Essays Felicia Murray: The Sublime in the Mundane Felicia Murray is a woman of many and varied professional and personal parts. Professionally, of course, there is her photography, taking in sites as diverse as a haunted, yet contemporary, India, the Paris and Arles of the 1990s, and ancestral digs in Vermont and on Martha’s Vineyard. Personally, she is a wise and witty lady, and that graciousness of personality is as much a part of her work as it is of her soul. Like so many of our generation, spirituality means a great deal to Murray – as figured by astrology and the Tarot. But this predilection for what might be called the earthy divine never specifically enters her work. Instead, Murray is fascinated by the spiritual conjunction of opposites – the sublime in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the transcendent in the everyday, even the etheric realm in and beyond the ordinary three dimensions. Murray has even arrived at a photographic technique that serves as an on-the-print metaphor for this last. She calls it “the slow flash” – the flash goes off, but the shutter stays open for as long as 25 seconds, recording all sorts of bizarre and beautiful effects, shining, shimmering effects that give dreamy substance to a personal vision. Murray’s vision, however, is not so dreamy or personal as to keep her from communicating art at every juncture. Her range of picturing – from the East to Europe to the United States – is genuinely breathtaking, and she sees in these places what so many others of us miss, even, or especially, as tourists first class. Murray spent seven weeks in India: nothing escaped her gaze, from the poverty to the palaces, from the shutter-exposure “ghosts” to the goats, from the crippled guide to a man reading his newspaper in the omnivorous sun of a mansion courtyard. It’s all a matter of having a quick eye and a speedy wrist: “I don’t set things up,” says Murray. “I just photograph what I see. I have to be quick.” The ancient traditions of India survive in Murray’s work – a group of Dancers portrays peasant women from the village hired to go through their centuries-old paces outside of a lordly castle. And Murray avows an interest in the city- and countryside sacred cows of India. In Contorted Cow, Delhi, a bovine divine stares placidly at the camera – they let them out,” says Murray, “and people feed them, so no one person is responsible for them". There is an aspect opposite in Murray’s work to the blurry “slow flash” effects of some of these photos: Murray is masterly at capturing the architectures of India and their geometric rigors and caprices. In Staircase, a steep set of stairs stands to the right, the left in penumbral darkness, and the ascent a sure challenge to the most agile or well balanced. Similarly lofty is an overhead shot of a tomb chamber – Humayun’s tomb, to be exact – in Delhi, the elegant simplicity of the tomb’s carving a challenge to defilement. And in Portal, Jaipur is a stunning depiction of shadowy recess within recess, giving onto a sun-drenched yard. Murray also has a preference for shooting at night; she says “I like shooting at night, because the night is very mysterious. Things come through in the night that don’t come through in the day.” Then there are the everlasting animals – wild and domestic – of the land. Murray reels them off – “cows, dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys,” and, in the hinterlands, “elephants and camels.” A slightly menacing elephant is seen from a van window; monkeys – who can turn quite vicious after an affable come-on – line the wall of The Road to Rishikesh; and two dovelike winged presences fly high above a fortress wall. “I said to them, ‘Alright, birds, fly!’ And they did.” For Murray, however it isn’t all goats’ beards or birds’ feathers or the visages of bucolic heifers. One of her favorite subjects is earthly love between man and woman, and nowhere is this more manifest than in Couple. The two lovers sit, his arm thrown firmly around her shoulder, in the center of a vast field which, for its lack of geographic specificity, could be Central Park as well as Central India. A kind of becalmed joy pervades the photograph, supreme and, for all the couples’ relative diminutiveness in place, superior. Less calm and supreme is one of the photos from Paris -- Another Kiss, Rue Mazarine. Here, from within a darkened interior, man and woman are seen on the street hanging on to one another (evidently, for dear life) as they smooch. “I called it Another Kiss,” says Murray, “because I imagined her saying ‘Oh, just one more’ – repeatedly.” Similarly, Murray’s urban France is a melange of drinkers and cigarette smokers, jazz spots and night clubs, a friend at a running of the bulls in Arles or a Paris taxi or a very drunken woman losing the upper left half of her dress. It’s cosmopolitan but saw-toothed, chic but sweaty, and it’s a Murray we haven’t seen much of in the Indian photos. Yet another aspect of Murray – a third, to complete a character logical triad – is to be found in her shots – some dating back to 1984 – of the family home, Beaver Brook Farm, in Vermont, and larger environs. Central to this ancestral theme is Three Generations, a commode replete with framed photos of