Friday, December 22, 2006

What Should I Photograph?

Photography’s dependent relationship with light goes far beyond the trivial statement that without light there is no photography. Most photographers operate under a incapacitating delusion: they do not recognize their true subject matter.

Landscape photographers tell us that they photograph the trees, the birds and perhaps the bees. But in truth, no bark, no leaves, no fuzzy little body parts invade our lenses to strike the film. Portrait photographers would have us believe that it is the emotion of the subject and photographer at that particular moment in time that is captured on film. Yet no emotion, no matter how strong, will fog photographic film. The photojournalist will argue that it is the event which is captured on film. But that moment fades quickly, leaving but a memory for the photographer and a ghostly impression of a latent image on the film.

What do photographers photograph? It is light which reflects off of the subject, then makes its way through the lens and shutter to create the latent image. It is light which personally etches its own signature on the film.

Photographers photograph light.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Old Negatives

Having fulfilled their duty in the reproduction of a single print, the large black and white negatives were relegated to a small wooden box up in the dusty attic. It was dark inside the box. And stuffy. Years passed. The only excitement the negatives ever experienced was the sudden jolt of their resting place being changed with each attic cleanup.

The negatives became bored. To pass the time, they began to play games. Silver molecules rearranged themselves. Soon Grandpa's nose replaced his ears. Grandma's skirt became a hat.

In time, the house became vacant. Grandma was the last to go. The children, after some arguing, decided an estate sale was in order. The old negatives were, of course, included. And, as luck would have it, a Gallery Owner picked them up. He was convinced of the magnitude of his find after reviewing the negatives with the Museum Curator.

Everyone attended the opening of the new Victorian surrealist. While the Critics had difficulties placing the images within standard historical perspectives, the gluttonous Public was, as always, ready to anoint the new discovery.
The negatives were happy again, too. They were getting printed regularly. Best of all, no one suspected them.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Just A Matter of Quality

“It’s the newest and the fastest!” He ordered it as soon as he heard about it. This would cut that pesky darkroom time in half. The faster he cranked out prints, the happier his customers would be. The same quality may not be there - but then - who’d notice? Surely not his customers - they were just happy to have the product on time and at a reasonable price. And that’s just what his photographs were - they were product. None of this artsy-fartsy mumbo-jumbo for him.

Just as he thought he had decided on a particular tonal value in that part of the print, he began to have second thoughts. This was the third day he had spent on this particular print. Printing always took such a long time for him. His prints were like his children. He was always happy with their success; but he was never quite sure when he was finished helping them become better. It was tedious, time consuming work, but if he didn’t take the time to make a good print of his work then who would?

A new video-based-electronically-controlled-infinitely-intelligent-digital-imaging system had just been announced. Talk about cutting that labor intensive darkroom crap. Plus the prints themselves were cheaper. No silver based technology for him, let the silicone chips swap electrons. No one would complain about the drop in image quality. As long as it was cheaper and faster, he would sell it. His customer base thrived on service, not aesthetics.

Matter of taking enough time to do it right, his grandfather had always said. If there was time enough to do it, there was time enough to do it well. This print was taking longer to get just right than his others - but it would be worth it. This gallery show was worth it. There was a certain magic in a fine print - even if it took you a long time to find it.

Of course he was aware of the new technology’s shortcomings. But if you made the originals bigger, and the reproductions smaller, and squinted a bit, there wasn’t any difference. Besides who cared about real quality anymore? For that matter who cared about content? This was the electronic age. The internet ruled all. If billions of dollars could funnel through that wasteland, he could make plenty of money cranking out second rate prints. People threw them away when they were done anyway. No biggie.

Quality. That was the key to craftsmanship. Originality. That was the key to his art. He built quality into his execution and blessed his content with originality. He loved his prints. Making them gave him a deep feeling of satisfaction. It was a bittersweet moment each time he sold one. Happy to place it in a good home; yet sad to see it leave. He sometimes thought that his prints should stay with him and keep him company. He was convinced that his prints would last forever. Which would mean, of course, that he would last forever.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Ballet Camp

At the Ballet Camp, the leader shouts instructions beneath a large green and white striped tent. "Shoulder up - shoulder down - right - left." The fifty dancers writhe in unison. Control. "On your toes - up - down." Total control. The formation moves as a single unit. What is the control I have over my photographs? Some? None? How much control do I think I have while exposing?

