Many years ago a student once popped their head into my university office and after seeing a picture of mine on the wall that appealed to them said, “You must have taken that photo with an expensive camera!” I chose to treat this as a compliment, although I’m sure many of us having heard the same thing from others feel a bit weary of it. (Another common compliment-attempt is something like, “You could sell that photo for a good price.”) It may be the hard work of sustaining a photographic practice-of-making is forever hidden from those distracted by the noise of sixtieth-of-a-second clicks.
But maybe that comment of mine is itself is a form of special pleading. There is the famous (albeit disputed) quote attributed to Michelangelo where he observes that those who admired the skill of his creation might not be so in awe and wonder if they saw how much work was needed to attain such mastery. (Imagine my horror discovering The Angry Cheeto has even tweeted Signor Buonarroti.) Singing, painting, dancing — our world is full of overnight sensations who have led lives of intense & complex labour.
And so to these past two months with the day job plus other life events leading to nights ceasing – more often than not — in a fog of trembling exhaustion. I have had nearly no moments devoted to the current VI Zine project, and this despite my enthusiasm for the task set before me this current round. Now is the time for some hope, yet rather in the way expressed by Vaclav Havel: “Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” Hope in the sense that the moments which will come for this crazy way I’ve chosen of being a creative humanoid are themselves good, regardless of the outcome of that work. That our work together is good. That the effort is good.
My night tonight, though, is a walk around a big city block plus a cookie plus some time to jot down these thoughts. I did get into the darkroom earlier today for a few hours. Hooray!
A few days ago our group met to exchange the results of projects we each undertook individually. Paul had the brilliant idea some months back that we in our collective create for ourselves a “box set” of books or booklets, where our own contribution plus those we receive from others would make up four unique items. When we discussed and agreed to the idea it looked as if Christmas 2018 would be an ideal target date. And, of course, we all need deadlines as otherwise we will never know when we have missed them.
I myself decided to use this as excuse to try an idea combining several things of interest to me: graphic design, box making, bookarts, silver-gelatin prints, darkroom processes, fiber-based photographic paper, handmade papers, Ireland, etc. The result is a set of 12 images (each 8” x 8”, the width and height of our zines as printed by Magcloud) along with a booklet containing a slightly stream-of-consciousness travelogue relating to my journeys in Counties Clare, Galway and Mayo. I am used to personal projects executed in a frenzied white heat of barely-coordinated hands, but this one required much more patience, gentler planning, and a longer view. Even then my limited edition of six has flaws I could have avoided by simply anticipating that a lot of “unknown unknowns” were lurking. Regardless I’m glad Paul’s suggestion gave me an opportunity to stretch.
It is perhaps bit of a cliché these days to assert we should “know our audience” before preparing some work of writing or images or music or somesuch. Which is not to say the advice can be ignored – solipsistic creativity has a place, but it isn’t fair to demand a welcoming face from another humanoid, either now or in the distant future, when they encounter the resulting work. (And in the professional sphere, ignoring the cliché would be self-destructive.) Rather, I think the advice can be given a bit of a twist in that it helps to know not only what we can “get away with” given our audience, but that there exists an audience in the first place. Throughout my work on “Known & Strange Things” I had in mind Kim, Francis, and Paul, and perhaps also a few other friends and family to whom I will show the work. It is as if the audience provides a psychic trampoline, the weight and energy of creativity over time rising a little bit higher in the air, and a playfulness in that same time binding us to earth so that every so often we can absorb the propulsive & sheltering resistances from others. I’m so pleased and grateful to have had VI Zine collaborators as my audience for this individual project.
I have not been at all faithful with first-of-the-month postings, but ‘tis the season for re-commitments. And in that vein I’ll continue as I did last January with a quote calendar for 2019, containing snippets and bleeding chunks of texts from humanoids describing something of the creative temperament (plus perhaps a bit more besides) in a humanoid life. Einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!
