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Saturday, August 6, 2016


I think I've written this essay a handful of times, but I like writing it, so there's that. How does it all work, after all?

The final image you achieve will, to quote Alfred Stieglitz, reveal what you saw and felt. If it were not for this element of felt, the term creative photography would have no meaning.

That's Ansel Adams, technique guy. Less technique-heavy photographers have said much the same. You gotta feel something.

I do not think, as Adams sometimes suggests, that the only thing one can strive to photograph is ones actual, authentic, feeling on-site. I believe that one can re-imagine what one sees as something entirely different, but still, there's something in the chest, something indefinable, something you cannot fully put in to words. Sometimes you can wrap a lot of words around it, sometimes you can only mumble a little and then fall silent.

The steps I'm about to outline take place in no particular order, although the tyranny of text demands that I write them out one after the other. They intermingle and bounce off one another, altering one another endlessly until the work is complete. Also, consider this a blueprint, not to be mistaken for the machine itself. An anatomical drawing, sort of pathetic, certainly simplified, and in no way the organism. But perhaps it gives a little insight, and in any case it's the best I can do.

There is the idea, sometimes we call it the concept, which is that thing in your chest that you cannot put entirely in to words. The feeling you have, that notion.

I want to photograph my little neighborhood in southern Virginia as a gothic nightmare.

I see this Edsel as an erotic hallucination of chrome.

I just want it to look like Vancouver.

Uh. Something about the Pacific Northwest. I dunno. Workin' on it.


You turn this into an idea of how to shoot. This is Adams pre-visualization, which is how I got on to this whole stupid thing in the first place. This is the creative act. You might be able to simply apply some basic tropes, it might be obvious how to shoot it. Gothic Nightmare? Try high contrast black&white, tilt the frames, and throw on a heavy vignette. It pretty much writes itself. Something about the Pacific Northwest is not writing itself at all, I have been locked in a low-key struggle with that for at least a year. I've written about that process by which Eureka! moments can be generated, here for instance.

It is here that the artist looks most intensely inwards, struggling to imagine what those final pictures might actually look like. It is here that the internalized outer world comes most in to play. Without having consumed broadly, consumed the world, the artist isn't going to get any Eurekas no inspirations, no Of course that is how it should look, how could I not have seen it?. There are, apparently, actual neurological reasons, partly understood, for this.

The third and final step is simply to and bang the things out. Once you know what they look like, it's a technical problem to make them. You move the lights and the camera and the subject around in the way that you do, and there you are.

Of course, let us be honest, if there was any real struggle, you've been attempting to "bang them out" all along, the original idea, that feeling in your chest, has been evolving as you learn what things look like in a photograph. The struggle to get to that final visualization involves staring at these pictures as well as everything else.

But the end result of that struggle to see in the mind's eye what these damned things are supposed to look like is ultimately the struggle to convert your feeling, your words and indefinable notion, into something that the world might, just possibly, get a hold of. You're trying to generate the visualization that's going to communicate your feeling, and transmute that sensation in your chest into an analogous sensation in someone else's. Your Eureka! moment is pretty specific, it is Aha! If I do that then they will feel what I feel.

This is a second reason that you must consume broadly. You should look at photographs and art, but also you should talk, and listen, and read, and drink, and play with children, and live, so that your inspirations have some chance of accurately pointing the way toward communicating with all the other East African Plains Apes that make up our society.

There are tools and tropes you can deploy. The Gothic Nightmare toolset is uncomplicated and I feel like it can be used entirely consciously, it's no more opaque than using a screwdriver to put in a screw. There is a vast visual literature here, which you can simply refer to and be done with it, and that is precisely what I did. The "message" is blunt and obvious. Not everything is. The referents available for rendering a car as an erotic hallucination are fewer, although Madison Avenue does provide some material here (they have, after all, been trying to eroticize cars forever). Making Vancouver look like Vancouver sounds really simple but I didn't have any particular tropes to lean on, other than "rainy", so it was real work to sort out what I wanted to make of it.

When your concept is best expressed as Umm... then the bag of pre-made tools might be pretty light, and you'll be making your own tools.

Don't worry too much about "soul", if you're working hard and struggling with things you cannot put in to words, it'll probably just happen by itself.

Good luck!

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