Recently, my life got pretty darn hectic. I made a mad dash to Chicago for the Center for Railroad Photography and Art conference, as I previously noted, and then made a mad dash back just in time to start a new three-month, full time gig. As a result, my schedule became nuts, and I’m once again a morning person — who knew?
There’s nothing like a regular job to clear your head and make you remember what it’s all for. After four days of burning my candle at both ends, I knew that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with a life that was just about cubicles and commuting, where my evening hours were spent sitting in front of yet another computer.
Then inspiration struck me. Go back to meaning, Alex. Find what is meaningful, go back to the source.
Back at the CRPA conference, Lew Ableidinger got a chance to give a presentation on his photography. Make no bones about it, I admire Lew’s work very much — you can see more on his Flickr page, where I swear I’ve favorited every fourth photograph he’s posted — but since Lew is of my generation, I had to give him a hard time during the Q&A. And although we aren’t close friend per se, I knew Lew well enough to know he had just picked up a new acquisition: a large format camera. For those uninitiated in the obscurities of pre-Digital SLR photography, the large format camera is that cartoon camera, the one with gigantic bellows up front and that requires a hefty tripod to hold. They can take a long time to set up, the film for them is expensive due to its size, and all in all they are a slowwwwwwww choice in cameras. So I stood up and I asked Lew if, because of this acquisition, he had gone crazy.
The truth of the matter, though, is that I understood Lew’s choice all too well. (Apparently I wasn’t alone; my crazy comment drew more than one attendee to inform me that they, too, owned and used a large format camera.) You see, for me, there’s just not much satisfaction in pixels. After a weekend of making random snapshots to promote the conference on the Center’s Facebook page, I was pretty sick of my beloved Canon G9. It was easy, sure. It was almost instantaneous. But it had none of the things that brought me to photography. It had no craft.
The source of photography, for me, was painting. For years, cameras were no more than mechanical sketchbooks that helped me produce works in watercolor. It was on the stippled, slightly acrid smelling surface of cotton-based paper that I learned the rules of composition, the way that colors compliment or clash, and the idea of visual storytelling.
And, perhaps, it is the tactile elements of painting that lead me to so strongly hold onto film photography. The act of printing under an enlarger, the sheer daredevil analog imprecision of the print, the multiple intangibles and unknowns that I must dance around for each image: these are the aspects of black-and-white photography I fell in love with. These are the reasons that I long for the day I have a darkroom of my own.
But, back to this week. Feeling a bit run down, a bit worn thin, and a bit lost, I realized that there was one place I could find myself in again. And so last night, all that was on my desk was removed, and then tonight, after I got home, out came the stipple-surfaced French paper, out came the finely sharpened Stadtler 2B, out came the kneaded gum eraser and the sharpener and the T-square and the ruler. Even without starting, even just seeing the paper laying there on the surface of my desk, awaiting the touch of my fingertips, I could feel the mood change in me. Painting is, perhaps, a kind of meditation all of its own. And then the pencil was out, and the lead laid down on the paper, and the smell of fresh wood shavings and graphite filled the room.
And it all began again.