January: John O’Donohue, philosopher and poet, 1956 – 2008. “You can’t set out to ‘do’ beauty, like in a how-to kind of manual. What we bring to beauty is the opposite capacity, that receptivity to be overtaken by it.” [from an unedited interview with Krista Tippett, https://bit.ly/2s0gegZ]
February: Grace Paley, poet, short-story author, teacher, political activist, 1922 – 2007. “The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or a roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.” [from 1992 “Paris Review” interview]
March: Gordon Parks, photographer, musician, writer, film director, 1912 – 2006. “Like souls touching, poetry, music, paint, and the camera keep calling, and I can’t bring myself to say no. All those things have become like alien wonders, beckoning. And finding no need to ask pardon of myself, I pursue them. Their mystery is as inescapable as air is from the wind.” [from his foreword to “Arias in Silence”, 1994]
April: Sylvia Plath, poet, 1932 – 1963. “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” [from her unabridged journals.]
May: Anne Truitt, sculptor, 1921 – 2004. “I take it for granted that everyone and everything around me is moving independently of any reference to me, so I looked at [my grandson] Sammy’s drawing impartially. I failed to recognize immediately that in this instance my grandson was like me: a person who wanted to make his experience real for others and who set about to do so.” [from “Turn: The Journal of an Artist”]
June: Marc Riboud, photographer, 1923 – 2016. “The right photo strikes the eye the way the right chord strikes the ear.” [from “Contacts: Volume 1”]
July: Alan Bennett, playwright, screenwriter, author, actor, b. 1934. “Never underestimate the role of the will in the artist’s life. Talent you can dispense with but not will. Some artists are all will.” [from “Keeping On Keeping On”]
August: Anne Lamott, writer, b. 1954. “What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forget to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.” [from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”]
September: Sally Mann, photographer, writer, b. 1951. “Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, ‘ordinary art’ is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.” [from “Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs]
October: Martin Luther, professor, monk, composer, 1483 – 1546. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but …” (“Sei ein Sünder und habe starke Sünden, aber…”) [Sometimes translated as “Sin boldly”, contained a letter written in 1521 to encourage a dispirited Philip Melancthon. A good translation of the whole letter can be found at https://bit.ly/2ETUpHH]
November: Max Kozloff, art historian, art critic, photographer, b. 1933. “Many portraits following [Diane] Arbus reveal a current of liberalism, laced with irony, and possibly a bad conscience. Yet it was to their credit that, on the whole, they neither condescended to nor romanticized their sitters. They teach that the first real step in one’s understanding of others is to get beneath stereotypes, to show people who do not hesitate to exist, regardless of generalizations about them. These picture-makers were often upright, intrepid characters, though not on the side of the Angels. When I think otherwise, I say so, and explain why.” [from “The Theatre of the Face”]
December: Harold Speed, painter, 1872 – 1957. “Originality is more concerned with sincerity than with peculiarity.” [from “The Practice and Science of Drawing”]
Three odd things happened last week. (1) There is a book I think I really want to read, and after looking through it in the bookshop, testing its weight in my hand, checking my own energy level, I place the book back on the shelf. (2) An interesting camera is listed in the inventory of our excellent local used-camera shop, and after setting out from the car towards the shop, picking up some darkroom paper once there, looking around the shop a bit, I decide against asking about the camera. (3) A platinum/palladium printing kit was on sale at the online store for That Important Alternative Process Shop In Santa Fe, and now that I am using a friend’s UV exposure box, it seems a good time to get back into such printing, yet I do not push the final “order” button at the bottom of the cart’s webpage.
There is no sense of me claiming any sanctity around “Black Friday” abnegation. I simply felt almost too tired to take on more stuff. Those retired men I used to see in my teenage years in Prince George BC wearing t-shirts with sayings such “He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins” now seem ever more absurd to me.
