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The Bookshelf

Doug's bookshelf: read

AntwerpWarsaw BikiniIcelandHow the Soldier Repairs the GramophoneThe Original of LauraBrief Interviews with Hideous Men

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Time Since Reboot

  • 1252 days, 3 hours, 28 minutes, 36 seconds ago

Introducing the C330f

Ttumblr_o2gnd18zOn1qbraa3o1_500his is my new toy – the Mamiya C330f TLR medium-format camera. It’s time to learn to do real photography.

Not that I do not enjoy my muscular DSLR… I think it’s obvious that I do. But there is something inelegant about being able to heave the beast to my face, snap a few quick shots, and fix the alignment, exposure, crop, etc. in post. While I have an understanding of the elements of photography – the f-stops, the depth of field, the focal length, the shutter speed and so on – mastery of them has never been imperative.  Reliance on photoshop, lightroom, gimp and darktable (and, of course, smartphones) has made learning the art secondary to learning the software. And as I’ve become somewhat adept at utilizing post-processing programs, I have stagnated.

This is a pattern: eschewing proficiency for easy results. When I was a teenager learning to play guitar, I pursued knowledge of how to play popular songs rather than delving deep into music theory or attaining dexterity with the instrument. When I was writing during my collegiate years, I gravitated toward wry, shallow verses scribbled in notebooks and left inert rather than honing a craft, revising, being precise or deliberate. And when I chose a career path – at length, but I eventually chose one – I opted for the path that would assure comfortable earnings rather than pursuing a passion, and struggling.

So it is with photography too. I took the easy (and enjoyable, though… it has been enjoyable) path. I wanted results now. And now… I feel my enthusiasm for it grinding toward stillness. I have a nightmare vision of a camera collection in a corner growing cobwebs with the guitars and the notebooks.

Well, not this time. This time I’m going to try to go deeper.

This camera was produced sometime between 1972 and 1982, and – I can tell you after a day of lugging it around Alabama’s Black Belt region – it’s built like a tank and is not for the weak-of-neck.  There are zero electronics – this is all mechanical and requires manually calculating every value. It also is going to be an exercise in patience… as I won’t see any results until I get the negatives, prints or scans back from the lab. Gone is the luxury of deleting shots I don’t like. I get 12 frames to a roll of 120 film, and the results are what they are.

Or screw it, we’ll see if I still have enough hipster in me to shoot film.

I have 9 rolls left (I shot one over the weekend). I’m thinking they should accompany me to New Jersey and NYC next week.

On Francesca Woodman

The nightly ritual in our house is to eat dinner in front of the television and watch a documentary.  During the week, it’s usually an hour-long episode of a science- or history-themed TV program.  On the weekends, we will often opt for a feature-length selection.  Tonight we watched C. Scott Willis’s 2011 biography of Francesca Woodman – a young, prolific and talented photographer who tragically committed suicide in 1981, at age 22 – via her work and through the eyes of her family and close friends.  The movie is The Woodmans, and I highly recommend it.

I’d never heard of Francesca before tonight, unless you count reading the Netflix description of the title that had resided in my queue for a year, but it is clear to me that she deserves to be regarded as one of the bright artistic minds of the 20th century.  Her work is stunningly modern – for having been produced by an art student in the late 1970’s, the photographs are crisp, surreal, provocative, and cleverly and methodically designed.  And it is this last quality – the deliberateness of the work – that really speaks to me.  The work itself stands on its own, to be sure, and it should… the narrative doesn’t need to be about the artist’s youth or tragically short life, but instead speaks volumes for just what it is – art in its own right.  I can and do admire it for that.  But I am always on the lookout for what I can learn; what I can take away from a work of art or literature or from an experience or a relationship.  What I can learn from Francesca Woodman, and from her family, who are all artists, is the duty and dedication to the craft.

Francesca, in her brief time as a photographer, threw herself completely into making her art.  She lived it.  Everything she did served it.  Her romantic relationships, her bonds with her parents, where she lived, who she talked to, who her friends were, where she worked, even, detrimentally, her state of mind – it all came down to achieving the creation of art that said what she needed to say.

That dedication is admirable to me because of its absence in me.  I have passions – passions for writing and for photography.  Older passions for poetry and music.  Trades and skills like flying airplanes or accounting and auditing.  But I am not and have never been a master of any of these things.  Some of that is just a function, I think, of how I’m wired – taking on new projects and discovering new ways to either to experience life or to express myself keeps life from going stale.  But I’m also a little weary of being the constant dabbler.  I do care about art and about creating meaningful things.  It does not mean much to me to be recognized by others, something that Francesca longed for… but it is important that I feel I have created something of value, even if it is only of value to me.

Why, then, do I half-ass my life’s work?  At one point in the film, Francesca Woodman’s father talks about the life of the artist – perspectives he passed on to his daughter.  Paraphrasing – he says that an artist does not decide, because he does not feel inspiration that day, to stay away from his/her studio.  The artist goes to the studio and “sharpens pencils” – the artist works on his art whether he is inspired or not.  The inspiration will come when it comes.  The artist must still choose to do art.

