cows and weird-ass giant ice cream cones

I live a quiet life these days, and I’m glad of it. For years my professional life was busy and important, sometimes a tad risky, often very strange. Now I mostly deal with words and images. Now I take walks.

Last week I had breakfast at a favorite joint directly across the street from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, which is one of my favorite places to walk. There’s usually something going on there — a gun show, a llama/alpaca event, a swap meet for car enthusiasts, something. Last week it was a cow thing.

guy-with-a-bull

This is where I confess to being almost completely ignorant about farm stuff. I know this is a Hereford bull. I know it’s a Hereford because 1) people on Facebook told me it was a Hereford and what the hell, I’ll take them at their word, and 2) I have another photo of this creature in a stall with similar animals, and there’s a small sign identifying them as Herefords. I know it’s a bull because this guy had massive cojones that were the size of cantaloupes. I declare, I don’t know how he was able to walk.

I spoke with the guy for a while. He was quietly pleased. This particular bull had just been sold at auction for enough money to buy a used Harley Sportster.

guy-inna-barn

Here’s a thing I’ve learned about farm folks. They tend to be quiet and sort of shy around strangers, but if they find you’re really interested in them (or in what they do), they’re incredibly friendly. They’re also pretty tolerant of the odor of large mammals and large mammal shit. I mean, they clean it up right quick; farmers are not lazy people. But when you have that many cows lounging around and being moved through the building, you can just count on getting some cow shit in the treads of your sneakers.

While I enjoy the agricultural stuff, that’s not why I walk the fairgrounds. I do it because it’s quiet, and because there’s always some sort of unintended beauty to be found. Like a lot of photographers, I find something attractive in the gradual degradation of buildings falling into disrepair — abandoned factories, old barns, decrepit houses. But there’s something different about the way a fairground degrades.

plywood-and-chait

It’s different because the disrepair is mostly temporary. The fairgrounds is active all year long, but it really only comes alive for a couple of weeks around the end of summer. A few days before the fair begins, folks arrive and start tidying up and re-asserting their footprint on the grounds. Then, of course, you have a week and a half of the fair. After which there are a few days when folks are breaking down their businesses and moving on to the next fair gig.

Then for eleven months things slow down. Eleven months of wind and rain and snow and heat and cold and storms and hail and all that leaves its mark — temporarily. For a photographer, it’s like renewable decrepitude.

closed-for-season

The thing about a fair is that it’s meant to draw the eye and ear. Every corndog stand and deep-fried Twinkie booth and beer emporium and barbecue joint is competing for attention. We’re not talking about gentle competition here. This is a sort of economic combat. It’s a tawdry affair, all flashy color and noise — survival depends on it.

But when it’s over, the bright, garish, vulgarity starts to fade — and it fades quickly. This is a big part of what I love. The visual memory of cheap glitter, and the chance to look behind the make-up and see the bone structure. There’s a surprising amount of beauty to be found.

Some places — not many, but a few — manage to withstand the onslaught of neglect. Even though they’re closed for the season, some places remain loud and gaudy and weirdly attractive. Jalapeno Pete’s, for example. I’ve never been inside JP’s during the fair; it’s always much too crowded. I’ve never had a margarita in their rooftop cantina. But the sheer audacity of the colors, and the name itself — Jalapeno Pete’s — makes it impossible for me to walk past the place without wishing I had.

rooftop-cantina

We won’t see Jalapeno Pete’s open again until August 10th. When it does reopen it’s unlikely I’ll be willing to bang my way through the crowds. But I can enjoy it now.

It’s still February; the fairgrounds is empty except for the farmers and their cows — and the occasional guy wandering around with a camera. It’s February, not as cold as it should be, and quiet. But the fairgrounds offers constant reminds that it’ll eventually be hot enough to warrant ice cream.

But in truth I don’t really care. I’m not here for the ice cream, or a margarita at Jalapeno Pete’s, or the Hereford bulls with their astonishing testicles. I’m here for the weird-ass giant cone.

