Exercise S1-1: Describe yourself as a photographer

Like many people, I took pictures with a succession of snapshot cameras from about 9 or 10 years old, and by the time I was in high school I wanted a real camera. I had friends with Leicas and Rolleiflexes (it was that kind of school) and I had a working knowledge of f stops and had done some darkroom time, and I knew that Photography was out there somewhere. The bug bit definitively after my first college year, when I had a lot of negatives from a summer trip to Sweden; my sister in law had a darkroom and showed me how to print with care, and at that point I knew I needed a real camera. A friend loaned me $200 (a lot of money at the time) and I bought a used Alpa and started carrying it with me and trying to live up to it. The through-the-lens ground glass view of the world became an alternate reality.

At about the same time I met Betsy, who had a job printing photos for an archaeological expedition and already thought of herself as a photographer, and pretty soon I took on that identity for myself. I read photography magazines, started to accumulate photo books, gradually started to learn about famous photographers, and joined the staff of the Yearbook (free film, paper at cost, good darkroom facilities). By spring 1963 Betsy and I were a Couple, and frequently set off on photographic expeditions in Cambridge and Boston.

Salute the Old Boston
That fall we showed up, hand in hand, for Harvard's first offering of a still photography course (taught by Len Gittleman, who had been a student of Aaron Siskind). The next year, newly married, we were course assistants in the still photography course, and were occasional contributors to School of Design magazines and had various freelance photography jobs (I was the progress photographer on a skyscraper being built in Boston's financial district).

So I've worn the identity photographer for 55 years, and the avocation followed me to Sarawak in the Peace Corps, to Stanford during 5 graduate school years, to Nova Scotia for 20 years of teaching and research, through a leap to a library career in Virginia, and finally into 12 years of retirement in Maine. The tide of photographing has ebbed and flowed, but even when I wasn't using the camera much I was buying and studying photography books, and working on various image projects.

We both began again with digital cameras about the time of my retirement, and the last decade has seen both of us ever more deeply involved as photographers. We live near the Maine Media Workshops, and have taken a variety of courses there. Betsy developed her long-run interest in macrophotography and pursued gallery membership for several years, but I have been content to remain closeted except for public exposure via my Flickr photostream.

The core of my interest in photography is a continuing search for revelations and epiphanies, and they seem to keep coming in great variety, both in my own practise and via extensive reading in photo books. A succession of discoveries, indeed a lifetime of them, has come out of (seemingly) nowhere; each might be a springboard into a new Project/fascination/realm of discovery, and I never know when another will announce itself. Quite a few have condensed as Flickr Albums, and some have become Blurb books (see links to pdfs of those). Others are gradually accumulating in my Flickr photostream, awaiting their moments. Thus, a series of back-road calligraphies is well on its way to becoming a new Project:

screech gesture in time and space back road calligraphy

For me, images are integral elements in stories, which I've been satisfied to manage and distribute in digital form. Whimsey seems to be a prime mover for me, but sometimes poses difficulties for viewers of my creations (what on earth does he mean? where did that come from?). Often an image's identity emerges during post-processing, and spawns an allusive (and often idiosyncratic) name that attaches it to a nascent narrative. This one seems to be, or to invoke, Gilgamesh:

Can I explain why 'Gilgamesh' floated into my mind as I worked on the image? No. But there it was, loud and clear. Maybe eventually I'll understand how and why, but for now I'm content with the enigma.

A recent example of emergent but still inchoate narrative is the series of tree wounds now accumulating as a Flickr Album. I certainly had no idea there was a story here when (almost 8 years ago) it occurred to me that this capture ("Shrieking Tree Creature") could be read as a tree in extremis:

shrieking tree creature
and it was only a couple of weeks ago that I started to notice and accumulate and then go looking for more instances of the phenomena of arboreal damage and self-repair. I don't know if this thread will ever grow into something grander than a small heap of images, now loosely linked by an anthropomorphic conceit, but here's the thing: I'm now interested in looking into what arborists have to say about the lives of trees, and Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World and ecologist Suzanne Simard's research on arboreal communication have a salience I hadn't previously imagined. That sort of outward-bound connectivity thing happens a lot, and is one of the primary joys. And one of the reasons UPS keeps showing up in our driveway...

Another realm I've been exploring has to do with symmetrical constructions using GIMP. These began with serendipity: while testing a rented lens about 5 years ago, I happened to photograph some frosted chard in the garden:

trying out the new lens: frozen chard
Hmmm, I thought. What would happen if I unfolded this image, mirroring it? I thrashed my way through the GIMP menus and succeeded... and then thought: what about unfolding it again, on the other axis? And the result was The Apotheosis of Chard:
apotheosis of chard
This was the first of what's now a large stable of Fearful Symmetries, within many of which lurk creatures. The question is: did the mirroring transformation allow existing creatures to manifest, or are they simply figments of the viewer's imagination? Pretty much everybody seems to enjoy the search, and rarely do people see exactly the same creatures. I have printed several of these on satin (via Spoonflower.com), to great effect. I'm not sure just how relevant this strain is to what people generally understand as Simplicity, but I'm trying to work that out in a peripheral text.

So photography is, for me, an integral part of life, right up there in importance with my highly-elaborated enthusiasms for music and reading and food and walking, all of which are pretty deeply involved in improv. The iPhone is always with me, and the camera bag (these days it contains Nikon D610 and infrared-converted Nikon D5000) is never far away. I see lots of photographs that I don't stop to take (a friend calls that "catch-and-release"), but as I watch Betsy's photographic enterprises I also realize there are vast worlds that I don't see, don't notice, don't imagine. It's a delight to continue to explore and discover.