If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you’ll know I have a dog. Buddy. You’ll probably have picked up on the fact that I Love Buddy. A lot. Me and Buddy are a pair; where I go he goes.
I actually have two dogs, but I’m partial to Buddy (don’t worry – the other one gets my wife’s undivided attention). I’ve had him, now, for 8 years. My wife, visiting a local pound about another animal, was introduced to him by a kindly pound worker who had taken him to heart. Apparently, he’d been there since a pup and no one had the heart to euthanize him even though no one seemed to want him. Donna called me while driving home and told me about him. What the hell, I said, go get him and bring him home. So she did. It’s remarkable how such ‘off-the-cuff’ decisions can change your life. I love this boy in a way hard to explain.
Buddy is what I refer to as “a piece of work,” pure personality and joie de vivre. This past weekend he got banned from the dog park by my home for “improper behavior” i.e. he insists on humping the other dogs. His predilection for humping had heretofore been overlooked – tolerated – because in all other respects he’s a real sweetheart, just as pleasant and good-natured as they come. Unfortunately, he started humping puppies at the park. Apparently, humping puppies is crossing the line. He’s been banned.
He doesn’t seem to be taking his banishment personally, which is to be expected. As I’m writing this, my wife has found him under the dining room table eating some gingerbread cookies last seen on a plate on the table. He’s remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing, feigning ignorance as to how the cookies might have made their way from the plate to the floor. Undoubtedly, in a few minutes, he’ll be happily nestled at my feet with a shoe in his mouth, his way of reminding me it’s time to go walk.
I’ve never had the first problem with him. As I said, he’s super sweet. He makes me smile. He’s just a sweet, goofy critter with a huge heart and unshakable loyalty to me. And he’s funny. I’m not sure how to explain his ‘sense of humor,’ as if a dog could have a sense of humor – but he does. He’s most definitely a funny guy. Look at the photo below, and tell me that guy doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor. Admittedly, I’m anthropomorphizing him. So what.
What else, I should like to know, have art and artists ever done except to perceive the individual thing, isolate the object out of the welter of phenomena, elevate it, intensify it, inspire it and give it meaning?” —Thomas Mann
“Perfect camera tech creates the illusion of unmediated vision. That amazing picture that looks like it’s real? That’s a deception. This – sort of what it looked like, something like what I saw, something like what I felt – is the truth” — Jeff Sharlet, This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers
Self Portrait with Feeding Tube, Raleigh, North Carolina, November 2020
I’ve been reading up on Diane Arbus recently. She’s someone I’ve always known about but never really taken to; there’s something off-putting about her work that makes me queasy when I look at it. It bothers me. I don’t think it’s because of the common criticism of her – she’s “exploiting” her subjects for her benefit; we, by definition, “exploit” the people we photograph – so much as what it says about her. Her daughter, Doon Arbus, in her postscript to the posthumous publication entitled Untitled, claimed her mom “wasn’t interested in self-expression,” which is a stunning misunderstanding coming from someone who should know better.
As William Todd Schultz argues in his fascinating ‘psychobiography’ of Arbus, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, Arbus’s work was all about herself, her externalization of an inner world produced by individual trauma. I recommend Schultz’s book to anyone interested in understanding the artistic process and what creates and nurtures it. From what I can see, Arbus had one fucked-up internal life. Maybe it explains why she took her own life at 47. Insofar as any work of art can be ‘explained,’ it explains it, or, at the least, puts it into a context that helps open up a dialogue with the artist and enhances the experience of the work itself. It’s made me rethink her work as something she wanted to tell me.
All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve been contemplating documenting my recent medical experiences and putting them out there for you. You could read that as objective documentation or shameless self-absorption, depending on how you feel about what motivates these ‘documentary’ desires. What’s so special about me and my experience? Nothing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t my experience, and it doesn’t necessarily preclude me from sharing it with you in a way that might – just might – mirror to you your own experience in some way. It can easily lapse into vulgarity, become a cheap attempt for attention or sympathy, but I’ll assume the risk. Frankly, the attention doesn’t interest me at all. When I started Leicaphilia years ago I did so with the intention of remaining anonymous, and I kept it that way for a number of years. But as time passed, and readership sorted itself out, I gradually engaged the blog to discuss more personal things, which seems more in the spirit of what I do as a ‘documentarian.’ Isn’t that the function of ‘documentary’ photography? The alternative is pictures of cats and fence posts.
Checking in for Chemo
So, as regular readers know, I’m currently in the process of beating cancer or having it beat me. Stage Three Stomach Cancer. Nothing more traumatic than what millions of people experience every day for any number of reasons. Actually, I’m tempted at times to see my current travails as a blessing, a pedagogy about life, its value, and maybe even its meaning [I’m still unsure about the latter]. But it’s occurred to me that it would make a potentially interesting photo essay, and Leicaphilia gives me a platform to present it. So, that’s what I’m going to do, among all the usual things, going forward. Or, at least it’s what I’ve chosen to do today.
