Sand and Water

Dallas Piotrowski, the curator at the Gallery at Chapin, is excited about a newly discovered photographer named Charlie Gross, whose work will be exhibited Monday, October 3, through Friday, October 28. “He wrote a book about the brain, which he certainly is,” she says of the neuroscientist and Princeton University professor.

A Harvard College, University of Cambridge and M.I.T.-educated Fulbright Scholar, Gross has written “Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience” (1998), and “A Hole in the Head: More Tales in the History of Neuroscience” (2009), about which Oliver Sacks wrote “enthralling, fast-paced, and as exciting as any detective story.”

Driving to his home, I am nervous about speaking to the Brain as I make a left turn, a right turn, a left and a right so many times that I get dizzy. I go up the long drive to the house that Google directions has led me to, but there is no number. I pass a burbling fountain on a stone patio, and as I ring the bell, I see a Fed Ex package leaning against the door, addressed to J.C. Oates. OK, I’m in the right place

Gross shares the home with novelist and Princeton University professor Joyce Carol Oates, whom he met at a dinner party and married two years ago. A year before that, Oates lost her first husband, Raymond Smith, to sudden pneumonia. She wrote about it in “A Widow’s Story.”

The Brain, whose headshot I had seen accompanying his bio, is not as tall as I’d pictured. In fact he’s about my height (that is, not tall), with shoulder length gray hair and a full beard. He has a slight lisp and leads me to a large home office where the photos for his show, “Sand and Water,” are spread out. He is working with his daughter on the framing.

Gross began making photographs about 25 years ago. “I travel a lot, and when I traveled to Europe I had no camera and bought postcards,” he says with a trace of a Brooklyn accent. “But when I started traveling to Asia and Third World countries, the interesting things weren’t on postcards.”

Chinese landscape painting influenced him, Gross says, and indeed his images from China are like those traditional pen and ink landscapes in subject, mood, and design. There are snow-capped mountains, ripples of sand, layers of clouds, and lacy trees and branches.

In fall, 2010, accompanied by a former student, he traveled to Kashgar, the first big city on the Silk Route when you enter from Tajikistan. “It’s an old city with a 3,000-year-old marketplace,” Gross says. He went specifically to take photographs. “It’s mostly Muslim and has been in the news because of violence between Han Chinese and Muslims.”

Neither Gross nor his companion spoke any Chinese dialects. In fact, Gross makes it clear that English is the only language he speaks.

One image shows the typical yurts the people of Kashgar live in. The landscapes look so remote, one wonders how Gross got to such out-of-the-way places. He traveled by car. “In modern times, China built a highway on the old Silk Route to Pakistan,” he says. He shows a photograph of the original road, hand built from stone in about 4,500 BC.

“Everything is different,” he says. “You don’t know how people will treat you or how they will dress.” The women wear long dresses and high-heeled boots even when they are herding yaks. He saw a row of people praying in the desert and photographed the wide horizontal strip of them kneeling in the sand.

The prints are the size of paintings, with painterly effects, and look as if they were shot with a large format camera, but Gross says they were taken with an ordinary 35mm digital camera. “I’m a little color blind, so I don’t use Photoshop.”

He does use a tripod and takes many exposures, keeping everything constant, and then uses HDR (high dynamic range imaging) to combine them for the perfect light intensity. The result is rich color and incredible detail.

Before the Yangtze River was flooded to make the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, Gross was there to photograph a junk, or sampan, with one mast and one sail.

In Varanasi, India, he photographed ritual bathers wearing richly colored silk clothing along the Ganges River. Temples behind them are where people go to die. They are burned and their ashes thrown into the river. Flowers and candles float down the water on rafts.

Through Gross’s photographs we travel from Yosemite National Park to the Grand Canal of Venice, from Cambodia to Princeton’s D&R Canal. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is seen with twinkling lights against a striated sky, shot from the terrace of his Berkeley apartment.

At a park in Sichuan, there is a toxic green lake formed from mineral deposits. Gross tells the story of a princess who got a mirror from her lover and, frightened by the devil, dropped it, breaking it into what became the park’s 147 lakes. The ripples of water reflecting blues, greens, and oranges do indeed look like many shards of glass.

