Ode to Friends Lost

Today I was lamenting in my journal about writing. It feels like I used to have more to say and a more entertaining way of saying it. I had a regular column in an online photography magazine, posted to my website, wrote articles. I had an interesting and fun photographic life about which to laugh and write. But all that suddenly changed about 2 years ago when a friendship ended. I have adjusted, as one must, and I’d say that overall my life is better–a little more lonely perhaps, but artistically both deeper and more productive.

Making the decision to keep certain things to myself, things that deeply affect me, means that I severely limit what I can say. This in turn means that columns are harder to write because I have to leave things out. Sometimes events can be obliquely referenced, and I have done that, but trying to honestly delve into the process of how a project panned out or even came to be means that because of my censorship the story is missing important facets. I will not out the people who have hurt me, nor those from whom I have walked away myself, and yet my refusal to do so has an effect on the content of my writing–and that part I do not like.

There are people who had a big influence not only on my thinking, but on my activities, but who are no longer in my life. When I shoot large format I may think of them; when I analyze a negative I can recall what they have said; when I find a new location I might wonder what they would have thought; when I post new work I sometimes miss their comments, encouragement, and opinions. If I choose to write, then, about a new location, I have to leave out what I imagine he or she would have told me; what he or she would have found compelling; what he or she may have advised for good exposure.

Friendships end for one reason or another, but I find their influences do not. I have ended some myself and some have been ended for me. In some cases the aftertaste is sour and in some it is still sweet, but in all there is a period of mourning. There is always something I miss–the banter and jokes, the staunch support, the wealth of knowledge. Weeks or months may go by when I do not give these old friends much thought and then suddenly I am met by the shades of our friendship and I feel a poignant loss, even if I still recognize and accept the reasons we are no longer close.

I don’t believe anyone gets away clean. In some alternate universe I am still friends with all those with whom I no longer engage. If I still think about them, it follows that they still think about me, and the interactions in their thoughts must meet the interactions in mine somewhere. I’d like to think I am getting along better with them in that place. With some I would like to explain a few things and with others there are answers I seek. If it is all about checks and balances–karma–strung out over this and perhaps many other lifetimes as well, then loose ends are to be expected. Nevertheless, it is perhaps this incompleteness of ended friendships that bothers me the most.

People come in an out of my life and there is something to learn from each of them. Some are members of my tribe and I recognize them instantly, even if it is the first time we’ve met. We may be on the same path just briefly as though the helix we each travel intersects for a moment. Other people I really want to like but it never gets off the ground—despite much in common, the conversation is always stilted. There are also the folks who push for friendship and I go along with it until I can’t anymore.

Friendships, good and bad, stick around because there is still something in it for one or both parties. They end when the benefit disappears. Perhaps the pattern of the friendship is no longer to one’s liking; maybe the pressure on another friendship that one values more forces one’s hand; could be that various risks accelerate; or one party can fundamentally change. To me it all boils down to cost: when the price in emotion, money, time becomes too high, one person walks. When an inequity becomes intolerable, people take action—in all the extremes that that entails.

It’s not always nice to be on the receiving end of an exit, but we have to grant our ex-friends the grace to go so that we might do the same when we need to. Knowing that I cost too much to more than one friend continues to give me pause, and encourages me to be more vigilant myself about to whom I extend my hand. Still, friendship is a risk, but always one worth taking.

I don’t know where realizations about friends takes my writing, except several steps away from where it used to be. I can continue to lament it, or I can find another way to write, one that is less about outings and funny events and my ineptitude and more about what actually means something to me.The underbelly of those kinds of experiences, you might say. That scares me, and that is good.

Dragon’s Eye

Sitting in the dragon’s eye, Salt Point.

I read a lot of fantasy novels and I like to think that the worlds described exist on another plane. I love that feeling of going home when I crack open the next installment in an epic series. I take a step right into that world as a fly on the wall. Salt Point is like that too; I find a new character every time I go. But then I see faces and forms everywhere–in the soil, in the clouds, flitting over the rocks, dancing out of the corner of my eye. I like to find the life in the inanimate and to my surprise, I often do.

Three steps forward and two steps sideways

The other day I decided to do something completely different. I do that a lot, but as a general rule I work up to it. I read comprehensively (some might say compulsively), experiment on a small scale, choose some safe place to start the process if it is complicated, and with a combination of nervousness, excitement, and fear, I start. I have the route through the process memorized even though I have never done it and I turn each step over in my mind before I perform it. Like most people, I figured everyone thought the same way as me, mentally observing a yet-to-be-made creation from various angles as it rotates in my mind’s eye. Certainly, my father thought the same way; once he told me step-by-step how to take off in a helicopter even though he had never even sat in one, much less flown. Actually, he was deathly afraid of heights and flying–making a helicopter a particularly unsuitable mode of transport for him.

