If there’s any solace in this election, it’s that struggle and angst breed great art.
From World War I (Modernism!) to the Vietnam War period (Woodstock!), when people are upset, they tend to make great things. Heck, during the George W. Bush years, a lot of people took their protest and turned it into memorable work.
Art is coping. This time, I’m sure we’ll see lots of great stuff.
In Sound City, Dave Grohl’s love letter to the legendary, hit-making studio in California, he and other musicians gush about the “real” process of getting guys in a studio and recording music live, on two-inch tape: “the human element of creating and recording music.” ProTools has its place, many of the artists say, but there’s nothing like analog.
We’ve heard this before, of course. Everyone from filmmakers to photographers are returning to (or, in the case of movies, never leaving) film.
Lots of words get used to describe this process: magic, alchemy, mystery, human. Digital is too “easy.” You can fix everything with digital. Etc.
For many, it’s a return to what is known. Analog is more familiar to those of a certain age. A lot of what Grohl and Christopher Nolan and other film fans seem to be saying is, “You missed the good stuff, the good old days.”
Those of us who adopted photography as a hobby or profession in the digital age don’t know what a dark room is like because we’ve never used one, and may never step foot in one.
(A side note: my college newspaper had a darkroom attached to it, behind this sweet swiveling circular door, and I did spend some time in there – but never to actually develop or print images. I remember photography students spending a lot of time in that room, and I’d catch glimpses of what they were working on when they brought their prints out into the light.)
We seemed to have this big upswing, in the ’80s (music), ’90s (movies), and 2000s (photography) toward digital art making. In the last decade, that digital tide has swung back, and more and more artists are experimenting with analog again. Call it the Maker Movement, call it hipsterism, call it whatever, but vinyl records and photo film seem to be doing okay again. Not great, but not dead.
So it is with blogging – away from federated, silo’d social media platforms and toward artists and writers owning their material.
Maybe we’re all learning that perfect isn’t the goal. The goal is to make something great, imperfections and all. Something human.
This time last year, I was knee-deep in working on my documentary, Albion Anagama.
I learned a lot during the making of that film – about ceramics, and artistic process, and teamwork.
I also learned the value of a dedicated space to do creative work. In this instance, Ken built a fabulous studio on the outskirts of Albion, Michigan, complete with kilns and a garden and lots of space. He and his team had just about everything they needed to do work right there, from music to materials.
The idea of a dedicated work area appeals to me. In my recent house-hunting sojourns, it’s fun to see a basement workshop, or a dark room custom built for a film photographer. Even a simple office works.
At work, I find that taking my laptop and going somewhere fresh and new is a good kick in the butt to get work done. It’s not dedicated space, but it is a new space – and that helps me get some things accomplished.
If you start thinking about it — forgetting about all those oh-so serious problems for a while, photobooks really are incredibly versatile and flexible beasts. They come in many shapes, sizes, editions, … Now, given that nobody is legally required to make a photobook, and given that if you wanted to publish a photobook you could literally do anything you want (as long as it fits the work), isn’t that the best possible situation to be in? Shouldn’t that trigger exactly that creative urge that photographers usually profess to be interested in?
Sky’s the limit.
And so what if no one buys it? The creative exercise is good for you.
My family took a trip to the Jackson County Fair a few weeks ago, as we do every year. It’s something we look forward to each year: the food, the animals, the people watching. All the lights and sounds and colors make for great photo opportunities. It’s a lot of fun.
Each year, in the 4H pavilion, the fair hosts contests – everything from antiques to crops to artwork. Last year, I entered some photos for the first time, and did pretty well. This year, I opted not to, just because the deadline passed and I had other things going on.
Looking through all the entries this year, it struck me: There were a ton of great photos, and I hadn’t heard of any of the photographers.
As much as we may follow other photographers that we like, and check out exhibitions of nationally-known artists, there’s a ton of great work being made right in your own community, by people you’ve never met. You may work with one of these folks. Or they may make you coffee. Or they pick up your trash.
They work just as hard as you do, find great scenery like you do, struggle with creativity and energy just like you, and wonder about getting their work seen – as we all do. They’re all out there hustling, trying to find their photographic voice, and entering a little county fair competition to get some confirmation of their vision.
