Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ink Stains & Pixel Peepers

“Don’t worry. I’m a writer, too, and I know that sometimes the muse hits you and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll figure it out together.”


That’s President-to-be Barack Obama, talking to his chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Both men are writers, yet Favreau admits that his boss is “the better of the two” when it comes to writing skills.

Image that: the next POTUS is a gifted writer; that, along with the responsibility of potentially unleashing the fury of an all-out nuclear holocaust, Mr. Obama understands, all too well, the writer’s life. Implicit to this understanding is the distinct difference between the first draft and the finished work, which is akin to the distinction between the planting of seeds and the harvesting of crops. The implication is that Mr. Obama understands the rite of the process of writing: rewriting, revision, editing; the adding to and the taking away.

The bulk of the work of writing is what happens in that vast, interminable middle distance between the start and the completion. Writing is work, plain and simple; being creative – or, rather, exuding creativity – is not as much mysticism as it is endurance. The mystical comes after the twentieth mile, when it seems as if one can’t go on any further, yet in the trudging endurance of putting one foot after another – one word after another – a wall is finally broken through.

The rewards of writing, the creation of work that transcends the temporal to achieve timelessness, is not a gifted acquisition, but earned. There’s much to be learned from that old saw about invention being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Despite Mr. Obama’s reference to the muse, (a common writer’s symbology,) he clearly understands the mystery of creativity is what happens after the twentieth mile, after human endurance has seemingly spent its course and there is nothing left from which to draw strength; and yet it comes, sometimes in trickles, sometimes in torrents, like water in the desert after having struck the rock.


“Pixel Peepers.” That’s a good phrase, one that’s seemingly used more and more of late, especially within certain Internet discussion fora, devoted to the minutiae of camera technology, rather than the art of the photographic image. I’ve lurked on enough fora of late, intent upon gleaning some obtuse yet highly useful gem of information that will result in a hoped-for break-through in creativity, yet knowing full well that such break-throughs only come after much dedicated and focused hard work. There are no shortcuts to excellence. Meanwhile, sifting through the plethora of Pixel Peeper postings is likened to manually manipulating the manure in search of that one undigested kernel of truth.

It’s that time of year, right within the heart of the holiday spending frenzy, when budding photographers are agog over the latest camera offerings and the discussion fora, like neighborhood disputes over the back fence, argue the merits of lens MTF charts and JPEG engines, while ignoring completely the aesthetics of the image itself.

Lest we be accused of being nonobservant, there appears to exist a great divide, cleaving itself across the photographic landscape, which comes to resemble the rent through the social fabric that we have come to know as politics in America. Technological change is occurring at a rate outpacing the ability of individuals and societies to adjust. Individual responses to such change are typified by one of two reactions: Conservatism (as in “death to digital”; “film forever”) and Liberalism (as in “film is dead”; “damned the past, full speed ahead”). There seems to be little room for a reasoned middle ground between these two extremes.

Did writers, in their heyday, argue this much over the relative merits of Word versus Word Perfect, or manual verses electric typewriters? No. And most of these posters are mere poseurs, not real photographers. This is an artifact of the ready accessibility to camera technology, and the ease with which strangers can pretend they know one another well enough to discard the common social graces and instead act as dysfunctional family members.

One is tempted, when considering the phenomenon of the Internet discussion forum, to think of them as analogous to 19th century European art salons, where much of the life of contemporary art was discussed and debated, and from which many splinter-group salons resulted, such as the Expressionists. However, this analogy falls apart when we consider that, with very few exceptions, Internet discussion fora are virtually completely obsessed with the mechanics of camera technology, resulting in very little genuine talk about the aesthetics of photography. Indeed, one could argue that photographic aesthetics and art in general are so foreign as to be completely devoid of any relevance within contemporary culture. This may have something to do with the decline of the liberal arts in American academia, especially public education, which seems more geared toward the production of a race of corporate wage slaves than an intelligent, freethinking citizenry. The requisites of forum membership are nothing more than an Internet connection and email account, whereas the European salon helped facilitate the breakdown of social barriers through the mixing of social classes. The Internet discussion forum, in contrast, seems entirely classless and bourgeois, where the high priests of art academia are entirely absent, corralled in their Ivy Towers. In this regard the Internet discussion forum more appropriately resembles a working-man’s pub, where one false move or slip-of-the-tongue and it’s “Katie bar the door.”