I project my life weeks, months, years into the future. To mentally navigate the future gives me a measure of security in the here and now. What will my kids be doing by a certain time, what milestones are still to come in their lives to which I can look forward? When will Sir be retired–and what adjustments will I need to make? How soon will my darkroom be finished? Will I have finally cleaned out the office closet by then? I wonder about what stage I will be in art-wise, such as whether or not I’ll have sold anything, had shows, been published. It should come as no surprise then that change can be difficult for me because it requires that I shift focus.

I have a friend who does not think this way at all. She looks about a week ahead at most, and yet she remembers our past with uncanny detail–the names of our classmates, our curriculum, even who said what when. Our children are similar ages and when we were young mothers together I always admired all the things she did with her kids–the hiking, the looking for antlers and other treasures, the visits to the beach, the puppies and kittens and ducks, the large scale garden, the artwork messes. Me, I was at home making quilts and clothes and photographs while my children amused themselves cutting and pasting paper, playing in the trees outside and riding their bikes up and down the street. My son helped me gardening once by cutting down a little citrus tree and my daughter made complicated collages covered in tiny paper snippets. It was only in the last year that I discovered that my friend planned very few of those events she did with her kids; she had no grand education scheme in mind as I had supposed and those amazing and rich outings were spontaneous. The future, in the way that I see it, is a foreign land to her and it is with a kind of surprise that she even explores it. I cannot wrap my head around such a view.

What I mean is, even with my artistic endeavors, I plan. I am an observer more than a learn-by-getting-my-hands-dirty kind of person. Staring at a blank canvas is particularly painful because I find it difficult to impossible to just put something–anything–on it. I have to have an idea, a shape, some kind of vision and direction. An enlarged doodle, a simple form, a question about light. I don’t do well just walking around with a camera either unless I am in a new place. I tend to look for resonance in my surroundings and it just doesn’t happen often. Sure, I see interesting things but they are the equivalent of a word, rather than a sentence or phrase–there is no punctuation, and I just can’t be bothered. That is also probably why I tend to go back to the same place repeatedly–because I have found somewhere that harmonizes with some subconscious song I sing when I look for pictures. It does worry me a bit that people will become bored by what I shoot and stop looking at the endless variations on the same theme, but I seldom waste my time asking why because I have found that I have no answer.
Years ago a painting teacher I had called me a “materials junkie.” In my experimentation back then I tried all kinds of things for their compatibility with wax, the painting medium I was using at the time. I used colored mica powder rubbed into the surface; various papers imbedded and scraped back; molds for polymer clay out of which I pulled three dimensional flowers and leaves; various inks and pens that I used to draw directly onto the wax; children’s blocks I made into sculptures; carved architectural foam I used as frames and other sorts of blocks. I liked visiting the hardware store and junk places for interesting things. I picked up a copper fence post cap and cast iron door hinges and incorporated them into projects. Once I found a crushed pet cage and made it into the chest of a life sized sculpture of a woman with a skirt, but a guy doing some yard cleanup took her to the dump, thinking she was garbage. I miss the glint of the sun off the disc of her face, blinking in the wild grass of the hill in my backyard.

Some months ago things went photographically awry for me when I broke my foot. Not being mobile in the same way as before meant I had to spend time using the images I already had rather than go searching for new ones. But it didn’t take long before I had etched all the plates I thought were any good, and as the weather cooled so did the etchant, making the process more involved as I sought to warm 5 baths of ferric chloride to the same temperature and have it remain there for an hour. No, it didn’t always go well. So I played with ink colors and inking techniques, getting more involved in printmaking and, shockingly to me, drawing.

A couple of months into my printmaking venture I had lunch with a friend who was unfamiliar with my painting past. I showed her some old stuff as a prelude to the current direction. “Why are you photographing at all?” she asked me. “I mean, what you do is nice, but this is wonderful!” I hate when people tell me what I used to do is great because it makes me feel like I made a mistake by leaving it behind. But it got me thinking. She was the second person in a week who had said the same thing to me. My paintings were about color and texture but in my opinion my repertoire was limited by my aversion to drawing. That was one of the reasons I turned back to photography–no drawing required. But I also left behind color.

So I went home and cut a linoleum block. I cheated insofar as I drew an image on it that I had painted numerous times so I didn’t have to think about much aside from its placement on the block. I did several more of them and looking at them later I was charmed by their freedom and naiveté. I did 6 or 7 before I came across a picture online of something even more appealing: wax collagraph. Unlike block printing, where online examples are rife and technique tips abound, there is very little about the nitty gritty of printing from a wax painting. Press pressure needs to be “light” and paper needs to be “wet” and the ink has to be the water-based stuff.

For the first time since my painting days–and infrequently then because it was so painful–there I was staring at a blank canvas (or in this case a piece of 1/8″ plexiglass). It is daunting and intimidating because I don’t want to waste resources by making something hideous–especially as that can happen anyway no matter what I may try. Aside from having painted with wax before, I had little notion of what I was doing. In a fit of frustration I simply slapped some circles on the plate. How thick could it be? Should I use pigmented wax? How much detail could be retained? Was I making a relief plate or an intaglio plate? I could not mentally navigate with any confidence through the process because there was little written about it and of course my first efforts show my ignorance.