We struggle so much with marketing, and self promotion, and creative struggles. Meanwhile, our neighbors are out there making stuff, and entering it into a competition to earn a few bucks and a ribbon.
Maybe they have something to teach you (or vice versa). Maybe you should look them up and go make something together.
The show was notable because Gord Downie, the Hip’s lead singer, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year. Saturday night’s show, broadcast on the CBC to a third of Canada’s citizens, could be the Hip’s last ever – capping a 30-year career.
Imagine that in America. What U.S.-based band would garner a national broadcast on its last show ever? Bruce Springsteen, maybe? What modern music act can unite a country on what night in the way the Hip did this weekend? It’s amazing when you think about it.
I have a great history with the band. My friend Chris took me to a Hip show in the summer of 2000 at DTE Energy Music Theater (Pine Knob to those who remember the good ol’ days), north of Detroit. Since then, I’ve seen the Hip more than a dozen times: in Detroit, in Grand Rapids, in Sarnia, in Toronto, in Windsor (photo above). Their country and my own, I’ve seen them on almost every tour since 2000, sometimes catching them on several dates on a given tour.
Saturday night was emotional for me. It was especially difficult watching Gord, obviously frail and tired, giving it his all. He was spent emotionally, physically, and perhaps even creatively. But he went out with a bang. Here was a guy who has dealt with terminal cancer, on the last night of a country-spanning tour, deliver a three-hour performance in front of his hometown crowd and his nation. That’s grit.
Not that I think about death a lot, but watching my musical heroes pass away over the years makes me think about mortality, and the limited time we have.
It’s hard not to dive into the live-like-you-were-dying cliché here, but hear me out.
What would you do, artistically, if you knew you were on borrowed time?
And what’s holding you back from doing that, right now?
I try not to be morbid about this stuff. But it’s hard, having kids, not thinking about being taken away suddenly, and what kind of situation I’d leave behind. The unexpected happens all the time. Any of us could get a diagnosis that changes everything.
We can’t think about this stuff every day. That would be paralyzing in a way. Then again, that’s the whole point of the your-life-changes-after-you-get-the-news storyline – hardly anyone young-ish sees death coming. Saturday’s concert was a good reminder.
I mean, if a guy with terminal brain cancer can hit the road with the band one more time, travel the country and give it his all every night in the name of art and performance and duty, surely I can get that undone project completed. Right?
We can never capture everything. But seeing at all times, under any circumstances, is entirely up to us. And for this we don’t need the best camera money can buy or the most expensive lens on the market…we just need awareness.
My brain is full of missed shots.
I remember driving through the upper peninsula of Michigan and passing by an abandoned train sitting next to a pond. It would have made for a great photograph. I hesitated, because to pull over and grab the shot would’ve been something, but I was traveling at a good pace and didn’t feel like stopping. That shot haunts me.
There’s a collection of these shots in my brain, and I add new ones all the time. Maybe it’s as LaRoque says: it’s mostly in the seeing. I’ll remember these scenes in the camera of my mind. The important skill is to recognize new opportunities when they come up.
Or I’ll head back to the spot, and take the shot I missed.
A book is an enclosed and encapsulated medium that you can actually come pretty damn close to perfecting. I also tend to think that the book is sometimes more important than the show, as the exhibit is a temporary thing, often hanging for a month or six weeks and then it goes away.
Maybe a couple of thousand people see it?
But a book is something that I always say is on your “permanent record” and it never ever goes away—so you better get it right!
He also highlights the importance of playing around with the physical layout of a photo book:
As far as putting together the books, I spend hundred & hundreds of hours shuffling around my photographs, making dummies, turning pages, and switching them around and all that. To me that is really the only way to do it, to print the pictures out, paste them in a physical blank book dummy, and turn the pages.
For my Artists In Jackson book, I didn’t quite know what the layout was going to look like. So I printed a bunch of horizontal and portrait-shaped squares, taped them to pages, and moved them around to see how the look and flow would go. It was super helpful to see the book take shape, even if only in the abstract.
It also helps to give it to someone you trust, and ask, “What do you think?”