Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Bedrock of Civilization

Cities are collections -- assortments, really -- of individual neighborhoods. At least, the kinds of cities that exude some special sense of "citiness," like NYC or SF, for instance. For me, this has to do with a lack of homogeneity, where individual districts and neighborhoods are self-defining cultural nodes, with distinct history, architecture, ethnicity and culture.

It has been my observation that older cities, those with centuries of history, seem to have been formed in a more organic fashion than the pre-programmed yet ill-conceived urban planning of the contemporary period. There are some notable historic exceptions, Washington, D.C. for example.

The most notable change to city growth has been caused by the rise of personal motorized transport, the automobile. Since the mid-20th century's period of rapid suburban sprawl, whole communities have arisen out of nothing at all, lacking the context of some historic period of prior settlement.

Lacking an historic context, such recently invented cities only possess the genetic heritage of the commercial strip, mile after mile of nearly identical assortments of chain stores, restaurants and services that lack the context of an individual physical locale. One could be dropped, as if by parachute, into any commercial strip in America, chosen as if at random, and one would have little inkling as to one's whereabouts as revealed strictly by cultural clues such as local architecture, language and history.

Within the recent turmoil surrounding the immigration issues along America's southern border (interestingly, an influx of illegal Canadians seems comically unlikely), we are reminded by pundits of the conservative bent that language defines the nature of the resulting culture at large, the implicit logic being that the teaching of English and American History within the nation's schools should therefore be of paramount importance to the exclusion of other cultures. While I cannot deny that language is inextricably intertwined within both history and culture, it is disingenuous to ignore the affects that commercialism has also had on mass culture within the post-WWII period in America, even to include the structure of our built environments, the town, cities, roads and highways, whose permanence we all-too-often take for granted. The sad irony is that the political party which has yelled the loudest and most incessant about conservation of traditional American values has instead brazenly embraced those very corporate commercial interests which have exacted the greatest toll upon the culture of the local community.

This is not to imply that the other major political party is free from guilt. Most notable is their continued support of a corporate-controlled indoctrination system known as public education. It is incomplete to base the entirely of language and history merely upon the commercially-produced textbooks found within the American classroom. Culture is more than indoctrination to some national mean; it is living and breathing, ever-changing and ongoing. It is local. What happens within the walls of one's home and around one's community, outside of school hours, defines one's local culture. We are the product of the sum total of hundreds of millions of individual and family histories, pieced together like a patchwork quilt.

Culture is not only a byproduct of our built environment, and common and personal histories, but is constantly being corrupted and mutated via mass-media. So-called popular culture is akin to one's short-term memory, wherein a cacophony of competing voices, viewpoints and fads are in constant flux. In the short term, the common culture changes little because of these various influences. It is only in the aggregate, over a longer span of time, that we come to observe real cultural change brought about by these temporal influences, like something being burned into one's long-term memory, inducing a more permanent change.

A common misconception is assuming that popular culture is somehow synonymous with local culture. Popular culture through mass mediation is observational and manipulative in nature, yet merely temporal. Yesterday's fad is as easily forgotten as today's and tomorrow's will certainly be. The power of media is as the hypnotist's gaze, which holds little affect outside of one's volitional complicity. We volunteer our wills to the power of mass mediation by our participation in the consumption of popular culture. The erosion of local culture is volitional, and we are mutually complicit.

However temporary, the result is that, inexorably, our local culture is slowly being subsumed into the temporal soup, leaving us with little or no true history. Popular culture hates history, unless it, too, can be repackaged and marketed as a commercial product.

Even as our volitional participation in popular culture undermines local culture, a passive approach to our local community does nothing to repair and rebuild. A passive community is an oxymoron. There is the implicit requirement that local communities be repaired and rebuilt through local interaction on the part of the common people. It must be self-initiated and self-realized. The growth of a community progresses organically, as one would cultivate the land of one's personal domicile. Active participation, getting one's hands dirty, getting so close to the soil that you can smell its richness, becomes a prerequisite to the planting, fertilization and harvest of later. Decline and decay seem inexorable, like the exercise of some hidden natural law, which the caretaker works constantly to overcome.

Globalism, at its most essential affect, tends to destroy local culture and history, substituting instead a monoculture of corporate consumerism through mass media. As the power wielded by media through the advance of technology continues to consolidate, local language, history and culture must instead thrive through the local resistance offered by the telling of stories, the sharing of family and community tradition. Culture is the end result of an unbroken lineage of tradition, the process involving a handing-down, from the old to the young, of that most cherished by our predecessors.

