Due to a mix up at the Gallery, my artist's statement wasn't included in Art Saint Louis's "Symbolic" exhibition. So I'm including it here: "A symbol is succinct, like this cross in the basement of a Spanish mission in Texas. Unlike its literary cousin, the metaphor, a symbol’s meaning resides not in explanation (if you have to explain it, you ruin it), but in its context. The artist’s challenge is to trim and trim and elevate the symbol within."
And when she leaves I weep a little
And when she returns I weep a little
And when I weep I am little
And when I am little I am little
OK. We know that there's a term called “chimping” that describes the habit of taking a picture and then immediately going, “Oh, oh, oh,” like a chimp, while reviewing it on the camera’s LCD screen. I shoot some digital myself, but I don't ooo or ahhh, but I do get that kind of chimp face when reviewing a shot I just took. Can't seem to stop that habit.
On the other hand, there's no opportunity to chimp with a film camera. That's one of the aspects I love about shooting film. Delayed gratification -- that's good for most things except sex. Anyway, I knew this shot would be a keeper as I took it. Call it intuition. Call it 40+ years of experience. Call it luck or karma. But it felt good and right and exciting.
Anyone seen my banana?
Post-funeral. Dismantling photos framed by her parents. Petals dropped from vase-full of memorial flowers. Trying on new frames. Her turn to define memories of childhood.
This is from my latest additions to The Blaine Project. The youngin' came home for 48 hours and he carved out some time for the two of us to hang out and take photographs. It's always a delight to work with a willing subject -- more than willing in his case.
What appeals to me most about his shot is the foot at the bottom. It adds a bit extra to an otherwise not uncommon portrait angle. So much depends on this one detail.
This photo marks one of the first using my new Toyo 4x5 with Schneider 135 lens. I used Portra 160. When I received the scans back from the lab, I immediately was drawn to this image. However, there was some flare seeping around his head and I wish I had aligned the camera more parallel to the bench. And the focus could have been sharper.
This was another reminder of the thought and even forethought that should go into setting up a shot. This, after all, is one of the "benefits" of shooting large format. I can't get this day back. I can't go back and make it better. I have to live with it now. And that's okay. Many will probably say it is good enough. But it's never good enough.
And now, a few words from this Blogtographer. As I've been recently spinning my social networking web, I have been asked some very pointed questions about myself. Here, then, are the very pointed answers:
- Yes, I still shoot film; it's familiar and I love the smell.
- No, I'm not a digital-hater; I just don't like the smell of memory chips.
- Yes, I'll be featured when the vintage and toy camera episode of "Hoarders" is produced.
- No, I do not ever wonder what my photographs would look like if they weren't blurry.
- Perhaps I will "like" your Facebook page and "follow" you on Twitter and Linkedin.
- No, I am not related to Ansel Adams, but I used to lie about this to impress The Ladies.
- You Betcha, I consider myself an artist, but I prefer craftsman.
- Yes, I do more than take photographs. I am also a published, award-winning serious fiction writer. So, nanny-nanny boo-boo.
- No, sexting is very, very wrong (at my age).
- And finally: yes, I know qwerky is spelled incorrectly.
Thanks for visiting my site. Return often. Stay late. Take lots of pictures with whatever camera you have handy.
I find it interesting that in an environment in which practically everyone has an image-making device at the whim of their fingertips and in which anyone can claim – and many too often do – to be a photographer (define that term any which way you can) and citizens call for body cams and car cams and nanny cams (but no stoplight cams because that’s a violation of personal rights), that even now the sight of someone with a camera in his hand raises suspicion and anxiety to pervy flasher levels. Encountering such resistance and fear (at the risk of boiling it dry with hyperbole), reminds me of the glaring/sheepish look on my dog’s face when he sees me watching him while he takes a shit in the backyard.
We are apparently living in an environment in which everyone is entitled to their own private privacy (pick your definition, you drone haters) as well their own private publicity. I identify this rather schizophrenic conundrum only because I encountered it firsthand while preparing to photograph this large mural in North St. Louis dedicated to the Michael Brown situation.
