Monday, March 14, 2011

In Regards to Photographing People

Amish Horse and Buggy, Bird-in-Hand, PA, 2011

I hear often people speaking about "essence" when they're discussing photography.  Successful images are usually so vivid, so all-encompassing about their subject, that they rarely leave room for words to describe them.  "You just have to see it for yourself," is what I usually end up saying when asked to describe an image I admire.  The right place and the right time are necessary ingredients for success; you've no doubt heard about the "magical moment" in photography.  Sometimes, this "magical moment" happens only after exhaustive deliberation and preparation, other times it comes as a prosperous accident.  But, above and beyond everything else, there must be patience.

I spent this past weekend immersed in Amish culture in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The Amish, as we know, have purposely separated themselves from the world and its contrivances.  Part of their deeply-held religious beliefs is the idea that no one should call attention to themselves, and this includes being photographed.  One of the reasons why I don't think that I'd make a good photojournalist is because I strongly respect the private worlds of people.  Of course, I like it when people look at my work, but never at the emotional and personal expense of others.  I do strongly believe that, if you are a thoughtful and thorough-enough photographer, you can capture the idea of a person and their culture completely and absolutely without ever having to resort to disrespect.  That being said, of course I itched to photograph these wonderful people and their world.  It was not until the very end of the day that I captured this image, and beyond being satisfied with what I had photographed, I felt like I had a perfect reminder of what it felt like to a visitor in the Amish world, and I could feel content in the fact that I had not crossed any personal moral boundaries.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's All Worth It at the End of the Day

Tobacco Worker's Hands, Danlí, Honduras, 2011
One of my biggest fears is ending up working inside of a cubicle, watching the clock tick.  I had such a job once (well, there was no cubicle, but there was certainly a punch clock with time-cards); I remember the sense of frustration at the forced hours, at the constant obsession of breaks and lunch hours of my co-workers, the incessant gossip about people who "rode the clock," the interminable memos and e-mails about time-related disputes in the workplace.  It seems to me that this fixation on "maximizing" workers' time "on the clock" has actually made us less productive; I was certainly much more aware of the clock and punching out at exactly 5:00 pm, because such an issue was made about being at work at exactly 8:00 am.  I am convinced that productivity cannot be forced.  Self-motivation is a big issue (not all of us have it), but I feel like employers should be promoting a sense of perseverance and self-worth in their employees.  I mean, not everybody loves their job, but convince someone that their work matters, that they matter, and their work output will improve.  If you are more concerned about your employees eating Cheetos on the clock, or spending time reading their e-mail instead of looking for things to do (which, really, is what most employees spend their time doing, which is pretending to work when they actually have nothing really to do), then your business with ultimately suffer.  I can always tell how successful a company is when I am on the phone with one of their customer service agents.  A certain blue and red bank comes to mind.  I actually feel sorry for these people.  On one memorable occasion, I had a rep burst in to tears and confess to me she hated her job; she couldn't decide who was meaner to her, the customers or her employers.  This bank is currently on the rocks, which is no surprise, considering they can't take of either their customers or the people who work for them.      

I've had my fair share of awful jobs, but the worst were the ones where I felt exhausted at the end of the day and had nothing to show for it.  Working to pay the bills is like eating to stay alive; for something we spend a considerable time of our lives doing, we should at least gather some enjoyment.  For example, most people are generally baffled that someone would actually pick to be a garbage man, or an undertaker.  There's got to be some sort of hidden deal there, we think, maybe a superb benefits plan or something of the sort.  I asked a library stacker one time what the heck he found so appealing about his job (I shudder at the thought of doing nothing but shelving books all day); he looked at me and smiled, shrugging shyly.  "Well, I just like how pretty the stacks look when I'm all done with them."  For him, there was a sense of accomplishment, a reason for the aches in his back and his arms, when he saw the fruits of his labor: rows upon rows of neatness from what had once been chaos.  Ultimately, this is what allows the majority of people to get through their time-clock, cubicle or factory jobs, it is the feeling of having done something worthwhile at the end of the day.

So in conclusion, the question bears asking: what did you do today that was worth your time?


