By Leigh Glenn / Photo by Larry Melton
Every medium of expression is about capturing light—the arch of a ballerina’s foot en pointe, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a Bach prelude. We swim in an ocean of light, yet we are like fish that don’t know water. This makes capturing light a challenge, especially with visual images. Overemphasizing image, as our culture tends to do, makes it difficult to see. And then when we seek, we often have tunnel vision. For photographer Dick Bond, a camera gives him sight. As such, he has spent his life learning how to see.
When it comes to photography and visual images, Dick Bond may be Annapolis’ best kept secret. Former photography students from Anne Arundel Community College and Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts know him, as do his small group of followers, whom he calls the Luddites. He is also a familiar face to some of the old-timers at the Naval Academy Museum, the City of Baltimore, and the State of Maryland, where he has photographed for various projects.
Born in Nova Scotia 73 years ago, Bond left the Maritimes at age six, when his father’s work brought the family—which included his mother, brother, and sister—to Philadelphia’s Welsh Valley. Growing up, Bond often traveled into the city to explore the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Franklin Institute, a science museum, became his home away from home.
In 1960, Bond came to Annapolis to attend St. John’s College, ostensibly to study mathematics. One day, a friend borrowed Bond’s Kodak Rangefinder camera to take pictures at the National Zoo, and Bond was struck by the images. He then thought he should be the one taking pictures. When he did, he made what he considered completely indiscriminate, mediocre photographs that lacked content and composition.
He developed his photographs in a small basement darkroom at a friend’s house outside of Washington, DC. His time behind the camera and in the darkroom allowed him to make a number of amateur mistakes, which informed one of the first lessons he would later share with students: “In photography, there are an infinite number of mistakes you can make; endeavor to make them only once.”
St. John’s College did not provide Bond with enough course work in mathematics, so in 1962, after marrying his girlfriend, Meg, he enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley. Going from a small campus of 240 students to one with 26,000 students felt too stimulating to him, but being in California in the 1960s provided him with a political education and exposure to the Free Speech Movement.
He soon realized that mathematics did not provide him with the clarity that he sought. For his thesis, he wrote about relativity and black holes, whose existence was then being actively debated. Bond posited that, given the purported density of a black hole, sound waves would need to travel to infinity and therefore move faster than the speed of light; because sound did not move faster than light, black holes were thus unlikely to exist. The discovery of the first pulsar a few years later would undercut what Bond had proposed, but his paper earned him a recommendation from Berkeley’s Department of Physics and Astronomy (with which he was not associated) and he was accepted into the astrophysics program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He and Meg moved back east in 1964.
While studying at Johns Hopkins, Bond served as a teaching assistant. The college had rules governing speech both on and off-campus, and faculty and staff who attended anti-war demonstrations were penalized. Despite being near the end of his doctoral course work, Bond quit school. He did not miss teaching physics, as it had become more about teaching others how to teach physics. He fell back on his avocation—photography—and began taking on assignments and instructing at Anne Arundel Community College.
But Bond’s obsession was not with photography—it was with seeing.
He recalls being assigned to document the remaking of Baltimore Harbor and hating the idea of photographing junk. To his surprise, he fell in love with machinery. One machine, a steam-powered Vulcan pile driver that he describes as being the size of a locomotive hoisted on a crane, mesmerized him. “Every time it dropped, a cloud of the whitest vapor you’ve ever seen in your life puffed up. That blue blue sky and the white white vapor . . . I have never really gotten over it.”
For five years, Bond was the official photographer for the US Naval Academy Museum. One of his projects—photographing the interiors of model ships—allowed for the study of how shipbuilding developed. When a 1710 British model ship offered an interesting innovation, Bond put an endoscope and a fiber optic cable through its miniature gun ports, painting the interior with light for 20-minute exposures. This offered an intimate look at the amazing architecture, including elaborate parquet floors that no one would have otherwise seen.
No digital camera could do that, says Bond, because it would not provide enough control of light.
Bond does not like digital photography, with its fixed depth of field. He believes that, if one were to compare a sufficient number of digital and film-based photographs, the differences between them could be quickly discerned. When people use digital cameras, they too often look at the image, hampering their ability to see, he says.
He once believed that seeing was about getting closer and closer to a subject. In that pursuit, he amassed longer and longer lenses. This turned out to be another of his mistakes. “[At first,] I saw photography as a way to revere that which was hidden from our normal senses,” say Bond. And then he realized differently. “The things we fail to see are not hidden deeply—they’re right on the surface, and we still ignore them.”
Once he learned this, he gradually sold off his long lenses, beginning with the longest lens and working his way to the shortest one.
