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Eight Hundred and Sixty-Six Words on the Power of the Still Photograph (an apology)

hey_mister
hey_mister

Last month, as a midterm assignment, I gave my advanced photography students an essay assignment; one thousand words on the power of the still photograph. It made me sound important. At first they thought I meant a thousand characters. They're so cute. A thousand words isn't that much, I told them- its a blog post.  Within ten minutes they had me bargained down to 500 words. Okay, fine, I don't mind.  Most were thoughtful, a few actually engaging. One was intentionally contrary to the point of the assignment, a finger in the eye of my grandeur. The last line was " Please don't fail me."

I'm sorry. I did. Fail you I mean. I mean, I failed. This is my apology...

--- --- ---

I've been a photographer longer than I've been anything else in this life, with the exception of a son, and maybe a compulsive eater. Longer than I've been a husband. Longer than I was a Catholic. Or a smoker. Longer than I've been a teacher, a writer, or a computer nerd. Longer than I've been a licensed driver if I stretch the thread really tight.

A long time.

At least since the age of 19, which I reached in 1977, a camera has defined me in some form. But even before that, with my first 'serious' camera, a Mercury Satellite 127 which I still own, I have been a taker of pictures. When I turned pro it was with an Olympus OM-1n. I loved that camera. Everything about it was perfect. It had perfect weight and perfect size. The shutter speed dial was on the lens mount. Everything about it was perfect. After that came an Olympus OM-2n. I loved that camera. It too was perfect. I used those cameras until they were just plain wore out. We were inseparable. It would be odd to see any one of us without the other. Simpatico.

When I close my eyes I can see them, the the dents and dings, the corners worn down to the brass beneath the chrome. If I try really hard, I can feel them.

Still.

Next came a string of Canons, and with them came a slow separation from the truth. None of the Canon's were particularly noteworthy, none possessed any real magic. Each succession only moved to isolate the act of photography further and further from the moment. Automation trumped artistry. Auto focus. Auto bracketing. Motion dampening. Feature creep insured that a three-thousand dollar camera would be obsolete within a year's time. Then digital killed film, like video killed the radio star, and with it the true therapeutic and redemptive powers of picture making began to fade.

And so it goes, until it goes around...

I'm back on the film. Seeking redemption. And a powerful fix. Last week I scored a brick of Tri-X from a guy behind the dry cleaners. Came at a bundle, but that's the price of addiction. The price of truth. For it turns out film is a far more important player in the creative process than I gave it credit for. And here's why- film makes a photographer think. Film makes a photographer work. When you walk out the door with only thirty-six photos in hand, you pay attention. You acknowledge the unyielding physical limit you've placed on your creativity and you work with it. Limits are what make progress possible.

Still.

--- --- ---

It begins with putting the camera up to your eye. Feeling the cool of the metal against the skin. Deep breath in. Looking through the viewfinder. Seeing through the viewfinder. Just you, in charge, a god-like eye; you and whatever you choose to share your consciousness with. Pick a focal point, find the edges of the frame. Stay quiet, stay focused. That satisfying geared resistance of the thumb against the film advance lever. Pushing it slowly but firmly until it can move no more. The tentative but perceptible pressure against the shutter release. Squeeze the trigger, don't force. The quick slap of the mirror, the snap of the shutter. Breathe out.

--- --- ---

The magic lives in the limits. And in the breath. It's in the focus, and in the consciousness. Its where the power hides. In the sensual beauty of the dance.

stop. everything.

rewind.

unload.

reload.

refocus.

--- --- ---

The still image. Still. What else can claim to represent a slice of time. Capture time. Make time stop. Forever. I have a picture of my Dad. He's twenty-four years old.

Still.

--- --- ---

In 1839 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre finds the method to make Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "retina" images permanent. No one will believe they are real. In 1968 Eddie Adams took a picture of a Vietnamese Chief of Police preparing to execute a vietcong prisoner with a pistol. Everyone knew it was real. Forty-five years later, the boy begs for mercy.

Still.