Like I said, I live a quiet life these days. And I’m glad for it.

cone

there’s a photo, right there

I’m out taking a walk, right? I had an errand to run in a part of town I’ve never been in before, and when I’m done with my errand, I say to myself ‘Dude, long as you’re here, why not take a walk, look around.’ So I do. But the business area turns into a generic suburban neighborhood, and I decide I’m going to take the next left and head back to the car.

Then I see this garage door. I’m thinking to myself ‘Dude, there’s a photo, right there‘, and what happens? Garage door goes up, car pulls into the drive and directly into garage, and a woman gets out and begins unloading groceries.

What am I supposed to do? I can’t just stand there watching this woman unload groceries. That would be totally creepy. I can’t really offer to help her with the groceries, on account of that would be mega-creepy. So I have to continue my walk. I tell myself ‘Dude, you know where the house is — you can come back when nobody’s home‘ which would sound super mega-creepy if folks could hear what I was telling myself, but they can’t so I turn on my heels and start walking again.

I’ve gone maybe twenty-five, thirty yards, and I hear that garage door sound. You know that sound; it’s sort of a mechanical murmur. Anyway I turn, and hey, the garage door is going down again. Only now my brain is caught in the don’t-be-creepy loop, and I start wondering if I go back and photograph the garage now, will anybody in this suburban neighborhood who happens to be looking out their window see me back outside the house and call the police? Which would be understandable in a suburban sort of way.

van-gogh-garage

Then I say to myself ‘Dude, won’t nobody be looking out the window — and even if there IS somebody looking out the window, they probably won’t call the police — and even if they DO call the police, won’t nothing happen on account of all I’ll have to do is say ‘Officer, cast your eyes upon that garage door’ and the officer would say ‘Dude, there’s a photo, right there’ and everything would be cool‘. So I turn around and head back to the house.

I shoot two quick frames, chimp the photos real quick, then I’m back on my way. No police were alerted. No neighbors were alarmed. No grocery-toting woman was creeped out. I call that a good walk.

LSotY

I belong to this odd collective of photographers called Utata. I’ve written about the group and some of its projects before, so I won’t bother you with a description again. I mention it because one of our elastic traditions (by elastic I mean sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t, some of us do it, some of us don’t) is to post the last selfie we took in the year to our Flickr group.

Yesterday was the last day of 2016, so I went searching through my files (I say ‘files’ as if I actually have some sort of organized system of storing photographs, which polite folks would suggest was an exaggeration) for the last selfie I shot. Turns out that was June 20th.

img_20160620_144116

It’s a perfectly acceptable selfie (at least by my fairly low standards), but June 20th was six months ago. And let’s face it, the photo is more about the cat than me. Still, it’s technically a selfie so I figured it would do.

If I had a lick of sense, that would have been it. But no. I decided I should probably take a new photo — a current photo, a photograph that is more clearly a selfie, a photograph with less cat. Did I prepare this in any way? No, I did not. Did I change clothes or shave or even bother to comb my hair? No, I did not. Did I even look in a mirror first? No, I certainly did not. Why didn’t I do any of those things? Because I am, on any number of metrics, a fucking idiot.

Here’s more proof of my idiocy: I picked up my tablet (okay, you’ve almost certainly heard folks say you shouldn’t ever take a photo with a tablet because the cameras suck; turns out that’s true, and it’s even more true when it comes to taking a selfie because the front-facing camera (or is it the rear-facing camera? I don’t know) sucks even more), stepped into the middle of the room where there was the most light, and hey bingo at 5:09 Central time on December 31st, I took a selfie.

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It was what you’d call a ‘tactical mistake’. I looked at the photo and thought ‘Lawdy, what the hell was I thinking?‘ It has been pointed out to me on occasion that I often look like a thug in photographs. I think we now have to amend that to ‘an aging thug’. Or maybe ‘a confused, aging thug’. Because, c’mon — just look at that. It looks like I’m concerned the camera is going to eat my soul.