I am, at best, a lazy artist.  I am passionate about it, but I do not dedicate myself to it.  If I’m tired, I will nap or pursue less taxing endeavors.  If I am cranky or listless I’ll seek out some cheap fix for happiness – a sweet snack or an hour or four browsing the internet – when the real solution for my unrest would be to indulge my passions, dive in and create, practice, learn, grow, make something, dammit, anything, something worthless maybe but something tangible, something that propels me forward.

And at one point during the documentary I had the thought that, maybe, it was easier in that era to be focused and deliberate and caring about what you were creating as a photographer.  You had to be.  In the pre-digital age, every click of the shutter cost something.  Film was an expense, and developing an image took time and energy and supplies.  You had to take time to ensure your image was the right image – the image you wanted.  Whereas I can snap off round after round of images without a care in the world.  I am not constrained.  I can afford to be careless.  Except if I’m careless I never learn to craft the image.  I’m just letting good images emerge through happenstance.  That doesn’t make me an artist.  That doesn’t make me a photographer.  Soccer moms with iPhones can make an image just as easily as I can, and with the same success rate.  (And I’m not intentionally belittling myself – I do think that I have an eye for what makes a scene special, and I do think I have important things to say in words and images.)  That my instrument is a DSLR and that my processing is done on a computer instead of inside a darkroom neither means that I have it easier nor that analog photographers were/are intrinsically more creative.  The margins we butt up against are different; we are expanding in different ways… which is the essence of creativity anyway.

But I do not take the time to do it the right way.  So art does not get done at all.

Some viewers – maybe most viewers – might watch The Woodmans and come away feeling sad about the tragic ending or depressed about the talent squandered by Francesca’s choice to cut her own life short.  It is a tragedy.  But there is a brightness that shines through her story – just as her powerful artistic vision shines through what some might call small, melancholy photographs.  That’s what I took from the film tonight.  The need to dedicate time and energy to the things I am passionate about.

So, there.  Check out the film or some of Francesca’s work.  It’s art.  It’s worth it.

It’s That Time

Bham LED installation by Bill Fitzgibbons

Greetings from just outside the beltway.  Here is your Tuesday randomness.  I stumble across them; I share them with you.  First – check it out: Birmingham’s new LED art installation on 18th Street got a write-up at My Modern Met!

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more and more into electronic music… mostly because the chillout, ambient stuff makes for nice mellow background music without disturbing any reading or writing I might be doing.  Anyway, here’s an amazing video of a UK children’s choir doing an a cappella version of Crystal Castles’ “Untrust Us”.  I would buy a whole album of this.

Capital Children’s Choir at Abbey Road Studios–Crystal Castles cover

A list of writing resources in Alabama.

A fun letter written by Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925.

And a not-so-fun article on what it must have been like for the citizens of Hiroshima coming to grips with the immediate impact and aftermath of the atomic blast.  Horrific, but important lest we forget the destruction we are capable of.

That was a heavy note to end on.  Watch the choir video again.

Peppers, Planets, Bama, Borsodi, and an Art Train

India’s hottest chili pepper eating contest.  Excellent article.  Horrifying pictures.  Any contest where the winning contestant’s friends have to “escort him to a waiting ambulance” after the competition is a bit out of my league.

Nagaland Chili Competition

All right, Birminghammers – who else thinks this art train needs to make a stop at Railroad Park?

More incredibly detailed Mars pictures from Curiosity.  I could put this in full-screen mode and click around randomly for hours.  There’s a picture of a rock that is split open because Curiosity drove over it and broke it apart.  That blows my mind.  Something we made is just trundling around on the surface of another freaking planet! 

Football season is still something like, what, three months away?  I’m going to leave this here regardless.  Look at Eddie Lacy just stand motionless while the Irish d-line collapses in around him, then slips through untouched, catches the ball and spins into the end zone like a boss.  I’m glad someone made a .gif of this play.  Saves my TiVo remote hand.  Basketball and hockey suck, by the way.  I hate this time of year.

BCS Spin

Now check out this photograph:


That’s “photograph” – singular.  As in not four separate photographs.  Check out how this was done.  Now be glad the artist did it so none of us have to.  Wow, that is intricate.

Until next Tuesday, dear readers.

Links: Protests, Images and Reading Lists

Let’s start off with the latest from Turkey.

Get sharper images.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about Mizenscen’s illustrations, but I think they’re terrific:

How about recommended reads from Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sagan?

Ever thought about dousing negatives in gasoline before processing them?  This is what that would look like.  Rad.

Art and Memory, and Art. Also Art.

First, remember:

Now that that’s out of the way, try not to be too excited by this review of a new nonfiction book about a man who lost (by way of gruesome surgery) the ability to make new memories.  He lived for his remaining 55 years in “a rolling thirty-second loop of awareness.”  Damn. 

The blog 9filmframes is pretty cool too.  “An attempt to showcase a film by using only 9 of its frames.”  I like it.

Take some time to understand how your digital camera deals with color and how best to manage and manipulate it effectively.

And please allow me to heartily endorse Anatol Knotek’s Anachronism:  a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind poetry collection hand-typed, crafted, bound and sent to you personally from lovely Vienna, Austria.  The work consists of a selection of typed-to-order pages (16 poems from a pool of 50) on carefully manipulated paper.  Seriously, Anatol’s book is awesome, his blog is awesome, and, well… I already got mine and it is a work of art.  Keep doing what you’re doing, Mr. Knotek.