grandmother and grandfather, mother, and self. A necklace – worn by a bare-bosomed woman in New York -- adds a touch of unrepentant sensuality to the American grouping, while The Mermaid Bride (a back shot of a bride with a “mermaid” train) adds humor. Throughout all of her travels, though, we essentially see the photographer as her own aesthetic creation: the magician behind the vision, the voluptuary within the proprietarian, the youth within the mature woman.. “I find a dimension beyond the obvious in the non-obvious,” says Murray. ”I tune into it in a non-verbal way. I’m capturing the spiritual essence of people and places.” Capturing and, we may add, forever ennobling. --Gerrit Henry (1950 - 2003) Gerrit Henry was an art critic and poet. He was a contributing editor of Art News, and has written monographs on Janet Fish and Jeanette Payson Sloan. His poetry books include "The Mirrored Clubs of Hell: Poems by Gerrit Henry (Little, Brown & Company, 1991) and "Poems and Ballads" (Dolphin, 1998) The Magic of the Moment – An Interview with Felicia Murray In March of 2000 I attended the photography extravaganza called Fotofest in Houston, TX for the first time. I remember returning to the hotel after some function and being introduced to a beautiful female photographer named Felicia Murray. During our first conversation, we found out that not only did we both live in New York City, but that we were neighbors. My studio is just in back of the Flat Iron Building in a District properly termed “Flat-Iron,” and Felicia lives east of me around the corner from Gramercy Park in a District known as “Gramercy.” Thus began a friendship of neighbors in the same field with visits and exhibition rounds. However, only recently was I able to sit down with her in her apartment, which she shares with her two female Rag Doll cats, Luna and Vajra (sisters) and her Tibetan Spaniel, Sakya, to discuss her photography. Robert Schaefer: Tell me about your background. Felicia Murray: I was born and raised in New York City on the Upper East Side, took photography classes at The Brearley School in New York and graduated from Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland. Much later, I studied black and white printing with Tony Mendoza at the International Center of Photography in New York. RS: How did you become interested in photography? FM: I’ve always been interested in photography and thinking back, my interest must have started when I was a small child. My parents had a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s "The Decisive Moment," and I remember looking at it a lot. I also grew up with the family story about David Douglas Duncan keeping my paternal grandfather alive for three hours via artificial respiration after a heart attack in a little mountain village in Guatemala in 1942. There was a huge thunderstorm going on and the only doctor in the area was in jail on drunkenness charges. DDD tells this story in his book, Yankee Nomad, which I also looked at a lot as a child. My uncle Terry Murray used to take me to museums when I was very young, starting when I was around three years old, and he told me much later that when he asked me which paintings I liked, I kept saying that the light was what I really liked, which is often the basic clue for a budding photographer. I became seriously interested in photography when I ran Milton Greene’s studio for three years, from 1978–81. I spent a year going through his archives with Gene Moore, the Tiffany window design director, selecting pictures for Milton’s book, Of Women and Their Elegance. We passed many afternoons going through Milton’s archives selecting pictures and my “eye” received great training. I am basically self- taught, and have learned by osmosis from all the photographers I have known. In 1980, I studied the history of photography at New York University/ICP with Alan Klotz and The New School with Sandy Phillips. The last year with Milton Greene, I started “repping” him for print sales. He then moved to California in 1981. After this, I was a fine-art photographers’ agent for 19 years, working with Marilyn Bridges, Walter Chappell and Jill Freedman, all the while making my own pictures. In December 1999, at the turn of the new century, I realized that the time had come to concentrate on my own work, so I retired from being an agent and started promoting my own photography. RS: I know that you have traveled a lot in India. How has that affected your work? Do you find it easier to find subject matter there than in the US? FM: I haven’t traveled extensively enough in the U.S. to make a comparison, but certainly the sacred architecture and spiritual energy of India have led to tremendous inspiration. I also found myself extremely drawn to the animal life there—especially the cows, which are everywhere. They have the most beautiful and expressive eyes and a very mellow, but conscious way about them. I feel they are very old souls who have been reincarnated as cows; not that their lives are so wonderful, but in some ways they are better off than some of the village women of India even today. The cows are considered sacred and are never killed, and one sees them wandering through traffic and sleeping in the roads such as “Flaming Cow” which