Notes on the Films of Elwood Decker from Elwood, Spirit of the Dunes by Norm Hammond
While living in Hollywood with his wife Ann during the late 1940s (after leaving the dunes in 1946), Elwood met James Fitzsimmons, a master color photographer. Elwood went to his exhibit at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles and became inspired to experiment with film. Soon after the exhibit he bought and studied Laslo Moholy-Nagy's book, 'Vision & Motion.' Then, at Paul Ballard's experimental film showing, he saw Moholy's film, 'Black and White & Grey,' and became even more inspired.
Elwood obtained a copy of an experimental film done by Norman McLaren and studied it. The film was 20 minutes long and appeared to have been done by photographing a progression of drawings done with ordinary pen and ink. The result was abstract red and white lines, moving and changing shape. Elwood became inspired and excited at the possibilities. He rented a movie camera and began his first experiments at making abstract movies.
In 1948 Ann surprised and delighted Elwood with a gift of a new movie camera. Motion had always been one of the pictorial shape Primaries in Elwood's art theories. In the Dunes he had been frustrated in trying to put motion in his art and had been limited to making 'flip page booklets' and mobiles. Although he had been delighted at the motion of some of the mobiles he had made, mostly out of things he had found on the beach, he knew they were extremely limited. Now that he had his own movie camera, he could move forward with the very latest equipment in the film medium.
Elwood felt he could now complete the Art Course he had started in the Dunes. The movie camera made it possible for him to revise and update the important section of his Art Course dealing with the pictorial primary of Motion. As he began working with the movie camera, he took detailed notes of every step and technique he discovered. These notes would later be included in his Art Course, which he hoped to eventually publish in book form.
Elwood made abstract forms that he called 'Light Modulators' out of paper, plastic, tin, and aluminum. By using double exposure techniques and mirror imaging, Elwood was able to make a movie of these abstract planes and forms moving around and passing through each other. His efforts finally came together in a ten minute silent film he titled, Light Modulators.
On May 12, 1948, two years after leaving the Dunes, Elwood had his first showing of Light Modulators at U.S.C., during the first Annual Festival of Contemporary Art. Elwood wrote in his journal, 'I had broken all the rules. Why not make some new rules to include uncalculated effects?'
Light Modulators came to the attention of Frank Stauffacher, head of The Art in Cinema Society, at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Through Frank's efforts, the next showing of Elwood's film was in San Francisco at the Museum of Art, during a three day festival of contemporary experimental film. On September 24, Elwood's film was shown along with a dozen other experimental films.
The film was also shown at 'Workshop 12,' a cinema class at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where Elwood had studied many years earlier. Sidney Peterson was the instructor of Workshop 12. He and Elwood were old friends and had been students together at Oakland Technical High School, many years before. Elwood was delighted when he received twenty dollars in rental fee from the museum for the use of his film.
During an exhibit at James Fitzsimmons' Studio, Elwood met many of the small group of southern California artists who were seriously working with abstract film. He met Man Ray, who was exhibiting a new style of abstract photography that Elwood was very much interested in. Elwood was also introduced to the Whitney brothers and they soon became friends. In time, Elwood met many of the others. He was delighted to be among this group of artists who were not afraid to venture out into the unknown.
A few weeks later, Elwood and Ann began hosting film parties in their home. Man Ray and many of the other abstract film artists came to their parties. In turn, Elwood and Ann went to film parties that were given by other artists. They were all anxious to share the excitement of new ideas and concepts in film and art that were coming into vogue.
Elwood's wife Ann was enjoying the people and the whirl of new ideas and happenings in the art world around them. But, she was more interested in representational art, especially sculpture. She worked for a long time on a twin-bust sculpture of Michael and Patty Farrow, children of Maureen Farrow. When the clay sculpture was finished, Maureen liked it very much and had it cast in bronze.
The parties and exhibits continued to be the main connection and meeting place for the small group of abstract artists. It was a way they could get to know each other and keep up on each other's work, which they were genuinely interested in. At times they would buy each other's art to enjoy for its own sake and to study for new ways of expression. It was also a way they had of supporting each other, both creatively and financially
Elwood was excited over the results and reception of his own black and white film, 'Light Modulators.' His excitement was overflowing as he moved on and into his next project using Color Film. He worked hard, using the new techniques he had developed. The new film, 'Color Fragments,' began with letters floating around and arranging themselves to form words. A wood sculpture was made to appear as though it was floating in space. This was followed by a series of metal sculptures and spinning metal crystals, and then abstract forms made of wire and thread. Some of the contributing artists named in the credits were: Elwood, Pamela Boden, David Matlack, Fred and Roderick Usher, Irving Stollman, and Dunite Gavin Arthur's half-brother, Oliver Andrews.
