The road to Buckinghamshire could conceptually be mistaken for something magically Orwellian or a Lewis Carroll intervention. This beautiful Fall day traveling from London, was shepherding me onward to the home of the surrealist artist John Piper. The Fall leaves curiously danced among the trees. The sunlight was bending along the roads.
There was something of a new experience about to happen. Countries, cities and landscapes engulfed every living visual moment. So many days and nights in my life seemed like I was following Alice down the rabbit hole. Lewis Carroll’s surreal fiction enlivened my road to Buckinghamshire. It is slightly possible that I was the mad hatter, if I may, through the looking glass.
The Director of the Marlborough Gallery was driving me to my destination. The sporty car was careening from side to side. I was in a false heaven. It was a great way to dream about what photographs were about to happen. The mind’s eye was on steroids.
We arrived at our Buckinghamshire destination. Imagine an animated broom hilda running at you wide eyed and crazed with joy. This bucket of love waved her arms wildly and declared, “you are here! Welcome Mr Schulman”. I was twenty-eight years old, mr. was a bit alien to me.
“Richard, this Is John’s wife, Myfanwy Piper".
You just have to love the embrace of history’s grip when you realize you have morphed into a past century while imagining the future of the present century. I did not recognize this name Myfanwy, this ball of aged youth spun so tight. She was John Piper’s lifelong dance partner.
I was welcomed. Nothing quite feels like being engaged into Myfanwy's arms. She ordered me to follow her. I marched behind this beautiful magpie of energy, this light of my day into this converted farm house.
I came face to face with the living embodiment of an El Greco portrait. John Piper’s features mimicked El Greco’s dependency on elongated skeletal structures. Yes, Piper’s life dance card was nearing the end of its usefulness. Yet those golden sea blue eyes just awed my visual sensibilities. My eyes were in flux. A myriad of dreams entered my brain. I saw what will become a portrait in a fleeting blink.
The four of us carved into what looked like a 20-30 pound poached salmon breathing but lifeless on the dining table. This became what life should be: a few hours of pleasant moments hosted by my new favorite Myfanwy. Say it out loud and she will become your next child's name. John Piper felt otherworldly. Myfanwy was a dream. I was part of an artist’s canvas.
A sudden thunderclap silenced the gaiety. "Richard you know we have to leave soon. You are going to shoot John?” Said the Marlborough dealer. I knew after sharing two bottles of a crisp white wine, a bite of salmon and more, someone was going to say “picture time”. My dreamy mind woke up to a pressing reality.
John and I walked out of the house towards the other barn. We got to the door and I stepped over a 20-30 foot Calder Mobile strewn in the hay as if it was meeting death. John stopped me from thinking too much; "Calder and I were such good friends. I never knew where to put it. It became an entrance into my world. It is my reminder of where I have been, who I have known, what I do, and why I make art".
“Really?" I said. ”Maybe” he said. With a pat on my shoulder we entered his church. It was just crazily intimate. Many small pieces languishing near larger pieces. Art, art, art, art. I quickly flung my fingers around as if I was going to taste all the paint. I was swallowing the life of an artist.
“So Richard”, John said, “where is the portrait to be made?". “Just here” I said.
Eight frames later I looked up at John Piper, and asked him to close his eyes softly. A quiet click from my Nikon. I slowly whispered “excuse me” with my hand extended. His eyes fluttered a bit. I said, “Thank you for an incredible day”. John said, “you are done?”
I grabbed both his hands and smiled.
My life (as it always does) seemed to have changed. I knew that the moment his eyes closed, his elongated figure was my portrait. I came to know what was the picture, it wasn't just a picture but the moment where you stood face to face with the most important facet, the experience. There was no more energy to shoot another. Why make something from nothing? Why not just shoot what was given and stop. Eight frames of looking, one frame of quietude. There has not been another picture in thirty-five years that met my eyes like the Piper that day. The light the colors the stretch of the imagination, the silence in the room, live in my memories for another day.
We drove home back to London. I spoke just a few breathless words with the dealer.
For me it was my Churchillian moment. A young man had made something.