All of the photos below were of my chemo visit yesterday. Today I’m home, hooked up to some Frankensteinian device pumping poison into my system for two more days, after which I get monitored to see if my white blood cells are falling dangerously low and potentially necessitating another hospital stay. Luckily, my oncology doc tells me I’ve apparently got a very strong immune system. My white blood cell counts remain normal after chemo. As such, I don’t require the $8000 shot usually given to people after each chemo round. $8000 each shot, money upfront. That’s $64000 out of pocket for 8 rounds, not covered by any insurance I possess. When they scheduled me for it and explained the cost, I laughed. Right, like that’s gonna happen. America health care – all I can do is shake my head.
I ran across this stunning photo in The Guardian the other day. It’s by Paolo Pellegrin, a member of the Magnum Photos agency and winner of ten World Press Photo awards. There’s something timeless about the photo, harkening back to the best photojournalism of the Leica era. What interests me is his choice of B&W, which is a conscious nod to the traditional mid-century photo journalist aesthetic even though he’s fully digital – he shoots with a Canon 5d with a limited selection of lenses. Unlike most zoom-happy digiphiles, Pellegrin restricts his use to 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm primes, which itself betrays his film era roots. He retains some misgivings about digital: “In general, I embrace digital photography as an evolution of the medium, but I dislike the ease with which it can be manipulated. When you deal with charged issues, like people in war, you need to be able to trust the photographer.”
Unfortunately, IMO, he hasn’t reached far back enough for the traditionalist nod. The photo, which I grabbed from his website and thus presumably is printed to his specifications, suffers from that ‘thin’ ‘brittle’ look of much of digital B&W ( Heidegger calls animal consciousness “world-poor” in contrast to human consciousness [he’s wrong]; I think of digital capture as “reality-poor” in contrast to film capture [I’m right]). It would be much better as a ‘film’ image I think, so I’ve taken the liberty of reconfiguring it to how I see it. You may or may not agree.
What’s instructive is how easy it is to convert an obvious digitally captured image to one that looks indistinguishable from something shot with an M4 and some Plus-X. That being the case, do we really need those old film cameras or is that just one more affectation the passage of time is proving wrong? More interestingly, is the “film” look itself now an anachronism, a ‘manipulation’ that Pellegrin thinks we shouldn’t trust? If so, are we now then, by default, stuck with world-poor digital rendering?
“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand
One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.
Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.
Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.
All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed
1978: Me the Brooding Art Photographer. What Did I think I was Doing?
Why do we take photographs? Why, for many of us, is the act of photographing so central to our lives and who we are? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the fleeting nature of time and a desire to arrest its flow.
I’ve been photographing ‘seriously’ since I was 12. By ‘serious’ I mean intentionally engaged in the practice of photography as something more than merely reflexively recording meaningful moments in time. Granted, much of the pleasure I’ve derived from my interest has been centered around my fascination with cameras. What started the whole thing was a 7th-grade teacher, Mr. Smith, showing me his plain prism Nikon F. I was hooked. From there I was lucky enough to purchase a succession of increasingly impressive cameras, culminating in a Leica in 1977 (for those of you not around then, a Leica was a quasi-mystical thing that cost 5x a normal camera if you could find one; it didn’t really do anything more than a Nikon F did, rather it marked you out as photographic cognoscenti. It appealed to snobs even then.)
I’ve always understood my interest in photography to serve a larger purpose, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to articulate what that purpose is/was. Maybe that’s the point of what great thinkers have noted about language and reality; the net of language misses much of what we experience. Maybe photography is a way of articulating things language can’t. Maybe it’s an inarticulate attempt to establish a sense of permanence amidst the relentless passage of time, a way of memorializing the fact that ‘this happened.’
Me 42 Years Later
A week or so ago I was told I had 6 months to live. Aside from the more existential questions that raises (e.g. “Are you fucking kidding me?”), it brought home to me the question of what I’d been doing photographically for the past 50 years. Maybe there was a purpose in it all. Interestingly enough, one of the first things my wife told me I needed to do in the next months was to put my entire photographic library in order so she would have access to it and some sense of what she was looking at. What she said made sense to me. It seems important I do that.
But Why? When I have such limited time, what purpose could devoting much of it to cataloging a photo collection as opposed to ‘living’ whatever remaining time I have? Wouldn’t my time be better served with a trip to Europe to say goodbye to dear friends, or traveling someplace I’d always wanted to see, or simply indulging whatever particular desires I might want to indulge…smoking, drinking, recreational heroin use (I must admit, I am seriously considering buying a Ducati Panagale V4 so as to enjoy outrunning hapless North Carolina Sheriff’s Deputies throughout the backroads of the state).
I’m of the belief that people only really ‘die’ when the last person who remembers them dies. You live on in the people who love you and carry your memory. My father, who died ten years ago, seems as alive to me now as he ever has, a large reason being the photographs I have of him. It’s something more than the mere photograph itself. It’s remembering the entire experience the photo conjures as me the photographer and my father as my subject. Photos support and enlarge his memory, helping keep him alive. It’s an invaluable gift photography gives us.