I call it the situation because it has bled well beyond the actual and terribly unfortunate loss of a young man’s life. Situation, but this is not about that. I’m not poking that particular bear. Rather it is about me, standing in the middle of a side street on a Sunday morning in a not-so-good part of town, wearing a knee-high orthotic boot, my Smart car idling a few feet behind me, and holding a 50-year-old piece of plastic known as a Diana camera while positioning myself to take a photograph. It’s about this. It’s about that.
I was in my photographer’s zone, looking at everything while focusing on just one thing. I had been planning on photographing this mural for two weeks, after I had noticed it driving home on a new route (for me, anyway). Photographing signage, in my opinion, is too easy. I resist all the time the urge to capture other people’s need to force a message upon the world. It is, for all intents and purposes, akin to photographing bumper stickers – writ large.
And yet I succumb to this baser of my photographic instincts time and time again.
To reach the mural, I had to pass the one-way street on which it is located and turn on the next street, then drive back along an alley so I could park facing the correct direction. While parking and fumbling in my camera bag, I looked around to ensure I was alone in this we’re-not-in-the-suburbs-anymore-Toto area of the city, but especially as a middle-aged, orthotically booted white dude with only a plastic camera for protection. I noticed a grey sedan down the street being spasmodically jockeyed into a tight parking space between two battered trucks, but thought nothing of it.
In my zone, I stood in the street, peering through the plastic viewfinder when I heard a car approaching. I was on the cusp of taking a series of shots and was thusly loathe to pay the car much mind, even though I was smack in the middle of the street.
Let them go around me was my thought and attitude. The car slowed to a stop, the window lowered several inches, the cloudy brightness glinted on the glass, and a nicely dressed and coifed woman (from what little I could discern) started speaking. Again, I admit I was reluctant to pull myself out of the transcendental zone I had been working to achieve for most of the morning. My zone is such that I am hyper-attuned to my surroundings while also being super-embedded in my own head – talk about schizophrenic. After a good shoot, I emerge from the zone post-coitally, basking in an afterglow, in need of a symbolic cigarette, and desiring always just a little more camera cuddling.
The woman started talking. Her words confounded me as I felt myself being pulled out (photo interruptus) like a sun perch at a fishing derby. Whatever she was saying—and she was saying it emphatically—her passenger, also a nicely dressed and coifed woman in an on-the-way-to-Sunday-service sort of way, was agreeing with her by communicating with an energetic head bob. Like a faulty speaker at the drive-thru, I heard words broken by unintelligibility (my own, not hers), as if I were someone for whom English is a third-word language.
These were the staccato words I thought I understood through the speakeasy slot of the car window. I thought I replied in my own Jar Jar Binks pigeon language. In my head, I wanted to respond and defend my presence with the appropriate confidence cum sarcasm that I learned during my journalism training.
Not breaking any
Who the fuck are you
But what came out of my mouth was something along the lines of, “What? I’m just taking a picture of this mural,” while my camera-clutched hand was raised in supplication—instinctively hands-up. I looked around, hoping to see someone who was witnessing—maybe even recording—this encounter, this situation. I don’t know why I did that. I’m not poking that bear, either.
In a different scenario, I would have ignored the intrusion to my photo-taking activities, but this time, she was blocking my view with her car. I was not so frustrated that my process was being interrupted as I was resentful at what seemed like an unnecessary intrusion and distraction.
I was not at that moment interested in either her motives (was she concerned for my safety, was she warning me, was she protecting the mural?) or her mission (play that funky music, white boy). Even if she had some sort of protective ownership of the mural, that ownership was at least partially subsumed by the public nature of it.
This encounter, punctuated by the broken signals of our communication, lasted no more than ten seconds. She must have agreed in part with my explanation because she nodded slowly and turned to look behind her. I heard:
I said thank you and held too long the last syllable in an act of civil passive aggressiveness like waving a cocktail-sized Don’t Tread On Me flag.
She backed away, the reverse gear whining as she weaved and receded to the parking spot between the two trucks. I raised my camera, reaching for the disappearing mirage of my zone in the desert of the moment.
And I took this photo, put my camera down, and drove home.
Not knowing. What I had.