Wandering up a hill to the second large tent, I stop to watch a group of fifty dancers form a circle. Music begins: the pianist rapidly begins to segue from one musical style to another. The leader initiates a dance statement and passes it to the dancer directly beside. Each individual improvises in quick succession, creating a wave of motion throughout the circle. Short choppy music becomes sharp staccato movements. Lyrical music produces grace. Jazz gives eccentricity.

How these dancers practice! Though they work hard: yet their chance for performance, let alone acclaim, is so limited. I've exposed many images; and yet produced so few photographs. I also was practicing.

Friday, July 07, 2006


They asked him to join them again, but he politely refused. He would never be able to photograph with anyone else again. He recalled that time he had accepted the other invitation. It ended in disaster.

He remembered traveling with this self-same group to that particularly remote location. He recalled laughing together while scouting for just the right viewpoint. The jokes continued as they each emptied camera bags and erected tripods. Then, after carefully selecting film, lenses and framing, they proceeded to peer into one another's viewfinders. His first instinct was of total disgust. He remembered feeling dirty. He felt violated as the first examined his viewfinder. His window. The pathway to his soul.

He felt warm after the subsequent compliment on subject matter and composition. But the warmth suddenly became nausea as the complimenter quickly moved a tripod next to his in a bold attempt to ensnare the exact same image. Taking turns, each of them moved in to steal his photograph. He was furious. Aghast. But also powerless. He protested. He yelled and then cursed them! But they continued shooting. Over and over. Again and again. In the end, all he could manage was a sadly quiet whimper of a cry.

He hadn't bothered to get the film developed from that outing. He knew it was no longer his. It was then that he realized that he would always have to photograph alone.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Door

The photograph is a door. The lens points outward toward physical reality. It coldly surveys what we choose to name subject matter. The lens cordially invites physical reality in, who, in a twisted response, sends its messenger - light.

The photograph is a door. The viewfinder reaches inward - past the retina, through the blood vessels, past the mass of grey cells - inward to where photographs are exposed.

The photograph is a door. The film reaches out to ensnare the light. It has set its trap - the brief opening of the shutter is precisely timed for the catch. The film arrests and then punishes the light - imprisoning it, on grounds of impersonation, within chains of silver.

The photograph is a door. It reaches out from beneath the mat, begging to be seen. It longs to visit that secret realm again, to ride deeply inward again. It seeks to dwell where photographs are exposed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Number 10

Amidst the surrounding noise and clutter, something quietly calls to me. I've heard these seductive whispers before. My eyes dart swiftly from side to side - searching for the voice's owner. "I'll be back in a minute. I see a photograph..." I say absently. Slowly I make my way through the crowd, moving toward the murmurs, not waiting for a reply from my companion. I slow down and become passive as I appoach, allowing my vision to be my guide.

"Don't be too long" she calls, knowing from prior experience that I will be. I don't hear her. The noise from the crowd diminishes as I amble closer. As I move forward, I hear nothing but the whispers. My camera swings up to my eye. How much closer? My inner voice becomes more urgent; my vision is clearer and sharper. Should I start photographing? A few more steps, I think. With this decision, I am now fully in control.

As I approach, the vision defines itself. I begin to comprehend what drew me over. I begin to see what has called me. Up flies the camera to caress my cheek. Shapes in the viewfinder fill my left eye, my right eye automatically closes. I have suddenly entered a quiet room which acknowledges no outside world. I hear nothing. I see and feel only what is in the finder. I know only of the photograph - even though I have not yet seen it. I check the camera's controls, turn knobs, and push buttons. I still do not see the final image in my conscious mind - but as I begin to work, I feel it even more deeply.

The camera calculates the exposure in various areas of the scene while I check the contrast range. The shutter speed is set. The aperture is determined. A little closer and a little lower I think, as I begin my dance. Click. Twist just so to move that into this corner, tilt a little to remove that light area. Click - Click. Check the focus. Click - Click. I gyrate in ritual passion - moving closer and further - higher and lower. Click - Click - Click. Tilting - swirling - moving as swiftly as the lines and colors move through the viewfinder. Click - Click - Click - the cadence quickens - Click - Click - Click Closer - faster Click - Click - Click. I know I almost have it -Click - Click - Click - Just a little more - Click - Click - Click. Click - Click - Click. Click - Click - Click. CLICK.

Suddenly - in a burst of euphoria - it is over. I feel a familiar touch on my shoulder. I hear her calling to me from what seems like far away, but what I now know is just behind me. "It's been 15 minutes already" she says.