All of this is preamble to the notion that we need to rediscover the art of personal story-telling. "We," as in you and I, the common person, rather than the professional story-teller hirelings of our age. It is through the telling and retelling of personal history that myth, legend and fable are born. The legacy of entire civilizations are based, in large measure, on the affects of a shared history, derived from generations of oral tradition.

The potential offered by contemporary technology is not just in the destruction of local culture, but that we now have available a multitude of new methods of story-telling, in a variety of media, figuratively etched in silicon rather than carved in stone; media-jamming the popular culture by turning its tools back onto itself, swords into plowshares.

In my personal life, I have attempted to pass the stories of pioneering struggles, of war and peace, that I received from my dad, down to my grandson, who now remembers many of these stories, and can begin to retell them himself. He remembers my dad, his great-grandpa, late in life, and the stories he would tell, a personal connection going back at least three generations. I don't expect, within the days or years left of me on this earth, to achieve fame and fortune; but I do expect that a bit of myself, and my lineage, will succeed my passing, slowly but inexorably resolving into a furtherance of personal history and family culture, which remains the bedrock of civilization.

(From fountain pen on composition book via Alphasmart Neo)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

July 4th List-Making

I haven't typecast in a while, and so figured it was nigh time. And being inspired by Monda's call for list-making, this is what ended up being jotted down in my notebook, via Pelikan M100 fountain pen, while seated at the counter in the Range Cafe in Bernalillo, New Mexico on Sunday morning, July 4th.

My grandson, The Line Writer, and I took a motorcycle ride that morning (for those interested, it's a Suzuki Intruder 800 converted to a trike; and yes, he has his own helmet), riding up along the edge of the Sandia Mountains on Tramway Road, then down along highway 313 through the Sandia Reservation to Bernalillo, where we stopped for breakfast at the Range Cafe. We both had our writer's bags, equipped with pens and notebooks. He's discovered Moleskine Cahiers; I'll have to nudge him to get a post out for his blog.

And so, between mouthfulls of Huevo Rancheros on blue corn tortillas, and great coffee, I managed to pen a short list of observations noted during our ride. I've found it interesting that there's a very narrow line between list-making and poetry; one could argue that a poem could be little more than a list of stanzas.

Once home from our Sunday ride, I took my list into the office and found the remnants of a roll of adding machine paper (there's got to be a Sniglett word for the end of the roll that gets the pink-colored lines). I have a holder that permits rolls of adding machine paper to be used for note-taking. So this remnant was just the ticket, which I threaded up in the Underwood Universal.

Thanks for the inspiration, Monda.


A Turquoise Trail Pinhole Camera Tour

In my previous post I offered a small assortment of color photographs taken during a day trip up The Turquoise Trail, through Madrid, Cerrillos and ending in Lamy, New Mexico. I was accompanied by, not only my very portable Lumix G1 digital camera but, the very unportable accouterments of the large format pinhole photographer: box camera, sheet film holders, light meter, dark cloth, aperture stops, calculator, notepad, tripod etc.

I started from here, having cut across from I-25 via a dirt road, onto Highway 14, where this hill, in the Ortiz Mountains just south of Madrid, awaited me, its smooth contours dotted with pinon and juniper. I was parked just off the highway right-of-way, to avoid the wrath of the NM State Police, and when finished with this first image, turned around and noticed the fence behind me.
The box camera itself I designed for use with glass lenses, and thus permits focusing by sliding the rear portion that nests within the front half. But today I had replaced the glass lens with a pinhole, 0.7mm in diameter, offering a focal ratio of F/380. For previewing the scene, the pinhole plate is removed from the front of the camera and a "viewing hole", about 3mm in diameter, is installed in its place. Then, with the aid of a dark cloth over one's head (actually an old shirt), the soft image projected onto the view screen is sufficiently bright to determine one's composition. Here, the triangular composition of the fence posts and shadows struck me as worthy of capture. Once the composition is set by adjusting the hefty Bogen tripod, the rear view screen is removed and a sheet film holder installed in its place. Then it's time to make the exposure, but first I have to determine how long to keep the shutter open; for these first two images I exposed the paper negatives for 70 seconds. Cars sped by on the highway in the first image, but they were recorded as little more than streaks of light against the dark asphalt roadway. The biggest concern of using such a bulky camera (these are sheets of photo paper 8 inches by 10 inches) is vibration from the wind, perched high atop the tripod, causing the image to be softened. I wait expectantly for a lull in the breeze before sliding the shutter open.
I stopped in Madrid, made a series of digital photos, but didn't break out the "big gun" due to the congestion of tourists and cars along the narrow main highway through town; plus, I'd made a series of pinhole images in Madrid previously. So onward, through Cerrillos and into Lamy, the site of an Amtrak station that services Santa Fe.