Although I’m finishing this entry on my Underwood Universal, it was started with fountain pen on paper, at a coffee shop, where I recall sitting, twiddling the pen between my fingers as I pondered how to proceed with a particular thought, and I became engaged in a short conversation with a fellow patron, who had paused to talk with an acquaintance at an adjacent table. “What are you writing,” he asked. I started in by telling him that I write a blog, but do so using either handwritten text or manual typing, and proceeded to explain my theory about the speed of thought being much slower than the speed of writing technology, that one (at least this one) requires time to work out each phrase, sentence and paragraph, that the crafting of the language requires a dilatory pace not in keeping with the celerity of the computerized word processor. “Interesting,” he reacted, “very interesting.” He walked away as I pondered the blue/black ink stains on my middle finger, a sure telltale of the fountain pen aficionado. Now, as I sit here pondering the power of the literary image I am also arrested by the power of the well-crafted photographic image, both of which require a refiner’s fire to remove the dross from the silver. This seems to be a corollary of the times we live in, on the brink of a depression of unprecedented proportions and challenges both innumerable and daunting, yet which resound with a clarion call to purity of thought, deed and intent, a call to excellence and higher purpose.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Dilemma of the Craftsman

I’ve been snapping pictures this morning. Snapping is a better word than “shooting” when referring to the taking of photographs, although “taking” also has its own connotations of possession and acquisition. We could perhaps say “capturing”, implying an involuntary loss of freedom. I like “snapping.” It’s something done with one’s fingers, as the release of the shutter is also triggered by one’s finger. Darn, there’s that word “triggered”, implying an act of violence, a faint association with the mechanism of the firearm. It’s funny (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) that it is so difficult to avoid associations with death and violence when discussing photography. Perhaps there is, after all, a little bit of one’s soul that is taken along with each picture.

I’m playing with a new camera, a Lumix G1, made by Panasonic. It’s a new format of digital camera, the so-called Micro-Four Thirds format, featuring interchangeable lenses and an electronic live viewfinder. It’s the first new camera purchase I’ve made in 30 years. Not that I’m somehow deprived of image-making devices, for I’ve collected a minor plethora of used film cameras in formats ranging from Minox to medium format, large format to even larger pinhole box cameras. I’m interested in the G1 because of its usefulness as a tool in creating photographic imagery. I don’t proclaim any particular philosophical preference to one specific type of image-making tool. Film, sheet, roll or slide; digital capture or paper negatives in homemade pinhole cameras; they’re all mere tools, to be wielded by the hand of the craftsman. Unlike the carpenter’s apprentice in “Pinocchio”, I don’t expect the tools to come alive and dance about the workbench under their own volition.

There is implicit in this discussion of tools the idea of control, that the hallmark of a craftsman is the ability to finely control one’s choice of tools. This has increasingly become an issue since the advent of electronically activated cameras, where many of the decisions formerly made by the photographer can now be left up to mathematical calculations performed by in-camera firmware programming.

However, before we go down the road of condemning all camera technology created after the 1970s, we should first discuss the antithesis of automated photography, one prime example being the paper negative, pinhole box camera, contact print method. In this process a sheet of B/W photo paper serves as a light-sensitive film inside a large box camera, the pinhole aperture being so minute, and the paper’s light sensitivity being so low (and limited to the blue end of the spectrum) that long exposure times in bright light are required. Once processed, the resulting paper negative is then contact printed onto a sheet of fine art gelatin silver photo paper.

The resulting print represents the most primitive of image-making technologies, yet paradoxically yields the barest minimum of control back into the hands of the craftsman. This is because the nature of the materials, and the contact printing process itself, precludes the degree of control evident in the traditional darkroom with projection enlargement, or in the “lightroom” of the computer. The paper negative-pinhole camera combination limits one’s choice of subject matter so severely that only a narrow range of light conditions are permitted; the contact printing method further precludes the possibility of burning and/or dodging portions of the negative in the final print; the opacity of the paper negative medium further eliminates the possibility of using advanced darkroom techniques like masking and printing from multiple negatives.

Thus we are presented with the paradox that at both ends of the photographic technology spectrum, from a mere hollow box to the complexity of built-in computers, the ability of the craftsman to finely control all aspects of the image-making process is severely hampered. What we find we are after is some middle ground where the process is sufficiently pliable so as to offer us maximum control, yet not so easy as to make these decisions seem trivial or nonexistent. We want to be able to work hard enough at our art in order for the results to be meaningful, yet we want the process to be pliable, manageable, yielding to our physical, mental and perceptive limitations. We want to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is the dilemma intrinsic to Man the Toolmaker: tools are simultaneously a crutch and a genetic predilection. We require them for their ability to leverage our weaknesses and minimize our limitations, yet in so doing they can all too easily remove entirely the hand of the artisan from the process. We desire to wield our tools with our own hands, so-to-speak, as an extension of ourselves, but we don’t want all the work to be done by the tool, nor do we want to lose touch with the materials and process. This is one of the strongest appeals to the do-it-yourself approach to photography, represented by the pinhole camera, since the design and crafting of the picture-making tools is itself an act of creation.

