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San Francisco Presidio

July 8th, 2000

I talked about my get together with the graduates of the night photography class at the San Francisco Presidio the other week. I shot a paltry twenty photographs not realizing I had a light yellow filter over my lens. I know, this sounds pretty stupid, a yellow black and white filter with color film, but I'm used to it, having a great deal of experience with my own person. You can worry about these things or you can write the instructions down (put the key in the car door lock, turn to the left, remember to take them with you as you leave) if you really need to remember these things and otherwise just get on with it. I prefer to just get on with it.

The thing that struck me is how well they came out with all this working against them. The color is wrong, the cropping is wrong, but the colors and shapes are interesting. They look like images that could easily be improved with some effort, just go back to the Presidio and reshoot them. I'd have to get off my butt and actually do it, of course, which, knowing my habits, seems unlikely, but it might be fun to play with the light and the textures and maybe blow one or two of them up and print them. Do some 8 x 12's or even larger prints on one of the new Epson photo deskjet printers to see how they look. This is good. This is actually very good. An Art and Life screed now follows:

Photography isn't about the technical elements: the focus and depth of field, the exposure and film San Francisco Presidio speed, the development times and distance, flash head to subject, any more than sculpture is about hitting a chisel with a hammer or painting is about the relative textures you can achieve with a camel hair brush, or science is about mathematics. They are the tools required to achieve the photograph or realize the statue or create the painting, but they are not what what draws you to the making in the first place, they are not the passion that tricked you into playing artist. (My artist is anyone who gets a little bump of pleasure or satisfaction from their finger painting, whatever form their finger painting may take. No "art" or "artist" with a capital "A". I'm playing in my own small sandbox here where the thrills can be cheap.)

The question I've always asked myself as I've done my scribbling and images, is what does that passion or satisfaction or whatever it is they talk about feel like inside? What constitutes a "good" photograph or a "good" piece of writing? I've been playing with the writing here and I've been playing with the photographs. I'm older without any immediate family to support and I can afford to spend money on equipment, so I have equipment. That's good, but I don't think tools create an artist and I don't think they're any sort of precondition to the making of a "good" photograph. I think, in many ways, it can be a distraction, buying some new toy as a solution to a creative question that can only be answered from within. You can buy one hell of a wonderful camera for the price of my least expensive lens and you can make photographs with that camera that can change the world. That's the truth. I don't think anyone would nit pick the question.

The problem is finding the space and the quiet to listen to your own inner voice and filter out all the San Francisco Presidio extraneous advice and misinformation the world is always willing to give you. I wonder about young artists (photographers, writers, artists, chefs, directors, sculptors, musicians) who are considering making their craft a life's work. I think the personal vision you need to start comes slowly. It needs time to develop. It flitters in and flitters out and it pops up here in one of your photographs and maybe you recognize it and maybe you don't and then it pops up there in another photograph and maybe you recognize it and remember it and maybe it draws you in closer to where it is you are supposed to be going and again, maybe it doesn't, and you persevere and you ask yourself questions like "What in the hell am I doing? What made me ever think I had any talent? Look at all this crap!" and if you're very lucky you continue without hearing or worrying about the opinions of the outside world.

The cartoonists I knew who built careers during the underground comix days all started drawing when they were young, really young, when nobody was paying any attention to them, when they weren't asking self conscious questions about what was "good" cartooning and what was "bad" cartooning, what was "art" and what was not and what their part might be in it. They were just doing their cartooning and they were able to continue until their vision and their passion became apparent and they'd developed and matured by the time they were exposed to the world of art and the business of art and the bullshit of art.

The movie Guinevere tracks a young woman's early years with her mentor. She's been told she's going to be a photographer by her mentor and she's been given a camera and she reads and she looks at photographs and she hangs out in artsy fartsy San Francisco and although she doesn't really believe she's going to be a photographer, what a lark, she continues, although two years into her relationship she has yet to shoot her first serious picture. And the mentor says, that's OK, that's the way it goes when you're learning, you have stuff to learn and stuff to get behind you before you can begin, but you will find your muse and you will find your eye, just keep going.