The abrupt noise of the crowd suddenly annoys me. I feel as if I have just woken up. I shake my head in an attempt to clear it. I blink at the now ordinary scene. "Sorry - I didn't notice the time" I admitted - for I never know how long it will take. "But I got a good picture. Let's get going."

"OK" she says.

We walk away. I look back and listen with my eyes. The whispers are silent.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Two Photographs

Two men met and greeted each other at the bottom of the hill. After exchanging pleasantries, they proceeded up separate trails. The younger man struggled beneath the weight of the large camera pack strapped to his back. He sighed with relief as he lowered the equipment onto the rocks at the top of the hill. After taking a breath, he slowly unpacked - removing each piece seperately. The wooden tripod was adjusted to a comfortable height. He attached the bellowed camera securely atop using shiny brass screws. The heavy lens was mounted to the board, the board set and locked, and then the shutter cocked open. The photographer promptly submerged behind the rear of the camera under an opaque black cloth. His arms emerged - fingers fiddling with knobs as the image swam across the ground glass. He tried, moved, tapped his foot, and in general squirmed around until the image met with his satisfaction. He withdrew from under the cloth to aim a meter at multiple areas of the scene. He made notes, then adjusted his aperture and shutter speed. Upon a final check of the ground glass, he closed the shutter, inserted a film holder, withdrew the dark slide and then exposed the film.

The older man walked quickly up the hill to a clearing and took a simple digital camera from his jacket pocket. Previewing the screen on the back, he pressed a single red button. Almost instantly, he saw his image on the screen.

Both men made photographs that day.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Lens

He wanted the lens. Shiny. New. It had just been placed in the camera store window. True, he didn’t really need another lens; but he wanted it anyway. It was a large, fast lens, finished in black. Just the right focal length and speed to fill the gap in his stylish camera bag. It would fit each of the three bodies he frequently carried and look especially impressive when mounted along with the motor drive and handle mount flash. It is fair to say that he lusted after the lens. The wide front element beckoned him into the shop.

The Sales Person eagerly retrieved the lens from the window for a closer, more personal examination. Handing it over, the Sales Person smiled suggestively as the Customer began to lovingly fondle it.

He turned the silky smooth focusing ring and listened intently to the sharp clicks as he rotated the aperture ring. He peered through the elements front to rear and reversed. He tilted the lens obliquely to survey the thin coating. He carefully inspected the lens barrel for scratches. Finally, with a playful hesitation borne of anticipation, he brought the lens to the throat of the camera - waited briefly - and then confidently inserted the rear element into the lens mount. He rotated the lens and smiled inside as he heard the confirming click. He released the lens and then inserted it again and again until he was satisfied that it was a sturdy mechanism.

He asked the price. Pleased with the reply, he smiled and handed off his charge card. He had to have this lens.

Monday, January 16, 2006

All by Itself

"It was a good buy" he thought while driving home. The salesman was right. Just what he needed. His last camera had too many buttons and dials. He had tried to take a class, but it got too confusing; all those numbers to remember. And he never did get the hang of depth of shutter--or was that focus? This new camera was just the ticket. It would do everything for him. He parked in front of his apartment and grabbed the bag from the seat beside him. He was eager to try it out. He locked his car doors and hurried in to show his wife his new purchase.

He set the bag with the camera on one end of the kitchen table and a new box of film on the other end. "Watch this!" he said.

The camera rolled out of the bag on its six all-terrain wheels and headed directly for the film. It skidded to a halt as its back sprung open. The couple watched in amazement as the camera devoured the film--box and all. Some clicks and whirs later, the box emerged neatly folded from a slot near the bottom of the camera. "Just what you needed!" the wife chided, "It loads the film all by itself!"

A small periscope popped up out of the top side of the camera and rotated until its computer chip controlled electronic eye spied the couple across the table. The wheels quickly maneuvered the lens to face them as a cheery computer voice chirped "Smile! Your picture will be ready in ten seconds."

Moments later, a full color snapshot in brilliant (not lifelike) color emerged from the slit in the front of the camera. "It's just what I needed," said the husband. "It took a beautiful picture and I didn't have to do anything."

Sunday, January 08, 2006

It is Different

It is different for the photographer. The writer or the painter - they begin with a blank sheet. Whether from the center or edges, letters or colors invade the void. These artists reach deeply inside to fill the blankness with themselves. The writer specifies the first through last words. He determines the rhythm and flow of the work. The painter selects colors and dictates composition. The writer and painter create their art. The work is of the artist.

