Thursday, October 08, 2009

The absolute best part

The lady at the custom frame shop placed a beige matboard sample against a photograph and carefully lined it up with the border of the image. The photograph was a stylized manipulation of an abandoned service station in Mountainair, New Mexico, a dark, brooding haunt with low scudding clouds and a sky the color of a purple bruise. A large crack spiderwebbed the facade from the crown to the front door. Dominating the photo was a strong fawn-colored tint with some dark ruddy green thrown in; the effect was something like an old postcard.

The beige she selected was meant to subtly emphasize the primary hue. My first impression was of a baby’s diaper. Filled.

“I like that,” she said.

I hated it.

I’ve always been a fan of white mats for artwork. They’re clean, unobtrusive and separate the image from the frame. I also like black metal frames for their similar traits. After all, the image is the key. Everything else is window dressing.

I also have, hanging on our walls, several photographs whose mats reflect a multitude of colors and patterns. For them it works, and very well. What I remember most about the colored matting was the lengthy, agonizing process of selection. It tested my patience but not nearly as much as that of the framer. It might have been just another challenge to her, but I think it drove both of us slightly batty. By the end of the ordeal I suspect we secretly questioned each other’s artistic taste and merits; had it continued much longer, we would have vigorously and enthusiastically hated one other.

I offset a rust-colored mat beneath the beige to create more contrast. The effect was dramatic but still lacked some indefinable quality.

“That looks much better,” Lori said.

I shook my head and frowned deeply.

“Do you mind?” I asked, and when the lady said no I began swapping mats with the wildly optimistic hope of inadvertently stumbling across a winning combination. I tried a muted forest green border with an ochre outer mat, and white with rust and beige with green and a mottled golden-tan with something else and then snorted and said, “I hate this.” The temptation to stomp my foot and pout came and, fortunately, went.

“You should be enjoying this,” the lady said brightly. “This is the best part of the process.”

Best part? This?

The preposterousness of her statement rendered me momentarily speechless. I vividly remembered standing in front of the service station, the streets practically deserted, the old swastika-engraved Shaffer Hotel at our back, the feel of New Mexico encompassing me like an old and familiar dream, the turquoise sky, the taste of the green chile breakfast burrito still piquant on my lips, and most of all how the station looked through the camera’s viewfinder a second before the shutter snapped. How I knew in my bones it was a good image. How I had this fantasy of buying the hotel and moving in, of opening a gallery on the main drag across from the drugstore/soda fountain, of my brother and I getting rich selling our art to tourists and living happily ever after in a land of junipers, piƱons and blue mountains on the horizon.

That, I knew, was the best part of photography. The capture, not the bewildering, maddening bog of matting and framing. And I watched myself open my mouth and tell the lady the very same thing, but even as the words formed I knew it was not the whole truth, that the best part was something else.

Our every activity has a different best part. When I used to hunt gamefowl, the best part wasn’t in making a killing shot, though that certainly was a high point, but in jacking a shell into the chamber and setting off into the field. Preparation coupled with anticipation trumped skill. In fly-fishing, the best part wasn’t landing a trout but setting the hook, which was a testament to my fly-tying skills as much as presentation. Birding was different in that finding the target bird was paramount to the endeavor. For some, just being in Costa Rica, say, or stumbling through the jungles of the Yucatan would be the best part regardless of which bird species were sighted, but for me I had a list of birds I wanted to see and by God if I didn’t see them I’d sulk like a spoiled brat. And yes, I’m still disgruntled about not finding the fabled resplendent quetzal; not even the Andean pygmy owl can remove that sting.

For Lori, the best part of spinning, weaving or canning lies in the completed product, whether a skein of yarn that twines into a perfect roving, the final clatter of the shuttle on the loom or the pink! of a lid sealing. Were I to follow that strategy, matting and framing would be the best part of photography, or print-making, at least. The fruit of my labors expertly mounted against a background subtly enhancing the image without being ostentatious, a perfect presentation complete in itself. But it isn’t.

After some thought, I realized that the best part of the photographic process was in the post-production workflow. It is there, in the digital darkroom, that the magic truly happens. Tone, color, white balance, exposure, clarity, contrast, all can be corrected to not only improve the image, but to make it a reflection of what moved the photographer to attempt its capture. After all, a good photograph isn’t simply a mirror image—it’s a visual experience.

Some might argue that manipulation degrades the purity of photography. I disagree. While standing in front of the Tomahawk Service Station, I hadn’t noticed the power lines cutting through the top of the frame, or the ugly steel shed several blocks away poking around the right side of the building. Why, then, should they be foisted upon the viewer?

For that matter, why stick to reality? Bruise the sky, burnish the clouds! Breathing life into the image is the absolute best part.

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