Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Deeper Than Skin Deep

Three Empty Chairs, Pagosa Springs

Words come to us, as in photographs, through a multiplicity of means: prints (newspapers, magazines, journals;) electronic (documents, websites blogs, etc;) and sometimes we are privileged to have in our hands the original source material itself. Last summer The Scroll made a stop, along its nation-wide tour, to the Palace of the Governors Museum, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I took the opportunity to visit. The Scroll is, of course, Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript, typed in single spaced lines, on a continuous roll of Teletype paper, of “On the Road”, the seminal work of the Beat era. I couldn’t actually fondle its delicate, yellowed curls, since it was locked away behind an enormous glass-topped display case. Nor could I touch the Illuminated Manuscripts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which I had viewed years ago, although they, and Kerouac’s scroll, deeply touched me. Bathed in pools of dim light behind glass frames, each one was a fascinating document of another time in human history, when men tried to put into the hard materiality of ink on parchment the things of the spirit.

I am reminded of the medieval icon, a graphic image whose visual as well as material attributes are carefully orchestrated during its complex and lengthy creation, to achieve some embodiment of the Divine using the mere elements of a fallen and corrupt creation. There is the reminder here of the parable of the potter (the creator/artist) and the clay (the work of art). And a corollary principle would be that the created is more than mere clay; that the designer’s intent is the spirit that resides within and animates otherwise sodden earth, base elements.

These thoughts resonate with me as I regard the visual arts, specifically photography. The work produced by the photographic artist is intended to induce an internal image within the viewer; not merely a mental image however, but it must also resonate at some deeper, spiritual plane in order to succeed in the goal of creating an aesthetic connection, across time and space, to untold numbers who may partake of the work into the interminable future. Since the power of the photograph no longer relies for its maintenance on the personal creativity of the artist after its completion, it therefore has endowed within it some intrinsic spirituality that is able to function self-sufficiently long after the artist’s role is fulfilled. We can ponder in deep appreciation the images created by artists long since deceased and yet these images remain as powerful as the day they immerged from the darkroom. Clearly there is something odd going on here, this business of the arts, wherein the act of creativity seems to resemble in a symbolic manner what we read of in Genesis, of life being created seemingly out of the inanimate and overtly non-spiritual elements of this material world; the dust of the earth becoming something that takes on a life of its own, that seems to be able to function, after its creation, independent of the Creator. It is the image of the artist as life-giver.

In our overtly hyper visual culture we can easily take for granted that the literary image is at least as powerful as is the optical. The reading of words and sentences resonate to induce parallel thoughts, which form mental imagery as vivid as the visual. Much less subtle yet equally complex is the photographic image. It, too, intends to induce a mental image into the viewer, but this mental image is induced through visual association with the literal photographic image itself. It must be clearly understood therefore that the mental image being imparted is not the visual literalness of the photograph itself, but rather something hidden underneath the veneer of the hyper reality of the graphic image. It is easier to grasp this concept with the written word, since the medium of writing lacks the visually literate mapping of correspondences to objective reality enjoyed by photography. The photograph serves to function similar in principle to the medieval icon: the surface veneer of the literal graphic image is a mere vehicle, skin deep, for a deeper understanding. Sadly, many creators and viewers of photographs alike have little or no grasp of this idea, and go about their business under the mistaken impression that the photograph’s visual literalness is all there is and nothing more; that there is no deeper spiritual implication to appreciate; how sad.

Sometimes, as Freud indicated, a banana is just a banana; sometimes (many times, in fact) a photo is just a photo, and nothing more; there is no life, no vision, imparted to the work, it being merely a technical exercise in the mechanics of photography and nothing more. The same can be said at times of all the arts, mere craft devoid of spirit, with cunning and craftiness as the only reward. It is when the artist has the distinct understanding, and firm faith, in the work of craft as being mystically imbued with a power to captivate and communicate that we begin to find true art. True art functions at the spiritual level because its material substance has been subdued for a higher intent, like those otherwise empty jars of clay, each with a flaming torch within.