As I stared at this photograph, trying to think of a title, Flutternation came to mind. So I Googled it to see what would appear. First, I was asked "Did you mean Glitternation?"Well, no, that would be a completely different image. There were hits for flutternation. Several concerned something called Social Butterfly TV, and which people had posted things about being furry and social and whatnot. There was also a cardiologist who specializes in atrial fibrillation and has an organization called Flutter National.
So avoid confusion, I added an "A" to make this my own, and frankly, I like it better because the flag is aflutter. As a nation, we are aflutter. As a symbol for America, I love our flag. But that is all it is: a symbol. Honor it as you see fit. Or not.
I remember hearing about young people being arrested because they used flag patches to mend their jeans. I remember Mick Jagger causing a controversy by draping himself in a flag (probably Great Britain's, but still). I remember people plastering their vehicles with American flag stickers after 9/11, as if to ward off terrorism. ("The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," eh Yeats?)
This all seems silly. The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about the masks of god. The concept behind this book is that the word god, the name god, and the image of god are the final obstacles to experiencing god. Using this same reasoning, the flag essentially masks what America and freedom are all about. The flag is just a bunch of strips of cloth. The Bible is just some ink markings on some pages. A cartoon of Muhammad is just some squiggles drawn by an artist. None of these things ARE the things they represent.
This photograph exemplifies the state of the nation, blown around by whatever winds are passing through, some I agree with and some I abhor. For each of us, the answer is blowing in the wind -- at least some of the time.
This image is a double dip of retro. Or is it?
First, it's a photograph of a sign (too easy, I know) that actually says retro, albeit behind that big arrow. Second, it was taken with a retro camera, an original Diana camera. And as an added treat, (sprinkles on top, if you will) I used real film -- Portra 800 (part of my ongoing experiment using really good film in really crappy cameras).
The Urban Dictionary defines retro as, "A contemporary object or style containing elements of, but not replicating, an object or style from a previous era." By this definition, my image is not truly retro at all. The camera is not contemporary. The photo does not really contain elements "of" anything; it's the real deal. At best, it is retro from the perspective of using a camera and image capturing process from a previous era -- except that film and analog cameras are still here. I will not concede that that image-makers have been overcome or overrun by their digital cousins.
Maybe I should be content with defining this image for what it is not. It is not a new image in an old style. It is not an old image in a new style. It is not...hmmm.
My head hurts. Must be this pork pie hat...
P.S. I own several Diana cameras. I name them because it is easier to keep track of the quirks of each one. This is my latest addition, called Dad. That's because my Dad found it at an estate sale. I think Dad takes pretty pictures.
P.P.S. After I posted this blog, something else occurred to me: By the act of taking a photograph, I am capturing a moment just as it passes into the past. So waiting to develop the film, I am looking forward to looking back. I am not a retro photographer. Rather, I am a retrograde photographer.
As I have been moving into the world of portraiture, I find that I set my standards high for clients. To quote Tom Petty's Here Comes My Girl: I "catch myself waiting, wondering, worrying about some silly little things." And those silly little mostly add up to something like, "How do I make sure that I do as good a job photographing this person as I do photographing my own family?" The answer for is to care just as much. That is why I will not take on too many portraits in a given year. I need the emotional space to try and capture the essence of my sitter. Last year, I photographed poet, editor of River Styx literary journal, and junk-folk musician (The CharFlies) Richard Newman for his latest book, "All the Wasted Beauty of the World." I made my edits and provided him with about 20 choices. He shared them with friends, family, and colleagues. The results were inconclusive. Four rose to the top, but it was still four. There was no definitive choice. Of those four, people liked each for different reasons. As the photographer, I was let down because I had not captured what everyone agreed was the "quintessential Richard." A friend and fellow photographer thinks I am too hard on myself. He says I should consider that perhaps Richard has many sides and each was revealed in a different shot. Perhaps my friend is right. But I won't stop trying for that single, definitive shot of each of my subjects. This being said, I cannot claim to have a single definitive shot of either of my sons. I have many favorites for many reasons.
"In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." --William Blake
“Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems … A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet,” according to Poetry.org.