--- --- ---

Photography is the dictionary for defining a moment. It is the thesaurus of vision. It is bone, and sinew, and flesh. When mine own bone, and sinew, and flesh is nothing more than dusty dust, a small child will race after another, under a scribbled message on a concrete wall.

Hey mister! God loves you.

--- --- ---

still.

Addemdum: I've moved all the old Bodhicyclist posts over to the new SETT server. The blog address is TheBodhicyclist.com  simple. The new blog has a community section where you'll find cool news and noteworthy tidbits...

mark

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Creep

Its there, toward the end of the low road that traces the southeastern end of the lake, in the perpetually dank, swampy area near the outlet. Its tiny, hiding in the cottonwoods, more shed than anything else. It's been there forever. Everyone knows about it. Its a piece of local lore. The sign out front reads...

AL'S BAIT AND ADULT VIDEOS

Left unvarnished its a beautiful chicken and egg conundrum. Was it, "Hmmm, besides bait, what else do fishermen really like? I know, adult videos!" Or was it more like, "When I'm not watching adult videos, what else do I really like to do? I know- fish!" Either way, its a fantastically freakish conglomeration of commerce. And a perfect illustration of a truly vexing quandary. Why must simple things become more complicated over time? Its a principle known as creep, wherein one simple thing slowly morphs into a more complex thing, and complex in a way no one ever projected or proposed. And once that "cavity fighting, enamel restoring, improved whitening, for sensitive teeth, freshmint flavored" tooth paste is out of the "60% post consumer recycled material" tube, well, you get what I driving at.

In the military its called mission creep. In electronics, its referred to as feature creep. In the educational field we have responsibility creep. And in our lives is called- I don't know what its called exactly. But we're all subject to its laws. In my Buddhist studies one of the first principles I learned, I mean really learned, was mindfulness. Mindfulness is about simplicity. About putting step one first, and step two second. Mindfulness is about thinking only of the mechanical act of completing step one whilst completing step one. And nothing else. Its about separating ourselves from the daily chaos we seem to so actively embrace. Mindfulness is about being in the moment. And we all know how that can suck.

And its really hard to do everyday.

When I'm riding my bike, I try really hard to be in the moment throughout the ride. Its impossible of course, because at some point the wandering monkey brain inevitably takes over. But its easy to beat it back because cycling is about that one thing and nothing else for two or three hours. It requires mental discipline. And maybe thats the problem with life-creep, or activity-creep, or whatever it is that makes a day so complicated. There are so many demands that fight for preeminence we try to attend to them all at once. We call it "multitasking". And we all, to certain degrees, suck at it.

I'm training myself to slow down, to be a unitasker. I used to listen to music while I wrote. Then I realized once that I was writing song lyrics instead of my thoughts. So now I turn everything off, and work in the quiet. Quiet is nice. But it is scary too. The lack of physical distraction leaves only the internal conversation to knock us off task. And knock it will. But if I write, and do nothing else until I'm done writing, my writing is so much better. When I'm at school, planning for classes, I dislike answering the phone. It puts me off my game. It gives me a string of excuses to not continue. But If I can just sit and plan my day, the planning takes half as long and is twice as good.

P and I eat dinner, in the kitchen, at the table. When we eat we converse, but often about dinner. About the food, about it's taste. The squash is sweet. The brussels sprouts are tender. The salmon skin is really crunchy. It enhances the experience. It makes it meaningful. And memorable.

The punchline? I don't know- "Be in the moment" "Pay attention" No- that's not it...

I think its simply "When its time for fishing; fish..."

Mark

Addendum: I'm in the process of moving the blog to a new server. The new address is http://sett.com/thebodhicyclist For the next month or so I'll keep the blog active here but you will want to reestablish any feeds through the sett server. 

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Moby Dick

Why the f*** should I have to press "1" for English?  STATEMENT ON A BUMPER STICKER

Captain Ahab, the mythic, God-like ship's captain in Moby Dick, the man-hero wholly consumed with rage against a Godless beast which cost him his leg, rejects outright all things which do not fortify his fevered vengeance quest. Deep within his soul Ahab believes that the white whale is the embodiment of evil, and acts accordingly against it. From the pages which recount Ahab's odyssey comes one of the greatest exultations of the total consumption of rage ever written in modern literature, American or other.