It is different for a photographer. His medium is physical reality. He is the blank sheet. Unexposed film becomes the photographer's self. Through the camera, the photographer perceives the world: it fills him. The camera acts only to filter physical reality; to distort it; to make it palatable. Content is choreographed by fate, color is randomly distributed. In the end, it is the art that creates the photographer.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Critic

The young photographer and his bride rose early, dressed quickly, and then climbed into their fully packed station wagon. With a long drive ahead of them, they stopped at the drive-thru for a cup of coffee to keep them company. Their anticipation minimized the conversation. “Did we bring the hooks? Did you pack lunch?” covered most of it. This was a big deal. They were on their way to his first art fair.

He’d shown his photographs before, but only on a casual basis. He had a few pieces hanging at work which regularly elicited positive unsolicited comments. Dreaming that he had talent, she helped convince him to take the plunge. Applications were obtained. Slides prepared and sent. They kissed in elation at the arrival of the acceptance letter, then grimaced upon realizing the work and expense. But they were a strong and young couple. They had a love which bestowed mutual support, and that eccentric delusion of youth which promised them that they could go anywhere and be anything. Individually, they smiled inwardly this morning, each convinced that he was on his way.

They arrived at the city park near the river and located their chain linked booth near a large oak. It was a lovely summer morning. Unpacking came easy; excitement lightening the heavy boxes. With the care afforded a first home, they draped the neutral fabric over the garish fencing. They hung the work carefully, anticipating the eye movements of the coming crowd. They stepped back, then rearranged; thought and discussed; then they rearranged again.

The early crowd began to wander by as they were still perfecting their mini-gallery. Some stopped to look. Mostly they strode by, clutching either their spouse’s hand or their dog’s leash. It wasn’t until later that the kids with painted faces and the parents with wagons and strollers would arrive.

One reason he was here was to listen to what the public had to say about his work. He thought of himself as a serious photographer, but he wasn’t sure what others thought. Of course, whenever you asked anyone directly about your photographs, they always put on a polite smile and voiced an encouraging reply. He told himself that he didn’t care how little he sold. He told himself that what he really wanted an honest critic.

It was easy for him to eavesdrop on the crowd’s conversations, but he found little worth noting until later in the afternoon when a well dressed couple escorting a terrier stopped. They stood silently in front of his work, looking carefully at each image. Even their dog seemed to get into the act as he sniffed along the fence at the bottom of the booth. They spent some time gazing at his work. He could sense them internally evaluating his photographs. His breathing quickened. At last, someone was responding to his work. What would they say, he wondered?

Then came one of those absurd happenings, almost over before it even began. The photographer, his senses heightened with anticipation, experienced the moment in slow motion. He watched as the terrier lifted his leg and peed on his work. He wanted to shout, but nothing came out of his quivering mouth. The well dressed couple looked down, then at each other. Nodding their heads as if in agreement, they turned and left his booth. His most promising prospect of the day. Gone. Selling not a single print, he quietly cried on the way home as his wife fell asleep in the passenger seat.

Monday, December 26, 2005

My First Photograph

Everyone calls me a photographer. You might just as well too. That is, I think you should. Inside me, I'm not always sure. When I was young and searching for a career, searching for what I wanted to do with my life, I knew I wanted to become a photographer. I knew I could trust what I saw in the viewfinder. If I tell you my story, maybe you can tell me if I got what I wanted.

The table linen in the oak paneled dining room was bright white. I was twelve and it was summer. I cradled the 126 Instamatic in my hands, believing then that it was far more fragile than me. Rocking slowly back and forth, close and far, I watched the antique basket I had set out to photograph become larger and smaller with each comforting swell. The world became so simple and distilled as I squinted into the viewfinder that day. The sharp boundaries of the frame cleanly demarcated that scary real from my comfortable imaginary world. The sharp black edges acted as cleavers; chopping away in one simple motion all that was tragic and messy in my life. The subject, like me, was isolated from the general tumult of the household. The basket hovered on a peaceful ground of white. As if willed by the spare, clean background of the photograph, the blather of my parent's incessant arguing quickly faded into a soft white noise. As I entered the viewfinder, I recall knowing that, as long as I alone held the camera, it was I who determined what would be photographed. It was I who would decide what this picture would look like.

