Monday, April 16, 2018

The Tempest

My medal and my bag of wet gear post-race as 
photographed with my fogged up cellphone camera.
When I recount today in the future, I will either understate or grossly, grossly exaggerate the weather conditions that defined my Boston Marathon. As I look out my hotel window, the screen remains clogged with the rain and the visibility limited.  The wind still howls with a reminder of what happened throughout the day. Chafing went to a new extreme on this one and my neck seems serrated by the rubbing of my shirts against my neck and the drawstring of my shorts had done the same job to my waist.

My brother and I both had a poor night's sleep and were up before the alarms struck at 4:30. The weather was the defining feature of the day but the scale and the commitment of the racers and the community astounded throughout the day as we funnelled from our various hotels across the city to fill the busses that would take us west to Hopkinton to settle in and bide our time until we were set to toe the start line for our turn to make the return trip on foot.

I managed to keep the logistics of the day at arms reach throughout the day as my Boston vet brother guided me through the procedures of the day. I did what I could to stay calm and keep warm. The wet, windy weather had been forecast prior to heading to Boston, but the conditions worse than I had anticipated.  As the hours ticked by and the tents filled with restless runners looking to bivouac through the morning with their creative uses of plastic bags to keep feet and body dry, the school field that we camped out on turned into a muddy bog. (Sorry, kids.) The conversations turned to other races and where people came from. While the puddles deepened, runners made comparisons to the rain in 2015 and the blistering heat of 2012. Some acknowledged their odysseys to beat the stormy weather to barely make it to Boston for the race and added that there were others who got stuck in old man weather tight grip on April. The Floridian and Louisianan I met suggested I was accustomed to the weather, but since arriving in Boston I deepened my fondness for the dry cold of Calgary.

After my 2 1/2 hours of waiting passed, it was time to brace myself for the run. I stripped off my garbage bags raincoat and changed my shoes. At that point I was skeptical that I would shed any of the layers that I had. Many of my fellow runners were as well and anyone who suggested they would peeling layers quickly met the reply that other runners would be happy to take the discards.

The race started well for me. Things were downhill for most of the first 16 miles before reaching The Newton Hills, which included Heartbreak Hill. The cold weather made it difficult to feel my legs loosen up and give my a sense of breaking into a rhythm after the first half hour or so of the race. All I could do was count on the gravity and hope that the legs would stay in the tight medium they were in rather than having them tighten up further.

It was a battle throughout the race to keep warm and to fend off the rain. The legs tightened further, however, but whenever I looked at the watch to see how I was managing, I was still on my goal pace for much of the race. Any edge I was going to gain in the race was going to have to come from the will and the heart alone with little chance of the legs responding to push me along.

I pushed on, though as the race moved into the last third the effort was intermittent as the elements sapped the will. At the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which I heard from about a half mile out, I picked up the pace to push by and I did not take a detour to collect a few kisses from the student body. I suspect the turnout was smaller than more pleasant years, but I was impressed as I had been at several points already through the race at the commitment of the spectators who braved the elements to cheer us on. There was an aspect of the Boston Strong post-2013 spirit that buttressed that, but I sense that the interest in the run has been this strong for much, much longer.

With the Scream Tunnel passed, I found myself doing the math to determine how long it was going to be before I could get out of the rain. The Newton Hills loomed at the 16 mile mark and I managed well with them. Heartbreak, which began at the 20-mile mark rather than the 21-mile mark as I had long assumed turned into a lighter moment. Having finished the climb, there was an inflatable arch in the distance. At first I could only make out "Heartbreak" and I braced myself for the climb but as the arch became clearer I was able to read that Heartbreak was behind me. Route beaten.

With five miles to go, my will welled up to push me along. The route flattened out and gave me the chance to pick up the pace a bit. It felt like the 38th kilometre was the longest of the race and getting down to the last three and the last 15-16 minutes seemed all too long.  As I completed the 40th kilometre and I was met with a fierce squall of wind and rain to daunt me one last time.  I pushed through I kept my eyes peeled for the left turn onto Boylston Street for the homestretch. It occurred much later than I expected, but when I completed the turn with less than a kilometre to go, the blue arch of the finish still seemed distant.