"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam on down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Dude could write.

My friend the Colonel once shared this book to a former Iraqi army officer he worked with. Days later the book was returned with a courteous but confused thank you.

"I'm sorry," he said, "But I just don't understand. All this because he lost his leg."

"Um- yeah, that's the point."

"But bad things happen to people every day. Where I come from we have learned to just move on."

--- --- ---

The world is changing. (...duh)

Look, what I don't know about the world could almost fill the Hollywood Bowl. But I do know this- all living things change. And when I refer to change I'm not referring to climate or population, although if half the world's population were wiped out today, there would still be more people inhabiting the earth than did in 1990. What I mean is the day to day of change, the "Yes, the ATM is asking me to choose a language" change. I mean, really, I'm supposed to adopt this as my white whale?

There's a big disagreement over solar and wind energy. Windmills are ugly, solar takes a long time to pay out. Both are seriously flawed technologies. But the NFL didn't look anything like the NFL when Jim Thorpe was running around in a scratchy woolen sweater and a leather hat. But football, like everything else, evolved. Setting aside the obvious value judgements to be made and focusing solely on the thing, football is what it is because it followed a sequence of change. And the same goes for solar power and wind power and biofuels and microwave popcorn and Southern Tier 2Xmas. What it is is only what it is, not what it was, or what it will be. Why is that so difficult a thing to wrap a head around?

--- --- ---

Resistance to change is what drives most business and all government.  It's what creates brand identity and a two-party system. If we wanted change we would change. But instead we let the same banks that tanked the global economy pay a 'fine' of one point nine BILLION dollars for laundering Mexican drug money and then loaning that money to countries we don't loan money to. And no one says a word. Or goes to jail. Or cares.

George Carlin once wrote that we placate ourselves by marveling at the fact that we have thirty-seven kinds of mustard to choose from on the grocery store shelf, but we ignore the fact we have no real choice over who our leaders are. Because that's the way we want it.

--- --- ---

My father's grandfather came from the Alsace. His grandmother from County Cork. Growing up we ate cabbage and pork and beef cooked in vinegar and more cabbage. My dad drank beer. Two doors down my friend's family ate chopped liver and boiled eggs and chicken and drank sweet wine. Further down the block were dinners of mutton and pasta and veal and wine that didn't come from a store. We were neighbors. And friends. And we were who we were. And we weren't afraid of who the others were either. I learned to speak Hebrew from Sam and Italian from Chuck's dad. I ate gefilte fish. And tripe. And now years later my students bring me mofongo and pani puri to try. And I eat that.

And we are friends.

--- --- ---

And none of this makes me angry, or scared, or makes me lash out at a world out of control or a world that isn't the same as it was when I was young, even though it isn't the same. I don't want it the same. I like my iPad, and Kindle books, and I like my digital camera. And I like a world that offers me a venue to write my thoughts out, and lets me put them out there...

And if it means that I have to press "1" then I'll press "1" and I won't shoot my heart upon some feigned foe. No, instead I'll press "1" and acknowledge the fact that my world is filled with colors and smells and favors I never knew as a boy. I'll remember Kodachrome fondly, but I won't romanticize it.

And I will ask myself why I would want it any other way.

--- --- ---

mark

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Shelf Space

20121128-220814.jpgThis is my twenty-fourth post since launching The Bodhicyclist. It might not seem like a lot. It probably isn't. But already I find myself at a crossroads. Honestly, I thought I knew what I wanted to do with this when I started. I planned thoroughly. I followed the advice of the experts. I wrote fifteen posts before I even launched. And then I found out on that what I thought I was, wasn't.

And the blog has been better for it.

I found out that if I focused on my place in my small corner of the of the small blue dot we call home I could, if nothing else, teach myself something about me I didn't know. And reveal a thousand other questions I didn't know I had.

