David Maddalena Portfolio


Portrait of The Artist In
A Supermarket Parking Lot

To tell the story of how God has blessed him as an artist, Bruce Charonnat says that he can find beauty in the Safeway parking lot. It's not that he has a special love for parking lots, but as he tells it, God has set him free from some of the expectations he had as an artist, not least of which was his idea that he would be a globe-trotting, mountain-climbing, nature photographer.

Taking pictures is the primary way that Bruce expresses his artistic impulse these days. He has always loved photography, but there were a number of years during which he didn't take a single picture, or even own a camera. He had studied photography in college, spending hours in the darkroom developing his skills. But then he dropped it completely. Today Bruce describes that time as a dormancy: he had turned his back both on the art and on the part of himself that loves color and light. This was no simple break. And it was no small thing: Charonnat describes himself as a "nut for color," and talks about light as a hungry man might talk about good food. For him to quit completely seems to have set the stage for a rebirth, when, he says, God "tricked him" back into photography. Bruce was helping a roommate shop for a camera, ended up buying a high-end camera for himself, and got re-hooked. His roommate put his camera on the shelf, where it gathered dust.

Bruce's camera gathered no dust: he began to dream about a life of photography again. He identified strongly with photographers like Art Wolfe, a kind of Indiana Jones of photography. Wolfe's pictures of distant lands and stark natural beauty show a love of adventure and a deep respect for light and color. For a while, Charonnat says, he tried to be Art Wolfe. "That didn't go very well. I pretty much did a face plant. I am not Art Wolfe." It took a while for him to discover his own authentic personal style. One thing he says he "just knew" from the beginning of his reawakening as a photographer was that he only wanted to shoot macros. As it turns out, taking pictures of tiny things that most of us never notice would allow room for God to teach Bruce some valuable lessons.

For starters, every book he read on macro photography taught that because of the very shallow depth of focus (known as depth of field) in such close-up work, the photographer should keep the camera at a right angle to the subject so that the whole picture will be as sharp as possible. "It's a real pain," says Charonnat, noting that perfectionism has always been a struggle for him, and a rule like this one is the perfect opportunity for self-condemnation.

But Bruce decided one day to ditch the rule altogether, choosing instead the more painterly option of leaving much of each frame out of focus. This liberation from the "rule" set him free to create unique images that have more of a flavor of watercolor.

But the greatest freedom of all for this photographer was the liberation from the Art Wolfe Syndrome--the belief that to shoot nature you had to be an adventurer, traveling the globe and climbing the highest mountains. As Bruce saw his subject matter shrink from miles to inches, even millimeters wide, he found that his field also moved closer to home. Now he can spend hours shooting pictures in his own small back yard. Over his fireplace hangs a large, beautiful study in pale green and black. With some surprise the viewer learns that the picture was taken of a leaf in the small, mostly concrete yard behind the house he shared with his old roommate.

Speaking of concrete, Charonnat explains that his favorite way of describing his new-found freedom is to say that he could spend a whole day shooting pictures in the Safeway parking lot. "Here it is almost completely paved over; there is almost no sign of God's creation, but there in the cracks of the cement there are a few little grasses growing up ... I could spend all day taking pictures of these little grasses. I don't need to go anywhere for my subject matter, because it's everywhere! That is what I love about what God has given me--I can spend my whole life in my backyard taking pictures. I can spend a month taking pictures of a single flower where there are probably a hundred pictures in each square inch."