As the last few hundred metres relented to my finishing kick I thought about the opposed insistences that did battle throughout the day. The weather -- which exceeded the bleak forecast for its headwinds, rain and cold -- versus my own insistence move forward and not let the race get to me. When the weather set in the night before, I thought about a half-marathon my brother and I did last May in similar though far less severe conditions. At the end of the race, however, I thought about the marathon I ran last May, under more summer-like conditions. Last May, when running the Calgary Marathon on a hot day with things just "off" in so many ways I had a tough mental battle, most significantly with the anticipation of people congratulating me for finishing a race that was less than satisfactory. There were times during that race last May when I dreaded having to accept congratulations for getting out there and doing it. From the outset of Boston, I was more flexible in the face of the conditions and the expectations I set. Prior to the race, I adjusted my goals by 15 minutes and hit that target. This was not a day to determine how young I was managing to be -- that would have just been immature. (Sorry.)

Given the other results logged that day, it was a decent outcome. The elite races featured upsets and much slower times than are typical for the race. When I surveyed the angels I had on my shoulder throughout the race, the people who would be most interested in the outcome and the results, I realized that they weren't going to give me any grief about my result given the conditions. Their response would be overwhelmingly positive, despite the queries about my sanity that running in those conditions ought to provoke. I am not sure if it was a matter of me having already slayed my white whale in qualifying for Boston or a new lasting contentment I had found over the last 11 months, but I was more open and accepting of what came my way during this race.  The weather conditions and the support were both, in their distinctive ways, unconditional. While the race unfolded, I checked in with the same guide posts that I cited during my better races. The distance and the time were manageable rather than daunting. The biggest distinction between Boston and the other marathons was the sheer mass of runners that were out there. Whenever I looked to the horizon, the road was clotted shoulder to shoulder with masses of runners and there were so many different races and paces being run that the people running closest to me changed constantly, there was no familiar pack to fall into step with or bond with. There was less a sense of competition with the other runners and the camaraderie was less tangible than it could become over a 10K stretch of conversation about life.

The steps that followed crossing the line blurred. I was bloody cold and the slowing of stride was bringing on hyperthermia. I was still overwhelmed with a sense of what the accomplishment was and the thoughts about those angels who have been on my shoulder and the gratitude I have toward them. I'm not sure when the next marathon is going to be. Next up is pacing a half-marathon group in late May, but for the time being there is a void somewhat akin to Inigo Montoya's when he realized he achieved his goal. I assure you though that I'm not pondering a life of piracy - my time in today's nor'easter cured me of any aspirations for a life at sea.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Prelude: The Path Thus Far

       Boston.
       The Boston Marathon.

       Me?  ME??
    