However, I am nothing if not thorough. When something thwarts me I get pissed off and I start changing variables one at a time until I identify the problem and fix it. At that point I often walk away because it seems that sometimes the most compelling part of a process is its difficulty. Once I have solved the conundrums and begin producing consistent results, I am bored. What I found as I worked through the quirks of the process was that a 1″ foam pad between the blankets is essential for printing. Pressure can actually be moderate. Too light and the incised lines I make in the plexi don’t print, too firm and the wax gets flat and featureless in just a few runs. Thinner wax is better and damp paper is essential–but not dripping wet because it dilutes and dulls the water based inks. Will I dump it when I figure it out? Perhaps.

I don’t know if this experimentation is leading me away from photography or toward a new melding of the two. I don’t know if it matters as long as I am doing something. I don’t know what any of it will look like 10 days or 10 years from now. And I don’t know if any of that is even relevant. For now all the direction I am planning is to have forward movement even though not having an idea of what the future looks like makes me squirm a bit.


In which my head explodes (warning: rant)

If you want to provoke me, it’s easy: just make a broad sweeping generalization about photography and it’s fairly certain that within a short period of time my head will explode. In recent weeks two such have appeared in my facebook feed, and perhaps to my detriment, I have replied to both.

The first was, “Photographer. The word is overused, misunderstood & undervalued.” This is quite interesting because from this statement we learn that a word–you know, the lettered representation of an idea–has a function independent of its meaning wherein it can be leaning against the bar at a cocktail party, lonely and perhaps a little cold, lamenting that its date is freely conversing with other words and leaving it there alone, bereft, and feeling misunderstood and of little value. Ahem. Already I am distracted.

I suspect that the writer meant that the person who uses the word can have those abstract ideas, not the word itself, and on that basis I have some problems with this statement. Words represent ideas and it is up to the speaker to combine them in such a way as to represent those ideas accurately. If a word on its own does not play a sufficient part, you add others to bolster it and make the combination mean what you want. The definition of photographer is quite simple: a person who takes/makes photographs.

That’s all.

It does not mean a person who takes pictures of a certain quality, or pictures with a specified device. It does not distinguish between a photograph made with an iphone or one made on a 100 year old studio camera on 11×14 film. It does not mean transcendent, or thought-provoking, or exhibition-ready. A photographer is a person who makes photographs. Punto.

Naturally that is not what the writer, and his many sycophants, meant. He wanted the word to represent someone who made photographs of quality, provocativeness, transcendence; that when one declared that one was a photographer one was announcing one’s skill in the medium. The obvious underlying reason for this is an attempt to separate oneself from the crowd of plebeian practitioners of the craft, the wanna-bes, the chaff, the over-confident pseudo-photographers of which the world seems full. The “I have a good camera, now I am a photographer” crowd.

No one gets to redefine a word to suit themselves. This is elitist and ignorant. As a photographer myself, I have no desire to produce work to suit anyone’s definition but my own. And that is the beauty of a simple definition that covers everyone equally: we all get to decide individually what the word means to us. If you want to separate yourself from the crowd, do work that is different. Despite what the writer and his pals may think, there is room for all of us. The fact that the world is flooded with photographs in no way dilutes your work by some special osmotic process. This is fear talking, the fear that your work is not unique, that the plethora of others doing similar work makes yours less special. If so, work harder, look at other people’s stuff less–redefining the word to make your stuff more special is backwards and won’t make any difference.

The second statement was, “Film encourages you to work with your mind.” Another general, rubbish statement. My first response is, don’t tell me what film does for me. See the trend here? I don’t like being told how to think and feel, especially when it regards something I know intimately. Are you going to tell me the purpose of children too? And what to get out of my job? Or the benefits of exercise and a sugar-free diet?

The implication here is two-fold: that using film is an intellectual exercise (and therefore other forms of photography are not), and that using film is for the elite. Both ideas piss me off and of course I’m going to tell you why. (As a grammatical aside, film doesn’t encourage you to do a damn thing. In all the years I have used it, I have never heard a single encouraging word issue from a roll or sheet of the stuff.)

If the use of film were to simply encourage me to work my mind, I doubt I would continue to use it. In my experience, every moment of every day encourages me to work with my mind lest I forget to get dressed, lock the front door, show up at work, speak words rather than grunt, arrange my life, and so forth. Working with one’s mind is central to life, even when you have lost it.

The use of film is a small part of my artistic output and lays at the foundation of multiple processes, all of which can be achieved with a digital medium as well. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use to get where you are going, even if all you do are selfies. The most seemingly mindless camera-centric activities require mindfulness, and centering on film shows that the author of the statement thinks other forms of picture-making are inferior. Simply not liking them is shaky ground for their dismissal.

