I’m wrestling with my demons again… the urge to eschew digital and return to the loving but demanding arms of film again. The pictures above and below were made about 15 years ago. The beautiful model was my soon-to-be life partner and wife. I owned a Mamiya C330 for a couple of weeks back then but took it back to the store because I felt that I shouldn’t spend that much money on, well, anything. But I wish I still had it. I think I could love the square. Instagram isn’t the same thing.
Let me just spout it out here and try to get through this moment of weakness. What does film offer that digital can’t do easier and better? Heck, I always hated the processing part, the time lag between making the exposure and seeing a print. And now, there would be another step in the process… scanning the negative to make it computer and Internet-ready, since that is where images live nowadays.
But I think that lag is part of what I’m after again. It’s a separation of the two main parts of the creative process– between making the exposure and crafting a print (or digital version of a print), and being able to enjoy each of those elements for what they are. I know I don’t really need to go to film to get that, and could incorporate a different process into my digital habits. As it is, I don’t chimp much except to judge exposure, but even that gets in the way. It’s more than that, too.
I feel that I operate best against limitations. It’s hard to explain why, but pushing against the sides of a box really lights my creative fire, more than the thought of boundless freedom. Film offers those limitations, in abundance: fixed ISO, limited exposures, being tied to the relatively scarce facilities available to process and scan images. Add to that a square format image, black and white film and a fixed focal length (I can’t imagine having enough money to purchase more than one lens), and the limits are set. Now, what could I do with that?
Hmmm. This isn’t really helping. Hello, Ebay?
Suffering waves of sentimentality today. Not just mine, but for people I’ve never met. It started when I stepped into my son’s old room this morning. Just paused for a bit to feel his presence (though he is alive and well in a nice apartment of his own– not too far away), to remember when he was a skinny kid living quite contentedly in his basement room. I swear that I often still expect that he is down there– just a notion in the back of my mind when I’m not thinking too hard. It’s a lonely feeling to open the door and realize he’s grown up and flown the coop.
It’s taken almost half of June to get to a summery day. I took a walk through the neighborhood just to get some air and see what I would see. There is an abandoned school not far away. This building was used as a setting in the Coen Brothers’ film “A Serious Man” but now sits in disrepair, waiting to be torn down. I peeked through the windows and thought about the generations of school kids who passed through this little elementary school since the 50′s, and the teachers who came to work every day, and wondered about the small dramas that spilled out within those walls over the years.
Though they are signs of anxiety, I actually enjoy those dreams that put me back in high school, at my age, because of some class I didn’t take and still need in order to keep my diploma. I don’t like them for the anxiety, but for the nuance and small memories they bring back about being in school, and the friends I used to have but have long lost touch with. Too bad I can’t think of a legitimate reason to wander the halls of my old school again. Several years ago, I had an interesting freelance photography gig, traveling to area schools and making panoramic images of classrooms for an architectural firm. I was in the schools in off-hours– usually vacation days– and always allowed myself to be awash in notions of other people’s lives. I could feel the passions lingering in the air, the residue of young love, drama, insecurity and great expectations… all the stuff of teenage lives.
This is my second attempt at baking bread. Last week’s try (from the same batch of dough) came out with a nice crust but a little dense on the inside. My wife advised using less dough, so that’s what I did this time. These guys popped out pretty cute, and the house smells delicious. I used the easiest bread recipe I could find on the Internet: six cups of flour, salt, warm water and yeast. Mixed together into a container that can sit in your refrigerator for up to three weeks. the dough continuing to rise and gather flavor all the while. The yeast, bubbling:
Today’s dough is a week old and I was looking forward to seeing if it would have a stronger taste from the aging process. I’ve sampled the smaller of the two loaves and it is delicious. Still a bit moist on the inside so maybe I haven’t got my technique down, but I do believe it has a richer flavor than last week’s try– after the dough had risen only overnight.
Not that I am a foodie (I am frightened by complicated, multiple-step recipes, or trying to prepare two or more dishes at one time) (though I do try from time to time), but here is the recipe I used, should anyone care to try: http://jezebel.com/5881847/how-to-make-easy-fast-foolproof-bread-from-scratch .
“I am searching for evidence of the divine…” just came across this phrase on another website, as sort of an artist’s statement, and, while I don’t intend to inflict serious injury on another well-meaning photographer, but what a bunch of hooey. Ick. This statement was accompanied suitably exotic, timeless, monochrome images of China, beautiful and all, but if you don’t know there is evidence of the divine in us all, and everywhere, you just ain’t looking. I mean, go ahead and travel to China if you have the means, and make nice black and white photographs. But don’t have me believe you’re on the high road to Zen just because you’ve found a nice word like “divine” to use in your artist’s statement.