What has followed on since last week has a liberating twang to it. It is an ever-stronger sense that whatever is gestating within my visual imagination – wanting to be created – most certainly does not depend on me first getting my hands on yet more supplies or equipment or technique or physical space. Chuck Close has that famous line about how inspiration is for amateurs, that the rest of those with lives as artists simply show up and “get to work”. I am guilty of having used new stuff, new materials, additional workshops, etc., as “inspiration machines”. So the time is long past due for me to simply get on with the work – with the understanding that I will not know what that big but obscure thing to be created actually is until I go through the work of completing it (plus much else to be made along the way). This feels very strange.
Perhaps what makes this work with Paul, Kim and Francis so invigorating for me is the four of us nudging each other towards our inner, chiaroscuro-drenched psychic stages (as in “theatre stage”) where creation happens. We are showing up, doing the work, actually creating stuff!
The four of us are working away at issue #4 with the last round of work / image making now in full swing. We meet in ten days and I’m three images behind, which serves me right given that my suggested process for this #4 has turned out more challenging than any of us anticipated.
So in the midst of my procrastinating, I continue to read critical essays on photography and look through photobooks. One of the blogs I follow is that of A.D. Coleman. Amongst new writings he also posts some of his critical pieces from the past published elsewhere over the past 50 years (and in quite a wide and respected range of publications). His current series of posts are of a conversation / interview that took place in 1978 regarding photobooks, and I’m surprised at how little has changed in forty years with the way we interact with photobooks. Specifically I’m thinking of the short shrift we give to the photographic sequences themselves:
The idea that the book itself, or a sequence of photographs itself, is a thing … You can make a sequence into something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s important to experience images in a particular order, in a particular rhythm, and it’s important to sit with it at a certain tempo, slower than that which we are usually used to approaching photographs maybe, to get into the idea of spending an evening with a book of photographs. Experience them at a slow enough rhythm that you could actually get involved in the space between the images, as well as in the images themselves. This is still a foreign thought, even to most people in photography.
Yes, still a foreign thought, and it occurs to me I should also write “mea maxima culpa”. Just before reading Coleman’s observations I had looked through a friend’s copy of “In My Room“, images by Saul Leiter and published by Steidl. And looked through it far too fast. In fairness, the sequence is not Leiter’s own although he had intended to publish something like such a book in the 1970s but didn’t do so (for his own reasons, I surmise). After registering Coleman’s observation, and in essence being reminded of why I love photographic sequencing, I went back again through “In My Room” and much, much more slowly.
So is it harder today to sit with a sequence of images – as opposed to a series of images, which is a different animal entirely? And if interacting and responding to a photo sequence is a learned response, is there something about all this that makes it particularly difficult to acquire and practice?
I’m not going to be original in admitting I don’t follow my own advice. Or maybe originality would have to be something like observing the way I’m inconsistent around this.
My first-year students learning computer programming are often intimidated by the exemplars we instructors trot out on lecture slides and in textbook examples. The intimidation consists of the distance students feel from where they are to where they think they must be to write such clear computer programs. I have to not only show but also explain to my students, over and over again, that what they see is the tidied-up and finished result. There is rarely a straight line from the idea to the code, only plenty of false starts, dead ends, yet these eventually lead to understanding, confidence, and achievement. (That’s why a good student is so mesmerized by a good teacher in the midst of the teacher’s unscripted, off-the-cuff, nearly-desperate problem solving when something goes terribly wrong during a lecture.) And after the four years of studying in our undergraduate program, only then do students believe what I told them in first year about the absence of straight lines. The students want so badly to believe in such straight lines that those four years are needed before they stop looking for the unicorn.
My friend GH recently let me borrow his copy of “Thought is Infinite”, a survey of the work of June Leaf. (It’s a great book, I’ll be adding my own copy to my collection Real Soon Now). Her studios in NYC and Mabou, Nova Scotia are layered with decades of paint, material, stuff, all of it to hand as she continues to create. I love her markmaking, with a freedom and energy present that one can only get from seeing drawings. The book includes photographs of her at work in the studios, and I get a glimmer of the sense of her willpower and strength by looking at its surfaces. And my sense, too, is that she’s not been afraid of false starts for a very long time.