I started to delete the photo, at which point I realized ‘Dude, THIS is the last selfie of the year.’ After a brief moment of horror, I realized I could comb my hair, put on different clothes, find some good light, take a selfie with an actual camera, and then THAT photo would be the LSotY.

But that would be sort of a dick move. Now, I’m perfectly capable of making dick moves. Mostly I make them without thinking. Deliberately making a dick move amplifies its essential dickishness (witness Donald J. Trump’s New Year’s tweet). I couldn’t really do that to Utata, could I. So I was stuck with this photo.

And then I thought of Prisma. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an application created by some Russian developer that doesn’t just apply a filter on top of an existing photo; it actually scans the digital data and uses that information to apply a ‘style’ to a photo. I’ve had the app on my tablet for a few months, but never really bothered to play with it. This seemed like a good time to try it.

Prisma - Udnie

Udnie

Prisma must have around thirty different styles (yeah, I could count them, but really, how likely is that?). The style above is based (loosely, I’d say) on Francis Picabia’s painting Udnie (Young American Girl, The Dance). I don’t see it, myself. But hey, it’s an improvement on the original photo.

It’s much easier to see the connection between the Heisenberg style and the famous Heisenberg drawing of Walter White from Breaking Bad. I like this style, although I have to say it’s a wee bit alarming to see that a Breaking Bad-based style makes me look LESS like a thug than in the original photo.

Heisenberg

Heisenberg

Some of the Prisma styles don’t seem to have any relationship to — well, to anything at all. For example, the Colored Sky style has a lot of color, but I don’t see much sky in it. Unless you’re hallucinating. Or maybe on another planet. The shark eyes are sort of cool, though.

Colored Sky

Colored Sky

And the Aviator style? Seriously, what does this have to do with aviation? It should have been called the Braveheart style. It’s got Mel Gibson as William Wallace splashed all over it. Well, except there isn’t an implied claymore in the photo, and there’s no hint at all of consuming “…the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.” So okay, maybe less Braveheart and more Pogo the Clown.

Aviator (seriously?)

Aviator (seriously?)

The Urban style doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘urban’ unless you’re defining ‘urban’ as ‘scowling like a motherfucker’. Really, I don’t understand where that scowl comes from. I’m a nice guy. Honest. A harmless guy. I’ve never once been convicted of a felony.

Urban

Urban

I suppose it’s appropriate to end this with the Mononoke style. I’m not sure if Prisma named the style after Princess Mononoke, the 1997 anime film by Miyazaki, or the 2007 Mononoke television series about an itinerant medicine seller, or the Japanese term for a supernatural spirit that can inhabit or possess…well, just about anything, it seems. It’s appropriate to end with this style because that’s sort of what Prisma does. It doesn’t lay a filter ON the photo; it digs down into the photo’s data and sort of inhabits the photograph. This is probably the closest approximation of the original selfie; it transforms the photo while still retaining its essential confused, aging thugness.

Mononoke

Mononoke

In general, I’m not a fan of apps like Prisma. I just can’t take them seriously. I certainly don’t believe Prisma’s claim that their app “transforms your photos and videos into works of art.” That’s fundamentally bullshit. You don’t create art by picking styles off a menu. That’s not making art; that’s shopping.

But you can have fun shopping with Prisma. Watching the transformation is a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be. And that’s the thing about Utata — it’s all about having fun. So I legitimately took my last selfie of the year at 5:09 Central time on December 31st. But I don’t think anybody can fault me for spending maybe twelve minutes on January 1st shopping with Prisma.

the humanness of things

“I don’t believe in coincidences.” You’ve heard that line spoken in every detective show that’s ever been on television. It’s ridiculous, of course, because coincidences exist. I mean, that’s why we have a word for it.

For example, about a week ago I was shooting a photograph of some yellow bollards at the very back of a massive and nearly empty parking area of a big box store. I was using an old Polaroid Spectra 2 camera, trying to get a feel for what the camera could do, using Impossible Project color film, trying to get a feel for what the film could do. In other words, I was experimenting.

family-of-bollards

Before I took the shot, however, a car pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. He was an old guy (and as I say that I realize he was probably around my age — maybe even a bit younger), and he grinned at me and my Polaroid camera and asked “How do you use your camera?”