Like;

What the hell was I thinking when I started this? If I don't believe in God, why do I always write about God? Why do I end up a disappointment to so many people? How does Paula put up with me day after day?

Anyway- I'm running out of shelf space for all my questions. And I need to consider them better. So I may go to one-a-week for a couple weeks. The last thing I want is to make writing a chore. It turns out that after thirty-five years of being a visual guy, I like being a word guy. And for the six regular readers of the blog I don't want reading to be a chore.

And honestly, I miss my dad and I haven't had much time to think about it.

I have a really good horse in the barn for Monday. I promise. I've been mulling it for a bit over a week and its just now making sense. I promise it will be worth the wait.

I'll even put a bow on it...

Thanks,

Mark

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[No] Reservations

I'm remembering back to an episode of the Travel Channel show No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, when Tony is in Japan. He is watching a man make soba noodles. This is what the man does- he makes soba noodles. His entire life he has made soba noodles. Every day of his life. And nothing else. As a matter of fact, in all his Asian travels, so many stops include a person who makes this one thing or does this one thing.

What is a life like that is at once so simple and so wholly purposeful? What it is like to just... be?

I have this memory from when I was young, of visiting the Carmelite monastery in Pittsford NY. The Carmelites are monastic nuns who live a cloistered existence, wholly abandoned to the worship of God. Their life consists of prayer, penance, manual labor, and spiritual contemplation. Out of context it is a beautiful, serene, and I suppose, rewarding life. In some paradigms it might seem a copout. In any, it is an act of renunciation of the tribulations of modern living, with a devotion instead to this one thing- worship; prayer. Every day is purposeful, every life, examined.

--- --- ---

I remembering taking my first picture at the age of ten, a picture of the janitor at my elementary school, with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera (which I still own). It was a child's pursuit, more curiosity than interest. But it was when I was nineteen that I made my first real photograph. I was working my first full-time job. I had been thrown into this crazy work cycle for which nothing in my life had prepared me. I worked eighteen twelve-hour days (3:30 pm to 3:30 am), with one day off between cycles. I followed this schedule for my first six months of employment. It was miserable, but it made me pretty wealthy. Especially for a teen who had been invited to not come back for a second year of junior college.

One of the first things I bought with my riches was a camera; an Olympus OM-1n. My friend Chuck and I were utilizing one of my off days, and we went to Akron Falls State Park. It was a crisp fall day. The leaves were turning, and the park was ablaze with color. Chuck worked in a camera store and was testing a new arrival from Olympus for the weekend. I was there because it was a Sunday and my only day off that month, and I wasn't about to spend it at home watching football. He handed the camera to me to try. I took one picture. The next day he called me from the store, and said I should meet him for lunch. When I arrived he handed me a print of the photo I had taken. I skipped lunch and bought the Olympus instead.

Its hard to convey what I felt when I saw that photo, but it was a combination of "that's so beautiful" and "I made that?" To that point, my adult life had been a combination of failing out of school, and working a meaningless second-shift maintenance job at an auto assembly plant. My uniform was greasy blue-black overalls, my hands perpetually soiled and scarred. Even my pillow case had a permanent yellow stain from where my head had laid upon it. I hated that job because it was not me. It was foreign and and fostered a contemptuous relationship for over a decade.

And then there was that photograph. From it I can trace a convoluted line that led me to where I am now, in my home with my wife and lover of twenty-plus years, a cat asleep on my lap, reaping the simple rewards of a career in teaching.

I teach about photography. And why photography is important. I teach in what is considered a small rural high school, and I teach evening classes at our local community college. I love teaching. I can think of few more rewarding professions. I make no allusions about what I do- at the high school level my job is to create connections- to open a door or two where none existed before, to point out the window and say "look", "see". Some students go on to study photography in college, most don't. But I think most leave changed for the better.

And this is my life. It is what I have done for my entire adult life. For almost twenty-five years. Every day. I never gave it much thought, but I can't imagine doing anything, or being anything, else. Being a teacher allows me to just be myself, to live a life that speaks honestly to me.

