Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a religious guy and haven’t ever had any spiritual inclinations, in spite of having been raised in a very cloistered, conservative religious community. Not that I’m discounting other’s experience. We all live by narratives that help us make sense of our existence. Historically, those narratives have been religious in nature – the idea of a providential deity that created and sustains us. That’s not my narrative, although I’m not sure what is. I consider myself a rationalist but find scientific materialism to be lacking at its core. It can give us insight into how things are, but not why they are. That’s a question for another discipline. The closest I’ve come to a narrative that makes sense is the questioning of philosophy. It doesn’t give us answers, but gives us the appropriate questions to ask. That being said, there’s something about birds that I’ve experienced time and time again, some uncanny confluence that happens in what some would consider spiritually charged times.
A small carving of a bird was recently discovered in a cave in Holhe Fels, Germany. Carbon dating indicates it to be one of the earliest works of art known to us, having been carved over 30,000 years ago. Something moved a stone-age human to shape a piece of ivory into a new form, that of a bird, and with that opened up the history of human creativity, the transformation of outer experience into the inner vision of one human. Why a bird? Birds represent a link between earth and heaven, human consciousness and the mysteries of the unconscious, a symbol of soul and matter, all those things that have mystified humans since the evolution of consciousness.
Even for us secular humans, birds retain something uncanny, something that hints at things we can only suspect. Birds have a funny way of appearing in my life, specifically at times of death. My uncle, dying of cancer, had a bird fly into his room and land on his shoulder. Remarkably calm, the bird stayed for a minute of two and then flew out the window and off. My uncle died that day. The morning my father died my mother called me with the news. Walking outside to smoke a cigarette and gather my thoughts, a large crow flew down at my feet – no more that three or four feet away – and just stared at me as if to get my attention. Once done, he flew off to a nearby tree and sat in it and watched me until I went back inside.
I had my last visit with my oncologist Tuesday. He had done some research into the potential for immunology treatment. Unfortunately, all tests indicate it won’t be of any use. His advice: go home and let nature take its course. 3 to 6 months should do it. What does one do with 3 to 6 months? Any ideas?
More than one person, on learning of my impended death, has asked that I send them a sign if I’m around. I’ve told all of them to watch for a bird that comes to visit. That will be “me.” I’m not sure I believe it myself, but what can it hurt?
Windows have a potency we silently acknowledge in their usage. As a child, my parents told me to keep my window open at night. It was good for me to breathe the fresh air. In ancient cultures, a window was opened at the time of death to release the soul to immortality.
The word “window” is derived from the old Icelandic word vindr, “wind” and auga, “eye.” Its literal meaning is a “wind-eye.” As windows have been called the eyes of the house, so the eyes have been called the windows of the soul. The “wind-eye” evokes the spirit of exchange, where inside and outside meet, bringing together elements of both.
Windows frame images of psychic potency. Images themselves act as windows to other realities. Dreams, memories, fantasies are windows on the psyche’s reality and the potentialities of the dreamer.
Some time in the late nineties I encountered this photo on a poster advertising an “Art Exhibit” in Brno, Czech Republic. It caught my eye because it was my photo, taken of some neighbor kids when I was 12 or 13. Aside from the issue of how some art gallery half way around the world had found the inclination and means to steal my photo and use it for their purposes was the issue of how a kid’s snapshot had become “Art.”
The Institutional Theory of Art
The simplest answer, what’s referred to by critics as the “Institutional Theory” of Art, is that all something must do to become “Art” is to possesses two qualities 1) It must be an artifact i.e. something that’s been worked on; and 2) it must have the status of “Art” bestowed upon it by some member of the ‘art world,’ e.g. gallery owner, collector, critic etc. Ultimately, what qualifies something as “Art” is the attitude of the art community towards it. In other words, there’s no one feature the artifact must exhibit to be considered “Art”. My photo above became “Art” because some gallery owner or curator presented it as such. Cool. I’m an Artist.
