Tomorrow is the Centenary of the Teachers Federation where I work; we’ve unearthed a tremendous amount of material from the past century. Here is an interview I edited recently of an interview with Beatrice Taylor; she began her teaching career in 1911. She talks about the early days of teaching and how the conditions evolved over time. My grandmother (also Beatrice) wanted to be a teacher. I rather imagined her when working through this recording.
I think, no matter where one is creatively or professionally, it's always beneficial to add skills or try something entirely new. About two years ago, while researching a photographic technique known as light painting, I found the work of Harold Ross. Harold has, over the past decades, refined a process for making light painted images. I'll not go into detail on that here as, obviously, that's what the workshop is for (plus I want to respect the effort Harold has put into developing this quite specific process). However, it basically involves making a series of images where one 'sculpts' a scene with handheld lighting tools designed by Harold then combining these many image layers in Photoshop. It's challenging, both in the capture and post-production stage, but allows for exquisite control over every aspect of the final image.
I recently travelled to Lancaster, PA where Harold and his wife Vera live and have their studio to do a four day one-on-one workshop. Harold offers workshops which focus on either a fine art or commercial application of his technique (I did the fine art route; I assume the commercial workshop deals also with client considerations, workflow, etc.). He keeps his workshops quite small (only one or two students at a time) which is understandable considering how detailed he needs to be in his teaching. It's an advantage to have a photographic background and some grounding in Photoshop; however, Harold is a patient teacher and I imagine he can accommodate a wide range of skills. The important thing is to have personal motivation and drive; like anything in photography, after the initial hurdle of technical considerations, most of the further development comes from practise and application. It some ways, ironically, it may be a benefit to come with a clean slate or little knowledge of lighting in the studio as I found myself having to abandon earlier training and experience. Much of his technique (while still bound by the laws of physics!) allows for counter-intuitive and mind bending results that can't otherwise be obtained by 'normal' photography. It's all still within the realm of 'real', it's just that one has a slightly uncanny sense of—presence is the word that comes to mind. He manages to differentiate both from what is simply skillfully placed lighting and the sundry gimmicks that pass for fine art photography online (e.g. cranked up HDR). That's not always an easy balance to keep as the tendency is to overcompensate with the powerful tools we have available. With Harold's technique, the path onward leads to subtlety rather than an image that shouts 'look,I did something unusual!' I know, from studying cinematography, the mantra was always to aim for technique that, while skillful, wasn't the first thing the audience notices. We want people to feel it, not immediately question how it was done. I think, as I begin with this, that's going to be my challenge; I'll want to become so proficient with the technique that it diminishes to the background and the image communicates on its own merit as a photographic piece (and, of course, with such a specific process, there is always the risk that I just end up copying what Harold does and making visual derivatives of his work; but that's probably thinking too far ahead. Right now I just need to practise lighting a coconut and some more tomatoes!)
We had time, over the four days, to make two images together in the studio. Harold has a variety of props at hand to choose from. I wanted explore the lighting of several different kinds of surfaces (metallic/hard surfaces in one and organic/softer in the other). The Hamilton Watch device was an instant pick for the first setup as it seemed to combine a number of elements together. Other than it was simply an interesting piece of kit, we were in Lancaster, where Hamilton was originally based; plus, Hamilton made a watch that my Grandfather had (which was, unfortunately, stolen some months ago). So I'd like to think this tool was somehow used in the manufacture of my Grandfather's watch in the 1960's. The device is sitting on part of an automotive transmission and, to contrast with the intricacy of it, we rigged a giant 20 kilo gear in the background on a Matthews stand. For the second image, Vera kindly sourced some fresh produce which we placed on an old crate in a more traditional still life. I actually found the second image a bit more challenging as people know what these things are 'supposed to look like'. One can visually go all over the place with old mechanical parts but, for instance, one has to keep the light and colour of a tomato consistent with reality. Also, textures on elements such as the garlic cloves are quite challenging to render properly in the post-production masking and painting (This is a work in progress; I'm not entirely happy with the background as it's kind of flat and the produce could use some further work. In fact, I'm probably going to keep going back to practise the technique on this for these first few weeks rather than making any new images).
