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


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...

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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.


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.


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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.

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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.





--- --- ---

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.


--- --- ---

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.


--- --- ---

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.

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




All Saints Day

Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!


Today is a special day in the Catholic church. This first day of November is All Saints Day. For the uninitiated, All Saints Day is not a typical feast day in the tradition of the individual Saints and their fetes. It is more a day of observance and solemn recognition of all who have passed before. Deeply rooted in the western european tradition, All Saints Day was instituted sometime after 700 A.D. as a sort of papal Veteran's Day to "honour all the saints, both known and unknown." Such a profound and simple principle- "honor all, known and unknown." Its very existence makes manifest the true binding force of any religion or fellowship or tribe; the heartfelt communion of a congregation of souls, past, present, and future. And it underscores the very principle of connectedness with a thick line, indelible to time or whimsey. It says, "We all are one."

I remember as far back as far back goes watching my father's mother sitting after Sunday dinner, occasionally on our living room sofa, but more often on the stiff wooden chair near the big front window, sorting through her holy cards. Every Sunday she recited prayers so long-ago ingrained that the cards, worn thin by the years and crudely laminated with scotch tape, acted merely as orisonal placeholders. Half whispering, half meditating, her charm bracelet making it's grandmotherly clink, clink, clink, she offered recitations of petition and gratitude. She would shuffle through her deck of saints, meticulously assembled like the batting rotation in some fantasy invocation team, with positions secured through years of tough negotiation. "Now on deck, Francis of Assisi. Assisi..."

My grandmother's saints were real to her. They were friends. Each had a special conversation to be spoken, and a special time and place to be spoken to. Each had a job, full with the expectations that jobs bring. The saints were concrete, they were flesh and blood. And really, that's what saints are. Real. Because before the saints were saints they were people. With lives. And stories. And each had earned through due diligence their place in my grandmother's starting lineup. She never played favorites, nor would she brook some trendy upstart with an aggressive PR agenda. They earned their spot in the rotation through hard work and by providing consistent results. And they told great stories.

Always batting first was the perennial fan favorite, Saint Anthony. Before Anthony became the patron saint of lost car keys, he was a simple country doctor and preacher. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon Portugal, he became Brother Anthony of the Franciscan order after finding himself tasked by a visiting monk with tending to the bodies of five Franciscan friars who had been martyred for their evangelism in Morocco. "They were willing to die for their belief" he wrote, "and I prayed that my own death should have such weight." Anthony, at the time a foundering novice longed for connectedness to something greater, for the calling. He became an evangelical, traveling extensively, preaching to everyone, and when there were none, to no one. Preaching to spread his word. Preaching to find his way. Through it he found solace, and a voice. There are many stories as to why Anthony is connected to lost things, but the most compelling stories are those that have to do with his utter humility in aiding those in need, and restoring their faith in God and fellow man. Which makes him, along with the finder of lost trinkets, also the finder of lost souls.

Francis, our friend from Assisi, the founder of Anthony's Franciscan order, himself tells a story of casting off riches and the excesses of youth and position, and adopting a life of humble service. It is said that he slept outdoors, on the ground, and that all who knew him considered him a friend. His official team photo depicts him with a bird on his shoulder, cupping his hands to hold food, or water. Service to the smallest among us. Service to the weakest. Service that matters. Indeed it is what ties the saints together, the subjugation of personal desire for a life of service and advocacy.  Its the tie that binds them together, and them to us.

Agnes, the virgin saint, the patron of both couples in love and victims of abuse, was killed for refusing to be forcibly married to the son of a wealthy nobleman. Jeanne D'Arc, a simple farmer's daughter, led a criminally small French army battalion to victory against invading English forces. Later captured and tried by a British tribunal, she endured fourteen months of incarceration and interrogation before being burned at the stake. And all before her twentieth birthday. For God? Perhaps yes, or perhaps instead through God. But certainly for their sisters and brothers, and by extension, for us. Because nothing is anything if its not done for someone, or for something.

And now to address the subtext, the second stringers, the unknowns. While the knowns will always find their herald, there remain so many more unknown's out there, forever unheralded. And now, like then, they are still feeding the birds, fighting an overwhelming force, tending to the battered bodies of the abused. They don't seek recognition, they don't act for redemption or indulgence, they seek only to heal, to help, to soften the blow or even take a blow. For justice, or righteousness, or just for a friend. They'll never make the starting rotation, or make it out of the minors. Hell, they'll never even have a rookie card. But its not because they don't make saints like they used to. It's because true saints don't think of themselves that way. It's because sainthood, like politics, is local.

 In the Buffalo region we have our favorites- like Father Baker, Tim Russert, Constance B. Eve, or Anne and Milton Rogovin... By light of day they looked and sounded like ordinary people, but now, through the filter of time and a light sanding by history, they shine like the beacons we knew they would be. To a person they would say they were just doing their job, just doing what was right, or needed, or wanted. And it's not just that we miss them now that they're gone, though we do, it's that we find in their absence all the things that still need doing. And for the most part it's still pretty grimy work.

 So today I make a special request- leave the name of a known or unknown in the comments box, with a word or two of why, or send it along in an email if you prefer. Share this post with a friend or colleague, and celebrate what the day is about - service...

And save those rookie cards!