Monday, May 23, 2016

On Film

Two weeks ago I shot film in my beloved and most photogenic NYC for the first time in far too long. My old allegedly repaired Pentax K1000 played me false and jammed halfway through its first and only roll, and try as I might to continue advancing film clearly – audibly - being shredded at every turn of the manual crank, I had to give up and let it go. The old boy is now officially retired and will be kept as an artifact on the order of other relics of the past I can neither deny nor rely upon, but which in their current form are useless and unrewarding, much like my love life.

My Holga 120N, on the other hand, literal piece of junk that it is, 100% barely held together plastic and making no promises, managed to record 12 frames of absolutely indeterminate quality, and not eat the film alive in the process. Hey, when you are accustomed to nothing, or less, you take what you can as small blessings, and rejoice therein. See reference to love life, above.

Parallels to my love life implicit and not to be reiterated further, I love my Holga. I love that its lack of predictability and low maintenance frees both of us from any responsibility for outcomes. It makes waiting for the results both more exciting, and less stressful, full of mystery and magic, and easily managed if they prove unsatisfactory, because hey, what can you expect from an overgrown Pez dispenser pretending it’s a camera? It’s one of those most rare circumstances in my life, the win-win, as elusive and hunted and stunningly beautiful to witness as a snow leopard.

Speaking of rare, photo shops that develop true black and white film have become moreso in recent years. Here in Vermont, my only local options have been to send away shot film to a shop that in turn, turns out, was also sending it away.  Cutting out the middleman, I now go directly to the source – the makers of the very film I prefer to use, Ilford.  I don’t mind at all verging on a testimonial for Ilford when I say that they rock. Prepaid mailers get my rolls to them out west and back to me processed in under a week. It’s a long week, yes, but I have learned patience in these matters as in so many others. 

Shooting film is all about patience, resilience and humility, so why should the results be any less so? It’s about being in the right place and waiting the shot out. It’s the opposite of digital shooting, which is more of a show up, shoot first, ask questions later affair. There is always so much to choose from, and erasure costs nothing in terms of personal investment or materials cost. It just feels more arrogant and less serious, as if less were at stake. I know film shooters who may as well be shooting digital. Hundreds of frames and a long sorting process from proof sheets populated with unsalvageable images that really didn’t need to be committed to film. For my part, I like to make use of the pressure of making each shot count, as if it were my one and only shot and I should be grateful for the chance. In fact, if some shoot film as if it were digital, I tend to shoot digital as if it were film, waiting the shot, making it count. In both cases, I take way more shots in my head than I commit to film or file. Every hesitation I am restrained and discerning enough to risk proves itself later, when I have a relatively manageable pool from which to choose my keepers, which happily usually outnumber the delete button victims.

The shots I don’t take are every bit as important as the ones I do. They are how I get to those keepers. I see this more obviously played out with digital because it happens in real time. So often it’s the very last shot I take that turns out to be the one I envisioned, the one I was literally shooting for. By the time I get a roll of film back, I’ve already mentally deleted all the shots I mentally took between the real ones. This is even more the case with Holga, which only allows a dozen chances to get it right. For every shot on the roll returned to me today, the best of which are included in this post, there were dozens I didn’t take, ones I will sometimes look for on film convinced I did take, nowhere to be found. As if each shot has its own past, its memories, everything it was, making it what it is.

Photography is a fascinating art form. It freezes and contains present moments with an immediacy other media can’t quite match, but at its best it also contains a history and suggests a future for that captured moment beyond the frame. Unlike creations of literature and other arts, a photograph not only represents a reality and presents an instant, it also happens in an instant, it is the instant of both happening and creating, preserved forever. The images shown here aren’t perfect. They aren’t even what I set out to capture. But in the end, fuzzy focus and odd lighting included, they are exactly what happened that rainy day at Brooklyn Botanic.

Taking a photograph is like standing on the very precipice of time, where the mundane and the universal meet, where every second counts because it is both unique and fleeting. To remain still, as time itself rushes past, like the eye of a storm, requires incredible poise, and yes, patience. But as I discovered today opening my Ilford mailer like a kid on Christmas morning, finding there, not empty boxes but exactly what I wanted - and how could it be otherwise, when the person you were sends the person you are a gift over distance and time? -  some things are worth the wait.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Becoming Tangled

Contrary to a certain famous Escher drawing, a hand can’t draw the hand that draws it, or at least not without some serious mental and physical entanglement. The self-portrait project I undertook over a year ago continues to explore and defy the accepted reality that one can’t easily simultaneously be both the subject and the creator, in life and in art. Whether things are going badly or well, sometimes simply occupying one’s life takes so much energy and emotion, there’s none left to observe or shape it, and this might not be such a bad thing.

Tangled, such a simple word, the theme prompt next week over at Luminous Traces Collective, and now my top choice for the title of the autobiography I’ll never write, is what anything of sufficient length can become sooner or later, regardless of our best efforts to keep it free, clear and straight. Yarn, hair, feelings, circumstances, lives. If it has a beginning, middle and end, it can get tangled. With itself, with other things, you name it. And once something is tangled, there’s no moving forward, back or sideways until the tangles come loose, by themselves or with help, or are cut loose.

I’ve had a year of feeling tangled. And with it, the sense that all was not lost, and freedom imminent, with just the right amount of subtle maneuvering and patience, as with the many skeins of fiber I have teased out of their seemingly impossible snarls. Resistance is futile in such cases, and in fact often makes matters worse. One must apply gentle pressure, and vigorous faith, and hope for the best. On rare occasions, one must reach for the scissors and literally cut one’s losses. 

But so far, much as I have been tempted to cut and run, something has kept me uncharacteristically resigned to being restrained. Instead of struggling against the inner and outer conditions that have been compromising my well-being for so long and in such incredible variety, I stayed put, I made art, I re-drew the scale of my life so that the small space beyond which I was unable to move became a vast landscape within which to expand and roam at will. After a while I didn’t even notice going around in circles like Escher’s hands, or if I did, I didn’t much care.

It’s beginning to look like my time of constraint may be coming to an end. And much as I’ve lamented the losses that have reduced and restrained me, I fear I may miss these hard years that have required all my resourcefulness, resilience and imagination to transcend. Whatever will I do when there are no more ugly knots to untangle, no more suffocating limits to find ways to exist within?

Breathe freely. Live and love beautifully. That’s what.