Mark Strand April 11, 1934 — November 29, 2014
I first met Mark Strand in 1995 on a visit to small apartment in Hyde Park, a Chicago south side neighborhood. He was in town for the summer to conduct a master class in poetry at the University of Chicago and staying with a friend. My purpose that day was to ask Mr. Strand to write prose for a book project that was in pre-production.
The book was an inspired idea from the creative mind of Albert J. Nader, President and Executive Producer of Questar Entertainment where I was working at the time. Mr. Nader loved photography, nature photography most of all, and wanted to publish a book of all America’s National Parks shot by one photographer. No book like that existed and after some research we found a gem right under our noses; Stan Jorstad. Mr. Jorstad lived in St. Charles, IL. He studied photography for a time under Ansel Adams and was an accomplished filmmaker, photographer and commercial designer. He had already been on photographic journeys to over half of the parks, but his images were not the standard fare. He shot the parks with a seventy-five-pound 1902 circuit camera. A circuit camera turns in one direction while the enormous film, ten inches high and twenty-six feet long, moves through it in the opposite direction. When in the hands of a master like Stan the panorama images are, like the parks themselves, not of this world.
We signed Stan to do the book and sent him to the balance of the 52 parks (six more have been added since) and set upon the task to find a writer who could create words worthy of the images. Through my connections in the publishing industry, Mark Strand’s name came to me in an email responding to my broadcast query. I began to read his published poetry and was intrigued and excited. But the work that made him the perfect choice in my mind was his writings on selected paintings by Edward Hopper. The book was a slim volume appropriately titled Hopper. In it Strand deconstructs and explores twenty-three of Hopper’s most important works, his words moving through the layers of the canvas, describing the shapes and colors so distinctive of Hopper.
Wedged in between the short pieces about specific works are more manifold observations of Hopper’s overall approach.
Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narrative of what came before.
Hopper’s people seem to have nothing to do. They are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company, with no clear place to go, no future.
In that small sitting room in Hyde Park I opened up a large valet and began to show Strand what Stan Jorstad creates with his circuit camera. He quietly took in each image as I revealed them in slow motion as he sat on a small sofa. Strand was immediately interested.
We wanted him to converge the natural, sacred environment of the parks with the wide moments Jorstad captured through the mind’s eye of his camera. Soon we had a deal.
Writing great poetry is an art that is perfected by so few and read by even fewer. In my bookseller days we would struggle to sell any poetry books that weren’t assigned by a teacher or professor. But the fire grows strong inside the bellies of poets. Their mastery of words paint images in our mind. Their personal experiences mesh eerily close with our own.
Reading poetry is tricky, for one must read it aloud. “How’s that poem? I don’t know let’s hear it.” I heard Strand read his poetry on a few occasions. His voice was not deep or particularly strong. It was pitch perfect. He recited his words with remarkable diction. Not dramatic. No. His voice did not overpower the words. He simply said it in that Strand way.
I felt very strongly that these two talents needed to be together, so I sent Strand on a road trip to meet up with Jorstad where they worked together in the parks. Stan photographing and Mark writing. I only wish I could have been there to hear those conversations.
I spent days and days in Jorstad’s darkroom sorting through thousands of contact sheets to make the final image selections. Jorstad was so patient with me. He taught me so much about how to look at photographs. We had decided to sequence the photos in the order the parks were established. I believe that was another first.
I sent Strand color prints so he could hone his drafts. I let him decide which images he would write about. I didn’t want something for every park. Just a sprinkle here and there. The images were always meant to take center stage for the eye, while Strand’s words would spark the mind’s imagination.
This photograph of Death Valley was taken in the evening when the moon was small and low on the horizon, looking as if it were a marble held between two fingers of a cloud. Gazing at the rough, heavily eroded landscape with its tawny violet cast, we can say that what we see is beautiful, that Death Valley has been the subject of a remarkable portrait.
One evening over dinner, Strand took out his pad and started writing, his pen an extension of a unique stream of consciousness. He stopped and we picked up our conversation. I asked him if he would be comfortable showing me what he had written. He simply handed me this piece of paper.
For years I would return to his work and each time it immediately resonated with me. Transporting me back to those days in the late ’90’s when I had the incredible fortune to not only know, but work with Mr. Strand. I consider it a gift.
These Rare Lands: Images of America’s National Parks was published in 1997. Stan Jorstad passed away in 2013.
Photo of Mark Strand by Denise Eagleson
Poem White by Mark Strand from Selected Poems
Poem Et Cetera, Et Cetera by Mark Strand published in The New Yorker Magazine
Death Valley image by Stan Jorstad from These Rare Lands
Handwritten poem fragment by Mark Strand from Steve A Furman personal archives
Selected Poems signature page from Steve A Furman personal archives