I’d had a similar question from a police officer a couple of weeks earlier (there’s a coincidence for you — and coincidentally, one of the photos I shot before the arrival of the police officer was of a yellow bollard). With that encounter in mind I launched into an explanation of how I used the camera as a descriptive tool, a device designed to record a small but precise rectangle of the reality in front of the lens. I was prepared to elaborate on that idea — to spell out how the decisions of what to include in the frame and what to exclude from the frame were expressive decisions, and so even if the final image seemed mundane — like, say, a group of yellow bollards — there were still aesthetic aspects to be considered, as well as the notion that mundane objects and structures can be interpreted as a manifestation of humanness. In other words, my decision of what to include in the frame is, in part, a reflection of some other person’s past decision to…

“No,” the old guy interrupted. He said, “No, I mean, the camera. The camera. How do you use that camera? I thought they stopped making Polaroid film.” So I told him about the Impossible Project. Then I shot the photo.

That photo, coincidentally, sparked a brief discussion on Facebook because apparently relatively few people were aware those posts are called bollards. And coincidentally, this morning on Facebook I learned that William Christenberry had died.

Just over a decade ago I admitted that although I’d been shooting photographs for years and I knew how to operate a camera, I was pretty ignorant about the history of the craft. I had only the barest notion of what had been done in photography in the past, or who had done it, or what they were thinking when they did it. So I decided to educate myself, and I decided to share my education with a group of friends in a Flickr group called Utata. I’d pick a photographer, do some research, write a short article based on the research, and we’d discuss it in the group. We called it the Sunday Salon.

christenberry1

One of the first photographers I picked for the Sunday Salon was William Christenberry. Why? Because I came across his name somewhere and liked it. I didn’t know anything about his photography, and when I began to look at his photographs, they didn’t make a lick of sense to me. I saw an old black-and while photo of a dilapidated juke joint somewhere in Alabama. Then I saw a photo of the same building, only this time it was in color. Then another photo of the same place, and another and another — all of the same building.

I began to get it. This guy wasn’t just photographing the building; he was photographing the history of the building. Christenberry wasn’t trying to make art — at least not at first. He was just creating a document, a description of how particular structures evolved and devolved. He went back to the same places year after year to record how things change.

christenberry2

A building may be static, but the world around it is dynamic. What happens in the world is reflecting by the changes to a building. Wind and rain have an effect, the settling of the structure into the soil has an effect. Paint fades, shutters have to be replaced, buildings begin to tilt. Humans very obviously have an effect; they do the painting, they replace the shutters, they repair the damage.

Over time, Christenberry’s simple documentation process became deliberate, thoughtful art. His first photographs were shot using an old Brownie camera given to him when he was young, but as the project progressed, so did his use of technology. He eventually began to shoot with a Deardorff 8×10 view camera. Christenberry even began to take measurements of some of the buildings and recreated them as sculptures.

christenberry3

“What I really feel very strongly about,” Christenberry once said, “and I hope reflects in all aspects of my work, is the human touch, the humanness of things, the positive and sometimes the negative and sometimes the sad.”

There it is. The humanness of things. Those half-dozen yellow bollards? Somebody deliberately put them there. Somebody designed the shape of that small area, somebody chose to plant a tree in the middle of it, somebody decided what type of tree to plant. Somebody designed that parking lot. The humanness of things is always there.

I believe in coincidence. I love coincidence. I enjoy the weird, improbable chain that links an encounter with the police to an old guy in a parking lot asking about an old camera to a discussion on the etymology of the term bollard to the work of William Christenberry to a photograph of yellow bollards. I believe in coincidence and I believe in the humanness of things, and wouldn’t the world be terribly dull and uninteresting without them.

i took a walk a couple of weeks ago

I like to walk. I like to walk without any purpose, without any goal or objective, without any particular destination. But occasionally I walk with the idea of shooting photographs. Most often that happens on a Thursday (largely because I belong to Utata — an international group of photographers who walk on Thursdays; I’ve written about this before: here, here, and here).

