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Answer Yourself
Foreward to the book by Matthew Donovan Lennert
by Tim Baskerville

Every life has a measure of sorrow.
Sometimes it is this that awakens us. 1
- Jack Kornfield

While you probably didn’t find this book in the travel section of your local bookstore, it is nonetheless a travelogue, a discrete record of an artist’s journey of self-discovery. You first see a catalog of images, place names, and dates, but beneath that lays a roadmap of the psychological landscape that the artist encountered in his travels. Here is what we know of the steps leading to the path that called upon Matthew Donovan Lennert. Born in 1965 in Los Angeles, he grew up in nearby San Diego. He showed an early interest in photography and art, guided by his grandparents, who were both photographers, and to whom this book is dedicated. Lennert attended San Jose State in the early 1980s, and later the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, where he took classes taught by the legendary Steve Harper, whom I was also fortunate to have studied with. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Harper, a pioneer in the study of night photography, was the only person teaching college-level courses on the subject, and his emphasis on developing the total artist (not just the technician) made him as good an “art father-figure” as one is likely to find—for Lennert, myself and nearly all who came in contact with him. As Lennert relates: “Meeting and working with Harper—that is when the switch went on! And, it has never gone off.”

Another thing we know about Lennert: he believes that his photographs (all photographs, for that matter) should say something. He continually questions himself: “Is it really worth a two hour-long exposure if you’re not trying to say something about your life?” Night photography is hard work, and he believes that we should use photography to convey some sort of meaningful message: “It doesn’t have to be meaningful to anybody else, as long as it means something to you. There’s a thought process behind making images—that is being a photographer.”

This book is a time capsule of a significant period of Lennert’s life, when, as he says: “I woke up to who I really was, and used night photography to go through that process of self-discovery.” It was a time also, when he found night photography to be his predominant form of self-expression. That is, in part, where the title to this book comes from—“Answer Yourself” is not some “in your face” retort, but a call to listen to that voice in your head—the one that calls you out onto a different path. Answering our questions about the title, Lennert reveals: “The piece, ‘Answer Yourself’ specifically, deals with the time in your life when you stop ignoring the little voice inside your head, and start listening to it. It calls to you, and if you listen, it tells you who you are, what you should be, what to do, which way to go, which choices to make. The image on the cover is a metaphor for all that.” With that in mind, the subtext of the book could well be: “Listen up!”

There’s a question that Arthur Ollman (another night photography pioneer, inspiration to a whole generation of young night photographers, and the Founder/Director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego) asked fellow Nocturne Tom Paiva: “Why night photography?” It’s a question that I have asked myself many times, the answer to which seems so obvious—but it’s also a little hard to articulate. Matthew Donovan Lennert, when asked this question is very definite about it though: “There’s physicality to photographing at night that’s different than with ‘normal’ photography. Shooting at night, there’s adrenalin present, and a feeling that you’re really not supposed to be there, but you ARE there. And you’re doing this offbeat, somewhat dangerous, and almost primal thing. That is why, night photography.” This is to say, it’s also spiritual. This edginess, physicality, and sense of danger, mixed with a Zen-like calm is evident in almost all of the work you see here—this placing of one’s self in slightly dangerous situations, for art’s sake. Be it a rooftop, at water’s edge, in a centuries-old cemetery, or at “The Gates of Hell”—you can almost feel it. Danger, beauty, and calm; the physical and the spiritual; yin and yang—quite a mix.

Like Michael Kenna (a stated influence), for Lennert, the real attraction of night photography is experiential. As Kenna has noted: “The real strength, the core of photography, is its tie to reality— the subject was there, I was there, and I experienced it. Photography for me is not the end product, it’s the experience and it’s being there, doing it.” 2 This book is Lennert’s offering, a sharing of his experiences with people. As he says: “The vast majority of people will never experience what it is like to be out at 3 o’clock in the morning, out in the cold night air, exposing a single piece of film for an hour and a half.” The book is also a form of closure, a completion of a process of self-examination and discovery that Lennert undertook six years ago, not always sure where it would lead. Like most night photographers on any given night, making an exposure—one is never quite sure where it will lead. Night photography is not an exact science, by any means, as a single exposure is accomplished over a long period of time, where many things can happen (shots happen, you know!), and it’s done in real time. I’ve often thought that a night photograph is as much an act of faith, as it is a matter of calculation, or science. And this book is a continuation, or culmination of Lennert’s original act of faith.

With the book’s publication, and the successful closure of the project, Matthew Donovan Lennert finds himself “happy . . . and a little terrified.” Asking himself, as he faces a future rife with apprehension: “What if what I needed to say with these photographs has been said? What if (and I hope I’m wrong), what if this is it? What am I to say now?” We can only ask ourselves a similar question, and wonder: Will he be able to answer the calls from within, beckoning him to do more work with this same gripping, extreme, enigmatic presence? “There Is Always Hope . . . “ 3

Tim Baskerville, San Francisco, 2003

1 From “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” Bantam Books, 1994
2 Review for “Photo Metro” magazine, 2001
3 Reference to plate #16

Answer Yourself
9x9"-36pp hardcover with dust jacket
ISBN 0-9742348-0-X
Published by Photocelt Press, Hayward, CA