A Short Autobiography of Fred Camper
I was born in Chicago at the end of 1947. We moved to New York City's borough of Queens when I was three, and to Manhattan when I was 11. Living in Manhattan facilitated my discovery of cinema at 15, when a friend invited me to an "experimental" film he'd seen and liked, Gregory J. Markopoulos's Twice a Man. Its color had a sensuality I hadn't imagined possible in film, and its rapid, time-crossing editing was unlike anything I'd seen before. At the time I was interested in mathematics, physics, astronomy, poetry, and classical music. I had grown up without a television, and almost never went to movies. But a discovery of Hollywood "auteurs" such as Hitchcock and Fuller soon followed, at a time when virtually no one in the U.S. took the work of Hollywood directors seriously and auteurism was very much an "underground" taste, and thus auteurism fit in well with the "experimental" or "underground" movies I was discovering. But the Museum of Modern Art's D. W. Griffith retrospective in 1964, and discoveries of Marker, Murnau, Bresson and Rossellini soon after opened me up to much of world cinema.
I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1964 to attend M.I.T., aka MIT, where I had planned to major in mathematics. At the same time, I was interested in making my own films. Three friends and I started the M.I.T Film Society early in 1965; our first shows were in the fall of 1965, of experimental films, but by early 1966 we were showing "auteurist" Hollywood and foreign films as well. My desire to open people up to film caused me to start writing program notes on our shows, beginning with the very first show, and many of my early publications were actually originally program notes for the MIT Film Society: my first two were the articles on The Art of Vision and 23rd Psalm Branch that appeared in Film Culture 46 in 1967. Someone had sent the notes on The Art of Vision to Brakhage and he asked me to send them to Jonas Mekas, who expressed an interest in publishing them and asked for more. Film societies were common then, in part because few colleges taught film, so participating in a film society was a way for students to learn — a process that, driven as it was by individual passion for great films, was arguably healthier than the academic film culture of today. Access to many 16mm prints via our film society and others run by friends at Harvard and Yale, and from other sources as well, made multiple viewings possible.
At the end of 1965, I dropped out of college for a variety of reasons, only one of them that I was more interested in cinema and in making my own films than in anything else. In June 1966 I got a job as a lab technician at a company that did environmental measurements of radioactivity and during the two years I worked there my modest income financed five 16mm films. I returned to MIT in the fall of 1968 and graduated with an S.B. in Physics in 1971. I majored in physics it part because I considered it a "real" field, something you could actually learn in a college, as opposed to cinema, especially back then, when American attitudes toward the medium were quite backward and it was taught at very few schools. I had a very 60s idea that studying art in a school kills passion, and that you should go to a film because you love seeing it, not because seeing it is a class assignment — and likewise for reading poetry and prose. I also liked physics, both its precision and its quest for some form of an understanding of the cosmos. My plan had been to use my degree to get a higher paying job and use the income to make more films. But the publication in Film Culture gradually made me more forward about sending other program notes to a few others places, and by my final year at MIT four sets of notes (on von Sternberg, Borzage, Jerry Lewis, and Rossellini) had been published in the short-lived Cinema (U.K.), and on the basis of other notes I'd sent to Jon Halliday, Screen asked me to write on Sirk. All this suggested to me that perhaps I could earn a living teaching film.
I enrolled in the New York University Department of Cinema Studies in the fall of 1971, moving to an "old-law" railroad flat on East 92nd Street and First Avenue soon after — five tiny rooms arrayed in a row like railroad cars, the New York City equivalent of the southern "shotgun shack." The next year I was an NYU teaching assistant, and two years after that an instructor. I taught a course of my own design called Four American Directors: von Sternberg, Hawks, Borzage, and Sirk in the spring of 1973, when the Cinema Studies Department's undergraduate offerings were skimpy; this course was rather unique for its time. My intended dissertation topic was Brakhage, but I hadn't quite finished all my course work when I got a full time job teaching filmmaking and film history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1976. In 1977, I became the Filmmaking Department Chairperson, and occupied that position until the fall of 1981, when, as common at that school, it rotated to someone else. During that time I began work on a rarely-screened super-8 silent film titled SN. By the end of 1981, my tenure process was going badly; eventually, in 1983, I was denied tenure, in a bitter proceeding characterized by systematic untruths as well as accusations from one of the two faculty members who voted against me that I didn't like the films of James Broughton (true) and that I was "too good an instructor" for their department (also true). I had already ceased teaching in 1982, turning down the proffered final year of my contract. I should add that these facts don't fully convey the degree of self-serving dishonesty and barely-concealed bigotry involved in my ouster.
