Tag Archives: Aristotle and Photography

Analog Activity/Digital Passivity

Exposed film I’m developing 8 rolls at a time. Ah, the good old days, when photography meant working at it.

“Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love.”- Thomas Merton, 1948.

At about the same time as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was complaining about the “inert subjection to vulgar images” produced by the then-new technology of television, German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger was making a similar point about the typewriter. Heidegger did so by harkening back to another philosopher, Plato, and his critique of technology and its effect on how humans create their worlds. Plato claimed that the ‘technology’ of writing degraded the primacy of the spoken to the detriment of our sense of reality; 2400 years later, Merton and Heidegger would be doing the same for the typewriter and television. Each in some sense represents a degradation of the human ability to experience the real by abstracting it a degree from reality. By removing the speaker from the spoken, Plato saw writing as a first step to the dehumanization of communication; by veiling the essence of writing and script, Heidegger claimed that the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.” In other words, the typewriter, like writing for Plato and television for Merton, removes us a certain degree from experiencing the thing itself by doing it and in so doing makes us passive observers in what were heretofore active experiences.

I couldn’t help but think of Plato (and Heidegger and Merton) while bulk developing a ridiculous amount of film that I’ve accumulated over the last few years. The COVID quarantine has given me the perfect opportunity to finally do what I’ve been putting off for years. I’ve been shooting film and then throwing the canister into a bag full of other exposed films with the understanding that I’d get around to developing it all someday. That day has finally come. I’m bulk developing and fully scanning 8 rolls a day until the backlog is resolved…after which I intend to be a dedicated film photographer again, keeping to my promise to immediately develop and scan what I shoot. It’s a great plan that makes me happy, because I really do love the hands-on experience of shooting film, the deliberateness and intentionality of the practice and the end result of a physical thing that I can file away. Granted it’s a PITA, but the doing of it brings me back to a place where photography is both a creative pursuit and a craft, and it has the added benefit of connecting you back to your photographic tools in a way that’s missing with the quick and easy experience of digital.

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I Found This Among What I’ve just Developed – Lexi, Who We Just Put Down After 14 Years, As a Younger Pup, Ever Hopeful of Snagging a Bit of Pizza. An Unexpected Gift From a Roll Exposed Long Ago. Makes Me Smile Even Today.

Aristotle spoke of entelecheia, where the end and actuality of a thing are internal to its own activity. He thought the most rewarding experiences are those things we do solely for the pleasure the doing itself generates and not those things that are done as means to an end, and he thought that entelecheia was most often a result of solitary pursuits. This has always been my experience of photography: I do it for the pleasure of doing it, nothing more. And I do it to be in my own head and no one else’s. The end results – boxes of prints and innumerable binders of sleeved negatives and hard drives filled with DNGs – are secondary results of the process itself and the rewards those processes afford us. I think that’s why the transition from analog to digital has been unsatisfying for many of us. It lessens the creative involvement inherent in physically instantiating activity and replaces it with the passivity of pressing buttons and being given a result with little physical or psychical work involved.

Doing film photography is to reorient yourself to our own embodiment. You are creating something instead of entrusting the decision to a computer and an algorithm mindlessly running in the background. It is also to be disengaged from the virtual environment, which is always fundamentally social in nature. Our use of technology militates against solitude if we define such as the absence of input from other minds. Doing photography digitally is always, at base, a collective creative pursuit even when no others are physically present. Whether via the use of apps that presuppose other’s connection to our pursuits, or simply the use of necessary technologies that are the results of input from other minds and their implicit creative biases, your creative digital decisions will always be, to some extent, circumscribed by the decisions of the people who’ve programmed the digital tools you employ or are on the receiving end of your digital solicitations.

The Enjoyment of Photography

I enjoy writing this blog. I find it therapeutic, allowing me to formulate thoughts in real time about things that interest me. I’ll usually start with a broad idea which i’ll gradually refine as I write, the end result bearing little resemblance to what I had initially set out to do. Writing, for me, is a process, a means of thinking through things by forcing myself to articulate them. What I end up with often surprises me, but really, the doing of it itself is the real emotional payoff.

Photography is much the same way. I’ll start with one idea which invariably will morph into something else, or it will if I leave myself open to it, which is the key to any creative pursuit- leaving oneself open to wherever your interests take you, what the Ancients would call “following ones muse.”

Paradoxically, it’s as if the best things are drawn out of you by some force separate from your willing self, coming from somewhere deeper and richer than your conscious motivations. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed in one’s muse, a creative impulse incapable of being quantified or measured, immune to rational analysis. Your muse comes and goes on its own schedule, but you connect with it only if you acknowledge it, make the time for it, open yourself up to its possibilities.

