The Great Divide
Exactly eight months ago, I left a full-time job at a prestigious academic institution to pursue life as a working artist. My entire adult life has been about an attempt to balance my creative activities (what I like to think of as Who I Really Am) with earning enough money to stay housed fed and clothed (otherwise known as How Other People Live). Because I have never been able to give enough time and energy to advancing either of these pursuits, but can give up neither entirely, both have suffered. As a result, I am closing in on 50 years on this planet, and have yet to establish myself in any financially or personally successful professional or creative career. I’ll never pull a six figure salary at a job with a fancy title. And every time I make sacrifices to attend to the making of art, before I can make any real progress I find myself stalled by the realities of the art world, or the credit cards max out, or both, and I have no choice but to return to yet another dull frustrating doomed desk job and begin the cycle again. I’ve made my choices with free will and open eyes, without regret, but I do often wonder what would have happened if I had chosen differently, and stuck with one thing or the other long enough to make a success of it.
The Last Market
I miss crochetting. All winter I have been holding onto great ideas about themes to explore and scenes to capture once my cameras and I started spending more quality time together. I packed up all my scarves and wristies after the last market at the Burren and the return of spring weather, and started doing photo shoots, film and digital. It was wonderful to be engaged in something that felt a lot more like art and a lot less like craft. And I was pleased with the first results. It made me feel that all this time off from a paying job was finally paying off – my creativity had recovered from being stifled in a cubicle chained to a computer, and was ready to expand and roam freely. It made me feel I had done the right thing eight months ago.
But being a photographer isn’t just about taking pretty pictures. Long after that precious moment of seeing something and connecting with it in a way that allows you to capture it forever, like a wild beast that allows you to tame it and take it home, there is an endless and to me vexatious journey between processing the image and presenting it to the world. It used to be you’d get your negatives and prints back from the camera shop and the ones you liked, you asked for enlargements. The intricacies of film processing and printing were left to the experts. Period. You could send these pieces of paper to contests or galleries, confident that this was a final product, this was, all parties would be in agreement, a PHOTOGRAPH. You could place them in an album, or mount them for display. Purists and students and the top masters in the field did their own darkroom processing. But you could still consider yourself a serious photographer even if you didn’t know much about the science of photography, the way a good driver doesn’t necessarily know how to build a car, or a good writer know how to set his own type on a letterpress. All you had to do was take a good picture.
Through a Glass Darkly
Nowadays, everything has gone digital. Even if you shoot film, there is an expectation that the negatives will be scanned and that digital files will be the mode of transport for your image, whether you are sharing it with other people online, submitting it to a contest or gallery, or creating a portfolio, and with that expectation comes an assumption that if you own a computer and a file full of images, you either know everything about how to format them, or have a program installed that does. This past week I had to cancel plans to submit to two photography contests because I couldn’t convert the files to their specifications. I had a nice group of images selected, that I believe had a solid chance at winning, but I lacked the technological knowledge to manipulate them properly, not to mention the right software or the money to acquire it. I was pleased that with my dinosaur brain I actually understood the terminology of what they wanted enough to know I couldn’t provide it, and that I didn’t become one of those people who just send what they have and ignore instructions. But it hit home for me that I have a lot to learn about what it really means to be a photographer these days, and that what I’m learning so far is not making me want to continue being one, and that maybe this is why I have held off for so long taking what has always been a purely private passion to the next level.
I seem to recall going through a similar rude awakening when I left a full time job in order to pursue my poetry professionally. I thought all I had to do was write beautiful poems and send them legibly typed to editors until my list of credits earned me a full-length book publication. I did successfully place dozens of poems in literary journals, but the deeper I got into the literary world the more disenchanted and disappointed I became, and the realities of what was expected of me began to sour the simple joy of writing. No book ever happened. Within a year, I went back to working at a library full time. That was 17 years ago, and back then the enemy wasn’t technology, but the disheartening feeling of “this isn’t what I thought I was getting into” was the same.
Half and Half
My activities as a photographer have lately occupied two realms – out and about with camera in hand, and sitting in front of my laptop managing and manipulating image files. The latter far exceeds the former in time consumed. If you asked me about my work when I was crochetting, I could hand you a scarf that you could hold in your hands, the way I held it in my hands, enjoying the textures and patterns that resulted from my physically working with raw materials and creating a tangible final product, done when it was done. And I could literally do it with my eyes closed. If you ask me about my former life as a poet, I can hand you my small 1997 chapbook and you can curl up in a cozy corner and read fourteen poems that represent the best of what I had written at that time, each one of them remaining true to itself whether read in book form or manuscript or even read aloud. To this day, I know what a poem is, and is not. Ask me about my photography and I am not really sure at the moment where or what my “work” is. I have boxes full of negatives and disks. I have online files of images, some of them in multiple versions, some scans from film, some that frighteningly exist only digitally, having been downloaded from my camera and vanished into a virtual reality without leaving a physical trace of any kind. I have old glossy photographs done by my camera shop last year that look quaint and amateurish compared to what I have now discovered to be today’s standards of printing. Perhaps for other photographers these infinite possibilities and shifting boundaries are thrilling, but to me they are dizzying and baffling. I’m no longer sure what a photograph is, the way you know what a painting, sculpture or collage is, because it is right there, a physical object born of its maker's hands and ready to face the world. I feel entirely disconnected from my work.
Back to Back
This week, after I gave up the frustrations of trying to submit to contests, I made selections from my files for images I’d like to print and frame for Open Studios. They are good images. I think they will have an effect on anyone who stands before them. Some of them have appeared here and done exactly that. Because I don’t have access to a darkroom, I am working from the scans of negatives my camera shop provided. I don’t care what the dpi, pixel or inch dimensions are, the number of the image quality, if the files are flattened or compressed, in RGB or Grayscale. Even if I can now locate most of this information in several different ways through my computer, I am going to trust that my camera shop guy gave me the best specifications and stick with that. I am not going to spend a fortune to have a dozen images printed professionally by a custom shop specializing in museum quality prints – I’d have to give up food for a month. I am trying to simplify and not spend an hour sweating over each image file before I can safely hit “Print.”
I Was of Three Minds
But even then, I have to learn about printing. I have to understand what kind of files I have, accordingly what the best settings on my printer are, what the best paper is, and what I have to do to make the image on my screen look the way I want it to on the page. I have a photographer friend who understands such matters, and hopefully he can kindly and gently guide me through the easiest and simplest steps to achieve this result, the way the resident tech expert in an office gives you a cheat sheet with instructions to follow and does not expect you to have a degree in computer technology to launch the Internet every morning. When I left the library world last year, it was precisely this reduction of physical material sitting on a shelf in a facility miles away to intangible pieces of data to be stored and processed by a machine, not to mention the folders full of cheat sheets required to do the simplest tasks, this bloodless disconnect, that drove me away to a life I thought would be far more connected and less cold. But here I am, supposedly free from life shackled to a computer, required to break down art into lines of data and commands entered to perform work upon them while I sit on my hands, waiting and watching to see if it worked. And I hear myself saying again “this isn’t what I thought I was getting into.”
I am a poet and photographer.
But I miss crochetting.