Her first real photographs are taken when her relationship with her "mentor" or "teacher" ends, at that very moment when his purpose of leading her through the beginning artist's mine field to the recognition and understanding of her own vision is completed. (Yes, I continue to be fascinated with Guinevere. If you think of it as being about the relationship of the artist with the mentor and the road he or she must navigate to find that inner vision rather than the story of a young woman in a relationship with an older man, I think you'll find it more interesting.)

When I shot my first photographs I was in the 7th or 8th grade. I was fumbling with photography, learning how to develop (black and white) film and printing with an old enlarger on a temporary setup in the bathroom. Again, I didn't know anyone else who was shooting, contemporary or adult, and although it led to two or three years of interesting snapshots, none of them were memorable, none of them were interesting and I never had a thought as to what I was doing or where it might take me.

I'm sure there was an initial spark inside me somewhere, I don't think you do things like that without one, but that spark never had the time or the chance to grow. So I stopped. And what the hell, lots of people do things for a while and then they stop. No tragedy. I shot photographs for two additional periods during my life with similar results. I never developed a gut feeling for whatever it was that was drawing me to it, whatever it might is that eventually grabs you by the nose (or, better, the balls) and pulls you forward.

The shooting I'm doing now has been a similar experience. I've bought equipment and I carry a camera wherever I go, whether it's to lunch or the corner grocery store or on business. I shoot parades. I like to shoot parades. I (try) to shoot people on the street. It looks like I'm making progress, but half the time I'm carrying a camera without any awareness and other than keeping an eye out for camera thieves, I'm unaware of my surroundings, not seeing potential images. Which is OK. I understand that. You can't be on all the time. Or at least I can't.

Something else, however, has been happening. The advantage of my age is I'm not worried about why I'm San Francisco Presidio doing this or where it is going. I post pictures with this journal, some of them OK, most of them ordinary, but I continue to gain satisfaction from the process. I'm too old to change careers (That's not really true, but that usually doesn't happen and it's certainly not something to plan for or think about.) and I've seen enough of life to not think too much whether anyone else thinks they're good or bad, well made or sloppy. I still have a long way to go with my technique, to learn PhotoShop, for example, and I don't care. I'll get there one day and then again, maybe I won't. So I've been stumbling along and playing in this little sandbox of mine and not paying attention to what the wider world considers good photography. Not unlike the young photographer who is too young to think or worry about what the wider professional world is doing or how his or her own works might measure against it, too young to have anyone in the "real" world or their contemporary world pay attention to him (or her). Time to fumble and find their calling. Time to make mistakes. Time to look and listen.

I'm going on like this because I've been doing this for three years now and lately I've been feeling encouraged. It's giving me hints of what my own little corner of interest might be and where I might go with it. Not career, but a hobby where I've developed a personal vision and have confidence in what I'm shooting. I'm thinking maybe I'd like to make prints again one day. Maybe tomorrow. On the computer using one of the new color deskjet printers, maybe even in the darkroom again printing black and white. Single images where I spend the time it takes to make a good one. Because I want to.

That's a big deal. The wanting part. Achieving some level of satisfaction . If I had it to do over I'd have looked for that mentor, someone who could have encouraged me to get through those first clueless years when I faltered, suggest there was something in it worth pursuing and to keep at it. If I'd had more passion, I guess that wouldn't have mattered. Passion will get you through times of no mentor better than a mentor will get you through times of no passion. Or something like that. Now, if I could only get a similar leg up on the writing.

(The weekend finished without shooting a single photograph. Nothing struck me as interesting Saturday on the streets of Berkeley and my mind was image blank. The contact sheet I got back Friday was truely awful and reading this makes me want to pat myself on the head and say "Now, now, put your feet up and breathe deeply, I'm sure one day we'll do better".)

The night photographs were taken at the San Francisco Presidio. The quote under The Sole Proprietor title is anonymous, but nice.