This latest blog is a rough transcript of a talk I gave at the local community college photo club, when my wife Kathy and I exhibited our alternative process prints there. It represents our overarching philosophical take on being film photographers in the digital age. The members of the club were all working on degrees in professional photography, and hence were destined to be commercial digital photographers, future competitors with each other.
Photographers At Play
Photographers at Play, a rather trivial and playful title, at least on the surface, it makes me think of children. Once, at a concert, we encountered an acquaintance who told us of a scientific study, following a dozen children from when they first entered school until they graduated from high school. They asked these kids, in their initial encounter, Can you dance? Can you Sing? Can you draw pictures?, Can you make up songs? And the overwhelming percentage said “Yes I can.” Following these kids through the school years always asking the same questions, the percentage of “No I can’t” increased every year, until by the graduation day from high school only a very small minority could say “Yes I can” to any of those questions.
We are socialized out of our creativity and our self-confidence. Maintaining that feeling of creative power is and must remain a life-long struggle. I remember when I bought my first platinum kit from the Formulary in Montana. It sat in its white cardboard box for six months, because I kept thinking, “I can’t do this, I’ll screw it up.”
Meanwhile, the Modern Art ethos evokes the image of the solo, struggling, genius, who has the power to transform the world of art through manifesting the inner genius into a body of work. And thus, SUCCESS, which is first Recognition, And second Wealth.
Now in this context Photographers at Play might begin to show a bit more of its serious intent. Play is the realm of children. We adults, are supposed to work. Indeed, early 20th century photographers referred to themselves as workers, a phrase that was sometimes political, in identifying with the working classes and progressive movements, but also a phrase very descriptive of the process nature of photography. There was chemistry, optics, the physics of light, the elements of handiwork in repairing broken wooden cameras and building the structure and apparatus of all the things required in the darkroom. But then in the 20th century many people in this country considered themselves to be workers, working class, and they were, in keeping with that class, keepers of workshops and tool benches and in those golden days of film photography, personal at home darkrooms. They were crafty people, a crafty generation and very self-sufficient in their skill sets.
But they were not necessarily very good at developing and maintaining the playful creativity of childhood. After all, times were hard, there were wars, big wars, Depression, and when times got superficially better in the 1950’s these crafty people managed to raise a generation of children that had their creativity stuffed deep into the holes of their bomb shelters and their suppressed joy of life.
Photographers at Play is, in this context a statement of protest, a repudiation of the great and overbearing weight of that socialization and even, Repression. Note that there are two terms, Play, of course which is both a verb, an action, and a noun, a process. Then there is Photographers, plural, not singular. If we were intent on maintaining that Modernist manifesto of the singular genius, then Kathy and I would be in perpetual competition and self-doubting. So we are saying 2 things. First, that Play is the proper attitude in which to work, and second, that photography is a communal enterprise, that it is an idea and a process which is well served in the context of a community of workers.
When we were children we played with toys. As adults, we have our tools and even if we call it Work, which it certainly is, nevertheless our tools can be sources of playful energy. There is a certain joy I get with picking up a camera I have not used recently, or a camera which I have repaired and maintained, and taking it out on a shoot. There is another great pleasure in standing in the darkness before the darkroom sink and hand processing a sheet of 8X10 film, and waiting until close to time and flipping on the little green light to make a quick inspection. There is a satisfaction in watching a palladium print suddenly and dramatically appear as I pour the hot potassium oxalate over it in the developing tray. This is play, this is fun, this is work.
The variety of processes available to us as photographers right now is greater than it has ever been. This year we have begun doing gum printing, using water color pigments to make the image on paper. And one of the things that makes us more inclined to do that kind of work is our availability to shoot film, scan that original negative, and then print out a digital negative, usually an enlargement, with the increased contrast and density needed to make most of these alternative printing processes work at their best. Using the digital negative is also a sense of security in that an original film neg pressed up in a contact printing frame against a damp gum bichromate paper would make us very nervous for the health and well being of that film neg.
The variety of print possibilities increases for us all the time as we delve into one more process for the first time. I have been enjoying whipping egg whites up in a bucket with a little acetic acid and some sea salt, then letting them age, rot, ferment, or whatever for a week or two to make albumen paper. It’s a new game for us.
The worker part kicks in here, because all of this involves developing a sense of craft, and a growing mastery of the various processes. One of the most exciting things about photography is that it is a life-long learning process; there is always more to learn, more to grow. Craft is a word that takes us back to that earlier generation of people with workshops in their basements. All of this requires a very serious attitude towards the materials and the processes. You have to do it right.
So does this help us to attain to a high degree of creativity?
We shoot film only. That’s because we love film and we love the processes. Film requires focus of attention to detail, patience, and a keen awareness of its limited potentialities. The constraints of film, especially sheet film emphasize the requirements for attention to detail and patience, things that I don’t naturally come by. But if you think about how children play, especially when they are very young, you will note that they seem to have a great availability to focus on little details, and they can be very patient on completing some little creative project. We adults on the other hand are so easily distracted by all the complication that life brings, especially adult life; so many responsibilities, that it is hard for us to practice the craft. But it is the mastering of the craft that transforms it from TASK to PLAY. In achieving a level of competence, we then find ourselves feeling the freedom of play.
Working as a photographic community
One more thing, back to that Modernist definition of Artist as solitary genius. It was B.S. at the beginning of the 20th century and it remains so today. In the arts one is supposed to always be doing something new and different, to become the creator of trends and movements. It is as if the artist is only a dress designer, working on creating the next years hot collection that continues to feed the marketplace of consumer culture. Is that what you want from your work? In fact, more often than not you will find in the historical sketches of the 20th century photographers a great deal of collegiality, even in the midst of competing colleges; so you find in California, in the 1930s, gatherings of working photographs drinking and eating together and talking about the aesthetics of the camera, in response to and in distinction from the Pictorialists of the West Coast who seemed to work in the aesthetics of paint and brush with their cameras. These gatherings, fueled by conversation produced an organization , f64, and several exhibitions, including group exhibitions, that impacted photography here and abroad for the next 70 years. And this group was full of individuals with their own genius and powers, and their pictures did not all look alike. They were not producing little boxes made of ticky tacky. They were the Westons, Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Consuela Kanaga and Willard Van Dyke. But they talked, and drank, and argued and ate with and exhibited with each other and with poets and writers and critics and painters… This collegiality, in repudiation of the competitive isolation of the myth of the individual genius, is I think, a key and missing element of much contemporary art.
It is craft which the photographer must have in common with other photographers, the attention to detail, the getting it right. There is no need to worry about “finding one’s individual genius!” The key to uncovering it is the process, the craft, the skill with the tools, that one develops with discipline and patience. The enthusiasm required to maintain that work ethic is nurtured by the energy and empowerment that comes from working with your colleagues and sharing in their enthusiasm. The seriousness in developing one’s craft must be matched with the playfulness of following one’s art.