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Entries in photography (10)

Tuesday
Nov152011

Cliché

Where are the words, where are the words, where are the words? - TR

I've had a hard time putting things into words. You can see by the pace of things around here: the images stacking up like a barricade. That's because it's where I feel most comfortable, lately. Safe.

I've fallen in love with film all over again. I know it's trite and cliché and hipsterish and possibly pretentious to be one of those "I only shoot film" types — somewhere between "I don't own a television" and "I'm really into Hall & Oates" — but I think it's my only way forward. There is a warmth in film, a slowed-down nature that has me hooked.* (Digital photography, instead, feels as if it's speeding up time. And we can't be having that.) In film, there is a longer pause.

The pause is what is most important to me now. One moment you look at the clock and it says 11:01. The next moment: 11:28. Nothing we can do. But where we find pause, for a moment...

Life continues to perplex. Just when I think I have it all figured out, I have the wind kicked out of me by a baby's laugh, something my dad says, a song I can't stop playing, the realization that I'm no longer on the edge of seventeen, but instead closer to the edge of thirty-seven. And in that moment, when my breath stops, I reconsider who I am and why I am here.

How briefly we're all here.

In the pause, I try to see things clearly. In the pause, I stand in the shower, washing away a night of joyous bourbon drinking, and quote Lewis Carroll: Ever drifting down the stream, lingering in the golden gleam, life what is it but a dream?** In the pause, I wonder as ever if life is nothing but fiction. How can this be real?

And in that pause, that moment, I start to live again.

*Thanks also to Bill Cunningham's New York for provoking me into buying a 35mm film camera I didn't think I needed, but now can't imagine living without.
**Quoting Lewis Carroll in the shower is way more pretentious than being into Hall & Oates. I can claim both.

(Previously: The Moment, Snap)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Mar022011

A Great Photograph

A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.

Ansel Adams (via Susan Sontag's On Photography)

Monday
Feb282011

The Street Photographer

Sixth Avenue was swimming with tourists and shoppers: everyone trying to catch the sun. I walked through Herald Square, shading my eyes to try to spot the window from which Berenice Abbott trained her lens on the city streets below. All of us, tilting our faces up to the sky. Mine was so tilted that further south I almost didn't notice the man standing near the curb with an amazing old press camera. I turned on my heels and tilted my head his way.

"Can I take your picture with mine?" I extended the bellows to show him what I was carrying with me.

"You know how to use that thing? Don't make me white."

"I think I can manage that."

"Turn it vertical. Focus horizontal, then turn it vertical."

Click. I started to remove my cold clip, but he stopped me.

"Don't use that; just put it under your arm. Fold it, then under your arm. Now just give it a minute."

We stood there in suspense of the image. He introduced himself as Louis Mendes ("Wow! You're on Wikipedia!") and asked me where I was from. He showed me how I could rewire the exposure battery for a 9 volt, then my little timer stopped rattling away, and he nodded at me to peel the negative.

Louis Mendes

"Well, I didn't make you white."

He noticed the light leak on the print, offered tips for taping the bellows, and as he was looking at my camera, informed me that, based on the placement of the tripod mount, I seemed to have a 100 body with a 250 face. (And he wasn't rating my looks.) "Wow, I never would have known that." A curb-side education on a Sixth Avenue Sunday.

"Well, there you go."

As I was walking away, I could hear him behind me: "That just made my day. "

Mine too, Louis; mine too.

(Louis's site is here; The New York Times did an article on his photography just over a year ago, and previously, in 1995, an article which includes my favorite line: "It's not a perfect world we live in, but I try to make a perfect picture." With apologies to Louis's purism, slight tweaks were made to the levels on the above photograph upon scanning.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Feb102011

Something Of Worth

Bath.

Bath, February 8th, 2011. First vertical shot taken with Polaroid 250 Land Camera.

This past Monday, while following a white rabbit down some wayward hole in the vast landscape of the internet, I found out that Patti Smith and I have the same camera. A Polaroid 250 Land Camera, compact until its bellows are released, instant as long as you have the patience to wait sixty seconds for development.

I stumbled across mine at the Valley Thrift in southwestern Ohio this past Thanksgiving, tucked away on a bottom shelf with the other discarded film cameras, a grease pencil marking $3.99 on an orange paper tag stapled to the strap of the camera bag. This was months before I knew that Patti Smith had this model, that she’d been photographing with it for years, that she’d had an exhibit of her Polaroids in Paris.

But now, suddenly, whenever I lift the camera to my eye, I think of Patti Smith’s photographs. Like this: slightly blurry, the camera turned on its side.

How can you tell the difference between emulation and imitation?

