Death of a Master
James Gabriel Perret ca. 1960 – Photograph copyright © 1960-2015 Mignon Naegeli
On Friday the thirteenth of November 2015, James Gabriel Perret, the person most influential to my Female’s artistic life, passed away.
She told me, in sometimes sketchy memoirs, what I will share with you, my dear reader, about a great man who never received the honor he deserved for his lifelong devotion to photography, a trade that survived little more than one hundred years before it fell on hard times with the advent of the digital age.
Although photography projected the air of an illustrious profession, for many practitioners, it often boiled down to schlepping huge equipment cases filled with heavy cameras, tripods, lights, and electric cables to and from destinations where something had to be captured on film. Subsequently, hours had to be spent in small rooms, in total darkness or dim yellow light, to bring images to live—often with dangerous chemicals.
There were many who followed with fascination Monsieur Niépce‘s invention, exploring it for new ways to capture reality in various forms, refining its application, some with new scientific discoveries, others with artistic creativity. Ansel Adams, the nature lover, invented a mathematical system to achieve utmost perfection. Edward Weston conquered still live to a new form, and Man Ray gave us the first glimpses of art by photographic means.
One of Switzerland’s professional master photographers settled in Lucerne and opened his commercial studio in the late 1950s. Working solely with a large studio camera—a Sinar (short for Studio, Industry, Nature, Architecture, and Reproduction),
invented by Swiss photographer Carl Hans Koch in 1947—James Gabriel Perret became well known, not only for his highly technical photography and his superb knowledge of lighting, but also as an excellent teacher of many young apprentices (my Female being one of them) as well as of his peers. He wrote regularly for the bilingual periodical of the Swiss Association of Professional Photographers.
Next to darkroom techniques, one of the first duties my Female—then called Heidy—had to get proficient at, was retouching prints by gently scratching unwanted marks with a broken-in-half Gillette razor blade and effacing dust and other lighter spots, using special photo paint applied with fine brushes similar to high-end watercolor utensils.
When the Female started to paint in my country, she went to opposite tools, coarse brushes, hands, fingers, and blunt knives. But that is another tale.
Also, there was Medo, my fellow canine. Honestly, he looked a bit like me. And his temperament: We could be twins! James, one day, showed up with a hyper handsome wire-haired fox terrier, whose previous owner claimed that this dog was untrainable. Sound familiar? After that, even people who didn’t know the pair could no longer avoid noticing the man who parked every morning on a side street by the Astoria Hotel, stepping out of his Alpha Romeo with a loud, beautiful four-legged companion to cross the walkway on Pilatus Street.
In our dog world, Medo became the talk of the town. For several reasons. The pretty girls, apprentices of the renowned photographer, had to walk my possible ancestor (I have some similarly coarse coat on parts of my body, and the growling—soooo cool!) Evelyn, the older apprentice, had some run ins with nearby store owners. At one time, Medo marked an entrance with more than the liquid stuff, and poor Evelyn had to clean up the fancy trottoir.
The freshling Heidy, on her way between the studio and a famous jewelry store, shuttling back and forth objects to be photographed, often walked Medo past the theater, where she could admire her favorite actors pictured in the showcase. Nobody, even if they had known that she was carrying Swiss watches worth thousands, would have dared to approach the 90 pound teenager with her protective beast.
Many of James Gabriel’s students visited his studio long after graduation. Evelyn returned after stints in the U.S. and Guatemala to work for her former teacher, before moving on to Zürich, where she eventually opened her and her brother’s studio, specializing in culinary photography, contributing to many fabulous cookbooks. Sadly, only days before James passed, her talented brother Schampi died after years of bravely fighting cancer.
Photography became jedermann’s favorite thanks to Steve Jobs‘ innovative and user-friendly interfaces that made it practical to integrate smart cameras in phones and tablets. Now, by using her beloved iPad, my Female can spare her old bones from carrying cameras almost her own weight.
Art schools have abandoned degrees in photography, yet history proves: there is more than a selfie.