Photographer Nathan Farb at 80

by Christopher Shaw | April 2022, Photography

Nathan Farb says he has only recently figured out how to finish the multimedia “vision quest project” that he’s been working on for years. (More on that later.) He is in his studio, in Jay, on a blazing warm October morning, the stone walls papered with his massive color prints that you feel like you can disappear into, trying to organize and catalog the negatives, transparencies, Cibachromes, prints and videos that he has accumulated over 55 years of work. Thousands of digital images stare back from the big computer screen. It’s a daunting and enormous task, and he has fewer resources of energy and attention to bring to it than he once did. “I wish I could work more hours a day,” he says.

For the past several months the greater part of his attention has been taken up by living alone during a pandemic, since his partner of 22 years, the film critic Kathleen Carroll, broke her hip and had to remain in rehab in Lake Placid, quarantined much of the time. He’s suffered a series of ailments, doctor’s visits, related diminishments.

But in the midst of it all he has been ruminating on his past and how he came to be where he finds himself now, at 80. “I’m trying to make sense of my career,” he says, and “I feel like I’m just beginning to understand how I got here.”

In the 1980s and ’90s Farb’s large format panoramas and abstract close-ups defined wilderness and the Adirondack Park after the Winter Olympics, when the public was just gaining consciousness of the vast region north of Albany. His two books of Adirondack photographs, his calendars and assignments for this magazine, and for Vanity Fair and others, kept his particular vision constantly in the public eye. It was photography in a grander tradition than most of the postcard art popular at the time, no less masterful and collectible than images by Eliot Porter and Seneca Ray Stoddard.

Nathan still possesses the solid frame of the photographer who hiked around the Adirondack wilderness in those days, with a heavy Deardorff 8×10 view camera and loaded film packs. A couple of small strokes have left the right side of his face and eyelid sagging just noticeably, but grandly in a way, too, befitting a sage elder who has seen far and deep and left a powerful record of his experience.

We first met in the early 1980s, when I was the editor of Adirondack Life, and shared many exchanges about photography, magazine editing and the “idea” of the Adirondacks and its meaning. In 1992 we took a three-month road trip together to Guatemala and back. So “we have history,” as he likes to say. Our recent conversations have followed a circuitous path, as Nathan unfolds the evolution and philosophy behind why he left first a career in psychology for photography, and then a stalled career and a failed marriage in New York, to return to his spiritual home base, Lake Placid.

“My life turns out to be a lot more complicated than I had imagined,” he says. “Sometimes I feel at peace, and sometimes not at all.”

Farb with his Party Chiefs, Novosibirsk, U.S.S.R. at the Midtown Y Photography Gallery, in New York City, 1980. Photograph by Todd Weinstein, courtesy of Nathan Farb

Farb’s career is bracketed by two extraordinary projects unrelated to the Adirondacks. In 1977, before he took to the woods, he was part of a United States Information Agency project in the Soviet Union. It was soft diplomacy—a cultural exchange mission that brought Nathan and a group of young Americans across Russia to Novosibirsk. From his studio there, crowds would gather to watch Nathan at work. He’d photograph portraits of the townspeople with 8×10 black-and-white Polaroid film, with the built-in developing pack. After he let each picture develop in front of his security detail, he handed the developed photographic print to its subject, peeling away and discarding the negative. But there was a second negative inside the film pack. At night he’d remove the delicate negatives, wash them, place them in a diplomatic pouch and mail them to his studio back in New York City. “I was gaming both the US State Department and the Russian parties. I was doing something that I wanted to do to bring out an accurate picture of who these people were—how much they were like us and how they weren’t.”

The result was his book The Russians, a series of stark and striking portraits against a plain background.

Decades ago, when I stumbled on his portrait Party Chiefs, Novosibirsk, U.S.S.R., in the Museum of Modern Art, it stopped me in my tracks. Bending to read the title card I realized that Nathan Farb, the nature photographer who had rented the same cabin in Keene that I lived in a year later, had a life beyond the Blue Line.