Back When I Thought I’d Live Forever
So, I’ve since been told that there’s a ‘chance’ I might be cured, or at least my life prolonged past the proverbial ‘six months.’ Hope springs eternal, as they say. A few rounds of chemo, a few surgeries and I’m as good as new. I’m now considering all the things I’ve yet to do after I get through with the medical issues. I’m still going to be putting my photography in order though, just in case.
It is always good to keep your eyes wide open, because you never know what you will discover. The drive to live life more alertly being an instinctive need, whether you are an artist by trade or desire, the art of seeing well is a necessary skill, which fortunately can be learned. -Michael Kimmelman
What’s the point of photography? Maybe the bigger question is: what’s the point of looking at things, really looking at them? That’s what we’re doing when we photograph. Granted, we’re placing a value on preserving how something looks, whether it be a lover, a pet, a glimpse of what we daily encounter…. but we’re also attending to it in the moment. That’s why we value simple photographic tools – mechanical rangefinders the perfect example – that get out of our way and allow us to experience the moment without having to ‘interface’ with a machine and its requirements.
A good example is the difference between using my M5 or my Ricoh GXR with the M module. I rarely even use the meter in my M5; I find it more a disturbance than a help. What I like is the big, clear 35mm window, no clutter, just a focusing patch and you’re done dealing with the machine. Look at the light, set your exposure and forget the little details. The rest is looking. The Ricoh? Great little camera, but I’m constantly fiddling with something – a menu, an ISO setting, something flashing on the damn LCD – my attention drawn away from what I’m trying to see. It’s the story of every digital camera I’ve ever used; once you reach a certain level of competency i.e. you’ve distilled the photographic act down to its basics, all those technological ‘aids’ – those things camera makers promised us would make our experience better – just get in your way.
For that matter, what’s the value of what we as photographers create? What’s the value of looking at a photo hung in a gallery or museum or published in a book? Why is it so important to us? For me, the point is the process of perceiving itself. It meets some primal need humans possess. But it also has to be disinterested to be an aesthetic experience. Looking at porn isn’t aesthetic, no matter how well done; the reason it isn’t is because we’re motivated by something other than the enjoyment of beauty. A genuinely aesthetic experience of beauty is aimless. We only fully apprehend the experience when we remain disinterested. A vested interest in what you’re looking at gives you tunnel vision. You see what you’re looking for, and as such, you don’t really see.
Photography allows me to move through the world with an attitude of detachment, in a state of heightened awareness. I’m always looking…which means I’m seeing things people habituated to their environments typically don’t. That’s pretty cool; we’re not here long. Best to pay attention while we are.
Photography – or, more precisely, film photography, where there’s typically a lag between what we see and how we see it reproduced by the camera – amplifies the enjoyment I get in looking. It allows me a second chance to see something I’ve already seen and to see it with new eyes. It’s why I find myself increasingly drawn to photograph the people I love. I’ll run a roll of HP5 through my camera in a day or two, just shooting domestic scenes around me – my wife, the kids, my dogs – and throw it in the pile of rolls to be developed at some later time. That invariable means a year or two down the road, when I’ve accumulated enough unexposed film to shame myself into doing something about it. When I develop them I’m always amazed at what I get. The banal circumstances of my domestic experience seem somehow re-valued and take on a larger meaning. The photo puts them in context. I understand what I see – and value it – just a bit better.
Howard Axelrod, in The Stars in Our Pockets, addresses the technological processes that remove us from having to pay attention. GPS is an instructive example: with it we passively navigate our environment without reference to its larger context or where within that context we fit. It’s all end result – do we get there, or don’t we. (He doesn’t address the larger issue – that we’re also using a machine to move through space which itself mitigates our environmental interaction). Axelrod asks, “Will we still be able to achieve a kind of orientation that is really a kind of wisdom?”
It’s this “orientation that is really a kind of wisdom” that photographic looking gives. The heightened attention it cultivates can be difficult to practice. Really looking with disinterest requires effort. You can’t do it if your attempts to do so are mediated by tools that divert your attention instead of focusing it. In a photographic context it requires the correct tool, something that remains transparent to our purposes. This is why we hold onto those cameras that become extensions of our seeing through excellent haptics and long usage. Usually I don’t even recall putting the M5 to my eye; it’s such a simple act, done so many times, that its reflexive now. The digital camera? Not a chance. Even though it’s full of the technologies that supposedly simplify my experience – auto exposure, autofocus, auto ISO, facial recognition, etc etc, they’re never transparent to the act; I’m always scrolling through some fucking menu, or looking for some dial to turn or button to push in response to some LCD readout. The camera is telling me what to see.
There’s a reason we love our old mechanical film cameras. When used competently and correctly, they allow us to give ourselves over to the moment. We can exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of what’s in front of us. That’s a remarkable gift. It’s also what’s required if one wants to produce work of any meaning, work that will help others see as well.
I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.
There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.
Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”
If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.
One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”
One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does a photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remake set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.
After a few minutes of emotional pondering – soul searching, quite literally – I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines:
“In the living room we have a book of Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad – and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists have in turn conveyed to many millions the profound emotions that churned in Chopin’s heart, thus affording us all some partial access to Chopin’s interiority – to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards – scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Chopin.
In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score of a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”