That is what I do as a photographer. I find existing things and present them, by way of a camera, as my art. Walker Evans considered the artist as an image collector and that “He collects things with his eye.”
As a photographic artist, I collect visual subjects. I make the decisions of form, such as which camera to render the scene, how to frame the image (what to leave out, what to leave in), film versus digital, color versus black and white and so on. Unlike in poetry, such decisions of form are not “left” to me, they are demanded.
The writer Annie Dillard believed turning a text into a found poem doubles that poem’s context. “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles,” she wrote. To expound on that idea in terms of y photography, the original subject remains intact (in a certain way) but its meaning is defined by me.
That is Bliss.
"The contemplation of things as they are without substitution or imposture without error or confusion is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."
Dorothea Lange hung this quote from Francis Bacon outside her darkroom. It exemplifies her approach to the art of photography. It is a fancier way of describing one my own tenets, Play it as it lays.
I was reminded of Bacon's quote and its relation to Lange as I was editing this day's meager shoot. It wasn't really a shooting day; I was killing time at the sculpture garden at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, waiting to find out the results of a disciplinary meeting my son was enduring with the student integrity bureaucrats at Creighton University. My mind wasn't very receptive to the artworks, but this praying mantis on the placard for Oedipus at Colonnus stopped me in my tracks -- stopped me in a way that the arty "whole harvest of invention" could not.
That's why I love photography: to be immersed in the experience of seeing. I lifted my camera to take this shot and in that instant I experienced multiple levels of seeing and the significance of what I was seeing: The live, soft insect resting on the hard man-made placard, the idea of prayer on the placard that resembles a tombstone, the tiny penis on the statue (that you can't see in the photograph) and the female mantis's consumption of the male after mating, and a sort of glimpse of The World Without Us.
In the play Oedipus at Colonnus, an old and blind Oedipus says, "It is I who have come here, friends. I whose ears are his eyes, as they say about the blind!"
For me, it is I whose eyes are his ears.
“Can’t you never let such an unfortnet as me alone? An’t I unfortnet enough for you yet? How unfortnet do you want me for to be?” -Jo, the sweeper boy, from Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
I am constantly amazed at the richness of opportunities for the taking of photographs in abandoned buildings. This one was no exception. By the time I reached the second floor, I was rushed for time and couldn't stay as long as I wished. This, someone snarkily reminded me, is known as a Problem of Abundance.
STANDARD UNDISCLAIMER: I did not stage this photograph. I played it as it laid.
I have said before that I am most haunted by the photographs that I did not take. This photograph is a variation on that theme. I am reminded of a line from Orwell’s Animal Farm: “Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on--that is, badly.”
This windmill has haunted me not because I failed to photograph it – because I did several years ago – but because the lab I was using at the time lost the negatives. Their offer to reimburse me for the cost of the film was not even close to repaying me for the lost images. At least as I imagined them.
This windmill stands near Ursa, Illinois. It’s quite close to a paved two-lane road. I knew I was going to pass it last weekend so I looked forward to reprising my attempt to photograph it. In the past I used a Holga and a Blackbird Fly. This time I had my Harman Titan 4x5. It was breezy, and I did not remember that the windmill actually still spins when the wind is strong enough.
I developed my own negatives this time, so I had no lab to blame if things went awry. They didn’t. I particularly like the dark halo effect that the pinhole provided when pointed into the bright sky. An unexpected bonus. I shall rewrite Orwell, with the windmill, life went on as it had always gone on – that is, pretty okay. One less thing to haunt me.
Many years ago I interviewed the Finnish artist/metalsmith Heikki Seppa. For reasons lost to me now, I asked him to theorize what the world’s great artists would talk about if they were in a room together. Seppa replied, “They wouldn’t talk about art with a capital A. They would talk about the cheapest place to buy paint.”
This photograph reminds me of his comment because I have found photographers to be much more sharing and much less assholes compared to the only other artists with whom I have had significant interaction. Here is where I connect the dots. I remember a photographer saying that you should always leave a shot or two at the end of a roll of fim, or in today’s parlance, some space on your chip. The day when I took this shot, I had completed what I set out to shoot, but I left one 4x5 holder unexposed, “just in case.”