When The Russians came out in 1980, American viewers neglected to buy the book. But it survived in Europe, which led to a resurrection, of sorts, in 2017, when a friend tipped off a pair of German filmmakers to its existence. Soon the Germans contacted Nathan, saying they had a grant to take him back to Russia in the footsteps of the earlier journey. The filmmakers came to Jay, shot video, and interviewed a number of Nathan’s friends. This time Farb used a mirrorless digital camera for weight and ease. Already 76 by then, he took an assistant. At each stop the filmmakers recorded the scene while Nathan posed and shot a succession of subjects. The trip got a lot of coverage from the Russian press—he was treated like a celebrity. People who he’d photographed in 1977 came back, bringing the portraits he had taken of them before. There were memories and tears. He shot them again holding the old portraits.

For the centennial of the revolution in Novosibirsk, the government mounted an exhibit of the photographs Nathan smuggled out of the country 50 years earlier. “You can’t believe what a big deal they made out of it,” he says. The Duma issued him a citation acknowledging “his love and appreciation for the Russian people.”

The film remains in production.

Ray Brook Pond
“I saw that when I was 10 years old,” says Farb. On one of those early trips when his parents conducted services, he wandered across from the state sanitarium at Ray Brook, now the state prison, across the tracks and down to the meandering flow of Ray Brook, with the September light on the water, and the fall colors reflecting like Monet’s lily pond.
To capture this photograph he spent three days loading film, cleaning lenses and equipment, drove to Ray Brook, and launched his canoe, which carried all of his equipment. He put on chest waders and got in the water, walked the canoe out in the shallow water and mud, set up the tripod, and carefully mounted the Deardorff. Then he watched and waited. He repeated the process and took a number of images over the next three days.

Farb was raised in Konawa, in Oklahoma’s Seminole County, by his mother, Bertha Eisen Farb, a widowed music teacher. He remembers her, a violinist, conducting the school’s orchestras and leading the high-school band to win a state championship. He went everywhere with his mother, and on trips to competitions the girls passed little Nathan up and down the bus’s aisles, while some of the kids sang Native American songs and chants. His mother later moved them to Lake Placid when she married his stepfather, Alfred Kahn, a rabbi and Talmudic scholar 25 years her senior.

Kahn conducted services at the small synagogue in Lake Placid whenever he could get a minyan, most often in the summer. In the winter there were usually not enough Jewish men in town to read the Torah. Instead, he became a “traveling rabbi,” serving as Jewish chaplain to various sanitariums in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. But he didn’t drive, so Nathan’s mother had to, meaning young Nathan had to go, too.

Nathan was a reluctant student of the Torah. The Hebrew alphabet, like all letters and written language, seemed to him opaque, like magic symbols. Instead, while his parents conducted services, Nathan would go by himself into the nearby woods, forging the deep association between wilderness and spirituality that guides him still.

At the time, the Lake Placid Club, founded by the anti-Semite Melvil Dewey, inventor of the library cataloging system, still dominated the village. There were few Jews in town. Nathan and his family lived in the working-class section, where resentment, misunderstanding and anti-Semitism persisted, and where, at 11, a gang of boys in the neighborhood attacked, beat and stripped him naked.

When his stepfather died in 1953, his mother moved them to New York City, then across the river to Hackensack, New Jersey. At Rutgers, Nathan majored in psychology and continued on to graduate school. He says he wanted “to know why people did things,” and to alleviate their suffering. The study and practice were language based, however, and he found language “limiting,” and inherently reductive. It missed the point. He was coming to understand how powerful he found his own visual experience, and thought that if he could transmit the truth as he saw it through art he could help more people.

He bought his first camera, a 35-mm Pentax, in 1966, when he was 25, and took to the streets of New York City. The early pictures show a remarkable eye and technical facility for a young newcomer. He shot and published street scenes from Harlem, and traveled to the South on assignment to shoot former slave quarters. He was published in the New York Times Magazine. During the summer of 1967, in and around Tompkins Square, in the East Village, he photographed a number of typical scenes and characters of the time and place, some very public and outdoor, some more intimate interiors. The result was his series The Summer of Love, a highly accomplished, moving work for a photographer so early in his career.