So it wasn’t unusual for me to take a walk on Thursday, the 11th day of November, 2016. I needed a walk that day. I needed it because Donald J. (for Jackass) Trump had just been elected President of These United States. A quiet, contemplative walk on a gray, chilly day that seemed to hold the promise of a gray, chilly future.

And that was how I felt even before I got stopped by a police officer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

tire-swing

I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot photographs, so I didn’t bother to take a camera. Just my cell phone. It was this tire swing that first made me pull out my phone and open my favorite black-and-white camera app. It seemed a perfect metaphor for my mood. Sort of sad, sort of nostalgic, sort of pathetic. Lost innocence and all that.

I was near a semi-industrial commercial area, so wandered over there and strolled along behind the various shops. You know, that area where the shop owners keep their trash and deliveries get made and isn’t meant to attract customers. I’ve always liked the lack of pretense in alleyways and the backs of shops. And, again, it suited my mood.

fence-and-trash-can

This wasn’t an actual alley, though it served the same purpose. I’ve wandered along behind these buildings before; it’s always remarkably tidy. The morning light gave it a certain shabby elegance that contrasted well with the bright, functional geometry of the buildings.

At some point I’d stopped thinking about Trump and started to enjoy myself. That’s the thing about photography, isn’t it. It draws you outside of yourself. And that’s especially true, I think, of black-and-white photography, since you’re paying more attention to shape and line and structure.

bollard

Everything gets reduced to what’s in the frame. Not just what’s in the center of the frame, but what’s on the periphery. A step or two to the right, and that bit of shadow from a vent disappears. A step or two to the left, and the bollard disrupts the lock on the electrical whatsit, and the ramp is no longer obviously a ramp.

I know this because I actually took those steps to the left and the right before deciding this was the composition I wanted. (I learned to shoot with film, and since film was expensive and processing it was pain the ass, I learned to pay very close attention to composition; get it right the first time, shoot one frame — maybe two — and move on. I’m a stingy photographer.)

broken-adirondack-chair

There’s usually a sort of fuzzy area between semi-industrial commercial shops and the more comfortably suburban, well-groomed neighborhoods — an area where the houses might need a bit of paint, where the lawns aren’t quite as tidy, where the kids’ toys haven’t been picked up, where the cars and trucks are a few years older and are showing a bit of rust. It’s the Almost American Dream zone. I grew up in that zone.

Remember that police officer I mentioned earlier? This is where he shows up. I was just about out of the Almost American Dream zone when he arrived.

packers-fan

He was very polite. Young white kid, buzz cut, nice smile. He rolled down his window, said “How’re you doing?” I considered telling him I’d voted for Hillary, so how the hell would I be doing. And that’s basically what I said, though I moderated the last bit. He nodded and said he couldn’t believe it either. Then he said something to this effect: “We got a call about somebody walking behind the shops and taking pictures with a phone. That you?”

I admitted it was. He said one of the shop owners was concerned that somebody might be casing the joint (he actually said “casing the joint”), and then asked if he could have my name.

A short digression here. I worked as a criminal defense investigator for about seven years. I’ve been stopped and questioned and actively harassed by police officers more times than I can count. I know my rights. As a pedestrian legally walking along a public way and minding my own business, I’m not required to identify myself to the police. However, if the officer is investigating a possible crime it becomes a tad tricky. And given that there might be some dispute whether the area behind these particular shops is a public way, it becomes a tad trickier. So I told the officer I was going to reach into my pocket and get my wallet (as a white guy, the odds that the police would shoot me for reaching for my wallet are really really really slim — but still).

I showed him my driver’s licence. He asked the obvious question. “Why were you taking pictures behind those shops?” So I told him. Thursday walks, Utata, light and shadow, alleyway geometry.

hoop

Then he asked the really difficult question. “Can I see your photos?”

