Friday, May 15, 2009

Lightning Still Strikes

Looking at the fabulous photos taken recently by my family and friends, I am prompted to write about what I feel is important about photography in the digital age.

I am the son of a photographer. I am reminded of this fact every time I raise the camera to my eye and enter the viewfinder. Interestingly, even though my choice of digital camera recently was in part based on the fact that it has a 'live view' LCD screen (it even tilts--woo), I almost never use that feature. I am driven by instinct, not necessarily training, to lift the camera to my eye and look through the viewfinder. In a way, this mental exercise of looking, coupled with the physical act of pushing the shutter button down to receive that satisfying, endorphin-releasing click or ka-chunk is the very reason for doing it.

The wonderful thing about digital photography is that now, 'doing it' is no longer the cost-prohibitive and resource grabbing process that it was when I first learned the craft. My first real passionate episode with a camera came in 1968, when we lived in san Antonio and Bill worked at a camera store downtown.

One day, I walked all the way from South San Antonio where we lived all the way to his store. I have no idea how or why I was allowed to do this. I can't imagine doing it without telling Lynda, yet why she would allow me to walk that far I'll never know. It took me about three or four hours, and my route took me along what, in retrospect and taking into consideration that I was only about twelve--seem to have been some major highways. I don't recall being afraid, but tired and thirsty at times.

Along the way I remember looking at the highway overpasses and thinking how neat it would be to take pictures of them. I have never forgotten this inspiration; there isn't a 'spaghetti bowl' anywhere since that I haven't openly admired and secretly desired to possess in a photograph. In my life and experience, the urge to possess images is a force that I now recognize as a basic human desire. For me, the means to express and therefore resonate with beauty has, since that day, taken the form of photography.

Bill gave me my first camera that day, as well as my first roll of film. The camera was a Kodak Retina, and I kept it for many years despite using but once or twice after my first time. The principal reason for the lack of use was, to be honest, actually due to a lack of money. Given the camera and a roll of black-and-white film that comprised twelve pictures, I set out burning with the inspiration from my walk, and would have made it back to the highway had it not been so far away. In fact, there was a more intriguing subject on the way.

The subject of my first photo essay, would that it had been just that, was of what I believed to have been a old abandoned nunnery. I know this sounds incredible and I doubt that I still have the photos to prove it, but somehow, there in central San Antonio in 1968, I managed to find it. It was a ramshackle old frame building with a series of barracks-style rooms built round a central courtyard. My small size enabled me to wriggle in through the locked gate and into the overgrown courtyard. I wasn't the first to do this, obviously, but it was remarkably free of vandalism. Inside the rooms I found metal bed frames and sometimes, wooden desks and chairs left behind when the residence was abandoned.

If I remember all this with such seeming clarity, it is, I believe, because much of it is recalled through the curious lens of the viewfinder. Bill taught me--if not that day, on countless others while simply holding one of his cameras and 'playing' with it under his careful supervision--to pay close attention to what I saw when looking through the viewfinder; to be aware of in advance what the lens was about to capture meant focusing clearly on what is presented to the eye in that tiny, seemingly abstract frame. This is, of course, how one is supposed to prevent telephone poles and the like from 'growing' out of peoples' heads, but it is much more metaphysical than that.

The act of focusing is more than physically dialing the lens down to the right size, just as capturing the light is more than physically opening or closing the aperture or setting the shutter speed. These physical acts have corresponding mental constructs that, in essence, define the act and art of photography.

In the digital age, the connection between the physical and mental aspects of the art has actually been strengthened, broadened and deepened. What was once a narrow channel is now a wide open if often tumultuous sea. Talk about a sea change.

I took a dozen photographs of that abandoned nunnery in San Antonio in, oh, about twenty minutes. Given the time it took to get there and back plus some extra farting around while there, I'd estimate that it was not much more than an hour before I returned to the camera store to show Bill what I'd done and ask for some more film.

He was surprised, and even pleased, but not so impressed that he could shield me from reality. He explained to me that it would cost several dollars--please recall it was 1968--to have the pictures developed and printed. Add to that the cost of the film, and well, it was apparent that this was not going to be as easy as it looked. Needless to say I didn't get another roll of film that day.

I did get many more rolls of film over the years, however. Bill and I spent a good deal of time together on photo shoots of old abandoned buildings, demolition sites and rundown houses. I wasted a lot of film during these outings and many more of my own, but as often as not, like Bill, I simply took pictures through the viewfinder in my mind's eye, resisting the urge to consummate the act with a shutter click. Digital photography changed all that.

The means are still changing rapidly, of course, so there are many aspects of the medium and the future that are up for debate. Principally, the digital age has freed me from concern over cost and waste. Now I give in to the desire to take ten pictures when I would have only taken tow or three before. The result is more freedom but at the cost of an encroaching tyranny of excess. Not just excess of numbers, but of subjects as well.

I mean, how many pictures of flowers and bees can we take before we've seen and taken enough?

Surely there must be something else we can be doing with our new found freedom. Despite the temptation, the human aesthetic compulsion to take pictures of nature and the works of man, these are needs of the art form in its infancy. We are now participants in its adolescence.

So, take out all the flowers and bunnies and rain and what do you have left? What's left is a lot. What's left is the moment, pure and simple.

The photographs that will remain, the ones that suspend time and capture a moment in time are still the most compelling and enduring. The images that will emerge as memorable and thus worth keeping even in this digital deluge of the twenty-first century will be simple images, instances, really, of moments in time; 'things' saved like lightning in a bottle, contradictions in terms.

It makes perfect, simple sense in the same time it takes for lightning to strike.


bc said...

You have a good eye! I hope I won't get intimidated to forward my 'snapshots.' bc

Trevor W Goodchild said...

Nice story. We haven't done a couple of things over the years, take pictures together or go swimming. While ambivalent towards the latter, this post inspires me to suggest we should go on a photoshooting adventure sometime. Maybe you can help with some of the photo-assignments i have for a magazine I'm shooting for this summer-email or call me if you're interested