Somewhere in the last couple of weeks, my film-o-meter clicked over 500. That would be 500 rolls of mostly b&w since I came back to photography a couple of years (4-5?) ago. The website was born shortly thereafter. You can check out the bones of the original site in the wayback machine.
I’d been an avid photographer as a teenager, to the extent that I finagled three hours of class room time a day in the darkroom during high school, only in part as a means of hiding out. I lost the photography itch somewhere in college (poverty and illness . . . bleh), but I picked it up again when Kate and I got together (yes, the two are inextricably linked). Since then, apart from a few very short breaks, I’ve photographed almost everyday. It’s become a habit that would be nearly impossible to break.
After 500 rolls, I think I actually know less about what I want to do with photography, but I enjoy it more. Part of this is just improved technical skills – I spent 18 months fighting water spots on my negs – but the larger portion of the enjoyment comes from letting go of the fear, the fear of sucking, the fear of looking like a fool, the fear of being that guy that carries a camera everywhere, the fear of smelling like fixer, the fear of being obsessive, and the fear of spending nearly all your money on something that will likely only ever result in the slightest of monetary gains. Did I mention the fear?
Anyway, the first 500 have been fun, and the next 500 look to be even more so. Soon, I promise, I’ll cut out all this reflection and get back to the photography. Stay tuned.
The post title is a quote taken from Black White + Grey, a fascinating documentary about Sam Wagstaff, the collector and curator who, among other things, brought Robert Mapplethorpe to fame. The documentary makes a case for Wagstaff inventing the market for photography by beginning to collect the works of unknown and often anonymous photographers particular those of the 19th and early 20th century. In those photographs, Wagstaff found the value of photography in its distance from art and its nearness to seeing. In his own words taken from various parts of the film:
. . . it seemed somehow almost more mysterious, this black and white thing, this series of grisaille images, which were like art, which seemed to ape art in many instances particularly around the turn of the century, but were never art, thank god. They were something else . . . I came to photography after having hated it. I wondered why anyone was involved with it for years. I was in a much superior mode of endeavor called A R T. Photography is the least decorative of all the arts, we certainly can say that. It don’t hold the wall terribly well. . . It is something that I don’t really talk about particularly because I don’t think about it in verbal terms, I guess. I think of Wallace Steven’s remark that the great poem defies the intelligence almost completely. . . I would say that photography for me does the same thing.
‘It don’t hold the wall terribly well’ is not perhaps the critique that many photographers would hope for, but it does get to the heart of some of photography’s anxiety over its current place the art world, namely that the rest of the art world doesn’t take photography seriously enough. Literal attempts to hold the wall better by ever increasing the size of the prints seems not to have resulted in photography being taken any more seriously; a 42 inch inkjet print is still an inkjet print after all. A better salve for that anxiety might be to accept that photography isn’t really an art in the most traditional of senses. Photography certainly doesn’t take the level of technical skill that something like painting or sculpture takes; you can teach someone most of what they need to know about the technical aspects of photography in less than a day. Certain refinements of technical skill may take years to learn, but those pursuits are often coincidental to the act of seeing, which is really the central gift of photography. In this way, I think photography is more akin to writing than it its to other more traditional arts. The gift of a great writer is not in their ability to write a grammatically elegant sentence – although many are masters of this craft – but in their ability to see their subject more clearly and to communicate what is seen.
Of course, the part that can’t be taught in a day, and this is true of both photography and writing, is the seeing part, the act of selecting from the noise of the world a distillation that improves our understanding of the whole. This is the part of photography that sets it aside from the other arts. This is the part that ‘defies intelligence,’ and it is to this that photography should perhaps pay more attention. Instead of demanding the respect of the art world by ever increasing the technical sophistication of the end result, photography would do better to sell itself as a way of seeing, less as a form of art, and more as a life skill that can lead not just to art, but to a more interesting life. It is in that pursuit that photography will find its best hope of gaining the respect it deserves.
A robot family in front of the homestead.
The rough draft of my SOFOBOMO book, Our Robot Overlords Revealed, is done. I still need to add some bits of text, touch up a few the photos, and maybe replace a few of the weaker ones, but the basic bones of the book are in place, and I’m happy with the results. I’ve still got a few days left for tweaking, but if I get no further before the deadline slips, I’ll let the rough draft stand. Comments, critiques and suggestions are appreciated.
I used Open Office Writer to layout the book. Writer combined the virtues of simplicity and availability. It also has a built in PDF generator with a variety of compression settings. A more complex layout would have been possible with tools like Scribus, but Writer is fully capable of realizing my limited design abilities.
Download Our Robot Overlords Revealed in PDF format.