On the workshop itself, Harold was wonderful to work with and learn from. I've been fortunate to have a series of good workshop experiences in the past but also know that photographic skill and mastery doesn't automatically translate into an ability to teach others. There are things I do every day I'd struggle to pass on to someone else. This is a powerful technique with a lot of variables; yet, Harold has managed to distill years of experience into a succinct package that, while not simple, is comprehensible. He also has the most important of teaching skills, a humble spirit and good humour! We spoke one day at lunch how it seems that most people in photography seem to either be the kindest most giving and gracious people—or complete assholes. With Harold, I always had the sense he was there as a fellow learner sharing his experiences. I work in a large public school teachers union and know what makes for good curriculum and professional development materials. Harold has put together a comprehensive package that one can take home and continue to expand upon; I made minimal notes during the workshop but don't feel like there is anything missed in the workbook and files he's provided. This is the value of small intensives like this; anything larger and the student can't be as hands on. I did all the lighting and post production under Harold's supervision rather than just watching him do it whilst sitting in a classroom. There is a significant difference as I can now do it myself rather than coming back with a pile of potentially jumbled and unconnected techniques just out of reach. Though the workshop was quite full-on as far as information flow, Harold and Vera have created a lovely relaxed atmosphere in their rural home which made for a great learning environment.
All told, though such workshops are no small expense, I feel this kind of immersion allows for both a renewed creative energy and, if nothing else, an expansion on my understanding of what's possible. I'm looking forward to delving deeper into those possibilities with my own work and already roughing out how I can return for a follow up workshop sometime in the future. You can see more of Harold's work as well as information about his workshops here. It's also worth subscribing to his newsletter as he has occasional postings on either projects he's involved in or places he's speaking.
An aside: it's worth noting this technique, though it does require a few specialised tools, can mostly be done with equipment one has at hand already. The camera I used was my Nikon D500 with a macro lens from the 1980's. We were careful to set it up properly to coax out the best quality; that's a relatively new camera but I could have equally used my older D700 with comparable results. I am considering a new Wacom tablet (pretty much essential for this process). Mine is over fifteen years old so it's probably about time to consider a new model; I'm tempted by their Cintiq line as it would be ideal for the kinds of things we are doing here. That's all to say, if you have a given budget to dedicate to your craft, it's worth considering first if some skills training might be worth more than an investment in the latest gear.
This was published in the Morganown, WV Dominion Post yesterday. It's my rebuttal to a letter to the editor from the day prior. The writer of the original letter claimed, as is so often erroniously repeated in America when this is mooted, that Australia has become a free-for-all of criminality and fear since the National Firearms Agreement. I will grant that Australia and America have very different underlying cultures that don't make particular decisions on this immediately parallel; however, if you are going to posit an argument, you have to work from the facts.
As a resident of Australia visiting Morgantown, I must contest a paragraph I read in Scott Watkins’ letter to the edtor (DP-Wednesday). His statement that, “Australia(ns) thought if they were to confiscate all firearms, which they did, their crime rate would plummet. In actuality, once their citizens were disarmed, the crime rate increased dramatically due to the fact that their citizens could no longer defend themselves” is factually incorrect. Since the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) and buyback program in 1996, the crime rate has fallen nationally, though the population has increased significantly. Watkins also implies that the NFA was an attempt to address common crimes in which firearms were used. It was not; the move was in response to a mass shooting and the national discussion that followed. The (conservative) government at the time brought forward legislation to ban weapons that had no practical use other than killing people—one can still, of course, own a hunting rifle in Outback Australia. Since the NFA, we’ve had no mass shootings. Yes, criminals will still obtain weapons and, yes, there are still gun-related homicides; but the argument that “citizens could no longer defend themselves” is spurious and also assumes that Australia had the same gun culture as America.
Australians do not cower in their homes afraid to go out for lack of protection. On the contrary, it's the knowledge that the streets are not awash with guns that provides a sense of safety. The “freedom” sacrificed by discarding these weapons enables the much greater freedom of well-being in daily life.