The obvious answer is no. No, you can’t see my photos. No, because you have no legal right to see them, and I have no obligation to show them to you. The fact that he’d asked to see them rather than issuing a command didn’t matter. The fact that he’d asked politely didn’t matter. Courtesy counts, but it doesn’t trump civil rights.

On the other hand, I didn’t want a fuss. Hillary had just lost the election; I didn’t have the energy to make a passionate civil liberties argument. So I offered a compromise. I told the officer I was reluctant to show him the photos as a matter of principle, but I understood why he wanted to see them. I said “If you agree that you have no legal right to see the photos, I’ll show them to you.”

I got lucky, probably. This guy had a sense of humor. He laughed a bit, then agreed he had no legal right to see the photographs. So I showed him the photos. More than anything else, he was surprised to see that the photos were actually shot in black-and-white. He wasn’t aware there were black-and-white apps. He wasn’t aware you could shoot square format with a phone.

So I took my phone back, turned and shot the photo of the basketball hoop and shadow, and showed it to him. He asked for the name of the app. Then I asked if I could take his photo, and he said this (or something like this): “You have the right to take my picture so long as it doesn’t interfere with the performance of my duties…but I’d rather you didn’t.”

So I didn’t. I thought about it, but I didn’t. As he drove away, I wished I had. Sort of.

Postscript: I began to write about this on the day it happened. But the sad fact is, I was still too discouraged about the election to write more than a couple of paragraphs. I’ve noodled around with this post off and on, but I’m still pretty gutted by Hillary’s loss — and seeing these photos reminded me of how grim I’ve felt since the election. It reminds me of how much stuff I’ve put off, how many things I’ve been procrastinating about, how much normal stuff I’ve been avoiding.

I had a good encounter with a police officer — something positive happened to me — and I just couldn’t maintain that feeling. That sucks. It has to change. Maybe finishing this and publishing it is the spark I need. And now I suppose I have to append the ‘confessional crap’ tag to this. I hate confessional crap.

not really all that instant

Back in 2008, when Polaroid announced they were going to stop making film, I thought maybe I’d pick up an old camera and play around with it. I was never a fan of Polaroids; the notion of instant film always struck me as gimmicky. They were okay for making quick, amateurish snapshots at parties and events, but not for ‘real’ photography.

Still, Polaroid’s announcement sparked enough interest in me that I took a trip to the local Salvation Army store in search of a camera. They only had one — a Polaroid Spectra 2. The clerk had no idea if the camera worked, but since it was only a couple of bucks I figured I’d take the chance. The clerk also told me I should check out the nearby Goodwill shop. I did; they had a Polaroid Sun 660. Maybe a buck and a half. Maybe it would work, maybe not.

cameras

I took the two cameras home, put them on a shelf, and promptly forgot all about them. A few years later I heard about the Impossible Project — a group of lunatics who decided to try to recreate the process by which Polaroid film is made. They bought a bunch of old Polaroid production machinery, leased a building, and set to work. And hey, they succeeded. After a fashion. By every report, the film was finicky. Exceedingly finicky. Crazy finicky. So very finicky that I had no interest in playing with it.

I sort of half-heartedly followed the progress of the Impossible Project. Maybe more like quarter-heartedly; it was sort of like keeping abreast of Italian politics — you were aware that stuff was happening, but it all seemed very distant and confusing and it didn’t have any real effect on me.

But I discovered I had friends who were mad for Polaroids. Mad and passionate. Friends who weren’t the least bit discouraged by finicky film. Friends like Meredith Wilson, and Lisa Toboz, and Heather Polley, who shot astonishingly lovely Polaroid photographs using expired Polaroid film or film from the Impossible Project. Another friend, Debra Broughton, has been photographing a specific barn for at least a year and a half (she shoots with a Fujifilm Instax, which is a more modern instant film camera). These women and the work they’ve done made me more and more curious about instant film.

First two shots with the Polaroid 660.

