The Merits of Photography 101, pt 3

It was tempting to just post the photos in this post, and not say a word. I find them to be very quiet, very contemplative, and maybe my yammering on about them and how I came to take these images, and moreso how I came to really fall in love with these images, would ruin what they are. But I also like them so much that feel that I really need to yammer on some about them.

One of my favorite poets is Donald Hall, who has in him something of a modern-day Robert Frost. Maybe I say that just because they are both New Englanders and reside(d) on farms, and because there is so much that is pastoral in their work. One way or the other, one of my favorite lines by Donald Hall is something like “We are all always such fools, two years ago.” You would think a line I love so much I would at least know the source of, or at the very least the exact wording of. But that’s the spirit of the thing. And it is possible that, in two years’ time, I’ll look back at this series of images and wonder what exactly I was thinking to (a) be so drawn to them, and (b) shoot them in the first place. For now, I’ll enjoy how they jump out at me, and not worry about outgrowing them.

So this is another post about Photography 101, the black and white film course I took this past semester at Community College of Philadelphia. I think it is safe to say that these are photographs that I never would have taken had I not taken that course. I say that as someone who loves photographing nature, and especially trees and leaves…but I almost always take those shots where the leaves are…amongst other leaves, on a rock, or floating in a stream. Those pictures are nice, but I have come to hear “nice” as an insult, not because I strive in my photography to confront the viewer with conflicts of attraction and repulsion or anything like that, but because it connotes that there is a very even-keeled response to it. Nice things don’t create connections.

The assignment for these shots was to focus on texture, and here the professor clarified: it’s about cross-lighting, about raking light, not just about juxtaposing things with varying texture, because all surfaces have texture. So armed with my camera and my tripod, I did what I always did: thought, “Geez…texture…hmmm. It’s autumn. I’ve got it! How about leaves!” And I went crashing into the Wissahickon to take pictures of leaves and piles of leaves and piles of leaves on piles of rocks. They were nice pictures. They were unusable.

I can’t exactly remember what inspired me to go the studio-route with this assignment. Maybe it was something I read, maybe it was something I saw online or in a book. I was happy, a couple weeks later, to come across a video of fashion designer and photographer Karl Lagerfeld doing his shoot for the 2011 Pirelli calendar, in which a similar stark aesthetic was used (YouTube removed the video for having too much nudity, so no link for you!)). I guess I’m in good company there, even if it does mean these images are derivative (and there’s plenty of unclad human form in Lagerfeld’s images…a fig leaf or two might make PG-13 and YouTube just within reach). But there I was, at 11:00 p.m., flashlight in hand, reaching over the neighbor’s fence to yank down a fig leaf that had not yet started to go crinkly. A few other leaves in various states of decay were easily found. Then, to the “studio.”

These shots were taken with a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 macro lens, which you should get, on T-Max 100 film. The camera is a Nikon N60, which you shouldn’t get. Lighting is from a single florescent bulb. I would say camera left or camera right, but some of the images have been inverted for compositional reasons. Exposures were long and apertures were very small…f32 in some cases.

It’s so easy to get complacent about photography when doing it only for myself. I see so much work online that is nice…lens flare, wide-open f1.4 lenses, desaturated colors and soft light, images that neither make the familiar strange nor the strange familiar. Much of my photography has been that way, too. At some point, though, mediocrity started to get annoying. Sitting down with the professor as he eats your best effort alive yet again is educational but deflating, especially as deadlines approach. I started to lose my sense of humor in regards to the quality of my work. And so i started thinking much more, and this is one of the first assignments where, because of the academic process of review and critique, I clearly developed in my head what I wanted the shots to look like, and then worked to achieve it. And that is satisfying.

To see if I have actually learned anything, I’ll have to see if, in my personal work, I can maintain that habit of vision and pursuit. Sometimes the pressure of assignments that don’t feel natural can push you out of the comfort zone that is responsible for so many nice pictures. The frustration of having to continuously search for a solid footing outside that comfort zone was one of the best learning tools I take away from this class. Here’s to stumbling around a lot more often.

Tech note: a Minolta scanner was used to digitize the negatives. The scans were then processed using Lightroom, to simulate decision of exposure time and global contrast, and Photoshop, to replicate dodges and burns performed in the darkroom. All without my hands smelling like silver bromide.

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