Last night I watched Alex Garland's new film Annihilation; I remember seeing the trailer some months ago and, as it was portrayed as potentially just another 'the team goes in; creepy things happen; most die' scenario, I didn't pay much interest. However, I've read a few articles on it since and, as it's gone straight to Netflix, it was a ready choice (and it was Saturday night after a day of overtime work).
I don't really wish to comment on the film itself. It reminded me of Tarkovsky in that it left open for the viewer more questions than answers; this, though, is frowned upon in commercial cinema. The studio financing the film attempted, as is their wont, to alter the content and ending to make it palatable for mainstream audiences (read, 'people are thick and aren't going to get the gist of this'). I think this, first, doesn't give much credit to the sophistication of viewers but, concurrently, speaks to a mass market demand to have narratives fed to us in an easily digestible form. If a film is 'too difficult' and gives rise to consideration, then it's often derided in reviews and does poorly at the box office. This is by no means a new realisation, it's been the threshold filmmakers have balanced upon since the beginning. What's changing is the means of distribution for these 'challenging' films and I wonder how that's going to alter what we see on the screen/tablet/phone during boring meeting.
For the past year or so, I've enjoyed a range of films and series on Netflix. Their subscription model allows for a wide reach of international and in-house productions that appeal to niche tastes. I would think that is, overall, a benefit to both creators and viewers. However, like much of social media, it could tend to narrow both the creation and discussion of 'content'. On one hand, it allows for the creation of films and series with significant production backing; a local production company in Germany would have little purchase to invest heavily in a series that would only be seen on German screens. But if the reach is global from the outset, they can produce a series like Dark or Babylon Berlin and garner many millions of viewers. I think there is little argument against the benefits for small regional productions gaining a wider audience. It also allows for a continuum of conversation between the creators and viewers. I'm on season three of El Ministerio del Tiempo from Spain; I tweeted a comment this week on how I was enjoying the series—which was then liked and retweeted by the creator of the show itself.
My concern is, though a given film that would otherwise languish in obscurity might gain global prominence, there is still the danger that it's isolated to a self-selecting audience. This kind of access could even further separate the 'guaranteed to make money sequel blockbuster' from the 'difficult arty' films with the further marketisation of main-street cinemas and broadcast television. We need art to challenge and inspire in public; art that only speaks to and through 'the elect' is not only ineffectual, it's self-indulgent. I'm thinking of much modern art that risks becoming a parody of itself; it attempts to convey serious social themes to an audience who is so far removed from the realities depicted that it becomes an even greater abstraction. I have a sense that we are, increasingly, able to opt out of discussions and presentations of art that challenge our perceptions. This at the same time that we are, in free societies, more able than ever to access the material that would do just that.
Equally, arguments about creation and distribution are beside the point. There are the concerns that I've mentioned above; however, the pivot point in a free society always comes back to artistic literacy. If people don't have the tools to discern and decipher the messages of music, literature, cinema, and all the presentations of artistic expression, then all the art in the world is moot. Conservative and dictatorial governments go straight for the arts in both propaganda and censorship; they know that controlling these narratives are the keys to power. This is why, under the same governments, funding for arts education is the first to go. The excuse is that it's unimportant to 'real' learning; but, of course, it's squelched as it's one of the greater threats to power. In the long game, there is little need to actively oppress the arts if the sensibilities of the people are gradually worn down. If the arts are segregated and siloed, there is little risk to power; art loses its ability to either inform or challenge—it just becomes the background noise between commercials or the piece hung on a gallery wall to fulfil a quota. (The flip side of that is when governments offer significant funding for the arts as a patron of indulgence; this can have its own dulling effect—the whole 'the best art through struggle' argument.)
Where does this leave us? Probably at the same point the arts have always lived; though I'm imagining some kind of sea change with technology and our own awareness, I doubt it's as grand or significant as that. I think we risk excusing ourselves and placing blame on the technologies at hand; we have agency in this. Ultimately, we have to make a choice to engage with the world and the narratives that we have access to. We can contribute to a wider discussion or close down into a self-enfolding rabbit hole of our own making. Sometimes that may manifest as a dramatic public expression...or, just as valid, an evening with Netflix and frozen pizza.
