Through a Lens, Darkly, Part III

A conversation with San Pedro photographer Ray Carofano
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Published June 1, 2006

Carofano mentions that he and Arnee have tried to adhere to certain artistic standards: “As you know, you can call yourself a gallery but some of the work in some of the galleries – whether it’s been here or anywhere else – can be pretty bleak. It’s more arts and crafts. And so we’ve tried to keep this on a fine arts level.”
That’s true. Eventually, anyone with a serious interest in the arts (from Chuck Meyers and Dora Perez, the Torrance Bookends, to Random Length’s James Allen and Suzanne Matsumiya) will find their way into Gallery 478 (at 478 Seventh St.). They’ll also find interesting people to talk with (e.g., the four just mentioned), and sooner or later a band sets up and starts to play.
Most of us take it for granted, but preparing for each First Thursday takes plenty of work, and is a big investment in time and money. It would be hard to imagine Carofano being able to pull it off on his own.
Arnee Carofano was a TWA flight attendant for 23 years, so chances are she has a wealth of experience in keeping people happy and comfortable, while ensuring that everything runs like clockwork. Her husband doesn’t mince words: “Arnee is extremely important in my life; she’s the love of my life and a real driving force behind me.
“There was a point in my life,” he continues, “with raising two children and having a really heavy schedule doing commercial work, that I did very little personal work – that’s one of the reasons why, when I lecture, I tell people how important it is to maintain some time for personal work.” When Carofano first showed Arnee some of his own photographs she was astonished. Her response made him realize he’d been neglecting his real passion. “Arnee said, You should continue. You should be doing this work.”
And Ray Carofano listened.
At home and abroad
If you go to carofano.com you’ll notice that the photographer has work in several categories, from Architectural Abstracts and Faces of San Pedro to High Tension and Observations. Each series, separately and together, reveals Carofano’s versatility. High Tention shows high tension wires and the scaffold-like towers they connect, but the contrast between these fabricated objects and the clouds or landscape behind them may also give rise to thoughts about the “high tension” between Man and Nature. Faces of San Pedro, on the other hand, captures – and dignifies, really – many of the local residents who, at least in large part, might otherwise remain invisible or marginalized as the city inevitably gentrifies, perhaps to lose its low-key character and working class sensibility.
Do you sometimes see an old building in the area and think, Well, I know this one’s not going to be here much longer, and take pictures of it?
“You know,” Carofano says, “I’m more aware of it lately. I did photograph Beacon Street, not extensively, when they were tearing it down, but I do have images.” He acknowledges the historical value of such images. “This town is ready to explode; we’re seeing it already with several large condo/loft-styled buildings going up. Sixth Street and Seventh Street, in this old town section of San Pedro, might not look anything like it does now in ten or fifteen years.
“There’s many people here, including myself, who would rather see it remain the way it is, but as we all know, history has shown that you can fight – maybe slow it down – but in the end the developers somehow get their way.”
You must go through periods when a certain series, or a certain subject, has more interest to you than at other times. Is there a focus or theme to the new show, where a certain series dominates?
“This is mostly landscape,” Carofano says. “Terrene deals with the earth; there’s a couple [of images] where you’ll see the presence of man – maybe a telephone pole, some kind of trestle, bridge – that comes into the landscape. But, you’re right, my interest changes. I’m probably in a transitional period right now as far as subject matter goes, and what I’m going to be doing in the future.”
Two years ago, Carofano had a high-profile show at El Camino College, curated by Susanna Meiers. It was called Ray Carofano/Ten Years, and contained just what it says. Carofano has also exhibited up and down the coast, as well as Texas, central Mexico, and Cuba.
He and Arnee have traveled – Europe a couple of times, Cuba a couple of times, and Mexico a lot, but my impression is that Carofano does not take a great deal of pictures (unlike most of us) when he’s out of the country.
“For some people it works,” he says, “some people their eyes pop out. It’ll work for me if I’m there a while and I get comfortable, but it’s more of a state of mind than it is anything else. You can’t just say, Well, let’s go to France next year or Let’s go to South America next year [and photograph]. You have to get your mind ready for it. I call it, The eyes are turned on. It’s like a switch.
“It doesn’t last that long for me. If you can go two weeks, or a week or two, that’s really good. I mean, you’d almost burn out anyway. Everything I’m looking at, I analyze, and I’m just visually flying.” He chuckles at the thought.
“I believe that the everyday is an important source of everything interesting in art, and that one can find everything in the everyday, in the commonplace. In other words, you don’t really have to travel to exotic places to find subject matter.”
Curator Ron Linden, who’s been spending the last few days taking down one show (a compelling exhibit by Susan Jacobs) and putting up Terrene, waxes rhapsodic about Carofano’s work and technique, and not just because the two have known each other for several years and have their respective galleries within catapult-range of one another. He points out that some of the work is pastoral, reminiscent of Monet, and that the images seem to reference the whole history of landscape.
Linden also sees them as part of a Romantic tradition, and although I haven’t heard anyone else use the term Romantic in speaking about them, the landscapes are clearly evocative – remember what Carofano said about mysteriousness? – in a moody, at times unsettling manner. This isn’t the classical, heroic age of Jacques-Louis David, that’s for sure. Isolation as well as integration, Linden says. He clearly knows the work well, and believes wholeheartedly in the talents of the man behind it. Ray Carofano has spent the better part of a lifetime perfecting his art and, as Linden makes clear, each print offers more, not less, the longer we look at it. When you’ve got a body of work that can do that, you know you’re on to something special.
Terrene: Large-Scale Prints opens tonight at the Warschaw Gallery, located in the Pacific Warner Building at 600 South Pacific Ave., San Pedro. There’s an artist’s reception from 4 to 7 p.m. this Saturday. Normal gallery hours, Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 11 to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Through July 29. Call (310) 832-5115. ER