Snow and Light at Beech Hill

Published in conjunction with the Guest Portfolio, Jason Philbrook: Winter Portfolio

Snow and light at Beech Hill, Rockport Maine. February 2020.

4×5 preanniversary speed graphic with 9″ Gundlach Hyperion soft focus lens.

Ilford fp4+ film in pyrocat hdc.

(Note: I have had the pleasure of getting to know and work with Jason Philbrook over the past four years, after taking in his work on FLICKR for several years prior.)

Ok, I’ll admit it. For me, photographer Jason Philbrook is not only a kindred spirit but a kind of hero, and for reasons you might not expect.

I do admire Philbrook’s unabashed embrace of pictorialism. The work is more emotive than documentary. His subject matter is as much about the experience of seeing as it is about anything else. In Jason’s own words:

“The pictorialist style emphasized light/mood/shapes at the expense of detail/realism. I think the genre faded before it was fully explored.”

I agree.

I identify with the artist’s intensity of focus: the vast majority of Philbrook’s work, taken as a whole, comprises one large and never ending series. His subject – the midcoast Maine shoreline and adjacent wetlands and interior woodlands – is one he visits and revisits with great regularity. The location remains similar; what changes are the things he notices and how he sees them, moment by moment, visit after visit. Each experience expands and enriches his connection with his beloved landscape. While writing in connection with the Monhegan Photo Fest 2016 exhibition, Philbrook described the work of photographer Eliot Porter’s in this way:

“Porter is known for ‘Intimate Landscapes’ and his eye for that inspires me. His family had their own island in Penobscot Bay and he visited many local islands for photography. We don't have grand landscapes like out west. We have thick woods and little details to appreciate. Spending summers on a Maine island taught Porter to see that. That sort of appreciation for intimate landscapes helps a photographer in capturing beauty on Monhegan.”

I very much admire Philbrook’s compositional sensibility. I’ve always felt that the meaning in visual expression is actually conveyed through the arrangement of visual forces in space. In Philbrook’s photographs, one finds wonderfully delicate senses of equilibrium, a deep sense of unity balanced with just enough variety or dissonance to fulfill.

Of course, the artist “still shoots film” (black and white of course), develops it, and makes prints the old fashioned way (in the darkroom). And he works with medium and large format cameras and lenses, often vintage ones that invite serendipity to play a role in the art-making process and imbue imagery with distinct expressive character.

All of these qualities result in photographs that are not only beautiful but often poignant and always lovingly tended. But for me the “hero” designation assigned to the artist comes from yet another place.

For Jason Philbrook, photography is a spiritual practice, a part of his everyday life, an activity undertaken purely for its own sake. He approaches the practice with a rare and consistent presence and reverence.

I teach abstract painting workshops and most of the participants are quite experienced and advanced. In opening day get-acquainted sessions, I often ask each artist to tell the rest of us not only what they paint but why they paint. The answers are most revealing. Most agree that the experience of painting is transformative and elevating, that they “lose themselves” in the process of making. I recall one artist taking it a step further, saying “I eat, I breathe, I digest, and I paint!” It suspect that Jason Philbrook might identify with this explanation.

I also ask painters what they would paint if they could never exhibit or sell work again. Some folks say they’d paint very different things in very different ways from their current practice. Others say they’d continue to paint they same way they’re already painting—they wouldn’t change a thing. I doubt Philbrook would change a thing either.

Maine photographer Bryan Hitchcock told me, not that long ago, that he remembers seeing Jason Philbrook as a youth walking around, always with a camera in hand. Likewise, recently on social media, Philbrook has been sharing images of one of his daughters accompanying him on photo walks, a Nikon DSLR in hand, the torch now shared.

In our internet-connected artworld and culture, put an artist’s name into a search engine and so very much is revealed. Google Jason Philbrook and you’ll find no dedicated website, no listing as an exhibiting artist in a commercial gallery, no record of an exhibition history, no mention of his work in public or private collections, no listing of places where you can purchase his work. Just a personal Facebook page and a presence on FLICKR, a photo sharing website where the artist has posted more than 3000 images for other photographers to see.

Mind you, Philbrook’s work may have been included in numerous exhibitions over the years (I know of one for certain, that associated with the 2016 Maine Photo Fest, an invitational produced by David Aimone and myself). His photography more than likely is included in numerous collections, more often than not as the result of purchases. And Philbrook’s work is clearly most deserving of substantial attention and critical acclaim.

The fact that there is little documentation of this in a web search evidences, for me, the pure nature of the artist’s practice. There is little indication of the artist’s need for widespread recognition, for validation from without. Philbrook does photography for its own sake, for what it does for his interiority, because of how it elevates and expands his everyday life, and because of how it impacts, directly and indirectly, those he shares life with.

The author (l) and Jason Philbrook (r) on Monhegan Island, Maine, 2015. Photo by David Aimone