It is true that I am more interested in pictures made from film using techniques that originated many years ago. But that is just it–my interest does not negate other forms of expression. Like everyone, I have my preferences. However, when someone else’s preferences define for me the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ out there, I get shirty. Just as certain types of work are dismissed by the opinions of others, so too is mine somewhere along the line. This is a shallow and uninformed way of looking at work, it seems to me, and at best means a person is disregarding entire swathes of potentially inspiring stuff and at worst not only not looking, but also badmouthing things never even seen. How hypocritical! If you want to define what is and isn’t, don’t get offended when your work is also written off by someone who redefines what they see too and does not include what you do in their definition. Preferences are individual and should therefore be expressed by starting such statements with ‘I’.

Had the statements been, “Photographer. To me, the word is overused, misunderstood & undervalued” and, “Film encourages me to work with my mind” I would not have taken such issue with them. I would still have had some grammatical issues….but it is unlikely that I would have commented except perhaps with an acerbic “why?”

The bottom line is that general statements like this are posted to provoke conversation. In this case, the writer had an agenda and my disagreement with him led him to state elsewhere (I paraphrase) that people did not agree with him and he had to abandon the conversation. What is a conversation then? A bunch of folks lamenting about the state of the dictionary and its lack of agreement with their narrow and elitist definition of their chosen activity? Certainly it is not about discussion of varying viewpoints. I encourage these pouting artistes to look up chef, painter, printmaker, baker, and driver–to name a few–and see if those definitions include caveats about quality, output, competence, and qualifications.

I have ‘unfollwed’ this person. I don’t need this kind of distraction; I have work to do.

Ode to my foot


It’s difficult to know just how important your foot is until you lose it.

I still have my foot, so “loss” is an exaggeration (I am given to them). But it is ensconced in a black velcro-driven boot for the next little while. It’s been on for nearly 3 weeks now but due to bad behavior I am back on rest. If I am good, I will get to graduate to a fine looking velcro-driven shoe! Meanwhile my house is littered with single shoes for the right foot. When I get the left one back I will have to have a match-up party because I don’t know where the mates are.

I fractured 2 bones in my left foot in the line of photographic duty. Had I actually acted on the little voice in my head I wouldn’t be in this predicament. I hear those voices a lot, calling me to do this or that, but I often ignore them. Most of the time whatever consequence there may be I don’t see–leading me to conclude that the voice of intuition is hit or miss. Actually, it is a rather alarming thought to consider that overriding that voice could have an effect on someone else, as I said in a conversation with myself just this morning. What if, I said to self, that voice is always right but the only time I know it is, is when the effect affects me? I’m now going to change the subject. I have become uncomfortable with this line of inquiry.

Right. Line of photographic duty. Yes. So there I was, up at my usual haunt, Salt Point State Park, on a beautiful November Monday. I had been up there on the previous Friday and had had a little adventure on that day as well, though nothing was broken as a result, except maybe my common sense.

I like Salt Point when it is overcast. The flat light makes it easier to make photographs suitable for the gravure printing I do. The somewhat truncated tonal range makes the positive easier to print in the darkroom, minimizing the dodging, burning and other contortions required to wrangle the image onto a piece of ortho litho film. The Friday was overcast. Perfect! I thought. I drove the requisite 2 hours to the place, hung out my California State Parks Pass on the rear view mirror and hefted my 5×7 gear and tripod. It is .9 miles to my favorite spot and it takes me about 20 minutes to get there, depending on the distraction quotient.

The tide was ebbing–about halfway–but holy man, the ocean was high! I clambered down the rocks to my spot and was astonished and awed by the dance of the sea. Salt Point always gives me a gift I thought, whether it is the formations, the crashing waves, or the light. Today’s gift would be unique. I wanted to take a shot of a rock wall with fascinating striations and inclusions, but it was too near the roiling water. My spot comprises a fairly small piece of outcrop extending maybe 50 feet from the bottom of the hillside. There is a gap between it and a farther outcrop creating a trough about 10 feet wide. The waves hit the first formation, spray up, pour over the rocks, and run down into the trough. Periodically, one wave hits the outer rock while another is still swirling around in the gap. The double volume of water means a spray onto the second formation where I shoot. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Sadly, I did not.

I had seen more than one spectacular crash against both sets of rocks. Earlier there had been couple entwined with each other on top of a rock watching the waves when they were unexpectedly doused. The woman lept up looking quite frightened, trying to both escape the water and hang onto her man. I was scared watching them on that narrow high ledge, and became extra vigilant. I decided to shoot as far from the edge as possible. I pointed the camera toward some undulating ripples of stone and watched the waves carefully. Then under the darkcloth, focus, dart out and look at waves, tell self it is fine, you are far away from the danger zone, apply loupe to ground glass etc etc. Boom! I exit the darkcloth in alarm and see the biggest wave yet shooting spray high into the air. I realize it will easily reach me. There is nowhere to retreat, nor time in which to do it, so I hold fast to the tripod (yeah, it’ll save me all right!) and close my eyes. The water hits the camera, drenches me from head to foot, and swirls around my feet and up my calves, trickling down into my boots and soaking my socks.