There is something primal, elemental, even fundamental, to the connection between spirituality and art, creation and creativity, that seems to have been left behind as art has moved from the bastion of the church or temple and into the realm of the university and the gallery. Yet the human spirit continues to strive for higher meaning, often through the aegis of the work of man’s hands, as if an offering were being made, a desperate desire for acceptance, a yearning for sufficiency in what has been accomplished, a pleading for mercy; yet the desire to create, an appeal to The Creator, continues unabated. Man the Toolmaker seems resigned to this destiny of ever seeking, ever yearning, ever desiring the ephemeral, through the creative work of the hands.

Meanwhile, as I mull over these thoughts, I’ve continued to snap more pictures between half-finished sentences and red-lined corrections to my typing, reminding myself that writing is itself an act of creation, the literal image alongside the visual. We are told that man has been a teller of stories since antiquity, that the origin of our culture is contained within the fireside verbal history handed down from one generation to the next, and the imagery carved and painted upon cave walls, stone monoliths, ceramic, papyrus and parchment. I wonder what would be made of our culture’s intense fascination with the implements of image making, as if the refuse of yesterday’s used electronics can be compared to the piles of broken pots and flint tools unearthed by archeologists. I suspect they would find us very much the same as themselves, the similarities outweighing the differences, as if man has changed very little, if at all, across the millennia.

I suspect that a hypothetical time-traveling artisan from millennia past would find people very much the same, but would have little in common with the frenetic art world of today, if for no other reason than the empty competitiveness of the present milieu. Fixing creative imagery from man’s deepest spiritual yearnings into an economic hierarchy, measured by arbitrary standards of popular culture and the ever-changing winds of post-modernist philosophy, tends to intrinsically devalue art by the very establishment of economic value, devoid of any deeper spiritual appreciation. To be certain, past cultures created art for reasons very specific to the economies of commerce, religion and power, much like in our present age. However, I suspect the primary difference relies on the compartmentalization of belief systems present today, where our culture’s public life is purposefully devoid of the metaphysical. For instance, in the worlds of science, law and government barely any assent is made to spirituality and the intangible reality of the human psyche; yet pre-modern man was intensely preoccupied by such matters, and his culture integrated the public life of the tribe, village and populace homogenously with the internal world of belief. Man has changed very little, but his culture has changed immensely, such that, in a corporate context, he is virtually a new species.

I review the images I’ve captured, quick to delete those that seem less than satisfactory, yet also cognizant of other images that may deserve saving for further consideration. Being non-physical, image-files are a precarious thing, like disembodied spirits, continually seeking some corporeal habitation more permanent than a tight agglomeration of magnetic or electric fields. The older media of film negatives may exist in the seemingly fragile bodies of easily scratched gelatin emulsions, like frail bodies aging and decrepit, whiling away the years in the retirement of a shoebox, but the new media files yearn to be recognized and preserved from the abyss of annihilation. I continue my search, like a seer devoid of vision, desperate to be freshly moved.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Open and Free

I was riding my motorcycle through the remnants of morning rush-hour traffic, the only obvious vestige being certain specific intersections with busier than normal traffic. A dull chill accompanied the ride, from a wind out of the north. Meteorologists would remind us of the term “north wind,” implying that a wind is officially designated by where it comes from, not where it goes.

“The wind blows,” says the scripture, “wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” In the case of riding open and free, there is not just the natural wind to contend with, but also the manmade wind caused by the vehicle’s forward motion; the two wind vectors combining to form a resultant whose magnitude and direction continuously fluctuates with the subtle nuances of the surrounding traffic motion and passing obstructions of buildings – now blocked, now released, now blocked again.