As artists we have an imperative to comprehend this principle to its fullest. The work we produce must not be empty exercises in technique and craft, but must resonate with the fire from deep within. We must remain torchbearers, kindling alight those around us to renewed fervor.

In our contemporary, fractured culture we have created artificially divisive categories that separate completely the role of artist from spiritual practitioner into two entirely distinct fields of expertise. This is contrasted with what are considered “primitive” cultures wherein the artist-shaman function with a holistic oneness, their means and ends inseparably interconnected. We need this today: not some New Age gimmickry but the vision of the power of art and artists to heal and transform the human spirit. Art is the spirit of a culture; without its power the culture’s torch has been extinguished forever.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Bend in the Road

Paul Namkung of Three Ravens Coffee House

I set out on the final leg of my impromptu road trip south from Pagosa Springs through northern New Mexico. The day started out sunny and cool, after an overnight rain storm that left the potholes in the roads and parking lots water-filled, with another near-perfect breakfast at the Victoria’s Parlor café.

This time of year, just before the aspens in the high country begin to turn yellow, is idyllic yet mournful; we know it can only get worse from here, as we try not to think too far in advance about the impending winter, when these lush, green-covered mountains will be snow-encrusted and the roads treacherous and icy.

The ups and downs and curves of the highway take me further south as the NPR radio station from Ignacio fades out, and I’m much too far north for the signal from Albuquerque. I put on a blues CD and continue enjoying the drive. I pass through the towns – villages, really – of Chama and Brazos. Soon I pass the sign and turnoff for Tierra Amarilla, as I’ve done many times before; there’s an official-looking announcement indicating the county courthouse, site of an infamous standoff, decades ago. As I cruise up the hill, past the turnoff, toward the junction with highway 64, I think “why not?” and make a u-turn; I have no schedule, the day is early and the morning is beautiful.
An abandoned building in Tierra Amarilla

As I round the bend in the narrow road that leads to the courthouse I spot a recently remodeled building with the sign “Three Ravens Coffee House.” I park and commence to capture a few images of the local architecture; I’m drawn to the rustic and dilapidated, yet hopeful of avoiding mere cliché. My wanderings inevitably lead me across the narrow road, to the sound and aroma of fresh espresso. Three metal ravens peer anxiously from the overhang of the sheet metal roof above the entrance. Inside is elegant and rustic, yet somehow modern and fresh; an unlikely combination that speaks volumes about the talents of the man I was fortunate to have spent the next half hour conversing with.
New growth in an old village

Paul Namkung came from northern California to this tiny, Hispanic village in northern New Mexico some fifteen years ago. He fell in love with an old, dilapidated building, site of a former mercantile store, then church school and finally condemned to destruction. His family and friends called him crazy – or worse – because he held a firm conviction, borne of a strong, inner vision as an artist, that what was at the time decay and rubble would someday be a simple yet elegantly furnished coffee shop.
Metal ravens examine each visitor

Paul makes his living as an artist, craftsman and musician, specifically fashioning a unique design of drum from elegantly crafted woods, which he has had little trouble selling as of late. They are crafted with the same evident attention to detail, as is his coffee shop, which he has slowly renovated and brought back from death over the last fifteen years. His neighbors have taken notice, too, over the last decade or so, as the building had begun to take shape and the finishing touches applied. As we talked, and he showed me around, I took the liberty of documenting Paul and his environs. I felt blessed to have finally stopped, turned around and headed back to the turnoff that I so often had ignored in the past.
Three Ravens Coffee House interior

