Two times per week, a visit to William Giles’ photography show Transformations at the Monterey Museum of Art is extra special.
On Monday and Thursday afternoons, the artist himself, now 87 and living in Marina, accompanies visitors, answering questions and sharing anecdotes from his long artistic journey.
That’s the case on Thursday, Aug. 5, when a group of 10 photographers from San Diego arrive to meet with Giles and get a copy of his book (a collection of photographs titled Mother of Pearls) signed before they venture out “to photograph down [the] coast,” says the loudest and the most excited member of the group.
Giles continues moving slowly from room to room alongside Ken Parker, his longtime assistant (and a fine art photographer in his own right).
“And here we have the five-year-long New York period,” Parker says. “Here we can see his resilience. No landscape. No darkroom. No dark space,” he continues as he describes the artist’s unusual journey from naturalism, through abstract photography and into what can be described as magical realism.
Giles, born 1934, was one of the first practitioners of manipulated polaroids – a radical attack on photography as mimesis. He started pursuing photography as art influenced by photographer Minor White, with whom he studied in Rochester, New York. According to Giles, this mentor had a profound influence on his photography, his spirituality and his teaching methods.
“I’m changing the form of what you are looking at,” says Giles, while sitting at a mockup of his father’s desk and surrounded by some of his own 500 journals, part of the museum exhibit, and pointing at one of his pieces, “Two Men at a Bar.” “It was such a simple photo. It turned out so impressionistic.”
His romance with the polaroid started by accident. Soon, he found himself immersed in the manual labor of playing with original analogs – working the back of a wet print with a pen or stylus – until achieving those impressionistic, ghostly strokes from another world. Those are the pictures that brought him the most fame.
Giles settled in California over 40 years ago. As a child, he traveled around the world and spent three years in Africa. His brain surgeon father and his brilliant pianist mother helped to feed his imagination. He lived in New York and tried Los Angeles, but ultimately decided on the Monterey Peninsula. He was lucky enough to support himself through art all of his career.
“I love Marina,” he says. “I’m a walking distance from the ocean. I love seagulls. I guess I can say I enjoy life. Not too many people can say that.”
TRANSFORMATIONS: PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM GILES is on display until Aug. 28 at the Monterey Museum of Art, 559 Pacific St., Monterey. $15; Free/students, active military, ages 18 and under, museum members. View a virtual exhibition at montereyart.org. 372-5477.