       The Marathon has been in my thoughts for much longer than I have ever acknowledged. In Nova Scotia, we are reminded of the race each spring due to its proximity and the legacy of Johnny Miles, a Halifax runner who won Boston twice in the 1920's and whose legacy adorns one of the most significant marathons on the Nova Scotian racing calendar. Those annual reminders, replete with the legend of his father shaving down his shoes to keep them light for one his Boston efforts, were lore embedded in my imagination from my pre-teens on.
        The mythology of Boston would find me regularly. During the second season of the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere, Denzel Washington's character took on the course, albeit solo on an overcast low-key day. When he came to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and stopped to assess it before tackling the ascent, another page of race lore was embedded in my imagination. This is a tough bugger.
        I have never considered myself an athlete. I played sports yes, but in hockey it was only in my last game of organized hockey that, given a yawning open net, I slid a puck across the abyss from the blueline to the faintest tink of the vulcanized rubber against the back of the net. The goalie was out of position, not on the bench, and the puck moved fast enough to cross the line before he could reposition himself.
        Running, though, had long been in the background. During my adult years, I had run intermittently to fend off the accumulation of brownies and sundry other temptations. For the most part, running has been motivated by maintaining fitness, not improving it. When a change of employers meant that I would have to abandon the mechanized tedium of cardio machines for another means of fitness, running - outdoors, pounding my joints and exposed to the elements - was the quiet classmate who never really bonded with me until we, surrounded by strangers in a new locale, decided to strike up a conversation on the basis of relative familiarity. Runs had their rewards, but more often it was the scenery rather than the runner's high. When I lived in Kyoto for example, I regularly ran through the city's photogenic bamboo grove and one run was crowned with the cinematic solitude of a lone shakuhachi echoing through the river valley on a misty Sunday morning.
      Racing and training, though, never entered my mind until my 40s. The elementary school experience of being the slowest of a group that played tag or raced each day to assess ourselves and -- as my eight-year-old self-worth -- made me reluctant to compete as a runner, even with myself. My first race, in 2005, was an 11K trail run which I finished in an embarrassing 93 minutes; a light year from a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time. It was not a matter of being unfit or having another few stones of fat that I would shed before I got to this particular weekend in 2018. I just went out too hard and lost to inexperience. It would be four years before I raced again. A change of employer had just occurred and exiled me from the fitness centre I relied on for my brownie-burning turns on ellipticals.
      Oddly enough, I gravitated to the half-marathon rather than taking baby steps through a 5- or 10K. Was it just the m-word luring me? The shorter distances were available at this race, but my running commute home was about 11K so I felt comfortable pushing myself to the longer distance. The admission would likely be, that yes a marathon was ... THE marathon was always in the distant back of my mind.  The muted memory of Johnny Miles and Denzel Washington, that hill and that neighbouring city, Boston had leaked into my consciousness as early as age 9 or 10 and loomed as a possibility even before my youngest brother attained the goal as he quietly racked up his sterling results in the marathon.
     After a few half marathons, I indulged in looking up the BQ time for my age group and did the calculations. I was daunted and decided I would only attempt a full marathon if i could do it in in under four hours.  After another four years, in May 2013, I felt confident that my sub-4 hour goal was in range and registered for the Big Sur International Marathon. Those who know that race, are  likely snickering at how oblivious I was to making things easy on myself. Goal accomplished, however. And... I was hooked.
     From then on, I hoped to improve from one race to the next, but more enjoyed the transformational experience that each race proved to be. at this point, I want to circle back to that word that I wear so hesitantly, "athlete," and suggest that the accomplishments come not from gifts of agility, flexibility or the strength that we cite when thinking of basketball, soccer or hockey. Yes there is cardio capacity and endurance in my version of athlete, but much more of my training and racing has been about the journey within.
       For the scenery that I have seen in jogging Kyoto, racing at Big Sur, hobbling through Stanley Park or racing along the foggy shorelines in Nova Scotia, there has been an examination of the scenery in my mind. Whether my darkest, loneliest thoughts are haunting me or luring me with the option of quitting and walking away or my most poignant, palpable anticipation of a joy that is 58 minutes away, replete with the kind wishes of the people who inspire me, the marathons and the training have been more spiritual than athletic. Crossing a finish line is an occasion to reflect on what those particular 42.2K -- good or bad -- indelibly inflect in my voice, smile or posture.
      Boston has been a goal longer than I've admitted before but race day will not entirely about the clock. The zone that I found myself in when running on a beautiful day in Nashville is a hard to articulate but even more of a treasure because it is so personal. When the passage of time leeches into my capacity to outrun younger selves, it will be that zone and contentment that I aspire to.
       Ah... to outrun.
       The goal, getting there, was attained seven months ago and the question that has lingered for several years was whether it was better to qualify for Boston or to run it
       A few days from now I'm going to figure out what shoes to put on -- no, I haven't figured that out yet -- and join the queue for my next deep journey within.  The hopes and the unknowns are still wallflowers at a junior high dance but on Monday morning, they will pair up and find the music and rhythm they want to move to. They will break off with one another and re-pair throughout the race as I follow a route that I have heard about for 40-odd years. I will grapple with darkness, remind myself of inspiration, cling to it dearly and grant myself a moment to acknowledge that tenacity, not numbed habit, got me there, and put one foot in front of the other until I cross the line, my distance put in and another chapter of commitment, perseverance and reflection written.
      There will be a small fist pump, handshakes with the people I shared the last few miles with, and hugs with my brothers when I find them. I might get exuberant, especially if a personal best or a long stretch in the zone define the day. Ultimately, there will be the unknown that follows attaining something that not so long ago seemed unrealistic. From this perspective, with the race days way, the first steps beyond the finish line with the medal around my neck and a banana in my hand seem mysterious, charmed and full of promise.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Creativity and Authentic Mediums of Exchange


Since my flurry of posts on creativity that started 2018, I have been trying to give some shape to a course on the subject and how it might manifest itself or find expression via the camera. It is an interesting puzzle to wrestle with and I am still losing myself in thoughts about the unique challenges with the camera: instead of the blank page to add to there is a broad vista to subtract from; expression occurs in terms of what you see or receive rather than what output you generate. There are other aspects of photography that set it apart but, despite those, the bigger question are what I would want people to get from a course in creativity; and what would I want to teach that transcends the eccentricities of the camera?