I am a bit shaken.

After a few moments I do what I have to do: I dry off my lens and I take the picture, which, in an almost predictable irony, turns out to be the best of the day. But I also pack up everything and head back. I wasn’t done. I am annoyed. I decide to come back on Monday.

The next day I download an app that tells me all kinds of info about tides and swell and wind speed and temperature and moonrise. According to what my feeble brain could understand, it appeared that the swell would not be quite so high on Monday. I opt to take the Big Camera this time, a first for this location. I am hoping a change in size will help me see things a little differently and provide a new size for my gravure plates.

I carried just 4 holders–2 each of 4×10 and 8×10. That was still 8 shots, which, at my speed, would account for several hours. They wouldn’t fit in my pack so I slung them in a bag over my shoulder, put the tripod over the other and my backpack inbetween. I got to my preferred location at about 1:30. There was little wind, the sun was shining (drat) and the sea swell was mild.

Because I am a special kind of ignorant, I was surprised at how much I needed to alter my compositions for 8×10. Duh! If you set up like 5×7–which I have been doing for over a year–then you will have all kinds of extraneous real estate. In any case, I shot an 8×10 and 3 4x10s in fairly rapid succession. I did one 8×10 on the edge of the trough (nerve-wracking!) only to discover that a) my shutter didn’t work and b) there was water behind the front lens element, courtesy of Friday. Likely they were related, eh? Cleaned the lens, shutter started working again, but I had to re-do the shot just in case.

By 3:30 I was down to one 4×10 and I started to scout for a shot. I crossed what for me is a psychological border between the side of the outcrop I usually shoot and the side I walk over to get there. There on the seldom-shot side I saw a magnificent scene, perfect for 4×10. Rushing back for my kit, I turned my ankle. Crap, I said to myself, I better be careful. If I break anything down here I’m screwed. I had seen all of 2 people in over 3 hours–and they were together. Oh wisdom of the little ignored voice, I hail thee.

As quickly as I could I shot a scene of what my friend David calls his mushroom rock. Ha! It is obviously a sentinel of the sea– a head shaped hoo-doo with a distinct profile. There was a tide pool and a sunlit ribbon of rock meandering through it. I had never seen the phenomenon before–and probably never will again because Salt Point is different every time I go. If I got that shot, I thought, it’s gonna be a winner, and this 8×10 and 4×10 business could be the beginning of a beautiful new relationship with the place.

I packed up, put my sunglasses on, and started the trek back to the truck, immediately breaking one of my cardinal clambering-over-rocks-and-other-uneven-surfaces rules. My sunglasses have progressive lenses which distort objects leading to misjudging vertical distances. The rule is to remove them. Wearing glasses, it should not have come as a surprise that I saw a brand new ledge on the first rock I needed to climb, one that I had never noticed before. Funny, I said to myself, funny I didn’t see that before–it’s in just the right position for my left foot. I don’t remember seeing it on the way down, or in fact ever. It’s so handy! But instead of alarm bells going off as they should, my little brain was aswirl with the question of whether or not I had bagged that last shot. Did I or didn’t I? So, I grasped the rock and put my foot on the alleged ledge. Assuming all my considerable weight, augmented by equipment, my foot slid off the ledge-that-wasn’t and down the rock, twisting in my boot. It was most unpleasant. I sat atop the rock (how did I get up there?) telling myself to breathe. The pain subsided and I resumed the climb-except that my appendage couldn’t take any weight without vigorous protest. This was not only unpleasant, it was inconvenient. I tried using the tripod, but it wasn’t much use. Instead, I combined hopping, butt sliding, whining, and walking on my heel to get up the rocks.

It was comical really. I would look at a pile of rocks and nearly cry wondering how I was going to get over it. But I had no choice. Even if someone did come along, how could they effectively help me, aside from taking the equipment? Help me crawl? When I got up to the path at last, I could walk on my heel, but uneven ground meant touching the bottom of my foot, which didn’t feel nice. There was one more set of rocks to climb and I remember sniffling and saying to myself how angry Sir was going to be with me for being so dumb. A runner came up behind me and passed, the only person I saw in my nearly 1 mile hobble and shuffle back to the parking lot. It did not occur to me to stop him–I was just thankful I hadn’t been talking to myself at that moment, having my own whiny little pity party.

I have never in my life been so happy to see my truck Wanda. Among her many stellar qualities, she has a clutch, a feature I was not quite so enamored of today. I had to figure out how to press it for the 2 hour drive home. The alternative was to wait until Sir got home from work an hour hence and have him drive 2 hours up the coast, trade vehicles, and then 2 hours home on top of the hour and a half commute he’d already had. No. Not an idea I really wanted to entertain. Finding that pushing with my toes was effective enough, I texted Sir saying I had hurt my foot and to get himself something to eat out of the freezer. I confess I did not change gears quite as often as I might, but I managed.