The criticism of the Institutional Theory is that it doesn’t explain why the art community bestows the status of “Art” on certain objects and not others i.e. there’s no objective standard for “Art”, just the subjective opinion of some guy with a degree from some ‘Art Institute’ somewhere. Why my photo and not a velvet wall hanging of dogs playing poker or Thorstein Overgaard’s remarkable photographs of happy people at parades? [I can still make fun of people even though I’m dying, right?]
Above is a painting that hangs in my house. I did it. I consider it “Art”, if for no other reason than other people who visit me refer to it as “Art” (“Nice painting; is that a Pollock?”). Why? Frankly, it has little to nothing in common with the photo above who someone in Brno decided was “Art.” Do they have anything in common? I might claim it to be “Art” but that doesn’t matter because I’m not a person whose opinion carries any significant weight in determining whether its “Art” or not. According to the Institutional Theory, the painting isn’t “Art” because it’s not been accepted as such by the appropriate persons. It’s not hanging in a gallery. Instead, it’s hanging on the wall of my house. So, we’ve got a snapshot with no pretensions to “Art” being labeled “Art” and a painting meant to be “Art’ by its maker that isn’t considered “Art” under the ruling Art Theory.
So, am I an “Artist” or aren’t I. And if so, why? And if not, Why?
My dog runs to me and drops the bone at my feet. She looks at me, then at the bone, paws at it as if to direct my attention to it, then picks it up and settles beside me, bone in mouth, seemingly making a mental note of what we both agree upon.
It’s a simple moment that masks a great mystery. When we “interact”, does she have a sense of herself, an awareness of her own character and desires, a ‘point of view’ that’s distinct from mine? Likewise, does she have a conception of who I am and what I might be thinking? Is she conscious of herself and able in some way to act purposeful toward me based on her understanding that I am conscious like she is?
Descartes believed that ‘brute beasts,’ dogs among them, were insentient, unfeeling machines, automatons made of meat, their screams and cries of distress without meaning. You could cut them open while alive (vivisection), drill holes in their heads while they remained conscious, nail them to operating tables. Modern science still imposes this powerful myth on us via its use of sentient animals as experimental test subjects, in spite of the fact that no feeling person would accept this in relation to a creature they loved. A scream of pain is a scream of pain, period, and we all know it when we hear it, no matter how science might attempt to muffle it philosophically. One of my recurring fantasies is to nail Descartes to a board and drill a hole in his head and ask him how he feels. Certainly, under the same theory he employed to deny it to non-human animals, He’d agree with me that I have no articulable reason to think he has his own inner life. I’d like to know if his theory made his own pain any more bearable,
In thinking of the dog’s point of view, I’m thrown back on my own. Do I see the world, or simply ‘my idea’ of the world? What of the dog’s world? What does she think of me, and how would I know?
Hang a Colostomy Bag on That Guy and That’s What I look like
Yes, I know I posted recently indicating I wouldn’t be posting again because I was dying. Obviously, that was a lie, because here I am posting again, clearly not dead. Let me be honest: yes, I am dying. Big time. Stage 4 metastatic stomach cancer, last they looked it was everywhere; I’ll spare you the details. Latest prognosis is +/- 6 months. Because I’m on hospice (go home and die) I get to take all the narcotics I want, which is great. Still. sitting around waiting to die can be boring…so I figured I’d post some more.
After my last emergency surgery, I started leaking incredibly disgusting things from my abdominal surgical incision. This led my doctors to tell me to get my affairs in order, preferably in 3 to 5 days because that’s about as long as I had. I had a massive infection in my abdomen and would die of sepsis in short order. So I did what anyone would do in that situation: I notified my friends, took to bed, and waited to die. People literally flew in from around the world to say goodbye. One exceptionally dedicated friend caught a plane from Thailand to Paris and then to me, all in 36 hours. Others came from everywhere. Basically, we had a party. I sat in bed, people came and went, some crying, some laughing, some just sort of shell-shocked. After a day or two my dying vigil became a ribald party: my French friend had brought an exceptional bottle of Calvados (my favorite), my BIL brought some fancy bourbon I’m sure he overpaid for, and we sat around telling tall tales and funny jokes. My favorite was the story of a friend who got drunk, rode his motorcycle home and woke up with his helmet still on and an empty box of cat food in his hand. He has a vague recollection of thinking he was eating chocolate.