It turns out that our Robot Overlords are really hard to find when you go looking for them. For overlords they spend a lot of time hiding. I’ve caught a few out in the open, but at this rate, I’ll be lucky to finish the book in three months let alone three weeks. In light of this, I’ve decided to take drastic measures. Knowing that our Robot Overlords first arrived in the Fifties, I’ve ordered a bunch Adox CHS, working on the theory that 1950’s film might help me catch a few more of them. I’ve also noticed that Robot Overlords are suckers for really wide open apertures – something about seeing all the pretty colors reflected in the glass – so I’ll be shooting the rest of the project at or very near 1.4. I’ve dug up the ND filters, so I should be able to catch them even in daylight.
For an eloquent articulation of why one might choose a fast lens over a technically more competent but slower lens, see Dante Stella’s The Legend of Lux-Do. Goofy, yes. Tongue in cheek, definitely, but then fast lenses are not serious things.
Despite all the folderol about photo-journalists needing them to get that crucial shot, most photo-journalists I’ve known are far more comfortable using a flash. The chances of successfully shooting in low light are far higher with a flash, but fast lenses aren’t about succeeding on the same terms that we normally use to judge photographs. No, fast lenses are about hubris, plain and simple. They are about knowing you can walk into that dingy bar, take the darkest booth in the back, and still be able to get a picture.
Ultimately, fast lenses are fun. Fast lens that also happen to be cheap and small, like my new CV 35 F1.4 SC, are particularly fun, despite their limitations. If you are worried about distortion, light fall off, resolution or pretty much anything other than being able to say, “but this one goes to 1.4,” don’t bother. Nothing to see here. Move along. There are a plenty of well lit bars near the mall.
Things I didn’t do yesterday:
- Call my sister to wish her happy birthday.
- Go to work.
- Start SoFoBoMo.
I blame all these failures on 7:00 AM date with the dentist’s drill. I spent most of the rest of the day drooling from a slightly over zealous application of Novocaine. I guess too much is better than too little.
Things I will do today:
- Call my sister to wish her a belated a happy birthday.
- Go to work.
- Start SoFoBoMo.
Wish me luck.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my SoFoBoMo project, but it hasn’t amounted to much. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
- PDF Generation: I’ve played around with Scribus enough to know that I won’t be using it to make my PDF. I suspect I’ll just put something together in Open Office. The production of the PDF is not my primary goal.
- Physical Output: This is the only piece that is settled. I’ll be gluing tiny prints into a Moleskine Japanese Notebook. This is a 3X5, 60 page gate fold book. I’ve been wanting to do a pocket photobook for a while, and this seems like a suitable project.
- Gear: For a brief moment, I thought about buying a Lomo LC-A for this project. One of my Flickr contacts has some gorgeous photos done with one of these, the first photos that have made me want any type of toy camera. My moment of infatuation died when I checked out the price of the LC-A. $250! Thank you, but no, I think I’ll pass. I also briefly toyed with the idea of buying one of those big Fuji 6X9 rangefinders and contact printing the negs on actual photo paper. I like that idea, but I’ll be saving it for later. It’s unlikely that I’ll use anything other than my Hexars and assorted lenses.
- Film: After I discarded the idea of the Lomo, I considered using something goofy like infrared or Delta 3200, and then I realized that any sort of alternative process would just be an attempt to polish a turd. I’ll probably end up using Tri X, since that is what I have on hand at the moment.
- Start Date: Probably April 1. It’s my eldest sister’s birthday, and I have a dentist appointment that day, so why not start SoFoBoMo too?
- Topic: Can you stand another 35 pictures of our Robot Overlords? This isn’t so much a topic as an idea for coherent titling of otherwise random photos. I’m not sure how I’ll do the titles in the physical book.
So, that’s the plan, such as it is. I still reserve the right to order that Lomo or maybe a Speed Graphic or a pinhole camera or some other crutch to creativity. If I start posting photos taken with something other than my normal gear, you will know that I’ve chickened out in some way or another.
Kate and I usually talk while I’m photographing her, often leading to series like this, where her expression covers a wide range. I’m not sure what we were talking about here, but I know we’d just finished a pint or two – the glasses in the previous frame are nearly empty – so the discussion was likely getting animated. Kate’s slightly surprised expression in the last frame probably indicates that I’ve just said something outlandish, something which she finds herself agreeing with despite herself. So, pretty much your standard Sunday afternoon at the bar.
I’ve only been professionally photographed once in my adult life. I remember making some slightly awkward small talk with the photographer as she changed out sheets of film, but I don’t think my face went through anything like this kind of range. Perhaps a pint and a discussion of the Hegelian roots of Marxism should be a part of every portrait session?
Note: the first three images in this series didn’t make the final cut, so I didn’t bother cloning out the light fixture, dust on the negs, scratches, etc.