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.

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.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Play and Abandoned Photographs

With paintings, symphonies, and novels, to name the more sprawling creations, there are mythologies surrounding the incomplete. We are left with several questions of what could have been when a work is left on the desk or the easel before its creator is able to finish it. Alternatively, there is the echo of the apt line, "Art is never finished, only abandoned," which has been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso.  (They must know a thing or two on that topic.)

However, given the instantaneous time frame we associate with photography, the notion of an incomplete or abandoned photograph would seem an overextension of the metaphor. There are ways in which a photo is abandoned or left incomplete.  There is also the possibility of first drafts of an image being exposed as steps toward capturing or fulfilling a photographer's vision.  That incomplete photograph may lack in the subtlest of ways, but it is lack enough to leave a photographer uneasy when it is time to pack up the gear and move on for the day with the question lingering whether it is worthwhile to come back to this particular spot again or if there is another setting that will better express what is within.  The abandoned or incomplete photographs are those efforts that do not show what was envisioned a perception stopped a photographer to view the world through the camera. The  precise quality, placement and intensity of light that they wanted to photograph can prompt a camera to be packed away with a vague sense of disappointment.

That is not to suggest that incomplete or abandoned photographs are (irrevocably) flawed.  The photographer would likely want to tweak it if they had a chance, even if it was just to see how it would look if it were done differently and confirm that this is the image they wanted rather than one they merely settled for.

In my own case, there are shots I want to replicate in terms of the composition or the technique I applied to see if there is still magic or freshness in my well-used bag of tricks. When I am out with my camera, I become conscious of most if not all of the pictures I have ever taken and they inform and guide what I was striving for and will strive for with each photowalk.  I have a clear recollection of the circumstances surrounding the shots that I have been most satisfied with and while those images may not feel abandoned or incomplete the question of what else I could have done lingers.

There are other occasions, though, when the image is a click of resignation after contemplating a shot to no avail.  For one reason or another an image feels stagnant and leaves questions rather than resolution and a satisfying nod of approval at a shot.  Faced with that, I have to look within and figure out what was "off" with my approach or my frame of mind when I took the shot.  The incomplete or the failed photograph is a matter of me getting to a place where I am enjoying the process and the enjoyment has to come before the good images start to appear. In the instances when I am unable to conceive a distinctive, satisfying picture of what is right in front of me I face a block similar to a painter, musician or writer who cannot find the next thing to add to their work. In my case it is a matter of adding something worthwhile to my entire body of work and to continue to progress and to build on the images I have taken up to that point. There are time when a few minutes pass when the photography or the process feels forced and there are times when it is an entire day or longer stretch where the shots feel abandoned rather than fully invested in. In the end, I have to regard those stretches of "bad" photography the way I would regard a roughed in passage of writing where the plot is being moved along but the language is flat and uninspired. I have to regard those images os first drafts that either lay the foundation for something else or go back to those places with new intentions, more energy and a chance of being locked into a certain frame of mind.

When in such a rut, I am working too hard for shots that are exceptional and the pleasure and flow remain elusive.  When I have trapped myself in that way, I pause for a few minutes and ease into a minimalist mode, just looking for colour -- clean, basic, bright and primal -- or strive to amuse myself with shots that look like faces. A playfulness settles in rather than pressuring myself to get into a more meditative, observant or zen state of mind. Working to achieve that state of mind assures that it will evade.

The failure to get into that clear, primal or playful frame of mind that leaves me feeling the images I'm getting are being abandoned, incomplete, or forced. It always feels like I'm working hard for them. Those efforts either result in imitations of what I've seen before or they lack the inspiration and connection that I aspire to. 

With photography, it is not the size of the project that gets in the way of completing an image, but your receptivity to it.  There are times when you get in your own way with the camera as is the case with any creative act.  Call it ambition. The temptation is to strive or labour to sharpen your perceptions to see more, but that can be as quixotic as trying to photograph colours or vibrancy that are not there or has faded with the sunset.  Photography is a matter of accepting what is in front of you, looking at it long enough to grow fond of it and using the camera to express your feeling about it, whether it is affection, amusement or something more profound. With time, attentiveness and the restraint required to keep the photography enjoyable and the images fresh.