As I finally drove out of the tiny village of Tierra Amarilla, Paul and I exchanged waves; he was outside, near the bend in the road, telling his story no doubt to the two ladies who had stopped in, midway through our conversation, as a prophet or visionary of hope would do; an Evangelist of Second Chances, who had brought back to life the hopelessness that was a collapsed and decaying past. He had told me a story when, just after the coffee shop had opened, an elderly lady, a lifelong resident of the village, came by to thank him for “saving our culture.”
Paul playing his homemade bass instrument

“I’m just building a coffee shop,” he replied. But her insistence and gratitude brought him to tears, as he realized what one rebuilt ruin could do to the life of a waning village.
Paul playing his unique handmade drums

This was a fitting way to end my vacation. I thought about Paul during my drive back to Albuquerque, and also about Adam, back in Durango, having to sell his antique Schwinn to get gas money to make it back home to Cortez. You just don’t know what the road has to offer. I didn’t make it to Canyonlands or Arches or the Bisti Badlands; but I think that I came away from this trip even richer, because of these people that I met along the way.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Single Speed Simplicity

“The bicycle has such aspects of freedom that an artist clings to. To combine these two, it's a romantic journey.” - John Bailey, event organizer, Singlespeed World Championships

A rainy night in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, following an all-day drive across the state, hoping to find a room in Moab, Utah. Such are the risks of impromptu, unplanned vacations. Last year at this time I had no trouble in bedding down after a similar all-day trek. But this time would be different, Moab being the nexus of a regional mountain biking event, drawing people from across the country to the southeast corner of Utah, such that there was not a spare room to be found.

Eventually, later that evening – well after dark – I found a modest room at a little motel across the border into Colorado, in Dove Creek, and bedded down for the night. The next morning I made my way to Durango, via breakfast in Cortez, only to find another bicycling extravaganza in full swing, the Singlespeed World Championships. This time I lucked out by finding an elegant (and rather pricey) room at the General Palmer; a far cry from the humble motor lodge of the previous evening.

Such is one's luck when unplanned travel via V8 roadcar meets well-organized bicycling competition; there was almost no room at the inn.

“One could say the singlespeed, with its one gear and lack of shifter, cogs and derailleurs, represents the bicycle in one of its purest forms.” - Brandon Mathis, Durango Telegraph

This idea of simplicity was on my mind while traveling, and foraging for documentary-type photographs. While nothing could be simpler than a one-speed bike, I'll take the speed, comfort and convenience of my car any day, thank you. At least for distant travel. Not so the young man I met in downtown Durango, Adam, who managed to gather enough cash together for a one-way trip from Cortez, to compete in the SSWC; his plan was to sell the one-speed Schwinn cruiser bike, after the race, to fund his return trip. Oh, he also had a dog accompanying him, who guarded the truck during the race. Simplicity. Life pared down to its most essential.

I was equipped with my Lumix G1, and an assortment of manual focus, legacy lenses to accompany the kit lens. Not exactly the one-speed cruiser of cameras. When Adam described the arduous up-hill climb during the race, and how he quit before gaining the top, I was reminded of the auto-focus kit lens to my G1, and how easy it is to compose and shoot without the additional thinking required to manually focus; quick, effortless snapshots can be easily had. But those old manual lenses do something else that the kit lens doesn't: open up to wide apertures, permitting hand-held exposures in dim lighting.

“That's why they made bikes with gears,” I quipped to Adam, “even though cruiser bikes are cooler looking.” And that's essentially the same observation pertaining to cameras: old manual focus cameras are cool looking, but it's easier to have the modern conveniences of auto-focus and auto-exposure. What we really desire is a camera with modern features, able to be controlled like a manual. A cruiser bike with gears; a hybrid: the best of both worlds.

I don't know if Adam sold his Schwinn for enough gas money to make it back to Cortez. I told him that if I'd brought my truck it would've been a done deal. Of course, that's all I need: another bicycle. Just like I don't need another camera, or manual typewriter, either.

