10.17.2011

The Quiet Image.

Many years ago I got a call from a magazine in Harrisburg, PA., called Early American Life.  They needed a photography who could travel to Louisiana with an editor in tow and photograph on beautiful, older plantations.  These were the early days of Kirk Tuck Photography and when I think back now about my packing up to go I smile at how rudimentary my gear was.  I was shooting with a Calumet 4x5 view camera and a Rollei twin lens camera.  For the 4x5 I had a 90mm f8 Super Angulon, a 135 Symmar and a 250mm Zeiss Planar.  Ten double-sided film holders, a Polaroid back and a changing bag.  (We'll do a whole column about changing bags sometime.  The young amongst us will gasp in disbelief...).

In those mythic days of yesteryear I owned two 2,000 watt second Norman Strobe boxes and four flash heads. All of this stuff, a ton of light stands, a giant tripod,  and enough film to last for a week and a half got stuffed into the bed of my Chevrolet three quarter ton pick-up truck.  This was a truck with at least 150,000 miles on it's 350 cubic inch engine.  It had a three speed transmission with a shifter on the steering column.  No air conditioning.  I had a "cap", not a camper, on the back.  The truck got something like negative nine miles to the gallon but what did we care back then?  It was Texas and they gave away gasoline instead of Green stamps at the time.  The truck was oxidized baby blue with white trim.

When I picked up my art director at the Austin airport she was "enchanted" with my "rustic" truck and always excited when I backed out of parking places.  In Texas people stop and wave you out if your vehicle has limited visibility.  Apparently, if you are from Philadelphia, backing out without looking is considered heinous enough to start gun battles.

We made it through torrential rains and flooded highways (thank you, Truck) and we visited many interesting people who, having made fortunes in one industry or another, felt compelled to flee to rural Louisiana and throw their life savings into crumbling monuments to a dark time in our country's past.

I took a lot of photographs but the one that stays with me from the trip is one I took outside with my old, twin lens Rolleiflex.  It's a clump of flowers.  I found them and liked them so I shot them. In my memory my trip through the backroads of Louisiana will always be marked by this image.

It's quiet, serene and captured just before the last light rinsed out in a muggy sky and the darkness crept in.

Loved that truck.  We used to sleep in the back when I travelled through west Texas.  It was always more fun than the hotels....

We're back. Both of us. All of us.

This is a small slice of time in the story of Belinda.  A snapshot view into an arc of stories.


It rained in Austin a week ago and we were all happy that nature nudged some benevolent clouds in our direction.  My trees and flower beds seemed happier than I've seen them in months and the two inches of moisture, wicked into the ground, moderated temperatures for the rest of the week.  We finally have a bit of Autumn.

One of the consequences of the rain, and my inattention to our gutters and French drains, was a little leak into the corner of my studio.  The floor of a closet where I store photo props got wet and one of my favorite grey canvas backgrounds got soaked.  I had elaborate plans to clean the background by hanging it over the fence and scrubbing with a sponge but finally decided, when Belinda wasn't looking, to dump the whole 10 foot by 12 foot hunk of dark grey canvas material into the washing machine and see what happened.

It's the first time I've ever washed a background and it went well.  After the spin dry cycle I hung it up in the middle of the studio, on its background stands, to dry.  And then, yesterday in the late afternoon, just as the sun was setting and the afterglow started to light up the evening sky, I looked over my shoulder from my desk and noticed how beautifully the soft, diffuse light was brushing across the gentle undulations of the background fabric.  The light was directional but without force.  It was almost like of mist of gray light.

I walked into the house and asked Belinda if she would come out to the little studio so I could take a shot.  I put a digital camera on an old wooden tripod and turned Belinda into the light.  The shutter speed was a slow 1/20th of a second and the aperture around f2.5.  The light was low enough to require a sensitivity setting of ISO 400.  I used an electronic cable release to shoot with.  We shot eight or ten images and that was enough.

Belinda went back into the house and I yanked the memory card out of the camera and went to the computer to see what I'd gotten.  From the beginning my intention was to make the final image black and white.  I chose this frame because Belinda seemed bemused.  The other frames were all good but all different.  Some had serious expressions and some were blurred with Belinda's laughter.  This one said it all.  It said, to me,  "I understand your frailties.  I understand your impulsiveness.  I understand your desire to photograph.  I understand your frustrations.  I understand the elation you feel when you get something just right."

I told Belinda all the reasons I stopped writing this blog.  She listened.  I told her all the reasons I wanted to start writing and sharing images again and that "look" up at the top of the page is the answer she gave me.  That's all.

I've been re-reading Susan Sontag's book, On Photography, for the past few days.  I'd read it years ago when I was filled with more hubris and impatience, and I'd dismissed too much.  The one thing that really touched me was her assertion that people in cultures with punishing work ethics (Her list:  Germans, Japanese and Americans) enjoy the hobby of photography because it seems like work and makes us less nervous about taking vacations and leisure time because we are convinced that we are still dutifully at work when we pursue our photographic creations.  It's a disturbing explanation for our desires to photograph.  But one that I believe is somehow mixed into the amalgam of our pursuits.

