January 10, 2014

Reinvention seized: Filmmaker, Designer, Author Hillman Curtis at New York CreativeMornings #20

Source: CreativeMornings/New York Talk [18:27] on September 18, 2009

The first and last time I saw Hillman Curtis speak was at a conference, circa 2000, hosted by the (defunct) American Center for Design. At the time, Curtis was doing a lot of work in Flash, as he was one of the first fierce adopters of this digital medium. Eight years later, Curtis branched off onto a different creative path. Flash-based design for large corporate clients, such as Yahoo! and Adobe, faded from his professional focus, and Curtis became keen on creating photography and film.

In 2008, I rediscovered Curtis through his Artist Series. I started by watching his feature short on artist Lawrence Weiner. Curtis’ film about this mixed-media artist is a staple in my information-consumption loop. Especially when I’m feeling restless, or need a motivational nudge, or to be rewarded with a figurative window to peer through and feel positively massaged, I go to this and other film shorts by Curtis, because he excelled at storytelling that is immediately meaningful and aesthetically soothing

This Artist Series of films inspired me to look for more from Curtis. While browsing CreativeMorning/New York’s video library(1), I discovered that Curtis gave a Talk in 2009, where he provides useful ways of working.


A refreshing pattern in Curtis’ presentation was his insertion of insights. One was from poet C. K. Williams, who advised the following to help overcome creative blocks: “Fall in love with a master.”

The master whom Curtis pursued was photographer Richard Avedon, whose work in portraiture captivated Curtis and stimulated him to pursue portrait photography himself. What Curtis established and called “moving portraits” used a steadfast lens on a steady individual. They move, because each portrait is filmed for 24 frames per second. Curtis’ portraits are pauses. They simmer in stillness. They exude charm, which Avedon defined as “the ability to be truly interested in other people.”

Curtis advanced his interest in people who create, whom he deemed masters of their creative discipline, like his short films on graphic designer Paula Scher, and music-collaborators Brian Eno with David Byrne. His Artist Series celebrates other masters who take on the role of mentors.

To inform his practice of taking portraits, Curtis collected portrait photographs to study for lessons in composition, and also to layer contemplation. By using history’s collective experience, collecting is a method of mentorship.(2) It channels the past into the present. Curtis repurposed his photographic and filmic lens to also focus on creative precedence. In his CreativeMornings/New York Talk, Curtis shared his work, but gave awareness to the work of others. Collecting is also a method of patronage.

Curtis shared his fascination with the cinematic effect of slow motion with his audience. The world now is increasingly focused on what is fast and instantly gratified—even more reason that Curtis insisted upon using a slow tempo in his work. To him, slow motion is not dull, never dumb—not a waste of time. Slow motion can be visceral. It speaks to a path, taken one step at a time, toward a gradual body of work. Evident in his storytelling, Curtis’ use of the slow-motion effect requires viewers to be patient. Being open to slow motion is welcoming the revelation of patience. Slow motion counters the ease to be oblivious.

Curtis and his films encourage the habit to treat each other and each other’s work as, to borrow a phrase by the philosopher Aristotle, “slow-ripening fruit.”


Through his work and talks, Curtis encourage us to: Find mentors, past and present, to glean lessons and draw inspiration from. Collect for preservation and reverie. Not overlook the benefit of slowing down.

In one of his last short films, Curtis offered the ultimate to-do:
“Be prepared to reinvent yourself. Be prepared to go out on a limb, occasionally, and be prepared to do the things that you feel strongly about, that other people don’t, that maybe don’t have an immediate source of income or revenue. For me, what started out as a vacation, created a vacation from these bigger corporate jobs, and has become my life’s calling.”
Hillman Curtis passed away in 2012, leaving behind a legacy of creative drive and timeless body of work. Thank you, Hillman Curtis, for your craft, knowledge, and encouragement to invent and reinvent!

(1) To echo my tweet, the growing video library of  CreativeMornings Talks, from all chapters, is a gift that keeps giving.

(2) Mentors and mentorship are vital. Read my first reflection.

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Typeface of quotes is Franklin Gothic, originally designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1902.

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