The next day I got the wonderful boot I am now sporting. I had to take a week off work to rest. (Incredibly boring since I couldn’t really do anything. At one point I entered the darkroom and the boot got hung up in midair on the industrial Velcro that holds the door shut. There it was suspended and firmly caught while I tried to balance well enough to bend over and pull it off.)

The good part is that the larger format was a success and that last shot of the day turned out nicely. The bad part is that I cannot take walks, drive very well (I can’t feel the pedal through the boot), shoot landscape, or really be on my foot much. It started swelling the other day which necessitated another x-ray (it is healing) and an admonition from the doctor to stay off it until my podiatrist appointment in another week. I wonder if walking to the store, driving my truck, getting up and down at work, shopping, and laundry had anything to to do with it? Or possibly just neglecting to elevate it altogether…?

I’m taking this as an opportunity to make prints in place of my obsession and anxiety driven pursuit of negatives. The negative, I need to remind myself, is just the beginning of a process that is limited only by my imagination and I am not going to get world famous while all my ideas still reside in my head.

The way forward is the way back

anna 4x10 2

I have always found printing in the darkroom to be difficult. The combination of the limits of the negative married to the limits of paper makes an uneasy marriage for me, resulting in a lot of waste and a lot of disappointment and frustration. [Insert whiny voice here] Oy, this print is icky. Why aren’t the blacks dark? What is that schmutz in the highlight? I’ve used a whole box of warmtone paper and all these prints are utter crap. I can’t do this. My back hurts. I want my mommy.

Thus began my quest for quality prints with less effort, skill, time, and money than required to make a good silver print. In my grandiose and egotistical ignorance, I could not see what an exercise in futility it was.

I decided to try dry plate tintypes. Haha. Not the real ones, the ones made with liquid emulsion in the darkroom and then either put in a film holder or used for contact printing. I made such a mess trying to pour plates that I put a big foil tray on the floor to catch the drips. I used some color transparencies I had and developed the image in some magical reversal developer supplied in the kit. I actually went so far as to order more plates–a nice brown color–but the finish on them was such that the emulsion peeled off. I gave up. Two weeks ago I discovered that the brown plates had a plastic protective covering on them I had neglected to peel off. Sigh.

Next stop: lith prints. This process can produce grainy and moody prints but using Moersch chemicals, the crap I made was even somewhat repeatable. But not every paper responds well to lith printing and unless you test it, you won’t know. Also, as soon as the coating formula changes, the good lith papers ain’t so good anymore. And, like a lot of stuff in the film world, many of the preferred papers are no longer made. My first prints were made on Forte Polywarmtone that I had laying around. But of course I couldn’t get any more–just when I grew fond of the pink tones. I got a few boxes off the auction site, and tried some other types. It’s still a process I liked but, well, what else was out there?

Move on to gumoil. That was such a short effort it barely merits attention. I saw it mentioned someplace and I watched a couple of videos that made it look like magic. Still, I think I tried two and thought that oil paint on paper without a gesso layer was a really bad idea. Plus, despite doing lith prints, I didn’t care for that fuzzy look. But that is probably because my technique was bad. I found one the other day, covered in streaks where I had “helped” during the bleach phase.

As part of a project I even tried making my own emulsion when the liquid stuff I used for dry plate tintypes got used up and couldn’t be bought locally anymore–only in England. That was like returning to my college days in the lab, and my first few jobs afterward. I had help from Mark Osterman and his assistant Nick Brandreth of the George Eastman House in the success of the concoction. It is meant to coat glass plates for in-camera shooting and for my purposes the blacks weren’t quite where I would like, but it was ok. Was this where I would stop? Making lots of batches of liquid emulsion? Hmmm. Maybe.

But wait! A chance remark by my friend Karl, announcing that “carbon is the most beautiful process out there” shot me in that direction. I ordered some tissue from Bostick & Sullivan and the second edition of Christopher James’ book on alternate photography. I like to learn from books. Or rather, I do not like to take workshops would be more accurate. In a class, I get good results under conditions I can never duplicate, so I’d rather muddle along with the limitations I have. I am not sure what made me think that carbon printing was ever within my grasp, much less that it may be easier than silver, but, well, ignorance is bliss. And up to a certain point–the point of repeated failure–I do like a challenge. I went through the usual screw-ups of frilling of the tissue, underexposed, overexposed, areas out of focus, etc etc. I got so far as to make my own glop. There were actually a few that were good. I was asked if this was the process for me. Yes! Absolutely!

Except then I read another chapter in the James book about ziatype, kind of platinum-lite when considered from the pocketbook angle. I spent an exciting few weeks assembling the goodies for the process. Pretty paper! Cute little bottles of precious metal salts! Groovy brushes! Mixing recipes counted by the drop! First attempts looked pretty good, but not black like the book said. In fact, I have very seldom achieved a rich black with this process. Could be humidity, could be the light source, could be the chemical mix, could be the developer, could be magic.