I prefer to believe my own conceit.  I think human beings, as members of tribes, families and elective groups, are story tellers at heart.  The photographic image is a crystallization of a part of a story that makes the whole of the story tangible.  If I show a photograph of a pretty, young girl at a coffee shop the image becomes part of an instant framework that brings you to the story with a ready supply of clues and facts and background.  You know what the girl looks like,  how she's dressed, her expression and posture, the surroundings, the visual feel of the coffee shop, and more.  You slide into the story with instant exposition.

But there are two ways to look at the individual photo.  One way is to approach it as a fully encapsulated piece of freestanding art and the other way is to look at the photo as a frozen selection in time from the continuum of a story.  I choose the second interpretation because, for me, every image I take cues me to think of the arc of actions and time connected to the image.

Here I'll make a confession.  I believe that I am a photographer without much natural talent.  There is nothing I bring to the table that anyone else cannot bring with the exception of my interpretation of stories.  There are hordes of people more technically adroit than I.   If you've done all of the exercises on Strobist.com and have read hundreds of technical blogs I don't doubt for a second that you can handle the technical aspects of image generation masterfully.  I'm also shaky at the ins and outs of composition.  I'm never quite sure how to handle the stuff that doesn't fit neatly into my frames and I'm generally no more than proficient when it comes to designing with colors.  Interpreting the technical stuff into art is a stretch for me.  When I say "no talent" I don't mean bad, I just mean, "not gifted."  "Not a natural."

I came to photography in an interesting way.  I always enjoyed writing and it came easily to me.  I feel like words are fluid and flow smoothly when I'm in my writing groove.  But all things visual and design are difficult for me and I struggle with them.  I started adult life as a writer but I always had the idea that good writing (story telling) depended partly on having good stories to tell.  When a writer is young they may be facile in the mechanics of a story but the foundation of the story is sometimes missing.  And, the work from younger writers tends to be like a brash wine that could stand aging and breathing.  I always assumed I would write something good but I also assumed I would do it in my 50's and 60's.  You know, after I'd amassed something interesting to say.

So I waded into photography to confront the challenges of my visual illiteracy.  My visual clunkiness. And every step has been like slogging through mud.  But the stories are there.  I've learned enough of the technical work to make the birth of my images reliable and I depend on the implicit and integral stories to bear the weight.  So there's always a conflict.  What is a photograph?  A fixed work of art or the slice of a story transformed to a visual symbology?  And do my own limitations inform my answers?

I come down on the side of narrative.  I secretly wish every photograph had a well written caption.  A way of contextualizing the image and the art.  When other photographers sit and share coffee we talk more now about why we photograph.  The dispirited wonder why they go through the motions and question their motivations.  At the heart I think we all have stories to tell and that the sharing of the stories assures us that there's a certain universality to our existence and experiences but at the same time there are little twists and inflections that make a story uniquely yours.  The storytelling is like a road map.

In Buddhist teachings everyone and everything is interconnected.  Our suffering and joy are interconnected.  And your story is equally important.  All our stories are of equal value in the big scheme of things.  If you tell your story people become newly aware of how things look to you through the filters of your experiences.  It becomes part of the ever changing matrix of their understanding of our existence.

When I question my involvement in photography I come around to the idea that I have a story to tell and, just as importantly,  an audience to tell it to.  The stories exist with or without photographs but become, in some ways, more concretely accessible with them.  When you have doubts about what moves you to take images, when you are frozen by the indecision you might ask yourself, "What is the story I want to tell?  What are the feelings I want to share?  How can I tell you how beautiful this thing in front of me is?  Here, let me show you.  We'll know this one thing together...."

Where do the stories come from?  They come from your own passions.  From your own curiosity.  From the things you love and the things you despise.

I understood that when I photographed people but I didn't understand what pushes me to photograph little details of my city's downtown.  Now I do.  I am trying to understand the story of people's interconnectedness and shared space.  I am trying to understand how we continually change our context to create a new world in each moment, anchored with the only objectivity available = our concrete surroundings.

In effect, it would seem that we capture images to tell long term stories about the past.  "Here is Ben at 2 years old and he was doing this......"  But there's more to the collection of images then the final chapter; which I always imagined would be me sitting on a small bed, in a small room, old and dressed in a worn suit and tie but with nowhere to go and nothing to do, holding small album or book of photos in my hands and remembering a life in the past that had moved on like water in a stream.  And the images in my book would be a last, desperate attempt to hold onto the life line of life and memory.

But stories are now.  Stories are in the present.  We make them now and they become part of an infinite ball of rubber band cosmos....rubber band by rubber band.  We add our stories because they are part of the continuum, part of mankind's story.  And no matter how small the story might seem it also seems to be our destiny to tell it.

And that's why I think we photograph.

Welcome back to my blog.  I appreciated everyone's feedback.  I can't promise you anything but that I'll write about things I think and show images that have some meaning for me.  Everything else is a crap shoot.

It's monday.  It must be time to get back to work.