It’s remarkable what ‘the Ancients’ can teach us, which is probably the reason great minds in every generation find themselves coming back to them and why I prattle on about them on a photography blog – they have things to say which are relevant to us as photographers, things more nebulous but no less important that the technical aspects of the craft.  Stay at the level of technical expertise and you’re a craftsman, an artisan; follow your muse and you become an artist, a creator.

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It often feels like I’m treading the same ground over and over, and maybe I am. No sooner am I done with one post than I’m starting to think of the next. Ultimately, if I look at it as a series of tasks I need to complete –  creating an ongoing stream of blog posts, no obvious end in sight – the whole process seems futile, like rolling a boulder up the hill only to start all over when it comes rolling back down (itself an Ancient Greek metaphor). it’s this sense of futility, of the never ending practical demands of our goal directed daily endeavors, that creates much of the frustration and emotional emptiness of life.

Aristotle makes a distinction that applies here: the difference between telic and atelic activities. Most of the things we do aim at a final goal: photos for an assignment; a paper for a graduate seminar;  walking the dog so he can get some exercise and stay healthy etc. These are what Artistotle calls telic activities, acts we engage in for the sake of a further goal.

Goals are obviously necessary for humans, but a life exclusively goal directed is often ultimately experienced as shallow and unfulfilling. That’s because, in pursuing goals, there are only two potential outcomes  – either I fail to complete them, in which case I’m unsuccessful and frustrated, or I do complete them, they’re finished  and I now need to create and work toward a new goal. Either way, these telic activities offer me no rest and contentment, no ability to enjoy the value of having done what I’ve done, no true fulfillment. Ironic then, that it’s the model of human activity offered us by most cultures and societies down through history, and it’s the ethic enshrined at the heart of capitalism and consumerism.

How can we disengage from this goal directed treadmill that constitutes a “successful” life? Aristotle, never a man willing to accept common opinion, believed that real “success” came via contentment, and true contentment is found not in the goal directed life but rather in Atelic activity.  Atelic activities don’t aim at a goal. You do them for the sake of doing them. The enjoyment is in the doing. I walk my dog (telic);  but I can also go for a walk with my dog (atelic), no goal in mind other than the walking. Such activities are never completed: in merely walking with my dog, our aim is not to go anywhere; our aim is to enjoy the walk wherever it takes us. Atelic activities are insulated against the cycle of completion and disappearance characteristic of the telic. They are an end in itself.

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A “Wet Plate” 5×7 of an Old Tree I Used to Play Under Back in the Day

I’ve been thinking for some time about this very issue and how it applies to my photography. Thinking back, a large part of what attracted me to photography was the process itself, the end result often secondary. It’s also why I still love to use mechanical film cameras and enjoy the ‘doing’ of film photography – bulk loading film, picking film developer combinations, the entire darkroom process from developing negatives to printing them, the whole process rich in tactile enjoyment in addition to intentionality. Digital photography has taken that enjoyment from me, the digital process being about pushing buttons where once there were processes one engaged with.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of dusting off my view camera, buying some sheet film and taking some pics. Better yet, going ‘artisanal’ and doing something unique. I’ve been doing an ongoing project, documenting a local landmark before it all gets torn down and turned into whatever it is that’ll make somebody a lot of money. The project lends itself well to a slow, steady approach. Old trees, old buildings, nostalgic decay that might work well with an alternative photographic process.

It used to be that if you wanted the look of wet plate or emulsion transfers you had to start with a wet  plate or you had to engage in the laborious process of image transfers, and when you were done you’d have a unique, one-of-a-kind image that was the product of both your aesthetic sense and your technical skills. Galleries and sophisticated collectors loved that sort of stuff. It certainly separated you from the herd, giving you an authenticity the guys shooting handheld cameras couldn’t touch, and it often made up for otherwise uninspired, pedestrian subjects. Look! Such and such really looks cool done that way, the emphasis being on the technique and not the subject.

But we also took these slow approaches because the processes themselves had value and gave an enjoyment by their doing, an enjoyment seemingly apart from the mastery of the act itself. Did we take the slow approach to experience the activity itself (atelic), or was it that the slow approach yielded results we wouldn’t have achieved another way (telic)? I suspect it might have been a bit of both, some photographers finding enjoyment in the processes themselves, others fascinated by the unique results uncommon processes produced. Today that distinction has broken down. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, with what can be done digitally, there’s no real reason to do it the slow way if the results are what matter. Applying filters in Lightroom, however, isn’t going to give you the experience of the view camera, or the darkroom, or the tactile experience of your M4 loaded with Tri-X. Is that good or bad? Depends, I suppose, on your reasons for being a photographer.