I was using a light box I had purchased to make the platinum prints that never materialized. I have a couple of bottles of this and that for it I have not tapped. Talking to a friend I had at the time about the UV processes I was attempting, I was offered the loan of a NuArc flip top platemaker. I just had to drive 7 hours to get it. And load it into my truck, and drive home and figure out how to cram it into my garage. And learn to use it. Piece of cake, right?

That started an interesting transition to mostly UV processes, largely based on the fact that getting that beast into a place in the garage was so much work. I had to unload my darkroom (an Army mobile X-Ray lab that came in a nice green box), slide it out of the way, wiggle in the NuArc, put the darkroom back, reload it. Oh, that was after Sir and I pulled the gubbins out of the belly of the unit to figure out why the lamp wouldn’t fire. We put–or rather, Sir put–a new cord on it and I found a new switch relay. We put it together and fired it up. It was like Frankenstein coming to life and the light was so bright that Sir stumbled forward crying “I’m blinded! Please! Turn that thing off!” Then we moved it up some steps by rolling it on its side….without my securing the glass panel protecting the lamp. Yeah. I shattered it. But nothing that $200 couldn’t fix.

The 1200 watt mercury vapor bulb in this unit meant that my exposure times went down a bit. Sadly, it didn’t automatically improve the quality of my output. The vacuum frame was sure dandy, until the day a couple of months ago when I switched on the pump and the needle pegged at 0. Nuthin. I felt true despair; I had come to depend on the unit for all manner of mishaps and the occasional success. I told Sir about it. “So fix it. Things break all the time.” I managed to do so, not without incident, but I can say that now I know the inner workings of the vacuum system quite well, thank you very much. The machine was out of commission for a couple of weeks while I struggled to fix it.

Meanwhile, I had taken a workshop at the George Eastman House on orotones. There we made carbon prints on glass. Oh that rich black! Oh that yummy gold! I almost went back and remade an entire project just to employ this process. I probably would have done it if I didn’t have to make duplicate negatives for 9 images. Still, that trip was significant for another reason: ideas planted in my poor overflowing brain.

This time it was gum bichromate and gum over platinum, or platinum over ink, and so forth. With both glee and trepidation I again looked at all the delicious supplies needed for gum bichromate. New brushes! Sizing! Paper! Watercolor! I had some gum arabic from gumoil, paint from student days, and some negatives of course. I was absolutely thrilled when I got an actual image with nothing but paint, gum, and dichromate. I expanded it to include gum over ziatype, both to warm the print and to change the color. Usually what happened was I couldn’t leave the print alone, and I now have a pile of murky images. I do like the idea of layered color, so I will probably come back to this process.

The step, or leap, or perhaps even complete re-boot, from gum bichromate to printmaking originates in a faulty idea. But really, were I to know the doom that seems to wait at the end of every attempt, would I even bother? That’s not really the point, though, is it? The point is to try. I wanted to use printmaking as the base for layered photographs in the same fashion as some people use cyanotype or platinum, so I took a class on photopolymer film printmaking. Polymer film does a pretty good job of reproducing a photograph, but it can’t represent very light highlights or deep shadows well. Polymer plates do that better so I tried them. These things are expensive and naturally I ruined quite a few. I also learned that I am incredibly picky about some things and one image of mine went through about 14 iterations before I declared myself sufficiently satisfied (but it still could have been better).

When I started printmaking with my cute little blue press, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to do copperplate photogravure. After all, it was a process invented to reproduce photographs for books and not really intended as an end in and of itself (although it has always been used that way too). Why would I want to go to all that trouble to make a copper plate when I could achieve a print so many other, easier, ways? I have no idea, but the thought of making one grew on me. My son says it’s my way of getting back in the lab and grappling with chemical complications. He may have a point.

I began gathering items for etching with a mixture of apprehension and resignation. Of course I was going to do it, wasn’t I? The 5 gallon bucket of 48 Baume etchant sat mocking me in the downstairs bathroom for months before I hauled it out to the garage to install its pump. Something that size can’t be poured. Sir called after me, “Stay away from my car!” The ferric is a powerful corrosive, and stains horribly, but otherwise has no odor.

I tried the images that were successful with polymer plates and lo! Decent plate, nice prints. It was when I tried pictures that hadn’t been used on other plates that I ran into trouble. Images that have a proscribed tonal range are the ones that etch well, and none of my usual ignoring the rules would fly here. When I flaunted the rule I ended up with plates that had various problems. It is so sad to see a shiny copper plate with a rejected image etched into it.

So it has all come full cruel, cruel circle. The way to successful gravures is through a good positive. How do you get one of those? Why, in the darkroom of course! Where you use film instead of paper to make a silver print with all the terrific dodging and burning required, along with the investigation of developer / film combinations, temperature, agitation techniques, and dilution. Argh! [Whiny voice reasserts itself here]. Oy! This print isn’t going to etch properly! What are all those pinholes? Why is this one darker than that one? I’m getting a headache. Mom!