In February, after Elwood and Ann moved to Lawler Street in Los Angeles, he wrote to Frank Stauffacher in San Francisco and asked if he could send his new color film, Color Fragments, to be considered for showing in the May 26, 1948, program for the Art in Cinema Society. This would be at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, and Elwood knew the audience would be very critical. He anxiously awaited the reply.
From May 29 through June 2, Elwood participated in the Society of Cinema Arts show at the Coronet Theater on North La Cienega in Los Angeles. The show featured seventeen abstract films and was the first of five scheduled shows. While initially it seemed that the novelty of abstract movies was causing quite a stir in Southern California, it soon became apparent that the shows were just barely breaking even. Ominously, the attendance was already going down.
Trying to be optimistic, Elwood waited to hear news from San Francisco. Finally the letter came and it was discouraging. Frank Stauffacher wrote of some very definite problems he noted in the showing of abstract films, 'There is an exact time limit to abstract forms on the screen beyond which an audience just will not bear... I have lost a great many patrons by assaulting them with an excess of abstract films. They never return.'
These words were devastating to Elwood. Making abstract films had been a very expensive and time-consuming process for him. He had worked very hard. With the words of the letter burning in his mind, he decided to withdraw from making movies, at least for the time being. He would find another way to put Motion in his art.
During 1951, Elwood exhibited some of his abstract photographs at Los Angeles City College and at Fresno State College. This type of still photography was called 'photograms.' Although they received a lot of attention, Elwood was still frustrated. He felt blocked with the problem of Motion in abstract art. He felt he had been successful in putting Motion in his abstract art movies, but his movies had not been well-received.
His enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb when suddenly there was a brief resurgence of interest in his work on the east coast. His hopes flared again. His film, Color Fragments, was shown for the Committee of Art Education at the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street in New York. Elwood requested that Pamela Boden, the English sculptress whose name was listed in the credits, be invited to the preview of the film. She was present during the showing.
Again, the showing of Color Fragments passed practically unnoticed in the art community on the east coast. And again, Elwood was disappointed. All in all, this had not been a very good year for him. In his scrapbook he wrote, 'The five dollars I received in rental fee paid to me by the Museum of Modern Art was my total earnings in 1951!'
In July, one of Elwood's photograms, a multiple contact abstract print, won Third Prize at the Santa Monica Fair. With this latest success in still photography, and the fact that his laboratory arrangement had drastically reduced the cost of working with film, he was inspired to make another attempt at producing a successful abstract film.
In August, Elwood began making a micro movie of growing crystals in color, shooting over 600 feet of film. He worked hard, trying to solve problems with color temperatures and exposures. He used a 500 Watt spot light, which required 64 frames a second at 1/2 shutter. Elwood showed these micro films at film parties that same month. They were definitely unique. No one in the small circle of people interested in abstract film had ever seen anything like them.
Elwood made another short film at this time called 'Crystals.' This film emphasized very brilliant colors. Some of the crystals were thin and elongated, almost like needles. Others looked like snowflakes growing. The growing crystals were seen through translucent abstract forms, which drifted over and through them, like ghosts. This was achieved by a making a series of double exposures on the same film print. In his journal he wrote, '...Like the Dunes, the simplicity of crystals make them seem like moving abstraction... ideas, rather than things...'
Elwood's latest abstract movies with growing crystals caused another ripple in the circle of artists he was connected with. He knew he had only scratched the surface and was pioneering with totally new and original concepts. But again, after the novelty had worn off, there was a definite lack of interest and financial support by the general public. He became painfully aware that abstract movies were being regarded as little more that 'art for art's sake' with no market value.
The discouragement was more than Elwood could bear and he simply could not go on. Reluctantly, he turned away from making movies. His movie camera and projector were packed away. His Art Course and vast collection of notes on Motion were boxed up and stored. Perhaps someday he would continue; someday when there was a greater awareness, understanding, and acceptance of abstract film.
Elwood never went back to making movies again ...
-- NRH * * *