The bicycle and typewriter are similar in other respects, too. You'll notice that Adam didn't ride his bike all the way over the mountains from Cortez to Durango; he took his truck. And you'll also notice that a computer is still needed to get my manual typings onto the Internets. So, despite all the romantic notions of manual film cameras and a bicycle commuting culture and retro-technology (like typewriters), we use them more like adjuncts – style enhancers – to our more mundane, contemporary systems of social communication. Which is not a bad thing, since it implies that our retro-tech tools are still firmly entrenched within the larger cultural context.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Typecasting On the Road

I'm typecasting on the road; the image for this blog entry was captured in Trinidad, Colorado, using my Lumix G1. The typecasting was done at my Aunt's house in Colorado Springs, using her ancient Royal typewriter. Since I didn't have a scanner available, I simply took a picture of the typewritten pages using my G1, in less than ideal lighting I might add; thus the images aren't the best quality, but there you have it.

I drove across Colorado into Utah on Friday, hoping to get a hotel room in Moab, but alas there was a massive bicycling thing going on, so all the hotel rooms in the SE corner of Utah are full up. I ended staying the night in Dove Creek, Colorado, from where I'm posting this blog entry.

Until later,

Joe (On the Road)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dousing the Flame or Carrying the Torch?

(Click on images for larger version)
(Photos taken with permission of the Duende Poetry Series, at Anasazi Fields Winery in Placitas, New Mexico)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Maslow and Aesthetic Growth

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as applied to culture at large, determine the health of a society's artistic and aesthetic development. Though controversial, this view has never been more important than today; a view I'd care to discuss further.

Maslow defined a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, with baser needs like physiological and safety at the bottom, and esteem and self-actualization at the top. Within this hierarchy, the upper needs rest on the foundation of the lower; are dependent on them as precondition.

Human kind exhibits a remarkable ability to remain creative, despite the desperate conditions many individuals find themselves immersed within. Despite the resiliency of the species, however, the fact remains that conditions of poverty and economic enslavement are not conducive to the fertile creative environment required for aesthetic growth, both individually and as a culture at large.
The mechanism of coupling between socioeconomic conditions and aesthetic development can be as simple and obvious as the excessive expenditure of personal energy required by the working class, leaving little left over to be dedicated to the higher concerns of aesthetic appreciation and growth.

Despite the best intentions of those who promote governmental policy toward social development of the arts, I reject the socialist model whereby a proletarian class of workers are obligated to support an oligarchic, aesthetic elite -- so-called state sponsored art. True cultural growth is a decidedly democratic, or populist, activity, in that it can only serve to transform the culture when it originates from within the working class itself.Aesthetic capitalism is the opposite extreme from the socialist model, and also can easily lead to extremism if left unchecked. When systems of media, and museums and galleries, are left to compete for an aesthetically appreciative audience based solely on capitalist principles, then art is reduced to mere commodity, as is evidenced by the excesses of our contemporary popular culture.

In order for a healthy culture to be promoted, it is required that there be some middle ground between the extremes of both socialism and capitalism, that retain the beneficial properties of both while eliminating the extremist negativism. This has been, of course, the crux of the search for political truth for centuries; however, I would like to limit this discussion to aesthetic concerns, rather than political. Parenthetically, any solution within the aesthetic realm would obviously have important implications for our political life, as well.A healthy, vibrant middle class is the single most important metric for the cultural development of society. For without a middle class, there remains the structure of a feudal state, master ruling over serfs. Aside from statistics of personal income, how else are we to gauge a middle class's aesthetic growth? One measure is the degree to which the distractions of popular culture -- the marketing arm of corporate globalism -- are minimized and displaced by the growth of higher aesthetic interests. A lifestyle of sufficient affluence to eliminate the baser needs of food, shelter and safety should be used instead to serve activities of a higher nature than the distractions of television, the internet and popular culture. We should, in fact, expect to see the decline of popular culture and simultaneously the growth of real culture, which should also occur more at the level of the local community, if aesthetic growth were to proceed unabated.