I was just sorting through some images on an old hard drive and made a collection that caught my eye for one reason or another. Nothing spectacular here; just a collection of memories. (Click on an image to enlarge.)
Okay, this is quite random. I was just searching for an old email and found these tips I wrote when I was one of the leaders on a cross-cultural team in Bulgaria. It was a list of tips for the team regarding public speaking:
1. Speak with confidence (try not to "ummm..." or "welllll..." so much).
2. Keep hands out of your pockets (it's considered rude here, even when just standing around on the street; pockets are for things, not hands). Never ever cross your arms in front of an audience.
3. Try not to say "you guys..." (e.g. "We've really had a great time with you guys...").
4. Try to put across the fact that we are here to learn about others first and then we would like them to also learn something about us.
5. Look attentive during meetings; even though you don't understand a word of what is said, it's impolite to daze off. There is a certain art to doing this that may take years to master.
6. If you say what state you are from, be sure to add "...in the United States." (e.g. if you say "I'm from Georgia" here, people will assume you are from The Republic of Georgia).
7. Even when the translator is translating, you are still "speaking." Be sure to retain contact with the listeners.
8. Even if you (as a team) don't know what you are doing next on stage, try to make it appear like you are all "on plan" (try to maintain the appearance that you have everything worked out; first we will speak a bit, then sing, then so and so will give a testimony; rather than conferring after everything you do).
9. This is where you are "on point." Try to maintain enthusiasm; this meeting may be the only time this group of people meet the team; even though you are exhausted, it's important to give a good presentation of yourselves and be enthusiastic (this is a cardinal rule of all presentations).
10. If something happens that is an English linguistic mistake, try not to laugh or make note of it; people will not understand why you are laughing.
11. Don't "bumble about." It's distracting to the people watching. Try to be as smooth as possible with your physical movements and transitions on and off stage.
12. Gentlemen should let ladies enter and exit the stage first.
13. Hands to the sides or in "praise the LORD" mode whilst singing (definitely not in pockets).
This was all for a project through the American Baptist Mission Board; I did month-long cultural immersion trips with them in Japan, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. I did media for the trips but sort of wish I had it all to do over again with the tools that are available today! I came across another email on suggestions for brands of MiniDV tape but somehow think that's probably not especially relevant anymore.
I'm just back from the States. Did a bit of rummaging through archives and came across this random selection of old family photos.
My parent's house was recently robbed. I'm unsure how passive to make that sentence; should I instead say that my father was robbed? That he and I were? I think it's most appropriate to say that the house itself was robbed—that the casualty is ultimately a sense of home and safety. Dad is, understandably, rattled and having to go through all the process of protecting his identity (they stole a load of paperwork). Unfortunately, they also stole my mother's jewellery, grandfather's watch, and other sentimental items.
Bizarrely, and tragically for me, they took the past two decades of my personal letters and journals (I had them in 'valuable looking stuff' fire-safes in my room). This is, I'm assuming, the kind of material they would immediately dump; it's probably lost forever. This was, initially, extremely upsetting; I don't have a lot of close connections with people but the letters we've exchanged are tangible manifestation of this. The journals document the passing from one stage to another in my life; perhaps not of great significance to anyone else, but important to me in retrospect.
However, as I reflect upon the whole incident, it's rather freeing. As I noted in a previous post, I'm attempting to look a bit deeper into my shadow side—my past, maturation (and sometimes lack of). I have a certain narrative built around who I am and want to be; that's framed by what's written. Journals aren't the most objective records of such. Letters to and from only reflect glimpses into the past and can't offer any perspective into the present that's come to be years hence. If that crutch is removed, I'm forced to hold a light to now and look into the shadow of now without explanation or excuse. That kind of examination isn't bound by the weight or hopes of the past. I am not the man whom I expected to be when those words were made; nor am I making the man reflected in those words. In many ways, the words from our past no longer exist as a record of reality either then or now. The more we hold onto them, the less we can 'become into' now and the future.