was taken in Delhi. RS: Have any photographers influenced your work? FM: Well, there was Henri Cartier-Bresson from my childhood reading experience, and Brassai’s pictures of Paris in the ‘30s, and the Australian photographer Max Pam, and the Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti— there are many. In the early 1990s I started showing small prints to photo-world friends, and one curator told me that my work had a very European sensibility, in that it is not project-oriented, but rather an on-going autobiographical reportage. I photograph people I know such as the image, “Granny Bingham at Thanksgiving Lunch,” and places I have visited. As I’ve been going to France every year for almost the last 30 years, there is a great resonance to the visual essence of that country. RS: You recently were involved in an exhibition in Mannheim, Germany. Tell me about that. FM: I was invited by Tina Schelhorn, the curator of the 7th International Fototage Mannheim/Ludwigshafen to show my India Night Work as part of the Contemporary American Photography section of the Festival last June. There were 90 American photographers and 40 contemporary German photographers in exhibitions all over the two cities on either side of the Rein River near Frankfurt. The exhibits were mounted in very unusual places, such as an 18th-century water tower, an old firehouse, a sanatorium, an office building still under construction, and an abandoned swimming pool complex where my show was one of about 20. My work was hung in the two changing rooms adjacent to the shallow beginners’ pool, in which there was a video installation. There were about five exhibits in the huge Olympic-size pool area, one of which was at the bottom of the empty pool. The whole festival was magical in the way it was curated and organized. RS: Have you had any exhibitions in New York recently? FM: This April, a different selection of my India work was shown in a five-person show called SILVER, at the Gray + Gove Gallery in the Soho District of New York. My old friend Sergio Purtell curated it and made a beautiful catalogue. It is the first time my work has been printed as large as 30” x 40” inches, and I am delighted to say that it really holds up in that size! The show was sponsored by Black + White on White, the custom lab that does my printing. I no longer print myself as I have become allergic to the chemicals. RS: One of the main directions in your work is Night Photography. Can you tell us about it? FM: I have always been drawn to photographing at night, because the line or veil between the past and present becomes more transparent and holds more mystery. I feel I am finding a hidden space in another dimension. This is what has drawn me to different mystical traditions that take other dimensions for granted and that honor them—we are not just in a material dimension. One body of my work is called “Entre Chien et Loup” which translates from the French as “Between dog and wolf,” a phrase that describes the passage from day to night, the twilight time when a mystery comes over what you are seeing or not seeing. RS: What does the future hold for your work? FM: This is difficult to predict because my lens and my camera follow my journeys, so only time will tell where the future will take us. My work is where I am at the time with my camera, and I look forward to the beauty of surprise in that. However, I can predict that I will be taking pictures for the rest of my life. I like recording things, photographing a moment which is there and then gone. With the slow flash technique I use, it is like making time, energy and other dimensions visible. Hopefully, I will return to India next winter because I want to go to Goa, Mumbai (Bombay), the nearby Buddhist caves in Ajanta and the rock-cut temples at Ellora. Also, I would like to return to Nepal, but with the current political situation, it is doubtful that this will be possible next winter. In the United States, I want to spend more time in Monument Valley and the Navajo reservation, which I would like to continue photographing on horseback. I find another dimension in the obvious and the not-so-obvious and tune into it in a non-verbal, intuitive expression. There is often a time-warp in my photographs and many of them look like they were made 50 to 70 years ago. I work with light and energy and try to capture the spiritual essence all within the magic moment of pressing the shutter release. By Robert A. Schaefer, Jr. | Double Exposure - May 1, 2006 © Robert A. Schaefer, Jr.Robert A. Schaefer, Jr. had an exhibition entitled “Two Sides of the Coin” at the DeFrog Gallery in March and April, 2006. It was part of Fotofest in Houston, Texas and Judith Farber wrote an article about it that appeared in double eXposure. Schaefer was one of the founding members of Photoworkshop.com, and his work is part of the permanent collection of the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, France and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He currently teaches photography at New York University, and heads workshops on The Business of Photography at Pratt Institute. One of his cyanotypes will be published in a book titled Blueprint to Cyanotype— Exploring a Historical Alternative Process.