Phew.

I would not want to preoccupy people with some blather or barrage of numbers about apertures, ISO, light temperatures and all of those aspects of photography. I have encountered too many students realize that exposure to those numbers does not result in the great images that hoped for.

All artists, creatives, creators -- choose your noun -- have the ability to create something that nobody else can. If we remain confident that all of us have a huge capacity for creativity, and I firmly hold that belief, everybody has the ability to create something that nobody else can. That holds true for the camera as well, despite the conceptions that we have because of the deluge of images that we see and the repetitions that result from en masse printing of images and the imitations of popular images that perpetuate or exacerbate the assumption that our collective range of vision is limited to variations on the images we commonly see, whether the fluid compositions we are accustomed to in cinema, the subconscious acceptance of common compositional rules or the occasional esteem granted to images that appear on calendars and post cards. The images that dominate the public sphere actually represent a narrow range and a significant degree of conformity, despite their vast numbers.

Faced with a narrow range of popular, acceptable images, we are tempted to conform to a standard rather than express ourselves or indicate our way of seeing the world. When, not if, I teach a course on creativity and the camera I would strive to encourage people to aspire to a wider range of photographic possibilities and to consider subjects that few other would consider, or even a subjectless approach that starts from within the photographer's soul or heart rather than with a drilled-in template that has become innate after a lifetime of indoctrination by strategically-composed images.

In other words, there may be some unlearning to do before they strive to express a vision of things that is entirely their own and is invested completely with their admiration and respect for what they frame through the viewfinder. With time and practice, the photographers I teach would strive to see new possibilities, find poetry and ultimately personalize the images that they receive.  The possibilities would be in escape from conventions that inform composition and choice of subject. Textures, negative space, colour, mood would emerge in these images and possess an energy that more conformist photographic efforts would limit or eliminate. Poetry would come from a careful consideration of the subject and a development of affection, respect or attachment that would not occur in a rushed shot taken from the door well of a tour bus. Ultimately, personalization would occur when the photographer is willing to take the risks (existential and creative, not physical) to express with the camera things that no one else has.

Achieving that personalization is the thing to strive for. It is will infuse a photographer's images with the energy, pathos and sensitivity that would not occur if one were merely striving for the technical achievement of imitating a popular image of a tourist destination or a familiar motif. Images that are truly one's own will possess compelling appeal. They may not appeal to the majority necessarily, but they will appeal, if only to a select few. 

In that effort to create something that is expresses yourself deeply and whole-heartedly, rather than conforms to tradition or the commonplace out of timidity, you have the opportunity or develop the muscles to more clearly define yourself and become a truer agent in the relationships and interactions that you engage in. With the ability to express yourself more articulately, accurately or powerfully - whether with words, music, stone, a delicate charcoal line or a photograph - comes the opportunity to be more completely yourself. In her essay, The Time for Art is Now, novelist Claire Messud says that without immersing ourselves in great works of art, "we risk losing sight of what makes existence meaningful. ... None of us is made fundamentally happier by a private jet, a drawer full of diamonds, a television show, or a YouTube channel. Nor does watching others accumulate these things enhance our own lives. Capitalism hoodwinks us daily. The stuff we buy, thinking it will improve our lot, proves to be bullshit."