First two test shots with the Polaroid 660.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learned about ‘Roid Week — a project on Flickr celebrating instant film photography. That was enough to get me interested in taking another look at those old thrift store cameras. And what the hell, I bought some B&W film from Impossible Project for the Spectra.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘a learning experience‘, right? Well, I had one of those. First, I learned that the camera sorta kinda functioned. It would take photos, but it wouldn’t eject them. They jammed. I did some reading, watched some videos, learned of a few possible causes for the problem, tried a few things — and none of them worked. So I sent an email to the folks at Impossible Project and asked, “Dudes, what else can I try?”

Get this: they replied within a couple of hours. And they told me what else I could try, but said the only way to test the camera would be to try another film pack. I should note at this point that Impossible Project film ain’t cheap. US$25 for eight photos. But — and seriously, get this — they offered me a free pack of film. So what the hell, I ordered another pack of B&W film for the Spectra AND a pack of color film for the Polaroid 660. The film arrived like two days later.

THAT is excellent customer service.

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I loaded the color film in the 660, took a couple of test shots — and hey, bingo! The camera worked, the film worked. I made a few adjustments. Well, I made one adjustment. There aren’t really a lot of adjustments you can make on a Polaroid. Lighten or darken, that’s about it. I made my adjustment, shot another test shot, and then started to think about how to make photographs with a Polaroid.

There’s always been a cerebral aspect to photography for me. With the exception of street photography, most of the photographs I shoot are shot with some level of deliberation. I think about what I want in the frame and what I want to exclude it. I tend to think about shadow more than light. I think about depth of field, and the geometry of composition.

But with the Polaroid cameras I have, there’s little (or no) control over shadow — and the fixed focus lens severely limits what you can do with depth of field. So it all comes down to composition, right? Basically, I was using a camera I’d considered useful only for party snapshots to make what I hoped would be artful, thoughtful images.

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For me, that meant concentrating on the simplicity of composition. Line and form. Balance. Leading the viewer’s eye. Color blocking (with color film, obviously). The basics — which is sort of appropriate for such a basic camera.

Remember back a bit I spoke about how finicky Impossible Project film used to be? Well, it’s still finicky. Maybe not as finicky as before, but pretty damned finicky. Unlike the old Polaroid film, Impossible film has to develop in the dark. Almost everybody agrees the very first thing you do after the camera ejects the print is immediately put that little bugger away in a dark container. Don’t even bother trying to look at it for at least ten minutes. At least ten minutes. Some folks say give it an hour to cook.

This can sometimes be a monumental pain in the ass. In order to get the photograph of the industrial building above, I had to park my car near the field, open the glove box, open the passenger side door, walk about fifteen feet into the field — and THEN shoot the photo, immediately put it into the wee box the film arrived in, sprint to the car, slam the film box inside the glove box and close it. Then I drove home, put the car in the garage, and wait for an hour to go out, open the glove box, open the film box, and finally see if I’d got the shot.

I enjoyed ever minute of that.

First two shots with the Polaroid 660

Here’s what I’ve learned about shooting with a Polaroid:

— It’s fun.
— It’s stupid expensive.
— It’s a lot of fuss.
— When you press the shutter release, there’s a charming little whirring sound that’s ridiculously happy-making.
— It’s SO easy to screw things up
— When it comes to Spectra film, you take what you can get. When I first ordered film, all they had was B&W packs. Now all they have is color packs.
— The autofocus is done by some weird sonar arrangement, which means shooting a photo through a window requires you to press a secret, hidden autofocus override button.
— It’s NOT instant film. It’s nowhere near instant. Unless you’re thinking in glacial or geological terms.
— It’s still fun.

I never got anything done in time for ‘Roid Week, sadly. I think for a serious photography project, personally I’d probably buy a Fujifilm Instax — they’re a lot more reliable and consistent. Not the Instax mini, but the silly-looking full-sized unit.