There followed roughly 11 years of sometimes-deep depression and associated behaviors that I'm not proud of. I also returned, for a time, to my admittedly exaggerated adolescent view that our educational institutions are frequently if not fundamentally corrupt, especially when it comes to the arts, and that it was very dangerous to attempt any dealings with them. I decided not to finish my Ph.D. and turned down a few offers of short-term teaching jobs as well as a few other job offers. It was not a totally unproductive period: I wrote some articles on film, and developed a still-growing love of older art (a very partial list, but also my nine favorites: van Eyck, Leonardo, Grünewald, Dürer, El Greco, Georges de la Tour, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Cézanne). I'd been interested in contemporary art since the 1970s, and then a staggeringly great 1982 exhibit of illuminated manuscripts at the dawn of the printing press era at the Morgan Library titled The Last Flowering opened me to early Renaissance painting for the first time, and then a Grünewald crucifixion in the National Gallery of Art in Washington seen in 1984, and a trip to Italy that included stops in Florence, Venice, and Padua, in 1986 further expanded my love of older art.
Encouraged by Dave Kehr, then the movie critic for the Chicago Reader, Chicago's alternative weekly, I had begun writing occasional movie reviews for the Reader in 1976, but stopped soon after. I resumed again in 1986, writing mostly but not entirely on avant-garde film, and in 1989 began publishing an occasional art review in the Reader; the first was on Warhol's paintings as well as his films. I was discovering that I liked a wide variety of art, including many things in Chicago galleries. I started submitting regular art reviews to the Reader in 1993 and soon, after a move to a much cheaper apartment, my income just about met my basic expenses. I liked, and still like, the fact that the Reader is a for-profit publication still owned by its founders.
My writing on film is often described as "formalist," and it is so to the extent that I attend to composition, lighting, camera movement, and editing rhythm more than the average film writer, though I usually attempt to connect these things with a film's theme, meaning, expression. No doubt the fact that I came to narrative film through avant-garde cinema has had an effect here — a "baptism" I would recommend to anyone.
I have lived in Chicago since moving here in 1976, but have been spending close to one month each year in New York since I first moved here, usually divided into two or three trips, art viewing being the principle purpose. I am single and have no children.
From 1993 until 2007, I've written regular art reviews and other arts articles for the Reader, as well as capsule movie reviews, art features, and full-length movie reviews, and have written for a variety of other publications, lectured in cities ranging from San Francisco to Naples, and taught two courses — a reading course in art issues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a course on classical Hollywood melodrama at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I still write freelance occasionally, and I still think about making films, though I now believe that the projects I'm most interested in can probably be realized in high definition digital video, when that becomes affordable, especially if I restrict possible showings to projection situations I can control.
At the end of 2004 I began making art works, digital prints mostly using multiple images, that resulted from decades of thinking about whether combining multiple still images could create imagined senses of space a bit akin to the effects of some great cinema. By 2007 the [em]Reader[/em] had shrunk greatly, part of the more general turn away frrom newspaqpers, and dropped my weekly column. I began ehibiting my art, and have been working on it ever since, doing part time teaching at several colleges as well. My art work has become my principal passion, and the main thing I would like to do in coming decades.
Aside from "fine art" (painting, sculpture, photography, and installation), and cinema, my other main aesthetic involvement has been with classical music, especially so-called "early music." (Here's a partial list: Léonin, Pérotin, Guillaume de Machaut, Leonel Power, John Dunstable, John Browne, William Cornysh, Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner, Johannes Ciconia, Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois, Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac, Alexander Agricola, Josquin des Prez, Cristóbal de Morales, Claudin de Sermisy, Roland de Lassus, Francisco Guerrero, Tomás Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, John Dowland, Giovanni Gabrieli, Carlo Gesualdo, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Claudio Monteverdi, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Heinrich Schütz, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Jakob Froberger, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, Antoine Forqueray, Dieterich Buxtehude, François Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Gustave Mahler, Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin, Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, LaMonte Young. Or, for those who prefer shorter lists: Léonin, Pérotin, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht, Roland de Lassus, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton von Webern.) Aside from film, music, and art — and architecture, poetry, literature, and dance — my deepest source of spiritual sustenance comes from the 17 wilderness trips I took between 1967 and 1981, first in Maine, and then, finding even the lakes and ponds in the empty spots on the map of Maine infested with noisy motorboats hauled in on dirt roads, northern Canada. The first two were to Moosehead Lake in Maine, first alone and then with a friend, and, I'm embarrassed to say, by motorboat. In 1970, though, I took my first canoe trip, and all subsequent trips were by canoe, kayak, or on foot: in 1971, I took my first hiking trip alone; in 1973, my first kayak trip alone. Every one of these trips was great, but the most important were five solo hiking trips in Canada's north (the Quebec North Coast, Labrador, and the Northwest Territories), beyond the road grid, each for close to two weeks. All of these remain a deep influence on my thinking, being, and living to this day. During the Canadian trips, I saw no one, and saw virtually no signs of past human presence (except, unfortunately, for airplaces). Swimming in lakes and ponds one also drinks out of, and finding that everything that one sees is intimately linked to one's body movements, constituted a kind of alternative to the physically passive position of the cinema spectator — and a hint of a realm that lies outside of our industrial civilization.
I plan to eventually write on "The Meaning of Wilderness."