Once upon a time I would have overwhelmed by the idea of such a studio space. Now I’m realizing, and slowly coming to accept, the detritus and false starts go hand in hand with following my eye in the directions it wants to lead. Maybe stuff I think unfinished is not really unfinished at all, and that if I just let myself look at the universe at a slight angle, something will show up for the first time in that universe. A friend (God rest her soul) once said that weeds were plants that refused to grow in a straight line. So maybe artistic detritus is energy from an idea that refuses to move in a straight line.
This is my second post on the same theme. I’m awakening now to how mesmerized I have been all my life with the (false) stories we tell each other about artistic creation. I think I’m waking up, but stlll feel very, very groggy.
For the next issue, Mike suggested the following structure for the calls: that we pick individual words that resonate with us, and provide each of them on a card using a quote that gives context to the word. The proposal was that at subsequent meetings, each of us would throw one card into the centre of the table, and then each of us would extract one card. Two people then make images using the key word and the context of the quote: the person who provided the word and the person who drew it from the pile.
We glommed on to this suggestion with various levels of enthusiasm, inversely correlated with how confused we were about what we were actually doing. Not because Mike’s idea was confusing so much as we were discussing this at the end of a long, intense session of sequencing the images for zine #3. But intrepid visual explorers that we are, the decision was made to jump in the deep end and come to the following meeting with 4 cards with the quotes. It’s worked out very, very well so far (we are about half way through this collaboration) – there have been some extremely unexpected but effective juxtapositions of vision proposed by the person who provided the word and the person who drew it from the deck.
Above is the quote I threw into the card pile the second time we exchanged words. I had selected the words and quotes not with images in mind, but because of what I perceived to be the challenges the words offered. So off I went to look through my archive and to consider images I might make about darkness. We have had quite some discussion around whether a good approach is to use the word alone, or try to incorporate some or all of the quote into the process. As is usual for our group, there was a mix of approaches all of which have been quite effective. For this quote, I focused on the idea of darkness as a gift. The images I selected are shown above; I’ve photographed the Salish Sea and the Strait of Juan de Fuca many, many times but not with darkness as the driving force. For me, the darkness of these images is a gift because they expand how I see and perceive this marine landscape. I find it interesting how the darkness has altered the landscape; one doesn’t see the Olympic Mountains in the distance or get a clear sense of the transition from land to sea. This simplification from the darkness transforms the view into one that is lush and rich and moving – this is the gift from darkness to me.
I think at times I must overwhelm my partner a little bit. These past ten years have been filled with workshops, longer courses, equipment purchases, a need for supplies (I’m losing track of my large sheets of paper), finished projects, stalled projects, failed projects. Even with my little bit of spare cash earned by doing some graphic design on the side, there is always a need for just that next helpful dose of household funds.
“I’m worried this new one is another enthusiasm,” she comments, “and that it will be like all the others.” Maybe while growing up I drove my parents slightly batty that way, too.
Some years ago I finally noticed something a little strange in my life. In the same way as I have projects left hanging, our home is ornamented by books with bookmarks midway through them. (These are my bookmarks, you see.) And the strange thing is these books with such bookmarks pull me back towards them at certain times of the year. Fall and early spring seems to be for poetry, late spring for philosophy, early summer for things like “Finnegans Wake”, and there are other patterns I’ve still to discern. Books started are eventually finished but not in the same calendar year. I think took me three years to read “Les Misérables”.