I don't presume to offer direct solutions, merely to lay forth guiding principles by which our culture can progress. This middle-class, aesthetic guiding principle should be seen as a direct antithetic to the two extremes of leftist, revolutionary art on the one hand, and corporate marketed art-as-commodity at the other extreme. Finding ways to further develop this balanced middle view will, in large measure, also aid in the development of social conditions for furtherance of the culture at large. Ultimately, a society is no healthier than the degree to which it fosters a healthy, vibrant middle-class-driven aesthetic.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"Last Things" Revisited

(Click on images to view larger):

What did I do with that Story?

(Click on images to view larger):

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Time and the Currency of Imagery

(Click on image for larger version.)

The Toltec Writer's Guild

(Click on image for larger version.)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Portrait of the Line Writer as a Young Artist

No, he's not fallen off the face of the earth; he'd have to be a pirate, asail on some gnarly brigand, battling sea-monsters and the like, for that to happen. Of course, there's no telling what's happening on the inside, with that overly active imagination of his.

He's been more active recently with the visual arts than with writing; he stayed the night last night with us, and I had to remind him that his blog was, shall we say, languishing; I didn't want to pressure him too badly into sitting down and writing, but there's a fine balance between a nudge and an arm-twist. I thought about using some used car salesman tactics; "what's it gonna take to get you into this writing business TODAY, young man?" But my better senses prevailed.

In the meantime, I took this as an opportunity to work some more with my Lumix G1 camera. You see, I've been a film photographer for years; still have a darkroom in the corner of the garage that's, technically, still active (still actively accumulating dust). But over the span of my film years I did mostly landscape imagery, both rural and urban. Lately, I've taken more of an interest in human-interest, documentary and street photography, something that's new to me. So, having acquired the G1 early this year, I've begun to explore its usefulness as a documentary tool.

There are several requirements for a good documentary camera. It must be wieldy, handy, easy to carry and use. The G1 is a micro-four-thirds format camera; check. It must possess the quality of good focus, both auto and manual. The G1 has great contrast-detect auto-focus; and the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) assists manual focus better than virtually any other camera on the market; check. It must have good image quality at high-ISO; the G1's, while not the best on the market, is up there with the best; especially in black & white, where the color noise is absent; check. It must enable the use of lenses with wide-open apertures, to provide for narrow depth-of-focus effects and also an adequately fast shutter speed for good hand held quality in low light; the G1's kit lens only opens up to f3.5; but with an adapter, manual lenses of wide aperture can be readily adapted; check.

For last night's documentary opportunity we were faced with our subject in the dimly lit office, illuminated only by two low-wattage incandescent lamps. I attached my Vivitar 28mm/f2.5 lens in Minolta MD mount, via my MD-U4/3 adapter, set the lens to wide open aperture and the camera to ISO1000. Prior experience has shown good image quality in JPEG images from this camera, so I used the "dynamic B/W" film mode, which permitted me to preview the scene, as it was being captured, already in black & white; a feature absent in SLR cameras with optical viewfinders. I was able to achieve shutter speeds around 1/50 second, entirely adequate for hand held use if one observes proper camera-handling skills.

I'm pleased with the results as much as I am of Noah's artwork; he was following along with Mark Kistler's drawing videos, and so was having a good time.

Now, what I really want to do is go out and find some jazz nightclub and try the same techniques there. I want to capture the cigar smoke wafting into the beam of the onstage spot light; the dimly lit saxophonist's half-illuminated face, and the glare off the brass instrument. It's too bad Albuquerque is now a public non-smoking city, for that reason only. I'll perhaps have to make a trip up to Santa Fe -- naw, I think they're non-smoking, too. Oh,well; it's just a dream. Maybe a dive biker bar in some dusty town far removed off the beaten path. And they probably won't even permit cameras inside the bar anyway; most of the patrons are probably running from something or someone. ;)