I am still ensconced in the process of scanning old black and white negatives. It is frustratingly slow and the results can’t equal a true darkroom print, but I’m looking at images I’ve never processed before. God, what a blast. I have never been a prolific photographer, usually hewing to projects rather than random image making. Yet, I’m finding scenes that reflected my living environment, friends, family, ambient feelings. More than I remember taking, so little did I think about this type of photography. And everything– from an old couch on the street to my newborn son– feels connected now. At the center of every photograph– every honest photograph and not just me trying to be artsy– is me. I’m there, in all of them.
A binder or two of black and white negatives, covering several years of family history. A french press full of dark roast and cream. A slow but capable negative scanner. A lot of delicious work ahead of me, trying to get all of this living digitized and into some manageable shape. I’d like to create a set of family photo albums, put this period of living into perspective. What a joy to rediscover these moments– many images never printed before and new to me again. I’m basking in the glow of life lived and wondering how the time went by so quickly. It also makes me a little melancholy.
There has never been anything so vital to me as being a dad. I’m aware, as I view these images, that this was the time of my life, the pinnacle of my existence. I mean, don’t get me wrong– I must still be of some use around here! But having an infant, attempting to blend into my wife’s already established family and make her children my own, too, and all the other stuff of life in those years… whew! I’m not sure how much of it I did right, but I sure tried. The kids tried, too. No one tried harder than my wife.
The choo choo train of thoughts… Every morning I drive my son to school. We pass over the Mississippi River north of downtown. It’s usually an impressive sight– a mix of industrial chaos and clutter, leading to the wall of pretty skyscrapers sparkling in the near distance. Lately, though, in these gray winter days, it all seems fairly flat and you have to force yourself to remember that this is the mighty Mississip, not just a lifeless trench of water under the bridge. I like to think about that, that there is life down there, going on all the time, regardless of our recognition or attention. It carries on, just as we carry on. I fantasize about going to the river’s edge with a bucket, scooping out a pail of water, and looking at it under a microscope, just to see what I would see.
Life is always going on, always flowing, always changing. It never stops, hopefully never really ends. You think you’re cognizant and making choices, but sometimes it just throws itself at you and you cope as best you can. I think, in the early years of our family, I was often overwhelmed and fearful of making wrong choices but always carrying on, nonetheless. I look back on it now, in these pictures, and see something else. A lot of love and hope going on. What seemed so tentative at the time is now set in place, more certain and safe than it seemed at the time. I loved every second of it, still do… even the hardest moments… but I wish I could have relaxed a little more, too. Same goes for right now. Ah, well. We are what we are.
1995. I had just moved to town, knew almost no one, and it was one of the coldest winters in recent history. I took a job at a depressing and hopeless facility on the north side. I might have tried harder to find a better job, but it was all I knew, and all I really wanted to do on a daily basis was get out of the cold and back into bed. At the time, pundits had taken to calling our fair city “Murderapolis,” due to a crime wave that emanated from blighted areas like the neighborhood I worked in. I hated driving to work, and at times was plain scared to drive home at midnight or 2 AM. The lure of Minneapolis– what brought me here– was Lake Calhoun and Uptown in the summertime, the clean, glittering skyscrapers downtown. Cool coffee shops, bars and art galleries I had seen while visiting friends. This is what Minneapolis was supposed to be, not stone cold urban depression.
I worked in the neighborhood for seven years, though, and eventually got to know a few people who lived nearby. Driving around and observing life, with my hands less clenched on the steering wheel, I began to realize not all was bad here, and summertime was lush on the north side, too. Moreover, I began to realize there was no clear delineation between “good” and “bad” parts of the city. Go a few blocks in either direction and you could find a green area, a revitalized area, a small business fluttering in an otherwise forsaken building. A flower garden bursting next to an unkempt yard. What mattered anywhere were people who cared, vs people who didn’t care. There were families here, too, not just men with guns.
I live farther north now, though to most people, when you say “north Minneapolis” it’s all the same: you live in a dangerous place. It may be true… crime is everywhere in a country full of guns… but I don’t want to be afraid. For one thing, at least until the housing market improves, I’m indentured to my mortgage. I couldn’t move away if I wanted to. And I don’t. I also don’t want to simply ignore a complicated mesh of issues that surround life in a poor and lower middle class society.
The Sisters of the Visitation is a small two-home monastery right in the heart of the north side. The sisters have deliberately chosen to live in a community that needs support, and to help everyone they encounter as best they can. As one sister put it to me, “Our agenda for the day is set with the first knock on the door.” People show up with practical needs– financial, legal, emotional or spiritual– and the sisters try to find a practical solution, as well as offering solace and a safe space.
That alone was interesting to me: people living their faith instead of simply preaching it. Theirs seems a deliberate, thoughtful and conscious life. They have tentatively allowed me to visit and attempt to document their lives. That was the initial plan. However, in talking to them, I am beginning to realize there is a real network of support threading through the north side. People sharing resources with one another from the inside, trying to find solutions to the pain of poverty and violence. The sisters may provide an opening for me into this world. It’s very early in the process and I don’t know how successful I can be. There’s something here, though.