All this comes to mind as I consider my contributions towards our next ’zine (#4 if you are counting). I struggled mightily to find a response to the item I had from our first meeting for #4. Even after weeks of spending time with Paul’s chosen text/word, nothing was working for me in or out of the camera, and as the next meeting came closer I began to despair. Two days before our second meeting I stumbled across photogravures I made during a course at the Vancouver Island School of Art some years ago which was taught by Jenn Robins – the prints themselves were based on photos I’d made of some church windows. I don’t recall what possessed me to look through that portfolio, and I was stunned by one of the images. It contained the response I needed to make. Yet without that stumbling and the work behind it I would have never recognized the possibility such image making possessed as a valid form of response.
So the projects left hanging are – literally or metaphorically or both – simply strands. For many of them their destination warp and weft are still to come, if at all (yet another strained metaphor – it’s a bad habit). Yet I’m so green at this kind of work in the world that only recently have I started to value the false starts and missteps and boxes with hurting fragments. Or maybe I’m finally old enough to accept how harvesting must proceed side-by-side with purblind creation. It is as if I’ve been mesmerized up to now by straight lines, by the tidy narratives that certain frightened folk trot out from time to time about art.
Oh, and my next course is in Toronto this coming September – paper treatments for bookbinders.
Last Sunday’s NY Times had wonderful piece entitled, “Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art?” (link). I shared it with a departmental colleague also keen on art and photography, and after his reading he urged me to look through the article’s comments (which I’ll urge on you as well – I found the one written by Oriole particularly heartbreaking). The title does flourish a conceit which little of the article successfully defends. Rather – in my opinion – the article is a refreshing reality-check on the fetish our current culture has for art and the artistic (e.g., the way it confuses “art” with the “art market”).
Disclaimer: Heaven forfend I put the word “artist” on my calling card. Others who take the very real risk / challenge of becoming a vocational artist deserve the title. I’ll rest content with such a six-letter word being thrown my way as a result of what I create or what I make.
Seven days a week, ten-hour days – that’s been my last few months at the day job as a computer-science professor. (Yesterday was a glorious exception, an afternoon spent immersed in letterpress adventuring together with a few friends.) And that NYT article’s comment section has more than one entry with the flavour of, “How can you expect anyone create great art under such conditions?” Therein lies the risk of self-pity. Despite the craziness since January 1st (including reneging on my commitment to Kim, Paul and Francis for first-of-the-month postings to this blog) there have been slices of time to create. And, strangely, the results have elicited excitement and curiosity from those whose responses I respect. What is that about?
A very wise man once told me, “No survival, no thrival.” We confound ourselves if we assume the Cosmos / Universe / Society is perpetually aligned with our creativity. Heck, even we ourselves are sometimes not aligned with our own creativity. And yet we create (*cough* “E pur si muove“).
What is that about?
This past Sunday was a very productive meeting in which we pretty well nailed the sequencing and layout of our next zine, issue #3! It’s an impressive grouping, and seeing them all together had me amazed and excited at the diversity and beauty of these pictures.
This was an interesting call—being based on the idea of describing in 128 characters or less a picture that we had taken, but not seen until the others had responded to and produced a picture that was in some way an interpretation of this description. I found them all to be challenging and outside my normal realm of photographic shooting, and as such opened me up to genres I rarely approach, such as landscapes, macros and nature.
My call was the first to begin and I took a rather literal approach in describing my picture—and was surprised and elated with the resulting pics….Kim even coming up with the exact same image from a different perspective…wow—good eye!
In my own response to each subsequent call I took a somewhat different approach with each one: with Kim’s I chose to focus on the thought of water lilies, and sought out appropriate images that depicted this particular landscape, attempting to catch the mystery of her words through form, texture and light.
Paul’s somewhat enigmatic call had me traipsing along forest paths and flowing streams, seeking the surging silence and hints of the moon’s daughter, of which I believe I caught a glimpse of both… and came back all the better for a hike in the woods.
With Mike’s cryptic words, I chose to have some fun and came up with pictures that were defined not in any literal sense by what they are, but by what they are not, and in doing so, leaving them open to interpretation of what they can be.
Can’t wait to see the finished zine!