Apart from absorbing ourselves in art, taking the time to create develops the ability and confidence to express ourselves and edge closer to the realization that our selves, while not infinite by any means, are certainly capable of replenishing if we bestow them with wise indulgence upon those we love. Drawing from deep within ourselves to create risks embarrassment or rejection but it will develop the confidence and the habit to share of ourselves freely, in a manner that is present, exposed, attentive and generous. Tapping into our creativity will slay the assumption that we just have mediate our interactions with the material veneer that Messud lays out, whether it is overabundant gifting or a compulsion to keep up with the Joneses. Tapping into that creativity will align our vision with our personalities and our questions. It will also prompt us to interact in a way that will cultivate our inner peace and ensure us that interacting wholeheartedly and authentically will be the most rewarding way to relate to one another.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Biography of a Gun, Chapter 2

For many who have remained appalled by the litany of mass gun shootings in the United States, frustration must induce some form of apoplexy or helplessness. At this moment, the students who have survived the shooting in Parkland, Florida are speaking out against the status quo on gun laws, but we can be assured that the politicians who are in the NRA's pocket will find a way -- despite their limited vision, their fondness for platitudes and the muzzle they wear -- will deign to condescend to them until the kids fall mute.

The efforts have been similar after each mass shooting. The prayers, vigils, bake sales and gofundme's appear, activism escalates among victims' families but the needle does not move. 

Those who have wearied of the geography lessons of senseless random violence that have made San Ysidro, Littleton and Newtown the key placeholders in a different map of America, the paroxysms of futile opposition to the NRA and the politicians who have relaxed the laws controlling the purchase, possession and carriage of guns despite the evidence that they are merely adding fuel to a gradual conflagration that takes the lives of so many innocent people but leaves the fallacies the support it unblemished.

Days after the shooting in Parkdale... For the people who read this months, weeks or days from now, it was the one in Florida, at the high school, in February 2018... a news article appeared about a Missouri kids baseball team that was raffling off an AR-15, the same type of weapon that was used in the attack in Florida. My first impulse on seeing the article was one of indignation, but it faded with the assurance that this was not something that would go unopposed. There is some recognition that guns are not something to regard with an air of neutrality or indifference. There is anxiety that there are kids roaming around their neighbourhoods or hovering around shopping mall entrances with their books of tickets on the weapon.

Beyond the assurance that there will be some second thought or hesitation about the wisdom of selling tickets on a gun, this is an opportunity of to focus the spotlight on a single weapon. The attacks appear randomly and the deaths that result are demoralizing and paralyzing for the victims' families and those who wish that there was the will and moral character in the highest offices to stop this. The weapons as well lie low, retaining anonymity until they kill and bring infamy to the person that uses it.

The spotlight is on this particular gun now and a prudent journalist or documentarian has the opportunity to follow the path that this particular gun follows. This story should be followed from the beginning rather acknowledged at its end in the assault and madness that occurs all too often. The movements of this gun could be followed when the raffle is won and possession exchanged with all of the anxieties that a background check would involve.  That is, of course, if Missouri did NOT have lax gun laws. From the time that possession of the weapon is taken, it would be an opportunity to investigate why this owner wanted to buy a raffle ticket on this weapon, what they are using it for, how they are looking after it, what other pieces they have and how often it is being practiced with. If someone is interested enough in this gun to, despite its brief flicker of notoriety, take possession of it and give it a good home (or whatever you offer the gun that you desire), perhaps they should edify America by sharing with people the story of what becomes of this weapon.

Certainly the NRA would make their best arguments about such close attention to the ownership of a single gun. As a reality television show, the life of this story would desiccate rather quickly and the law of averages would not favour this particular gun being used in a fatality or a mass shooting. It would reveal something about the profile of a random owner of an AR-15.  It would be an uncomfortable look in the mirror, but America is in dire need of that long look into its own eyes.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Photography, Framing Time and Space

In the course of reading Peter Himmelman's brilliant book on creativity, Let Me Out, I came across an exercise where the reader is prompted to take two minutes to list the things that you might wish to do with your life. It is a pretty basic exercise, probably in line with similar exercises in other books on creativity. The revelation in the description of the exercise is Himmelman's comment that you would likely talk yourself out of, for example, getting a plot of land to raise goats and turtles if you had gave yourself more than 2 minutes to do the exercise.

The passing observation about the exercise and the focus that is so easily diffused thanks to the curse of abundant time, applies not only to dreaming about your potential. It can also apply to the moment or opportunity when you are striving to create. With the camera, there is a similar command of moment and frame that a photographers have at their disposal.  The task a photographer has is to narrow time and the frame to capture something. One example from tonight: as my son and I walked home from after-school care, we waited for the traffic light to change. I launched into my optimistic blather about the days getting longer and commented on the strands of pink cloud above the horizon, but I stopped myself short to draw his attention to the signal directly above us.  The green light, illuminated a hood of snow and ice for a rare sight. I reached for my phone to photograph it, but that light changed to amber and the moment was gone. I chose not to keep my son on the corner for the next sequence of signals.  A slight change of gaze creates a new frame to compose an image within.