I never saw that photograph. It was on a roll of film which sat with at least eight more on the far corner of my parent's writing desk. I can remember posing for pictures at each holiday we celebrated. I can remember asking my parents about getting pictures from the spent black cartridges and being told that no, it would cost too much money. Perhaps some time later. When I left home to seek a life, at least another half dozen more rolls had accumulated in that corner. The newer ones were the smaller 110 size cartridges. While we had obviously obtained a new camera, and continued to expose film at all of the appropriate times, the cartridge captured images remained anchored to the desk's corner.

Since my first real look inside a viewfinder that day, I've learned that technically, that particular picture was totally impossible. If it had been developed, it would have looked like some crazy off-center, orange tinged ball of mush. But it was an important picture for me. Because it showed me the way to my insides. And it showed me the way away from home.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Bottle

Inside each of us is a small, steadfastly capped bottle filled with a magic oil. It is easy to find, but difficult to search for. Its essence is imperative to work of the highest caliber. The oil must be applied generously for any lasting effect. It enriches when dissolved in equal parts of form and content, but alights when combined alone with either a technique or a subject matter. The oil favors no medium, age, or education. It coats silver molecules as readily as brush bristles. It is as alive in the sciences as it is in the arts, but the oil evaporates quickly when consumed by commerce.

Many complain that they have no such bottle, or that they have never experienced the warmth of its contents. Perhaps they have not learned how to break its seal. Some finally do open the bottle, but mystified by the contents, reveal its magic to no one.

Some mistake the oil of others' bottles for their own. These plagiarists superficially search for the bottle but never manage to penetrate their outer rind of learned responses.

In haste to test its contents, some spill its total potency immediately upon uncapping. These creators are brilliant in youth, however after the initial detonation their output is dry and derivative.

Finding the bottle requires patience and insight. Opening the bottle and applying the oil must be practiced. Revealing more than a glimpse of the contents is impossible - the oil is visible only to our selves.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I'll Be...

"I think I'll be a writer."
"It's not hard. I blog for my friends."
"Those don't count."
"I wrote something really good for a class once. Everyone liked it. Does that count?"
"Only if you write well consistently - day after day, month after month, year after year. Once just isn't enough."

"Well, writing has to be easy - no office to go to - I can write at home. The words are already there, all I have to do is put them together."
"But which words will you pick - will you agonize over each and every one? Will you write and rewrite until it's just what you want to say? Is what you want to say worth saying?"

"Maybe I'll be a photographer then. Taking pictures can't be all that hard."
"Sure. I take snapshots all the time."
"Those don't count."

"Once I took a really good picture - a pretty sunset - nice trees, good color."
"You took a good picture once? A photographer photographs every day, month after month, year after year. Consistently original photographs over a long period of time are the mark of a good photographer."

"But photography has to be easy - all you do is snap the shutter once you see the picture. I could just travel and snap pictures."

"But, what will you photograph? And how? Will you agonize over exactly what is included in the frame? Will you photograph and re-photograph your ideas until they are expressed just right? Are you photographing what you've seen before (just another cliché), or because it or your feelings are new? Are you photographing the subject or Light? Are you making a picture of its surface or your insides? Are you snapping a button or releasing yourself with the shutter?"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Boxer and the Photographer

Sure of his step, and eager to win, the shadow boxer enters the ring. His gloves laced tightly, his adrenaline high, he faces his shadow. He strikes, jabs, cuts, kicks--but never really grapples with his opponent--that dancing, black menace on the wall. He lunges forward--reaching out he is met at the barrier. The shadow silently laughs from the other side--just beyond his reach. He dances, it dances. He jumps, it jumps. He strikes out, it strikes back. Always countered, the boxer tires.

Completely spent, he slumps on his stool. Seeing the shadow do the same, he jumps up to declare victory--only to be met, in equal terms, by his shadow.

“We can’t both win!” the boxer yells.

“But we can both lose,” the shadow answers.

Firm in technique, and sure of his style, the photographer loads his film. His camera set, his adrenaline high, he begins his assignment. He frames, then shoots. He changes perspective, moving only as close as that invisible line lets him. He respects the barrier between recording and becoming involved. Physical reality, constantly changing, presents itself through his lens. It sways with his emotions and intellect. It constantly entices him--begging him to reach out--insisting he not touch. The photographer frames and shoots, frames then shoots again.
Sure that he has captured the essence of the scene, he retires to the darkroom. Later with pictures in hand, he compares his prints to reality.

They are not the same.