But for sheer unpredictable fun, it’s Polaroid. I don’t know that I’ll be doing a LOT of Polaroid work, but I suspect I’ll continue to do it sporadically. In fact, I’ve made some repairs to the old Spectra, and after feeding it a new pack of B&W film, it seems to be working. If I can get through a pack of eight without mishap, I’ll be ordering color film for the Spectra.

This is probably how all addictions begin.

ambiguity in transit

All good photography is social. At a minimum, good photography requires two parties: the person who shoots the photo and the person who looks at it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying a photographer can’t do excellent work in isolation. You can shoot the most astonishing photographs, but like the work of Miroslav Tichý, if nobody ever sees them they’re just a form of wanking (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m not talking about photography as an act or the photograph as an object; I’m talking about photography as a mode of communication, as a tool for expression. After all, that’s how most of us use photography, even if all we’re communicating is ‘Dude, look at the cup of coffee I had this morning.’

This is where that ‘social’ business comes in; this is where photography, in my opinion, gets really interesting. Because the viewer isn’t bound by the photographer’s intent. The viewer is free to develop his own meaning from the photo. The photographer might be saying  ‘Dude, look at the cup of coffee I had this morning’ but the viewer might be hearing ‘Lawdy, what a ridiculous wanker.’

I’m not saying anything new here, obviously. I’m sure Susan Sontag had something densely clever to say about the photographer-viewer dialectic. I’m only saying it now because I recently had the unusual (for me, at any rate) and weird experience of being both photographer and viewer of the same image.

probably-notta-democrat

As a photographer, this was one of those photos you shoot on instinct. I noticed the guy’s t-shirt as he was walking in my general direction. I had the camera near my eye already, so I looked through the viewfinder, noticed the woman and child, reframed the shot, and snapped the shutter release. It was your basic f/8 and be there shot. A photo originally intended to be about the guy ended up being about the group.

I wasn’t necessarily trying to say anything with this photograph. I brought the camera to my eye because of the guy’s t-shirt, so my immediate motivation was political. But once I was looking through the viewfinder, it became more about the arrangement of elements within the frame (and yeah, at that moment these weren’t ‘people’ to me, they were just compositional elements in motion). The only tension I was interested in at that moment was aesthetic tension.

But a few days later, when I got around to actually looking at the photo, there seemed to be something emotionally disquieting and maybe distressing taking place. I wasn’t evaluating the photo as the maker of the photograph, I was looking at it as viewer — as if I was seeing a photo shot by somebody else. It was an oddly dissociative experience. But I didn’t give it much thought to it until I posted the photo on Instagram and Facebook, and other people reacted to it.

Some folks who saw the photo had interpretations similar to mine — that there was some emotional discord taking place. Others saw the photograph in political terms — either as being pro-Trump or anti-Trump. Here’s a sampling of the comments I received through Facebook, on Instagram, and through emails and texts:

That poor little girl, though. I hope that’s not her father.

Why are you posting pro-trump fotos? Thought you were for Hillary?

the lookon the kid’s face, my god…

That poor child doesn’t stand a chance.

Classic Lib move, presenting Trump supporters as mean angry old white men.

Are they fighting? Was the wife frightend? Did you think aoubt intervening?

Why di I feel sorry for that family?

Is this guy a Trump supporter? I don’t know. Probably. Or he might just be somebody who hates Hillary Clinton. Are these three people together? I’ve no idea. When I shot the photo I had the general impression they were a family unit, but it’s possible they’re unrelated and were just moving in the same general direction at about the same pace. Was this an emotionally strained situation? I don’t know. I didn’t sense it at the time, but again, I only saw these folks for a moment, and in that moment I was focused on shooting the photo.

I don’t know how much of what I experienced as a viewer of this photograph is actually IN the photo and how much I’ve brought TO the photo.

Wim Wenders said, “The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.” I’m not convinced that’s actually the most political decision you can make, but it IS a political decision. Politics on a very basic level certainly shaped my decision to shoot this photo. And politics has certainly shaped the response to it. But the politics of the act of photography (at least in this case) have nothing to do with the politics of viewing it.

I guess that’s how photography is supposed to work.