seldom. I also email willing subjects their photos if they wish. In the readers’ series, all photographs were taken without the knowledge of the subjects.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
In “Rural Byways,” a project I am currently working on in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, I hope to discover how a turn in a country road can disclose an unexpected sight in a mostly remote landscape.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
When I am not out photographing, I like to read classic and contemporary novels and be with my family, also photographing them.