Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ink Stains & Pixel Peepers



“Don’t worry. I’m a writer, too, and I know that sometimes the muse hits you and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll figure it out together.”

I.

That’s President-to-be Barack Obama, talking to his chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Both men are writers, yet Favreau admits that his boss is “the better of the two” when it comes to writing skills.

Image that: the next POTUS is a gifted writer; that, along with the responsibility of potentially unleashing the fury of an all-out nuclear holocaust, Mr. Obama understands, all too well, the writer’s life. Implicit to this understanding is the distinct difference between the first draft and the finished work, which is akin to the distinction between the planting of seeds and the harvesting of crops. The implication is that Mr. Obama understands the rite of the process of writing: rewriting, revision, editing; the adding to and the taking away.

The bulk of the work of writing is what happens in that vast, interminable middle distance between the start and the completion. Writing is work, plain and simple; being creative – or, rather, exuding creativity – is not as much mysticism as it is endurance. The mystical comes after the twentieth mile, when it seems as if one can’t go on any further, yet in the trudging endurance of putting one foot after another – one word after another – a wall is finally broken through.

The rewards of writing, the creation of work that transcends the temporal to achieve timelessness, is not a gifted acquisition, but earned. There’s much to be learned from that old saw about invention being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Despite Mr. Obama’s reference to the muse, (a common writer’s symbology,) he clearly understands the mystery of creativity is what happens after the twentieth mile, after human endurance has seemingly spent its course and there is nothing left from which to draw strength; and yet it comes, sometimes in trickles, sometimes in torrents, like water in the desert after having struck the rock.

II.

“Pixel Peepers.” That’s a good phrase, one that’s seemingly used more and more of late, especially within certain Internet discussion fora, devoted to the minutiae of camera technology, rather than the art of the photographic image. I’ve lurked on enough fora of late, intent upon gleaning some obtuse yet highly useful gem of information that will result in a hoped-for break-through in creativity, yet knowing full well that such break-throughs only come after much dedicated and focused hard work. There are no shortcuts to excellence. Meanwhile, sifting through the plethora of Pixel Peeper postings is likened to manually manipulating the manure in search of that one undigested kernel of truth.

It’s that time of year, right within the heart of the holiday spending frenzy, when budding photographers are agog over the latest camera offerings and the discussion fora, like neighborhood disputes over the back fence, argue the merits of lens MTF charts and JPEG engines, while ignoring completely the aesthetics of the image itself.

Lest we be accused of being nonobservant, there appears to exist a great divide, cleaving itself across the photographic landscape, which comes to resemble the rent through the social fabric that we have come to know as politics in America. Technological change is occurring at a rate outpacing the ability of individuals and societies to adjust. Individual responses to such change are typified by one of two reactions: Conservatism (as in “death to digital”; “film forever”) and Liberalism (as in “film is dead”; “damned the past, full speed ahead”). There seems to be little room for a reasoned middle ground between these two extremes.

Did writers, in their heyday, argue this much over the relative merits of Word versus Word Perfect, or manual verses electric typewriters? No. And most of these posters are mere poseurs, not real photographers. This is an artifact of the ready accessibility to camera technology, and the ease with which strangers can pretend they know one another well enough to discard the common social graces and instead act as dysfunctional family members.

One is tempted, when considering the phenomenon of the Internet discussion forum, to think of them as analogous to 19th century European art salons, where much of the life of contemporary art was discussed and debated, and from which many splinter-group salons resulted, such as the Expressionists. However, this analogy falls apart when we consider that, with very few exceptions, Internet discussion fora are virtually completely obsessed with the mechanics of camera technology, resulting in very little genuine talk about the aesthetics of photography. Indeed, one could argue that photographic aesthetics and art in general are so foreign as to be completely devoid of any relevance within contemporary culture. This may have something to do with the decline of the liberal arts in American academia, especially public education, which seems more geared toward the production of a race of corporate wage slaves than an intelligent, freethinking citizenry. The requisites of forum membership are nothing more than an Internet connection and email account, whereas the European salon helped facilitate the breakdown of social barriers through the mixing of social classes. The Internet discussion forum, in contrast, seems entirely classless and bourgeois, where the high priests of art academia are entirely absent, corralled in their Ivy Towers. In this regard the Internet discussion forum more appropriately resembles a working-man’s pub, where one false move or slip-of-the-tongue and it’s “Katie bar the door.”

III.

Although I’m finishing this entry on my Underwood Universal, it was started with fountain pen on paper, at a coffee shop, where I recall sitting, twiddling the pen between my fingers as I pondered how to proceed with a particular thought, and I became engaged in a short conversation with a fellow patron, who had paused to talk with an acquaintance at an adjacent table. “What are you writing,” he asked. I started in by telling him that I write a blog, but do so using either handwritten text or manual typing, and proceeded to explain my theory about the speed of thought being much slower than the speed of writing technology, that one (at least this one) requires time to work out each phrase, sentence and paragraph, that the crafting of the language requires a dilatory pace not in keeping with the celerity of the computerized word processor. “Interesting,” he reacted, “very interesting.” He walked away as I pondered the blue/black ink stains on my middle finger, a sure telltale of the fountain pen aficionado. Now, as I sit here pondering the power of the literary image I am also arrested by the power of the well-crafted photographic image, both of which require a refiner’s fire to remove the dross from the silver. This seems to be a corollary of the times we live in, on the brink of a depression of unprecedented proportions and challenges both innumerable and daunting, yet which resound with a clarion call to purity of thought, deed and intent, a call to excellence and higher purpose.

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