The episode is just one illustration of how viewing the world with a photographic eye can heighten your sensitivity to your surroundings.  With a camera around your neck, there is a much better chance that you see your surroundings in a particular place better than you would if you were more preoccupied with your thoughts than the information your eyes are presenting you with or, in essence, discarding the visual stimuli available to you in the way you might discard time available for you to create or rejuvenate. Instead of the less-attentive glance of one seeking just enough information to get through the day, a more attuned perception looks for ways to frame and reframe one's surroundings.  Complement that sense of space with a sensitivity to how a place might look with the light changing throughout the day and a dedicated photographer can work extensively from one place thanks to a consciousness of time and space.

The task for the photographer is to be prepared for the possibilities in that setting. That is not to say it is necessary to work as quickly as one would in the two-minute exercise that Himmelman lays out in his book but rather to not give yourself the time to discount possibilities or opportunities as they present themselves.  Rather than responding to an inner voice that is eager to talk you into or out of any particular images, it is better to quietly trust your eye.  Accepting unique ways of photographing a subject is one way to become more conscious of the intersection between time and space and keeping your distance from the rational mindset that will likely interfere with the possibility of play with the camera.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Just Look At It

Literally and metaphorically, a pig's ear. (Okay, a boar's but...)
After nearly ten years of teaching photography, I have become interested in developing a course aimed at improving perception and expression with the camera rather than just running through the technical aspects. Time and again I have finished teaching a course with a sense of disappointment that my students have realized that their emphasis on technical development is not sufficient for developing a talent for photographic expression and despite the creative lessons I've tried to weave into the course. 

Despite that disappointment among the students, they still an appetite for the technical. In the middle of my efforts to teach about the expressive side or ways to improve their perception, there have been responses of, to paraphrase, "Yeah, yeah but what does this button do?", that affirm the belief that the technical side of photography is the route to effective expression with the camera, that complete mastery of the machine between eye and subject will bring it all together and they will be the next Adams, Leibovitz or Cartier-Bresson.

Part of my goal with a course aimed at creativity is to banish the delusion that the technical has to be front and centre, or perhaps erect my own equivalent of an amusement park, "You must be this tall" sign to discourage entry into the course. However, when I look at a course and map the journey to more creative photography, I become conscious of me offering nothing more than, "Just look at it," accompanied by some variation of full body gestures or contortions to explain what I mean the phrase on a particular week.  A certain crouch and tension in my left hand during week two means keep an eye out for shadows and reflections. A "mwa" kissing gesture of the right fingertips off my forehead and into the institutional space of a basement classroom on week four means to do nothing else, but only to look.

There are, however, only so many ways that I can embody the italicization I may want to teach from one session to the next. After reflecting on the course concept for a few years and be locked into a search for the next step beyond telling the group to "just look at it" for lesson one, session one I broadened my perspective to one where I could take that phrase and break it down into a wider variety of the aspects that are occurring when you are looking at something with a camera around your neck or a viewfinder to have to see it through.

Instead of trying to come up with something different from or beyond the task of looking at something I sat down this afternoon and finally decided to unpack what I could possibly mean when I have the opportunity to tell a group of aspiring photographers to "just look at it." In the space of about 20 minutes I came up with the content to fill at least four lessons of such a course.  There would be exercises to develop to go with each of those tasks but the significant thing is that, somehow, my tack in approaching the development of the course has changed and the development of the course has come together with relative ease. The matter of fleshing it out remains, but the main things that I would strive to encourage photographers to do when seeking or receiving an image is to look for the following things:

