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Work toward the light.

June 19th, 2001

Toward The Light
These are the photographs that try a man's soul, the photographs I took at the Blues Alley festival. (I call it a festival, but it's more like a block party with live music and a cover.) I knew it when I was shooting. (Under a noon day sun, which is stupid. It goes until nine in the evening. I could have come later when the light wasn't so drastic and everybody was liquored up. Most people don't pay attention to a photographer when they're liquored up.) I need to sit for a while and think about them, these poor little postage stamp sized images on two contact sheets sitting here on the desk. Look at them again. Re-learn my Zen "photographing a man in front of a microphone" lesson, page 23 in the Ten Zen Lessons For Sole Proprietors book.

I was sitting in a Thai restaurant the other day looking up at a framed color poster on the wall of Oakland Blues Alley festival. a painting by Matisse, and I was wondering, looking at how he'd framed his subject, what he'd decided to include and why, knowing, of course, anything with "Matisse" scribbled at the bottom was worth millions and a sharp intake of breath. I was wondering what I would think if I were looking up at this very poster without the name "Matisse" printed at the bottom in large, easy to read, tastefully rendered type? Would I think, holy shit, this is hot stuff or would I look at the painting, check out the people sitting at the table next to me and then get back to my chicken salad with the good Pad Thai peanut sauce dressing with never a second thought?

Now, this was a poster, you understand, and not the real thing. There is a difference. There is a night and day, dead and alive, Barry Manilow and John Lennon difference between a crappily printed poster and the real thing, but still, would it have suggested something out of the ordinary to me, sitting there as I was, talking with friends and eating lunch? Probably not. The printed poster, at least, with the smudge at the bottom and the crappy frame. It wasn't a real high end Thai restaurant, you understand, although he food is good...and cheap...and plentiful.

I think everyone must experience this. Look at a painting or a photograph, listen to a song or a symphony, watch a movie, read a book by an author or a painter or a composer you've never heard of before and wonder, do I like this or do I not? does it move me in any way, good or ill? where might it sit in the broader universe of paintings and photographs and music and movies and books? I think it takes passion and learning and time to develop a sense for any of this and that brings me back to what started me off.

How can you tell in creating your own work what is good and what is not? How do you put it in context? The artist can be thought of as a critic, the person who first sees or reads or hears his own art. What he thinks of his art determines the direction he or she will take with the next painting or melody or book. I can't think of a single photograph I've seen without the prejudice of a famous name that on first viewing said to me, "hey, man, I'm the real McCoy, the photograph of the century, the real goods". A couple of them have whispered some pretty seductive stuff, but, you know, it takes a while to put them in context.

There are photographs that are considered absolute classics, photographs that every one of us has seen at one time or another, the "real goods" stuff. What might happen if, in some Land of Oz alternative reality, one of those photographs should come out of my own camera by chance? (Come on, by chance! It could happen! It could! The million monkeys with a million cameras for a million years kind of a chance photograph!) Would I say, "nice pix", and throw it on the pile with the rest and never give it a second glance? Could. Might. Wouldn't make a bad epitaph: "He left it in the pile on his desk."

Prop, that's the difference between the serious ones and the also rans. The great ones say "yeah! that's it" and go out and shoot some more and the also rans throw it on the pile and have another drink.

"Are you suggesting something? This pile of prints, for example, on my desk?"

Well, yeah. The ones with the jelly stains and cat hairs and bent corners. Your portfolio, in other words.

"Hey, that jelly stain was an accident!"

Well, you get the idea. I'm going back to examine my Blues Alley stuff and better see what's happening before I go off on a tangent. This is a hobby: no great expectations, not enough effort expended to lead to much. Still, I'm here, the cameras are over there, maybe we could get together more often. Discuss the meaning of life, art, and focus. And contrast. And depth of field. And Matisse: Start with his simpler stuff, the blue nudes, for example, and work toward the light.

The banner photograph was taken in the lobby of our office building. The second photograph was taken at the Blues Alley festival in Oakland. The quote is attributed to an English professor at Ohio University.