We gaze in half-hearted interest at the TV satellite weather map, which informs us of a front moving through from the northwest. Yet, out in the weather, riding open and free, the wind feels much more complex than a mere homogenous mass of air molecules, all moving simultaneously in the same direction. The micrometeorology of one’s immediate environs is much more subtle and complex; chaotic, even. Localized eddies twist, swirl and dissipate. Natural and artificial obstructions cause further complexities, yet the breakdown of otherwise calm air into eddies and vortices, many of them invisible except for the tell-tales of dust and other moveable debris, is inevitable, especially with the injection of solar energy, or the thermal energy from a warm body of water. We see this in the wide expanses of the American west on a hot yet calm summer afternoon, where the vast horizons are punctuated by distant clouds of dust, like pillars of smoke by day, slowly ambling across field and prairie in their own private journey from birth to death. There’s something distant and mysterious about the dust devil, yet also calmingly familiar. The name itself suggests some further spiritual implication, yet they seem inevitable from the hard laws of physics and thermodynamics; the localized heating of air near ground level causing density differences that result in vertical motion of air; Brownian Motion joining forces with the Coriolas Effect to produce circulation of air in vortices rising and falling.

Afternoon thunderstorms are also playgrounds of the wind, producing large-scale cyclonic motion whose central down-drafts pull rain and ice in torrents from high up in the thunderhead, causing flash-floods and gully-washers; and whose rising columns of air circulate around the periphery of the storm, creating the phenomenon of wind shifts as the storm cell wends its way across the landscape, driven by some larger flow of air.

All of this theoretical conjecture about the dynamics of gas molecules in motion seems like mere empty-headed babble when one is riding open and free, especially so on a brisk autumn morning in the high desert of the southern Rocky Mountains. I stop for a traffic signal, suddenly aware of both my open vulnerability and also the distant cackle of crows, wending their way from the high treetops of a nearby city park to another perch overlooking the waste bin of a fast-food joint. A jet aircraft wings over toward the northwest, heading for Las Vegas or Salt Lake City or Portland. My fellow drivers are wrapped up in their steel and glass cocoons, purposely avoiding their neighbor’s gaze, perhaps fearful of being accused of perpetrating a mad-dog-like stare, wrapped up in their inner thoughts about the day’s chores and that problem at work, while trying to follow the line of reasoning on the talk radio station, aware that the discussion is totally one-sided, dominated by the program’s “host” who appears to not be very host-like at all. The light turns green. I accelerate quickly to get out in front of the pack of cars and trucks whose drivers are unaware that I can smell the fresh chill of the autumn air and also the warm, almost rancid, smell of hot grease as I pass the burrito place on the right. A pedestrian is crossing a side street on the left, while the breeze has picked up a bit, my goatee flapping in the turbulence and the dry limbs of the young shrubs along the median swaying left, then right, then left again in the wake of passing vehicles.

I arrive at my destination, Winning Coffee, near UNM. I park the bike out front, adjacent to the mostly empty patio chairs, exempt from parking meters. The cool breeze has forced most of the street denizens indoor, except those few diehards whose nicotine urge has overwhelmed their common sense. I unfurl myself from my riding gear: Thinsulate suede gloves, fleece ski pullover, worn and haggard leather jacket. The sudden rush of warm, moist air strikes me as I push through the door, along with that distinctive tinge of body odor meets fresh ground coffee that is Winning’s. I expect the cool lenses of my glasses to fog over, but it’s not that time of year yet. In my pocket is a compact digital point-and-shoot camera, with which I hope to add to my growing collection of grab shots taken surreptitiously. I think I’m so clever, taking concealed candids in public, while most of my victims either know and don’t care or don’t know and hence don’t care. I’m only faintly fearful of those who would potentially both know and care, hence my reluctance to overtly point and snap. Yet I sit here, my table strewn with this morning’s paper and a cold, empty coffee cup and a book I’ve managed to bring but have yet to crack open, and I can write in bold, vivid detail about each person at adjoining tables in language florid and bulging with opinion-laden observations both critical and revealing, and they would be none the wiser, would probably care little were a gust of wind from the door ajar blow a loose page to the floor beside their feet, and they were permitted to spy a phrase or sentence or two while stooping to retrieve in neighborly politeness.

I pocket the digicam and tote my empty cup up to the cashier for a refill, leaving my old jacket and writing paraphernalia temporarily abandoned at my lone table in the center of the adjoining room. I’m betting on the incongruity of fountain pen and clipboard fanatics also being kleptomaniacs. But I could be wrong.

The crowd has thinned, and then picked up again. It has a subtly different nuance, whose complex under-structure I would be able to categorize in more concrete terms were I to permit myself to do so, were I to judge as more important than finishing this piece, emptying my cup and heading out to document the street in images visual rather than literary. Once again I have run up against that inevitable dilemma of creative expression: whether a picture really is worth a thousand words. I am still undecided on this point, conceding that future research is needed, which will, of course, require inevitably more open and free motorcycle rides across town in the brisk, cold wind.