Regardless, it does speak to the transience and tenuousness of our ephemera. I had slips of paper stored away in locked boxes; that's only a reminder of people and experience. Perhaps, it calls on me to re-consider the now of those people as much as the now of my experience rather than hold to the past and what was—or what I thought might be.
I studied film production in University; our directing teacher was the venerable Dr Katherine Stenholm. One day in class she made this statement about filmmaking which, at the time, seemed ludicrous, "We make reality." To my young indoctrinated mind, that was beyond our human capacity; God made reality and it was so. However, I've grown to understand more of the nuance of what she meant. This morning I read George Monbiot's excellent Weekly Review article in this week's Guardian. His title and premise is, It's time to tell a new story if we want to change the world. He articulates much of what I've been ruminating recently about our individual and collective need for a better story from which we live.
He says, "Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something 'makes sense', the 'sense' we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity."
We are the storytelling creature and without a coherent story we fall into a kind of madness. We hold to our myths and legends because they give us a form to work from—the archetypes from which we can understand ourselves and our relation to others. One cannot remove the 'story' from the 'self' without either replacing it with another or causing significant trauma. This is evidenced—everywhere in countless ways. From the products we purchase out of 'brand loyalty' to the celebrities we admire, in our adherence to a certain sports team to a willingness to die in battle for the cause of a nation. It's often based far more on the story we've been told or tell ourselves rather than objective reality.
I'd like to think of myself as a rational person but I know that my own life is not given meaning nor is it motivated by lists of facts. Monbiot, in his article states, "A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative 'truth' established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world." We aren't living in a 'post truth' world; objectively, truth is still truth. We are living in a world where the collective narrative can be powerfully shifted and driven on a mass scale. We are in a world where The Story is even more paramount than ever. All these matters we focus on, the economy, the environment, migration, human rights, resources—we discuss them all as if control of them is the goal and end of power. They are insignificant, or at most, secondary to the power derived from The Story. Consider this, twenty years from now will it matter more who has more control of all the oil in the world or who has shaped a story about how and what resources we use? Will it matter who controls a given swath of geography or how we consider the migrant and the other—how we consider identity? The Story is the basis for how the world continues and we shape that narrative as individuals and as a collective of societies.
The point this keeps coming back to for me is the issue of immigration. Immigrants must be given a space to make a new story in our adopted homes. If we do not feel part of a place's story we will never feel part of that place. We cannot live as sane human beings without that story in place—if that's missing then one will latch on to another story and that's often one based on disenfranchisement and fear. ISIS provides a story of a place and identity that can call in all the misplaced people around the world who are hungry for a story to live under. They've taken up a story that's undergird Islam for centuries, re-worked it to their own devices and deployed it as a narrative to fit their own needs, "if you cannot feel at home in the place you were born; join us in making this new story for the future." We are suffering for a scarcity of healthy stories.
We have to find a new way to make The Story for us as human beings on Earth while, simultaneously, find a new story for each of us as we readily move about upon it. All that list of serious matters above are also real and increasingly weigh upon us; but, without new stories to guide our actions, we aren't going to have a remedy for any of them. We have to recognise the reality of where we are (both literally and metaphorically); we can't make the story up on a blank slate. We have to respect the place we are in and start from there. I'm trying to consider exactly from where that story begins. I think, perhaps having read too much Wendell Berry, it truly starts from the ground up—that our stories start from a place and that place begins with soil. After writing so much about the idea of stewardship, I'm convinced that we are, ultimately, stewards of the soil. There's not much point in anything else if we destroy the actual earth beneath us; so I'd propose we start building our stories, place to place and person to person on the stewardship of soil (however, that's probably another topic to explore).
One final note though; back to where I began in directing class. The first thing to suffer in our education, when we tell the story that capital is primary, are the liberal arts. However, if you remove Humanities from the curriculum, you remove someone's capacity to both tell and interpret stories. People are rendered powerless to either understand or generate stories and can then be controlled. That's, of course, a purposed act by neoliberal governments and institutions who want to shape the story to their own ends. We may not feel we have great powers but, if we have the power to tell a story, the story makes the world.