And then I didn’t die. Eventually everyone flew home, but not before I had some of the best days of my life. Lot’s of crying, lots of laughing, lots of real love given and received. It was all a great gift, to be a part of your funeral.
The doctors are totally stumped. Now, they say, I’ve got 6 months max.
I’m posting to thank all of you who commented on my “All Good Things Must End” post. Your kindnesses really moved me. Frankly I had no idea so many people enjoyed the blog and got something out of it. In retrospect, I do think it is unique – not meant to be anything other than an interesting discussion about photography, often with a Leica bent. Much of its interest were the comments made by readers, almost invariably thoughtful reflections on what I’d written.
I’m not sure a blog like Leicaphilia has much of a future. Photography as a practice as changed so much, as has the function of photographs in current culture. Technical competence is a non-issue. Arguments about megapixels and dynamic range are a thing of the past. The jewel-like, stand alone matted and framed print is dead. Hopefully, the next generation will retain the aesthetic and intellectual capacity to appreciate that one imperfect print that, in spite of its technical and classic aesthetic shortcomings, can still profoundly move a viewer.
So, this will be my last post on Leicaphilia. I’ve asked Henry McCracken to continue the site if he’s able; given he’s intimately involved in the James Webb Space Telescope, I assume keeping Leicaphilia going will be low on his list of priorities.
I started this maybe 8 years or so ago on a whim, basically just to say what I wanted to say without being ridiculed and censored by stupid people who run photo forums. I had no idea if anyone would read it and didn’t really keep track at all for the first year. One day I discovered the ability to do so….and found I had a couple of thousand regular readers, which made me scratch my head. So I kept writing, eventually adding a comments section wherein a lot of interesting people posted. I stayed anonymous; I wasn’t interested in pimping my work or making money. I just wanted to share some thoughts about photography, which I found miraculous on so many levels. My actual name is Tim Vanderweert.
The last few months have been an experience. Innumerable hospitalizations for bowel blockages brought on by scarring from my initial cancer surgery, all culminating in total bowel failure and pending death by septic shock. In layman’s terms, I’m toast. I was discharged to home hospice, the idea being that I would die at home in a few days. Friends flew in from around the world to say goodbye. It’s now been 8 days, my body is full of poison (the colostomy they gave me has failed, spilling waste into my body), and yet I feel pretty good. All the folks still here are getting impatient, as am I. For God’s sake, let me die already. No big deal. No profound insights. No spiritual epiphanies, just let me go back to wherever I came from.
It has been wonderful spending time with the people I love. It’s been a fun time – lot’s of laughing at the absurdity of it all and lot’s of gratitude for all the love sent my way. As for Leicaphilia readers, you’ve made my last few years much more enriching than they would have been otherwise. Thank you.
Yes, I’ve been gone for some time. Health issues, ennui, sick of what photography has become, Grumpy Old Man syndrome all have contributed. Have absolutely nothing more to say.
I’ve turned 64 today. Physically healthy for the most part, I figure I’ve got 10 more years unless cancer comes back and gets me sooner. To that end, I’m retired, travelling, riding motorcycles. The cameras sit on the shelf unused, looking for someone to pass them on to who’ll use them and appreciate them.
I’m selling everything. I’m beginning with my Silver M240 – not a shelf queen ( has small scratch on side and side baseplate) but operates flawlessly and hasn’t been used much. Comes with the original boxes etc
Anyone who’s been to Paris lately is familiar with John Hamon. His photo is everywhere – pasted on the sides of buildings, on street signs and street corners, even, apparently, illuminated on the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Invalides among other iconic buildings. I’d never seen him before, even though he was supposedly a thing when I last visited in 2017. Nobody knows who John Hamon is. He’s just some guy who decided to plaster his face and name all over Paris. He looks like a nice guy, friendly and convivial and marginally goofy. He makes you want to smile back.