Besides sand and water, this show is about reflection. Gross finds magic in twinkling lights at night. We see mosques in Iran that glow at night, and in Marrakesh, light from horse-drawn carriages trails into ribbons when shot with a slow shutter speed. A market is lit up as the sun settles into clouds and fills with fortunetellers, snake charmers, trained monkeys, pigeons, and storytellers. “People come from the countryside to trade, shops stay open, and restaurants set out tables and benches with gas lamps,” he says. It beckons with the allure of the forbidden.

From the office we walk into the living room, where Gross’s photographs are interspersed with an impressive art collection. I follow him into a hallway that is a personal gallery of his photographs. Yet another hallway takes us to a several-decades-ago trip to China. “China is photogenic,” he says.

There seem to be many rooms filled with images from near and far, from long ago to recent times, as if he’s lived here much longer than two years.

Before Gross met Oates, he had been married twice before, and had one long-term relationship between those marriages. Oates and Gross bought this house together several months after their marriage, just a few blocks from Oates’ previous home. On the day I visit, the only evidence of Oates is the Fed Ex package, her novels on tables and shelves, and some paintings of her.

“Ray would love Charlie. Charlie is very, very funny and has great enthusiasm for life,” Oates is quoted as saying in the February 16 Huffington Post. “He is tireless, always planning new projects, and over-commits himself.”

The Brain is pretty funny. For example, referring to his two books, he says “they’re pop neuroscience but not that popular.”

Gross, 75, was born in Brooklyn to Communist intellectuals. “They wanted me to be a normal American boy,” he says. “They felt strongly that I shouldn’t suffer from their beliefs and encouraged me to be active in Boy Scouts.” Gross has chronicled some of his upbringing in two monographs: “Being Charlie Gross” and “Wait: A Memoir of a Red Diaper Baby.”

His atheist parents had him bar mitzvahed so he’d be like the other boys on the block of his Flatbush neighborhood (Church Avenue and East 4th Street). He graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1953, after Mae West, Bernard Malamud, Moe Howard, Mickey Spillane, Eli Wallach, and Beverly Sills but before Jim Florio, Barbra Streisand, and Bobby Fisher.

His mother was a school secretary, and his father taught history and economics in high school and college, but lost his job during the McCarthy period. “He was investigated for his political beliefs, and along with 800 school teachers in New York was forced out of work at age 55. No one would hire a teacher at that age — they knew you were fired for being a communist. But he never regretted what he had done.”

A friend of his father hired the gregarious teacher to work as a salesman in a chain of eyeglass stores. He enjoyed talking to people but missed teaching, so a decade later took a part-time job teaching history at a yeshiva.

Gross describes himself as having had hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder in elementary school, but as a Boy Scout he became obsessed with earning merit badges and was the youngest Eagle Scout in Brooklyn. At Erasmus, he fell in with a group of smart students and found his intellect, editing various school magazines and journals and becoming a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist.

At Harvard he studied with B.F. Skinner. “He was charismatic,” Gross says of the behaviorist. “Today I believe he had an over simplistic view of human behavior and psychology, but he was an inspiration.”

At Cambridge, Gross rowed, and he ran the New York City Marathon twice. He shows me a picture of himself crossing the finish line at 5:25:43.

“That was an anomaly,” he says modestly. “I’m an intellectual. All you have to do is get a book, ‘How to Run Your First Marathon,’ and follow the directions.” He laughs. “Seriously. You start slowly, don’t run too far, and after the first 10 minutes you’re with the cohorts you’re going to spend the next five hours with.”

Although he insists he never did sports, he is known to be an avid hiker, and a few days prior to this interview he took a canoe trip on the Delaware with his two grandsons. “They reported back to my daughter that I wasn’t very good.”

As a neuroscientist, Gross’s research has focused on the role of the brain in vision, and how we recognize objects and human faces. How does that affect him as an artist? “Who knows,” he says.

He is most proud of the achievements, awards, and honors all the grad students, post-docs, and research technicians who have worked with him have gone on to achieve. Hiking, canoe trips, and goat and pig roasts in Gross’s backyard helped them bond.

Gross plans to retire in 2013. He will spend more time making photographs, and maybe get a website up. “I’m going to roast goats and pigs in the backyard like the old days,” he says.

Art Exhibit, Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton. Monday, October 3, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and by appointment. First day for “Sand and Water,” an exhibit of photography by Charles Gross, a neuroscientist. He began his serious photography in China where he was influenced by Chinese landscape paintings. On view through October 28. Opening reception is Wednesday, October 5, 5 to 7 p.m. 609-924-7206 or

This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 newspaper.

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