I get it now, the soba noodle guy, the Carmelite nun. Its all the same- none of it is about the "what." Nothing happens out of context. It's only ever about the "Why." My story is longer because its mine and I know it better. It is no more, or less, compelling than deciding to be the soba noodle guy, no more, or less, voluntary than choosing a vocation to the Carmelite order. It's about finding a personal water level. Soba guy still has bills to pay and children to raise, the nuns still feel the bone-cold of a New York winter. Life is life no matter how much certain aspects are romanticized. Every day I return home to the unconditional love of my beloved wife and lover. Every night a cat curls up on my lap. And they make me whole. And centered. And though I still carry scars from days as a laborer, they are but reminders of the journey here. About finding peace.

About learning to just...

be.

Mark

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I'm Paper, You're Glue...

Last Friday I was invited to speak at a conference for artists, educators, and workers in the social services. It was a two day conference focused on balancing life, work, and art, and how to stay vital in fields which will bleed you dry if you are not properly prepared. There were two morning sessions this day, and two more in the afternoon. I was scheduled as the final afternoon speaker. The morning sessions were really pleasant; a plein air painter and a yoga instructor. During the yoga talk were were to be led through some basic asanas while we meditated on famous artworks. Following instructions I took off my shoes- and discovered I had a hole in my sock. "Hello toe, what brings you out today?" But so it goes. Lunch was really pleasant, if a bit too long. I had a peaceful conversation with a few colleagues. We talked shop talk and gossiped about mutual friends. The speaker scheduled before me was a colleague and friend. She is a paper artist, an installation artist, a book binder. A visionary. She simply blew me away with her talk. Most public speakers, if they are anything like me, have a habit of telling you what they know that you don't and what they've done that you haven't. But this talk was different. It began with a brief and humorous biography, followed by some introductions to her approach to art making. And then she said it. She said the most profound thing I've heard in a long time. She said, "In my classes I tell my students that all materials have inherent properties which have to be respected." What she meant was that you have to understand how paper reacts to pencil or paint or pen. You have to realize that pencils make dust, and ink smears. What she meant was "Acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the things and people you encounter in life." Intuitively I think I've always known that, but I never heard it put quite that way. We all have inherent properties. I'm quiet, he's not, she sings really well, he can fish... These qualities make us who we are, they make us the individuals that we are. And we have to respect these qualities in ourselves and in others.

We have a tendency to want to make things conform to our standards. Van? Ick. Sport Utility Vehicle? Sweetness. It's not wrong, but makes everything unnecessicarily complicated. The military calls it mission creep, the software industry calls it feature creep. What makes something work for a specific situation limits its usability in others. So we tack something else on or accept a bit less utility overall. Occasionally it's nice to just back off a bit and relish in the simplicity of simple things. Savor in that one great thing that small business do, or that people offer. Focus on your strengths. That one thing you do better than anyone else. Find a way to apply it, find others who share your passions.

P has found twitter to be great for that- for sharing that one thing. Twitter conversations tend to be long in nature, because the tweets are short in nature. There is a sort of conversational semaphore that takes place. Short, punch, punch, punch conversations. I makes the conversation open to anyone. Focus on one idea at a time. Move on. Not everyone likes it, or is good at navigating through it. P is the best I know. A pro. She has met the most fascinating people and learned the most fascinating things through twitter. But it, like everything else, requires an understanding of what it can, and can't do. It's not a public square like Facebook. It's a roundtable discussion. Everyone gets to say their piece, and everyone is given equal weight. And it works because of brevity and the clarity that brevity offers. But their are some who want the tweet length expanded, or have photos inline. But the purists balk- it would change the nature, begin a feature creep that most don't want. So it's stays short. One hundred forrty-four characters. Period. In its own way it's perfect.

My talk that day was not profound. I'm not sure it even rated 'good'. It was characteristiclly random and all over the place. It was about me, and what I know. It was forgettable. I'm trying to learn, to acknowledge the inherent qualities of the people I know, the things I encounter. I've found blogging to help, if only because it makes me write things down. And I'm learning to listen, because when I do I hear the most amazing things...

Peace

Mark

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