Monday, March 7, 2011

Sometimes You Just Have to Photograph It

Cochlospermum vitifolium, or by any other name; Copán, Honduras, 2011

During the intensive search for "portfolio worthy" images, sometimes we stumble upon happy little larks of color, shape, or form that beckon our lenses for no reason other than simple beauty.  There are a number of subjects whose very attraction and ease on the eyes has caused their visual exhaustion.  I had an exasperated instructor in graduate school that used to tell us that we were "absolutely forbidden to photograph puppies, babies, flowers, or sunsets unless a) the baby was crying, b) the puppy was dead, c) the flowers were covered in blood, d) sunsets were made 'prettier' by things like fires and traffic accidents in the foreground, or e) they were in any combination of the above." 

The unusual is, of course, always more interesting than the mundane.  But sometimes, you just have to pause and marvel at perfection and banality.  Take a moment to--literally--stop and smell the flowers.  

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Organic Still Sounds Better than Curvilinear

I'm hesitant to use the word 'organic.'  It has become such a bizarre catch-all lately that we forget what the true roots of it are.  I, failure that I was at organic chemistry, have not forgotten.  (Maybe it is this memory that makes me shudder at the word, but that is again, another story for another time.)  I breeched my own code of ethics when I broke open the thesaurus to look up a better word than 'organic' to describe these next few images ("Rule: if you can't come up with the word on your own, you should never use it!"), but all I could come up with, lamely, is 'curvilinear,' which is a form of geometric conception.  If you come up with something better, let me know.  No matter what I think of it, 'organic' still sounds better than 'curvilinear.'

Details, Cigar Factory, Danlí, Honduras, 2011

"Tinkers," by Paul Harding

There are certain books, when read, that completely restore your faith in the idea that true talent really does exist.  Carefully honed, this talent can completely blow your mind.  "Tinkers," by Paul Harding, is just that kind of book.  Now, it's not like I'm discovering something completely unknown here; he did win the Pulitzer Prize for it.  I picked it up at DCA right before getting on a plane for a week's commission, and promptly forgot it.  I rediscovered it in my luggage when I returned home, but just the sight of the little gold sticker on the cover telling how good it was, that it had won a major award, made me suddenly tired.  Ugh, smart literature.  When your brain is fried after overstimulation at work, the last thing you need is writing that makes you think.  Sometimes it's all I can do to get through half of a People.  

This past week, though, my body finally protested to all the shenanigans I make it endure, and promptly shut down on me with perhaps the worst flu I have had in recent memory (and if you know me, you know that I am pretty knowledgeable on the subject of bad flus).  Frustrated and stuck at home recuperating, I picked up the little book, and, let me tell you, half a day later I finished it in one sitting (one... laying down? I wasn't actually upright during any of this, my chest hurt too badly).  It was so good, I read it again the next day.

If you doubt my own opinion, here is a little snippet from the book:

"He crouched to look at a daffodil.  Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun.  A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style.  Howard leaned as closely as he dared (he imagined sniffing the poor bee into his nose, the subsequent sting, the unfortunate wound, the plucked and dead creature on its back in the flattened, cold grass) and inhaled again.  There was a faint sweetness mingled with the sharp mineral cold, which faded from detection when he inhaled more deeply in order to smell it better."

-Paul Harding, "Tinkers"

The language is just so beautiful here I don't even need to tell you what the book is about.  This is prose at its best.  Reading it reminded me strongly of a passage in Stephen King's book "On Writing," in which he quotes Amy Tan.  He asks her which question she never receives during book signing Q and As.  "They never ask about the language," she answers.  

Language, the most important thing of all, I think, regardless of your genre in art.  If you cannot get your message across to your viewer, then you are lost.  The whole idea of art is communication.  Remember that, and read Paul Harding's book.  You will thank me.   

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Things Beautiful, Noble, and Great

"Mi trabajo es cantar todo lo bello, encender el entusiasmo por todo lo noble, 
admirar y hacer admirar todo lo grande." 

-José Martí

"My job is to praise all that is beautiful, fan the flame of everything that is noble, admire and gather admiration for all that is great."

-José Martí

Cigar-making; details.  Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. 2011.