The way forward for me is a journey back to the beginning.

It’s All Lies!

Save EmIt turns out that writing when I apparently have nothing to say is rather liberating. I used to be able to find concepts and subjects that had a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes they even had a moral, or at least some pithy philosophical remark to wrap them up. It’s pretty dandy to have a sentence on which to finish that ties up any loose ends and also gives the reader something to ponder. Such endings will come back to me again, I hope.

A couple of days ago I was on a shoot for the Park Service and I was just finishing putting away all my gear. I had photographed the inside of an interesting house tucked away in the trees while the owner was out. (I had permission!) I got to chatting with the fellow when he returned and I ended up saying something to the tune of, “people’s shortcomings only look that way because of your own.” He said, “I’ll have to think about that.” Umm. I do too, because I’m not sure I believe myself.

It’s actually rather astonishing how much I keep hidden from myself in an effort just to get through the day. Most days I write in my journal and every entry is rife with lies lies lies. Or half lies because when I am in the midst of writing the sentence I can feel its untruth. It might be something minor like, “I don’t think Joe Blow likes me” when I actually mean, “I don’t like Joe Blow myself.” Or a more major thing such as, “I really don’t care if anyone likes my photographs–I am going to keep going anyway.” What I feel is more like, “It is crushing that I don’t get the accolades I would like, but I don’t have a lot of choice. I can either do what I want and risk being ignored, or do what others like but feel hollow about it.” The most common lies seem to orbit around hate and annoyance, two emotions that cover all manner of hurt.

Anger is supposed to act as a catalyst–giving you the necessary energy to alter the circumstances that brought it about. But I would also posit that it behooves a person to understand that it is an indicator that a boundary or limit has been breeched, and acting out is not justified by the fact that you have been hurt. Yes, I may feel like punching someone in the face but I can’t really get away with that. I could, however, acknowledge to myself that I was remiss in not letting my limits be known, and work on that.

I have had friends in the past who have made me really mad, but I have just swallowed it, thinking I will get over it when I spend some time by myself. What masquerades here as selflessness is actually completely self-absorbed. I tell myself I don’t want to hurt their feelings so I will just let them auger me into the ground with their emotional needs. I’ll be ok, right? There is some sort of hero complex going on there–I will be the friend who doesn’t say no, who is always there for them, who doesn’t abandon them. What happens instead is I don’t give credence to my annoyance and grind my teeth instead until–surprise!–I explode. The person on the receiving end has no idea what hit them. Some friend I am, right?

Self-deception is certainly not unique to me, but I sure do a lot of it. Some lies are pretty obvious, even as I tell them to myself–and I tell them to myself because I want something contrary to what I see and feel to be true. Oh, I say to myself, those aren’t whitecaps out there, it must be low tide and those are waves breaking over ever so many rocks. Nah, they were whitecaps which meant my 2 hour drive to shoot was wasted. Others are more complicated like when I am sure I can tolerate the company of someone for a few days when that has never happened before. Why do I think things have changed when I have done nothing to change them? Because a lot may be riding on a particular outcome, both emotionally and physically, and so I lie to myself.

I like to think that my lies don’t live large in my art life, but I’m pretty sure that’s untrue. I don’t know how easy it is to create things that are not authentic, even if I knew what that meant. I do know that sometimes I make things because I know they will be liked, and stay away from other actions because I know they won’t. It is not an uncommon occurrence as an artist to like pieces of your own that no one else does. When this happens to me I ask myself why–but once again the answers are anything but clear.

Truth is sticky, it’s murky, and it varies from person to person. In fact, as an absolute, I don’t know that it exists except in fleeting scientific moments when “laws” appear to be accurate. Without a veil of delusion, the world is a cruel, fickle place fraught with pitfalls, tragedies, violence, and pain. Every person, every where, deals with crippling hurt at one time or another that no amount of prayer or substance can truly alter. It’s little wonder that we invent things to cling to, and they march on out to fill every part of our life, where perhaps they are not critical to our survival.

I would like to find that place where I am ok with the delusions I harbor because they make parts of my life bearable (I am not that fat, that wrinkled, that old, that untalented), acknowledge and understand the same in others (my facelift is awesome, these pants look great, my poem should be published), and maybe arrive at a place where when the hurt comes–as it will–I am ok with the lies that help me through. In the end, it isn’t just me who isn’t truthful–it’s you too. For a society that seems to value truth, we sure don’t tell much of it, even when we think we are. I’m telling you, if I, a pretty honest person, is surprised by the amount of petty lies I tell, I can only imagine (with a gulp), how much crap is actually spewed by folks. And yet, have you ever noticed how incensed we are when public figures tell lies? If they get caught, perhaps you will too, and that is where that indignity begins.

We all lie. It’s more a matter of how much of it you admit to, even if only to yourself. And that’s the truth.