One Photograph


   (Santa Monica 1978)


Of course it’s a great image.  Just on its own and without the stories around it.  I was 23 years old, a boy with a beat-up Pentax and not thinking about photography or how to make this picture.  It just happened. But looking at it weeks later many things crossed my mind. It was mainly about the potential of photography. And it hit like lightning. If this could come about from a subconscious universe, shit, the possibilities are endless.

The place is Santa Monica, California, by the pier. I decided to forget this city and the dreams I was chasing.  My landlord screamed at me for giving such short notice and I overpaid him with the little extra money I had. I couldn’t care less. The next day I had my flight back home. But for now, I escaped the walls of my apartment. 

I went to the pier to find the few friends I had made and say goodbye, but I only found Phil, the clown. I met him months before. Once he told me of the two of us, I was the real clown, the one with the constant sad eyes.  He was right. I had been unhappy all along. Phil stood there in this crazy light between day and night and without dropping his clown act, said “Shit, your eyes can smile, did you finally get laid?”.  I told him I had fallen in love back home and was leaving the next day.  He refused to have a drink “I hate to have a drink with someone I'll never see again. Why don’t you piss off!”. 

I then asked to photograph him. Once I had the camera in my hands, his posture changed, as if he went on stage. Every inch of his body smiled at me.  He crossed his legs with a beautiful slow gesture, like a heron on water and told me “Thanks a lot Machiel, I will miss you a lot”.

This all takes place almost 35 years ago and I write this with a life behind me, a life that became filled with photography.  I look at this image now, as I have so many times before.  I never liked clowns very much but I loved Phil.  And yes, we never saw each other again.  How perfect can a photograph be? The clown melts into what's around him, but Phil stands out because he shows me something he never showed before - love. Was he aware that I didn’t see it when taking the picture but would see it later on?  I’m quite sure he was. 

The lights shining through Phil's clown skull reminds me of his stories “Of course I’m a psychopath.  But in this country they don’t see it when you act like a clown.  Look at Nixon!” While the clown stands solidly on the pier, the undefined structure of the wooden planks gives the illusion that his personality is floating. The rest of this image is space or matter inside space. Years later, the Dutch painter Constant stared long at this image and said “I didn’t know that photography could do this”. He didn't care about Phil, or about the clown. He was interested in the feeling that space implies.

I'm a b&w photographer. In my book Drifting the clown is printed in black and white. This was a mistake and the image lost its soul. Gone are the colors of the hair, the lips, the bow tie and the white shoes lost their secret - their ability to float yet stand firmly on the ground.

I never thought much about shooting color or b&w. I simply went for b&w because I could then do my own printing, in solitude. This photo ended a three or four year period of living the life of someone I was not. The image also gave me direction in photography.  Right from the start there was total clarity despite its blur. That clarity originates from a harmony between the many layers inside; dynamics, light, the clown who was indeed a psychopath and a photographer who is so present in the clown's pose. Above all, this image reveals photography's wonderful ways to record something we are not aware of.

Much later I understood that these moments of transition are the key to absolutely beautiful photographs, as we move with a sense of floating, unconnected to our past and future.


(for his patient text editing and corrections: my gratitude to Barry Kornbluh)


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