This dining car serves as a cafe for patrons of the rail service. There's also a small train that makes a run out to Lamy from downtown Santa Fe. Here I was struck by the dichotomy of empty plastic chairs against the mechanical shine and seeming abandonment of this trusty old car that once hosted patrons of the railroad during the classic era of rail travel. Now, it's relegated to sitting at track-side, watching the freight trains and occasional Amtrak shuffle through. A "swamp cooler," the boxy metal affair to the left, is perched atop the dining car to provide air conditioning in the hot, dry summer climate.
This detail of the Amtrak station building itself presents an opportunity to further explain my metering and exposure methods with paper negatives and pinhole lenses. First, I've calibrated my photo paper to determine its "film speed," which I rate at an exposure index of 12. Next, I've given each negative a slight, even exposure of light, prior to being loaded in the sheet film holders; a pre-flash that helps control excess contrast so easily found when using printing paper as an in-camera film. These paper negatives are not red-sensitive, they only respond to exposures from UV and blue light; so the sky appears blown-out white, and browns appear much darker than you'd otherwise expect.

The deep shadows under the porch of the station building presented a problem for me, but I metered the bright light falling on the brickwork, referenced my light meter's recommended exposure time for F/128 (the largest f-number my meter will read), and read an exposure time of 5 seconds. I then set about calculating the conversion to my camera's focal ratio of F/380: (380/128)^2 x 5 = 45 seconds. The calculation was easily made using my old HP-11C scientific calculator, which I've had since the mid-1980s.
Empty chairs fascinate me; I find them to symbolize for me a sense of absence and loss. Chairs were made for people to sit upon; a scene absent of people, with merely empty chairs, makes me wonder what happened, like a story unfinished, not knowing the outcome. They, those now missing, are implicit through their conspicuous absence, as if one could capture an image of emptiness itself through the volume of space left abandoned. An invisible sculpture, molded space itself enclosed by emptiness.

Here, I knew the bright metal roof of the dining car would reflect lots of UV light onto my paper negatives, while the brickwork's tones would remain muddy and dark. My light meter is sensitive to the entire visual spectrum, while my paper negatives are not; this represents a dichotomy between what the meter indicates, and what the developed negatives portray; a dichotomy only resolved through years of experience working with the medium of pinhole cameras and paper negatives.
I wandered from the train station building over to an adjoining grassy park, where I found this freight box car sitting on a dead-end spur track, left to deteriorate in the sometimes harsh climate of northern New Mexico. You can see, in the upper right corner, the motion of tree limbs from a tree behind the car, swaying in the breeze during the eighty second exposure.

I packed up tripod, box camera and backpack filled with sheet film holders and accessories, and headed down the road, not knowing what I had captured, but expectant of good results, which would be proven out only later that evening, in the confines of my humble darkroom, where each paper negative would in turn be put through the various chemical developing baths, wherein the negative image begins to appear, as if by magic; an image in silver upon paper.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Turquoise Trail Photo Tour

A drive up the Turquoise Trail, through the towns of Madrid, Gallisteo and Lamy, New Mexico. The little town of Madrid, a former mining town, then ghost town, is now a touristy little hangout for artists, New Agers, bikers and folks of all sizes and colors. Filled with galleries, boutique shops and a mere handfull of eateries, it's a little slice of heaven.
In front of the Java Junction in Madrid, where one can find great coffee, a hangout for locals and also a little Bed & Breakfast.
Bad coffee indeed sucks, but you won't find it here. In the background, one of the many miners shacks, long since abandoned, and then given a new lease on life, starting in the early 1970s when the ghost town was reinhabited by new spirits.
Let it ... marinate or slide; you get to choose.
An abandoned chess game at the Java Junction. They'll be back.
Sky Fabin, one of the original resettlers of Madrid, who's made a documentary film about the town's long-standing residents.
A drive through windy and dusty roads led me to Lamy, site of a small Amtrak station that services nearby Santa Fe.

And that was the end of my short photo tour, during which I also took a handfull of large format pinhole photographs. Perhaps for another day.