Seeing leads back to light. Over the years that he has taught photography, Bond had a singular initial assignment for students: photograph the same object in different settings, over and over. Students consequently learned about light—what reflects it, what diminishes it, and what it looks like against all types of backgrounds.
Bond says that, of the more than 20,000 images that he reviewed from that assignment, no two were alike. This reflects on another key aspect of Bond’s teaching, drawing from an analogy made by the late, longtime director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art John Szarkowski: photographs serve either as mirrors for those who make them, or as windows that show the world as it is.
Many of his students came to him having viewed photography and their participation in it from a windows point of view. Bond tried to instill in them the importance of acting as mirrors with respect to their subjects. Doing so is key to making photographs that delve deeper than simply documenting or capturing a moment in time.
At Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, one student set up his camera just slightly off the trail, waiting for the moment when the sun would be just right. People walking the trail began silently congregating around him. When the moment finally came, he pulled the release, taking the photograph, and the crowd started clapping. Bond laughs with joy, on the verge of tears, as he relates this story.
Contrast that with another person who click-click-clicked her way through the Paris skyline from the vantage point of the Eiffel Tower. Bond says that she did not actually see the skyline until she got home and looked at the photos. “Your attention is worthy of your subject,” says Bond, “and paying attention is very much harder than it appears, on the surface.”
In photography, there is always a conflict in between process and product. If the emphasis is on product, then attention is not paid to the process. Bond says that the emphasis on process is evident in the instant of exposure among the photos of great photographer-craftsmen such as Ansel Adams, Frederick H. Evans, and André Kertész—regardless of their subjects, these photographers were all paying attention.
Bond likes Adams for the depth of field that he achieves in his landscapes. He describes Evans’ work photographing inside cathedrals as technically impossible, given the lack of lighting and the insensitivity of the film used during the early 1900s. He jokes that Evans used the same method that he has used: “set the exposure and go to lunch.”
And though he has always been a fan of Kertész, it is only recently that he has turned to the late photographer for moral support. Bond now uses the same type of camera that Kertész used, an 1895 Korona Viewfinder that once belonged to a student’s grandfather. It came to Bond in a mildewed box, and its restoration took about three months.
Bond says he appreciated the Hungarian photographer’s clarity of vision seen at a retrospective some years ago at the National Gallery of Art. “I was blown away by what he was constrained to do by his camera.” That helped Bond feel a bit better when he could not get the film to print at a larger size. He brings out a book of Kertész’s work, where many of the early photos measure only one and one-half by two inches. “I was shocked,” he says.
The Korona, with a five-by-seven-inch plate, represents the best convertible-lens technology of its day. Its lenses can be grouped to make normal, portrait-length, or medium-telephoto pictures. Before his stroke, nearly one-and-a-half years ago, Bond would haul all 32 pounds of tripod and camera to Bacon Ridge Natural Area, near Crownsville, to go on what he calls meditative walks with photographic interludes.” Thousands of drivers on Interstate 97 pass by Bacon Ridge every day, and it seems apt that Bond chose those beaver-dammed waters and ridges, chasms, and forests as a place to work with the camera. “Landscapes and the Korona are made for each other,” he says.
Despite the weight of his gear and backpack, Bond is quick to share how the camera works, from setting up the tripod, which levels with a few adjustments of the legs, to mounting the camera, to previewing the image on the ground glass—he gauges the focus with a pair of 7-diopter reading glasses, “divining the exposure,” as he says—to putting in the plate, which he orders from ILFORD, a company based in England. Once the image is made, he switches the dark slide to indicate it has been exposed.
Today, Bond can make maybe one image per day, but when he was visiting Bacon Ridge, he generated about four images per day. He collected those photographs into 17 volumes, which he named À la recherché d’images perdu, a riff on Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
Using the Korona has opened up another world for Bond to explore. “I never learned so much,” he says. “It does give the word ‘deliberation’ a whole new meaning. This format is so big, so clumsy, and so slow that I actually get the feeling of the light exposing the film.”
And the results?
The lush black-and-white images would be impossible to capture with the human eye. We just don’t see that way—every leaf of skunk cabbage sharp, the lights and shadows on and among them just as sharp, the water distinctly water, the trees in the background clear. You could only have a richer experience by being with Bond on one of his meditative walks while he’s making these images. Bond reveres the woods and their infinite possibilities. “If I impart to my viewers some fraction of the magic I encounter in the woods,” he says, then he has done his job.
Over its nearly 200-year history, photography has had its share of critics, including those who maintain that it has detracted us from our ability to really see a particular thing. Bond is not one of those people. “It’s allowed me to see better,” he says. Moreover, it has enlarged his imagination. “That is a gift beyond price.”