* * *

Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive.
- Patti Smith, in a recent interview in the Guardian

The "something of worth" in question is the new PJ Harvey album, an album Patti Smith has been listening to and has been inspired by. After reading the interview, I watched the video for "The Words That Maketh Murder" on YouTube. In it, Polly clutches an autoharp to her chest, singing in what I remember her once describing in an interview as her "church voice." On the subway ride home, I played Patti Smith's "Hymn" and heard an echo: Patti, autoharp, church voice. I dig deeper and start to see little hot copper wires of emulation suspended all over the place: Patti admits to once stealing Rimbaud’s Illuminations, admits to loving the gold hues found in Blake’s paintings. Patti/Polly and their autoharps and church voices. A photograph, slightly blurry, a camera turned on its side.

We give and we take. We cast things out and rein them back in, like the nets of fishermen gathering sustenance. A rhythm of influence circulating like currents. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly and back to Patti again.

Throw out the net and drag it back.

* * *

"You know who you remind me of? Patti Smith." Someone said to me once. Once.

I am not Patti Smith. I look nothing like Patti Smith. Brown hair, sure. But the rest? She had edge. She stood out from the crowd. I blend in so hard I'm hardly there. Still, I swallowed that compliment whole and spat it out again to others: "I've been told Patti Smith..." (To which I invariably hear in response "No, not Patti Smith at all..." )

I am not Patti Smith. The Patti Smith who slept on park benches. Who worked at Brentano's. Who cut her own hair. Who had a sandwich bought for her by Allen Ginsberg, and then she saw the best minds of her generation destroyed by madness and AIDS. Patti was there, back then, in her time, and I am here in mine. 

I am not Patti Smith. None of us is Patti Smith but Patti Smith.

And yet: I raise my camera to my eye and try to see the world the way she sees it. Borrowing her eyes for the fraction of a second it takes to release the shutter.

Is this imitation or emulation? Is it simply curiosity? Is there worth in what I do? Am I happy to be alive?

* * *

It's easy to drive yourself crazy thinking about these things: about what came before, about what comes next. I'm looking for solace in turbulent waters.

* * *

Je suis un inventeur bien autrement méritant que tous ceux qui m'ont précédé ; un musicien même, qui ai trouvé quelque chose comme la clef de l'amour.*
- Rimbaud

Where would we be without emulation? Without all those who came before us? Why is there ever shame in acknowledging that something was created out of an attempt to aspire to be like something else? Especially when that new something is of worth to this world? Aren’t we all just different versions of each other? 

I'm getting too good at asking all the questions. The answers are the tricky part.

This morning, as I exited the subway station, passing a homeless man curled up next to a copy of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle**, Patti Smith’s cover of The Byrds' "So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star" came on. A song itself about imitation. I tripped out onto 57th street, saw the golden hues of the morning light hit the buildings and construction cranes, the traffic lights and traffic, pulled out my camera, and turned it on its side. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly to 57th street and back again.

We give and we take. We cast out nets. We emulate, and occasionally imitate, trying to see the world the way someone else sees it. Most of us, in the end, are trying our best to come close to something of worth, because it just makes us happy to be alive.

* "I am an inventor far more deserving than all those who came before me; a musician, even, who has discovered something like the key of love." Yes I pretentiously left this quote in French. I feel it lends to the mystery.
** "Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things." (pg. 260)

(Patti Smith appears at the 92nd Street Y next Wednesday, February 16th. PJ Harvey’s new album, Let England Shake, is out the day before, February 15th. You can listen to it now at NPR. It’s amazing. I am not currently appearing anywhere, nor am I releasing any albums. Which, if I did, would surely be full of nonsensical, poorly edited ramblings like this one. You probably wouldn't be able to listen to any of them at NPR. Maybe one day they'll invite me to the Y.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Friday
Dec032010

Complementary Angles

When looking at photographs, it can be all too easy to forget the photographers behind the lens, their selection, their posture and intent. And yet you can see them in the photograph, I would contend, whether they intended to leave themselves there or not.

Jim was passing through town this week, and after we'd talked each other's ears off about the rust belt over a few pints, we set off on a hunt for pork buns, and on the way I paused to take this picture of the street market on Broadway:

Then Jim grabbed my camera to take his version of the same:

The same little point-and-shoot camera, the same presets, the same lighting, standing no more than a few feet away, and yet the second picture is so distinctly Jim's it's unnerving. A reminder of the photographer there behind the lens, of the way he chooses to fill his frame, the purposeful and selective intent of an angle. A reminder that no matter how many times someone says to you "your camera takes such great pictures" it ain't the camera at all: it's very much the photographer.

(Note: I don't think either of us would call either of these two photographs our greatest, but I wanted to share them to illustrate a point. Also, previously: thoughts on the photographer in the photograph.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.