Magic Currents

"I will give you a simple lesson in lighting, on which everything is built." He sips his coffee, "All you really need are two lights." He verbally sketches the location of a key light with another light placed perpendicular, for definition. We're talking over morning coffee at Cascades in Hudson about movies, photographing movies to be exact. Names like Laszlo Kovacs, Nestor Almendros and Vilmos Zsigmund cross the table, names you may not recognize, but names of great cinematographers who photographed movies that captured and tantalized your eyes and imagination for decades.

In his studio, he prepares for an exhibition of his own stunning photographs. Before me stands a series of three large photos, a triptych, titled "The Fall of Constantinople." I remember learning when I was in grade school how to spell Constantinople; it was the longest word I knew at the time. In my wildest dreams growing up on the prairie, I never thought I'd actually know someone from Constantinople.

Sedat Pakay was born in Istanbul, Turkey, once the ancient city of Constantinople. As a boy gazing at the Bosporus Sea two things fascinated him; the underwater image of a water displacing boat hull cutting through the sea, and magic. One day he witnessed the photographic process. A photographer slid a piece of blank white paper into a white porcelain coated pan filled with developer. He watched in amazement as the black and white image appeared on the blank paper. "It was magic," he recalls, his eyes glisten and a smiling eight year old boy just as magically appears before me. He confesses, "It was the most powerful and uncontrollable influence and moment of my life." At nine he received his first camera, a simple box camera, and went to work.

At twenty he moved to the U.S. to study at Yale. Famed photographer Walker Evans happened to be teaching there. Sedat took his class and Evans became a mentor and friend. He convinced Evans in 1968 to be the subject of footage he would shoot for a documentary film.

Years passed. In 1992 Sedat Pakay took that footage and began a long eight-year journey creating a documentary film tribute to the man who showed him how to see light. In February of this year Sedat's exquisite film, "Walker Evans America" aired nationally on PBS. Magic is often the result of reaching for dreams.

One wintry day in 1984 Sedat's wife Kathy saw a house advertised in the newspaper and they ventured north through the snow to Claverack, just to have a look. They fell in love with the house, then soon discovered an unexpected fact; the farm adjacent to the house had, at one time, been owned by Kathy's aunt. It was the very same farm where Kathy had spent many glorious hours as a child. That discovery cinched it, they moved to Columbia County. The manner in which serendipitous events affect the direction of our lives is indeed a magical thing.

I asked Sedat if I might take his photograph. "But, of course," he replied. Photographing a fine photographer can be a rather daunting and intimidating concern. He graciously agreed to pose with his 35mm Mitchell movie camera and Marilyn Monroe in the background, even assisting with the light reading.

After thirty-five years of photography, Sedat says that when he goes out to shoot pictures he is, "out to discover accidents." The role the accident plays in photography is special; it is the discovery, the surprise. "Photography is capturing the accidental moments of life on film," Sedat teaches me.

Immediately following a highly acclaimed and successful exhibition of his work in Istanbul five years ago, Sedat was stricken with meningitis, a near death experience. He recovered completely, but the incident altered his outlook on life. Each day is new, unique and special. He likens it to being in a boat at sea, "I know where I'm heading, which island I'm going to, but it's the wind and the currents that control your course." He pauses, again his eyes glisten and his cherubic smile flashes, "You must enjoy the journey; it is life's magic."

We'll talk next time From The Road.

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