He says he wanted to stay out of the viewers’ way, and “transfer what I saw into the minds of viewers with no resistance, like a gold wire.

“It never occurred to me I had anything more important to do.”

Lichen, Rock, and Cardinal Flower
“Talk about luck,” says Farb. He and a friend were drifting along on a gentle current in his canoe. With the breeze, the motion of the current, and the light, there could be only one point where the flower, the cleft in the rock, and the multiple colors of the lichen could all converge and he had to set up and be ready for it. The necessary features of the composition cooperated, and he captured it.

In 1971, Nathan went to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and met Henry Crow Dog, an Oglala road man in the Native American Church and brother of longtime Lakota spiritual leader and medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. Nathan joined Henry Crow Dog in a sweat lodge and peyote ceremony, an experience that brought memories of his Oklahoma childhood and forever shaped how he framed the world. Back in New York he continued to study, taking classes, learning to print from a student of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. On the basis of those early publications and courses, he started teaching at Rutgers. He got to know Robert Frank, the documentarian, photographer, and friend of the Beats, whose seminal 1958 book, The Americans—shot in 35mm rather than large format—became one of the models for The Russians.

In the early ’80s, Nathan left Rutgers. His marriage broke up. His work wasn’t supporting him despite the Party Chiefs’ acquisition by MoMA. He took it as the signal to go home to the woods. “I had to search for what was important to me.”

There also seemed to be an imperative to proclaim the Adirondacks to a mostly indifferent world as a place of wild beauty, meaning, drama, history and thought. “More than just sports,” he says.

It became common to see Nathan, often with an assistant, hiking and bushwhacking the High Peaks under enormous loads, carrying his priceless Deardorff, lenses, tripods and film packs. Friends guided him to favorite spots all over the Adirondacks, many to places he had never been. The images became part of his first Adirondacks book.

At the time there were few contemporary large format Adirondack photographers. Eliot Porter’s Adirondacks book for the Sierra Club had been a quick drive-through for the down-Mainer, who had been hired for the project. “They never took him more than a mile off the road.” The color positive reversal process Porter used was difficult and expensive. By that time Nathan could work in color transparencies—giant slide film—and make prints from the now discontinued Cibachrome process.

He took one of his favorite shots, Lost Pond, with a lone tree standing up in the middle of the water, on a tour of the Moose River Plains with Krissa Johnson, a Department of Environmental Conservation ranger. “I was trying to make images that would represent points where you could meditate. I wanted them to be like mandalas.

“I really thought I was doing something for all people,” Nathan says of his Adirondack work. “I was also doing it for myself. I needed to be in the woods to remember who I was. I felt others would understand and appreciate it from their own experience.

“It was important to put things together in the picture that needed to be seen together, but not pedantically. In some subtle way I wanted viewers to see how nature was working in the moment, helping them to connect with their deepest self. That grew from the understanding that at a deep level people wanted to be connected to nature.”

Nathan’s longtime vision quest project—inspired by indigenous cultures’ practice of sending young men and sometimes women into the wilderness alone to survive, think, observe and listen—has him translating his work and experiences. “I’m trying to bring it to an audience that may not be able to physically do the same, and to encourage those who can to experience the natural world for themselves.” It has him looking ahead. He recently heard that the Getty Museum will acquire 12 prints from The Russians, the Germans just sent him the link to a trailer for their film, and a new publisher contacted him to publish the book of his Summer of Love collection, so there’s plenty going on. When we talk he is mostly cheerful, even when things aren’t going well. We laugh a lot. He’s gotten help with his organizing and cataloging, he visits Kathleen every day, and he isn’t done working, either. “I still love to shoot,” he says. “I feel like I have some of my best work ahead of me.”    

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