  • Look for the details that can detract or enhance a shot - these could be shadows, reflections, relationships, unwelcome distractions. Remember these can detract or enhance, be overlooked when taking a less than ideal shot or overlooked when they are crying out to be seen.
  • Look for the things that you see - become confident in your way of seeing things and capture those images rather than being imitative. This could be a matter of the subjects you choose or the way you want to compose shots.
  • Look past how things are labelled - there are so many value judgements that influence us and would influence what we photograph or why. If you see beauty in something that nobody else even wants to look at, go for it. My favorite example of this is Pete Turner's "ashtray" image that was used as the cover art for the Wes Montgomery album A Day in the Life. Get past the association that we may or may not have with something and see it for what it is. 
  • Look at where your eyes landDo you look at things that are right in front of you or at the horizon? Are you standing in the very best place to see this subject from? It might even be worth asking if you look at the world or your life from that distance all the time as well.
  • Look at your frame - it is easy to take pictures without your camera. "Yup, I saw this great sunset over the mountains and, and, and..." No critical decisions to make without the camera. The real work begins when you look through the viewfinder and have to start making decisions about what stays or goes. Remembering (conveniently) is not creating. Grappling with the tools and related to the subject is the challenge and makes art more valuable than mere memory.
There is a chance that these approaches to the photographic subject can apply to other forms as well. Developing the heightened awareness to look at things more closely or see them in their fullest potential can be a very enlivening thing. The other thing for me with these considerations of the question I was grappling with is that if you keep asking it often enough you will come up with an answer.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Lost Legacy?

In recent years, Ed Catmull's book Creativity Inc. provided a look at the inner-workings and history of Pixar Animation and the result has been one of the must-reads on creativity and the assurance that creativity has its place in a corporate workspace. Catmull's account of the risks that people take, the skills they have the opportunity to develop and the "brain trust" that is such a significant part of Pixar's record in animated shorts and feature films going back nearly 30 years.

The book is one of many that have emerged in recent years that have burnished and acknowledged creativity's importance by taking it out of the elite, weird corner of the world occupied by the rich and the award-laden in favour of a view that encompasses all of us.  Catmull's book is one of many in recent years that reveal our own potential in nurturing our own creativity to help us lead more fulfilling lives, discovering what is within and beyond us and to collaborate in a manner that remains unfamiliar to us in an era that is exceedingly modern but is still defined by our failure to work together or even listen.

The range of books on creativity is astounding and added to that genre of tomes that appear for some reason on the self-help shelves of bookstores and make it that much harder for me to extricate myself from museum gift shops is a documentary film that will feature Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz and other Muppeteers talking about creativity and their experiences working with Jim Henson.  Henson has left a significant legacy of insight into his work and the upcoming documentary with Oz and his cohorts will do a great deal to solidify the legacy of Henson's creative ethos and make remind us that the Pixar team was not the first ensemble of creative talent to wreak such happy mayhem.

from http://www.muppetguystalking.com/ 
Before Henson and his team, however, was the ensemble of talent that put together the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Animators Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson and Friz Freleng, voice artists Mel Blanc and June Foray and composer Carl Stalling were an assembly of talent that is on par (at least) with the likes of the Muppet and Pixar teams. Jones has probably been, deservedly, the most lionized member of this group but the opportunity to fully document his approach to his creativity, collaboration and comedy may have been lost. In my search for material on Jones, I have come across a few out-of-print books, one of which has markedly mixed reviews and a few interviews or documentaries (with maddeningly off-synch audio) on YouTube, the legacy is in the work itself and we are left to glean what informed the work that they did.

The consistency with which the Looney Tunes team subverted the conventions of the animated form by slipping in surreal, trippy sequences that evoked LSD trips, deconstructed the relation between creator and subject in "Duck Amuck" and consistently broken the fourth wall is evidence of a massive collective imagination that was brimming with ideas and hungered for the opportunity to get it all out.  And opera!  These are just a few ways in which the Looney Tunes team gave its audiences more credit than other animators of their era did. The fun this group had in exploring all of their interests and the talents that each of them had would be a compelling and entertaining addition to the body of work that is coming together on creativity and collaboration.  Their ability to do high quality, imaginative work for as many decades as this team was at its peak is astonishing.
Do the archives somewhere have the information that would illuminate an account of the creativity and collaborative commitment of Jones et al? The records seem thin and it is an unfortunate loss. Part of that may be that there was more inclination to hold creators in awe during the time that Jones and other animators of the hand-drawn golden age worked. The disappointing decline in the quality of animation and comedy that is currently associated with the Looney Tunes brand and characters are light years short of what was produced during Jones' lifetime and his collaboration with his colleagues. Such a book would be a valuable peek into the creative process and a fine companion to the remarkable work that did.