As I trudged home, I look over and saw the sun setting over this salvage yard. Fortunately, I still had two shots I could take. Regardless of its artistic merit, at least I had the opportunity to capture it.
Several years ago, when my oldest son was showing an interest in his old man's interest in photography, we were in the habit of crawling under fences, climbing gates, ignoring cautionary signs, and otherwise engaging in trespassing. He was all about color and digital and I was all about black and white and toy cameras. Yet, we were often drawn to the same subject matter. Sometimes, we even tried to out maneuver each other, as if jostling for the best angle at a press conference. We talked about shooting together and ultimately creating a book that we would call "Trespassing." Each spread would feature our individual photographs of the same subject.
Then the little bastard up and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.
My son was the first person I really went shooting with. Previously, my approach to photography was the same as my approach to writing and masturbation: it's something best done alone. In the past year, I have enjoyed the pleasure of shooting, if not side-by-side then nearby, with a fellow photographer and artist, Jeff Sass. No masturbation has been involved
Mostly though, I still shoot alone. I found a place nearby that technically is private property, but I explore the property anyway because, hey, I don't see any no trespassing signs. I like trespassing. It gives the experience a heightened feel. Acquaintances who do Urb Ex get a similar rush. But I'm too big a pussy to go in those places alone. The open field where I took "Destination" is just fine by me.
It is easy to become complacent. I have my go-to cameras. My go-to films. My go-to lab. I have been shooting since I was a teenager and I know where my comfort zone lies. It sounds good to preach about pushing one's self and identifying new challenges. It's another to actually do it.
I received a Harman Titan 4x5 pinhole camera for Christmas. This camera has been on my wish list for a while. But be careful what you ask for, the saying goes. I have never worked with large format cameras and films. I waited until last week to finally get out my changing bag and load the five film holders I bought used online. I am a nervous sort, and loading the holders with Direct Positive Paper caused me anxiety. However, I was elated when I completed the task.
The field of view of the Titan is almost half that of my other pinhole, a Zero 2000. But the process of lining up a shot was familiar to me. I had never shot Direct Positive Paper, and an ISO of approximately 3 made my brain smoke. My anxiety about numbers was one of the lesser reasons I became an English major.
After I shot the 10 images, I needed a place to develop them. My friend Jeff offered his home darkroom and I accepted. More anxiety ensued. I had not been in a wet darkroom since college. But the old magic of watching an image appear in the developing tray made it seem like it had been only yesterday since I was in a darkroom.
So, 10 images. I like maybe 3. And this one is the best. That's a 10 percent "success" rate. Not bad odds.
Tomorrow, I'm loading the film holders with Ilford Delta 100 and heading out to shoot. I'll worry about developing the sheets later...
My wife and I spent a day in the country in October. The leaves were turning. The air had the perfect bit of autumn coolness. And I was loaded up with cameras, including a Ricoh Diacord that I was shooting for the first time.
One of the places we visited was a family farm that offers pick-your-own apples and pumpkins. They also offer heirloom pumpkins from a nearby grower. These pumpkins were the main reason we were there.
As I wandered about the place, seeking photo-worthy subjects, I noticed a man watching me. He had some sort of big-assed digital camera hanging around his neck and resting on his prodigiously protruding gut. He observed me taking some shots with the Diacord of my wife sitting on a hay bale in front of a barn. I bit later, he observed me as I selected heirloom pumpkins.
As I stood in line to pay, I looked up and saw these baskets and boxes in the hay loft. I instinctively reached for my Nikon FM2 loaded with slide film that was destined to be cross processed. I took several shots, paid for my pumpkins and looked around for my wife so we could leave. That's when I saw the man stand in the same place I had stood. He was taking the same shot that I had.
I can't deny that this pissed me off. I knew I had a good shot or two in my camera, but this guy was taking advantage of my work -- my eye. I imagine him proudly showing his friends and relatives this great shot he had made. I was reminded of the way my two dogs follow each other around and pee on top of each other's pee. I know I don't "own" the subject of this photo and he was not doing anything particularly wrong, but it feels like it violates some sort of photographer's code.
Okay, I said it. I'm moving on.