Sunday, April 10, 2011

In Search of the Big Picture

Courthouse Rock Vista, Arches National Park

Arches National Park, like many other high-volume tourist destinations, can be a confluence of peoples from many different walks of life. These major tourist destinations become melting-pots-in-miniature, affording one the opportunity to rub elbows with people not ordinarily in one's social circle.

As a photographer, these major tourist destinations also serve as photographic melting pots. One sees virtually the entire gamut of photography, from the tourist with miniature digital point-and-shoot, held at arm's length, to the enthusiast or professional with motorized digital large format panoramic setups.

One could imagine a spectrum of artistic approaches represented by the range of technological sophistication of the various cameras one encounters during such a vacation, from the simple to the complex, the simplistic to the sophisticated. There's also another dimension to this hypothetical photographic spectrum, and that is the nature of manufacture of camera equipment, from entirely factory-made, to partially modified, to entirely handmade, cobbled-together creations.

It is this last dimension of photographic process that I was most interested in observing during my trip. I am fairly certain, during the time between my own image-making activities when I specifically observed other photographers in action, that I was the only person in the Park using any kind of silver-gelatin-based photographic technology; I didn't see another film-based camera during our entire vacation. I am also entirely certain that I was the only person utilizing any kind of handmade or modified camera system.

Joe photographing the Double Arch

We had decided to vacation in Moab specifically to visit Arches National Park, not only as a get-away for us as a couple, but also for the purposes of photographing the park with a large format pinhole box camera.

This idea of process flow, how interactive we are with our image-creation process, I feel is crucial to a successful and meaningful photographic experience. This is a fairly broad statement, but one that I believe applies equally to electronic, traditional or alternative processes.

I enjoyed the interaction with other people induced by my oddly appearing box camera, which served as a jumping-off point for further discussion. There were many "did you make that yourself?" questions (which kept me laughing to myself, knowing the crude appearance of the foamcore and gaffer's tape contraption), along with a few "is that a pinhole camera?" questions, and several "I made one of those, years ago in grade school" put-downs (usually by a DSLR-totting sophisticate, intent on informing us that such childish acitivity is beneath them), along with several very meaningful conversations, one in particular with a lady who had served as assistant during several of Clyde Butcher's large format photography seminars in Florida. There was plenty of interaction with other people who were polite enough not to walk in front of the camera (of which I informed them that if they kept moving, they wouldn't show up in the picture). It was a fun time to provide some fundamental level of education to a broader audience who had little or no experience with large format pinhole cameras and paper negatives, and made me consider anew a hypothetical pinhole camera seminar of my own.

Fiery Furnace Overlook

There was a moment during our trip that highlighted both the commonalities and differences between the various photographic methods being employed. It was our second day in the Park, late in the afternoon, and we had arrived at the Fiery Furnace Overlook. The parking area was fairly crowded, more crowded than many other parts of the Park that day, which made me wonder what it was that was so spectacular up ahead. After a brief walk down a dusty trail I found at the trail's end, overlooking a spectacular vista, a group of about a dozen photographers, each with a tripod and camera rig that appeared to be at least as sophisticated as the DSLR wielded by the typical middle-class tourist.

Joe at Fiery Furnace Overlook, setting up for his shot, adjacent to a digital Hasselblad panoramic photographer

I found myself reacting negatively to the reply from one member of the group, in response to my wife's question, that they were engaged in a "digital Hasselblad panoramic seminar." My negative reaction, which amounted to not interacting with the group at all, surprised my wife, who had assumed that I'd be interested in conversing with fellow photographers.

Perhaps it had something to do with an inner insecurity on my part, or mere petty jealousy over the cost of such equipment (I mentally computed a sum-total equipment bill-of-material for the seminar that was at least as expensive as the value of my house), or perhaps I was grouchy that afternoon (that's not out of the range of possibilities) but I felt it not the appropriate venue to distract the seminarians over discussions about one's personal methods of art-making when they were so focused on one particular aspect of photography (and which I'm fairly certain cost them good money to attend, and would also be tied in with some potential camera sales afterward).

My negative reaction was spurred on by the insistence of the person to point out the "digital Hasselblad" part of the seminar, as if it were important for others to know this particular detail of their activities, as if it were insufficient to merely say "panoramic photography seminar". My skepticism was reinforced as I heard motorized buzzing sounds eminating from a computer-driven altazimuth camera mount, slewing the digital Hasselblad, whose lens was bigger than a can of Foster's beer, back and forth. I thought at the time that it's one step away from cutting out pictures from some travel magazine, entirely saving the cost of the vacation or having to outfit one's wardrobe with Eddy Bauer-like, crisply ironed, pseudo-safari outfits that had not a lick of dirt or stain of sweat, the only thing missing being the price tags. It seemed insincere, like there was some intrinsic disconnect between the tools of their craft and their hand and eye. But there's the problem, and what I was reacting negatively to, as I stood there in my threadbare work shirt, sweat-stained boonie hat and cobbled-together box camera, which is that I perceived on their part a lack of interactivity with their craft.

Atop the canyon face at Delicate Arch

Of course, I was wrong. It was wrong of me to judge other's inner motivations, and I'd truly missed out on an opportunity to expand my knowledge horizon by interacting with members of the seminar engaged in an area of photography that I know little about. I had explained to my wife of the group's pretense, that they were mere posers. But, as we returned to our car from the Overlook, we passed the same gentleman we'd seen along the side of the trail earlier. He still had his digital Hasselblad rig pointed down at a dry piece of wood, and was still fumbling with the camera, obviously interested in finding the optimal composition and focus, and I realized, only later, that here was a man truly interested and engaged in his art, that it was pretense on my part to make assumptions about others, about their skill level or experience or veracity of their approach, that I could just as easily picture myself there, in his shoes.

This is a problem that's present, not only in the blowup arguments typical of equipment-oriented Internet discussion forums, but also in the presumption of superiority evident in my attitude that day, as if there were some moral high-ground intrinsic to a non-electronic, technologically simpler approach to art-making. I could picture myself being equally as obtuse and elusive over some perceived intrinsic moral certitude about the merits of the do-it-yourself pinhole photography approach. I failed to remain humble and open-minded.

My failure that day was that I had not kept in mind the first principles of 21st Century Photography, which could be simplified into the commonly-heard quip "it's all good." Whether one's hand is at the stylus or mouse, or instead soaking in a tray of developer solution, there is found the artist interacting with his medium, the lessons being to stay involved with one's craft, to mix it up (literally as well as figuratively), to never make assumptions about the approaches taken by others, to stay open and receptive, and to always value the benefit of cross-pollination between disparate disciplines. Artists are the great observers, the Seers, of the culture. We must keep our eyes clearly open, our hands firmly engaged on our work. To fall into the trap of pretense, of petty comparisons over the merits of one method versus another, can distract us from seeking the Big Picture, which is not merely an image captured of some spectacular vantage point, but is more fundamental, having more to do with the motivation behind our creative pursuits, our inner perspective being that which informs our outward activity.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)


Blogger Duffy Moon said...

1) beautiful shots, as always.
2) Next time, when you lug that thing out there, just to freak people out, you should dress in some kind of century-old period costume. And pretend you're the only one there.

9:47 AM  
Blogger ars de carta said...

Those are too cool. You're awesome.


4:29 PM  

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