His ‘art’ is pure promotion. He has no ‘body of work’ other than his ubiquitous face poster. Without gallery representation or pretentious statements or manifestos, John Hamon has become one of the most recognizable artists in Paris. He’s also proof that a creator should never explain his work. Much better to just put it out there and let people explain it for themselves. There’s nothing worse, in my mind, then pretentious artist’s statements. Good art comes from somewhere other than the logical mind and can only be diminished by intellectualizing it. That’s why, in spite of all the philosophical theory I’ve thrown around here in the last few years, I’ve never read a book about the ‘theory’ or ‘philosophy’ of photography that hasn’t bored me to death. My idea of hell will be being made eternally to read post-modernist books about photography and its ‘lexical’ nature and how such intersects with the ‘death of the author’ or some such ridiculousness.
I’d actually thought about doing the same thing, years ago, although not in Paris, but here in Raleigh (the “Paris of the Piedmont”). Print up a bunch of pictures on 13×19 cheap proofing paper and wheat-paste them all over downtown. See how long it took for people to start asking what the heck those weird pictures were that were plastered everywhere. Just print up photos of whatever – the more ambiguous the better. But have a theme. Paste them everywhere. Add to them weekly. Simple and hopefully, thought-provoking. Being lazy, I never got around to it. John Hamon beat me to it, and now everyone in Paris knows his name. I couldn’t help but thinking, that could have been me.
John Hamon has inspired me. Paris does that to you. Find a goofy pic of myself as a kid – my high school yearbook photo would work perfectly given I have long hair, am wearing what looks like a blouse and it’s hard to tell exactly what sex I am (I was a trailblazer even then) – and plaster it everywhere. No name. See what happens.
That’s the thing about creativity. It doesn’t have to be profound and sophisticated. It just needs to be thought provoking. It helps if it’s unique i.e. not a homage to or copy of somebody else. And these days it doesn’t need the mediation of curators or galleries or publishers or critics. With the internet, you can just put it out there and see what happens. If it’s interesting, it will get people’s attention if you’re persistent enough, although you’d be better to ignore internet beauty pageants like Instagram, which kill rather than nourish true creativity by turning its production into a popularity contest. If people don’t like it, or are confused by it, so what; you woke them out of their stupor for a minute or two. John Hamon, by the simple act of plastering his face everywhere, made my visit to Paris more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. That’s something.
When I do do it, just remember: I had the idea long before John Hamon.
Rome. I don’t care what my Instagram followers think: This is a great photo.
I’m back from a few weeks abroad…barely. The wife’s positive COVID test less than a day before we were set to return home gave an interesting twist to the trip; luckily she re-tested negative the next morning and boarded her flight home. She’s since tested negative again once home. Major clusterf**k narrowly averted, as the States are requiring a negative COVID test for re-entry from abroad. Luckily, we were staying with friends who offered to allow us to stay at their beautiful Paris flat while they went to their country home. It’s nice to have friends like that. Fortunately, we were both able to get home without further complications.
Speaking of friends, we received the news of my wife’s positive test the evening before departure while dining with Leicaphilia reader and contributor Dr. Henry Joy McCracken and his wife at their Paris flat. (Henry, as some of you may know, is an astrophysicist currently working on a project to send the world’s most powerful [digital] camera into space. He’s also a dedicated film shooter in his private life, the irony, of course, being obvious. I love that about Henry.) We were just opening a bottle of Basil Hayden bourbon I’d brought along as a gift when my wife checked her email and saw her positive test result… which unfortunately put a crimp in the remainder of an otherwise wonderful evening. Henry and his wife were gracious enough not to call the health authorities and have us removed immediately, but the night, which to that point had been really nice – dinner, wine, great conversation – lost its mojo.
In addition to being a brilliant astrophysicist, Dr. McCracken is a great guy. We met through this website. Henry, knowing I was often in Paris, invited me to the Paris Observatory where he works the next time I was in town. I took him up on it, at which time Henry gave me a tour of the old Observatory (second oldest in the world) and brought me up onto the roof and into the original observation area. Pretty amazing. We’ve since become friends. Let this be a lesson to all you readers who live in exotic places or do exotic things: Invite me and I will happily come and eat your food and drink your whiskey. If things go well, I’ll invite myself back.
Our trip consisted of a week in Dubrovnik with a bunch of European friends, followed by 4 days in Rome and then 4 days in Paris with Parisian friends. Dubrovnik, where I’d not been before, was marvelous. Known to be usually crawling with tourists in the manner of Venice, it was remarkably free of crowds, due, I suppose, to COVID and the travel problems associated with it. We rented a large flat overlooking the Old City and spent the week drinking Croatian wine (not bad) and beer (not bad either). I’d brought a few cameras – the M240, the MM and the Ricoh GXR – but didn’t use them much given I didn’t see much to photograph other than the usual tourist sights that’ve been photographed a million times. It certainly wasn’t a place that lent itself to any street photography, why, I can’t articulate; it just wasn’t. Frankly, the entire town was so clean and orderly it felt like a movie set. Beautiful place, nice people, but give me the grittiness of Naples any day.
The Best I Could Do in Dubrovnik. I like it (the square motif and all); Nobody else does, if my Instagram Feed is any Indication. I despise Instagram.
While in Dubrovnik I dropped my MM from a side table – the height being no more than 18 inches – immediately checked to see if it turned on (yup) and the rangefinder was still accurate (yup) and thought no more of it…until I tried to take a photo and the shutter wouldn’t work. Had it been a Nikon….or even my old ratty Ricoh GXR, it would have cranked right up and fired, no problem. But its a Leica, and now I’ve got to send it someplace far away and wait 6 months while the gnomes who work in Leica’s repair department open it up, reconnect some wire that’s loose and charge me $1000 for the privilege. To Leica’s credit, the M240 worked great throughout. Bravo Leica, a $5000 camera that actually works.
From Dubrovnik it was off to Rome. I’ve been to Rome a few times, but never enjoyed it as much as I did this time around. The weather was perfect – sunny, warm, but not hot – and there were few tourists around, which made it perfect for seeing the touristy sites without battling a million other people. We stayed in a beautiful flat in the Monti district close to the Trevi Fountain – apparently its the flat Diane Keaton stays at while in Rome (take that, Thorsten Overgaard) – and spent the days walking and eating and drinking.
I’m a pizza fanatic. My favorite pizzerias are John’s on Bleecker Street in New York City and L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, and I was looking forward to some authentic ‘Roman Pizza’, which a pizzeria here in Chapel Hill claims is a thing (what they claim to be ‘Roman Style’ is excellent – wood-fired crispy thin crust light on the tomato and cheese). Unfortunately, the Roman version of “Roman Style’ pizza seems to be, well, pizza. Nothing special, which didn’t, however, keep me from eating pizza each night for dinner. There are worse things in life than sitting at a streetside table in Rome eating good, not great, pizza.
Rome was a great place for the iPhone. The days of people getting pissed off at you for taking their photo in public are long gone, thanks to the iPhone. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is snapping pictures of everything with their phones. I rarely saw anyone with a dedicated camera – when I did, it was usually some old guy with a consumer grade Nikon with zoom looking all serious. As for me, I never bothered to use the Leicas out of doors, first because the damn MM wouldn’t work and second, because I didn’t feel like lugging them around, and third, because I had my iPhone, which works great on the street. Above, and below, are a few examples of photos taken in Rome with the iPhone. Super simple – aim, shoot as many times as you like, run what you like thru Snapseed and then post on Instagram.
Marie Antionette’s Bedroom, Versailles
Ah yes, Instagram. For some reason I can’t now recalI I thought it would be fun to post a few pics from the trip to my Instagram account as the trip was happening. Unfortunately, posting on Instagram is an exercise in abject futility and personal humiliation, embodying everything wrong with photography or what’s left of it. Post something that works – the photo that opens this article being a perfect example – crickets. (The one photo I liked best from the entire trip got zero likes.) Post photos of your lunch, or pretty girls making stupid faces, and the ‘likes’ pour in. I need that like I need a hole in my head. Lesson learned: Instagram is worthless – social media monkeys chasing their tails in order to have something they post get ‘liked.’ Why anyone voluntarily submits to such indignity is beyond me.
Coming soon Part 2: Paris, Why Instagram Sucks, and Why I’m Now an ‘iPhone Photographer’