Thursday, November 05, 2009

Keeping the square

I have not kept the square, but that to come shall be done by the rule.

– William Shakespeare

Rules, as we know, are meant to be broken.

Take, for instance, the ridiculous notion that nouns cannot be used as verbs. For e. e. cummings, every noun was fair game, and who’s to argue with e. e. cummings? And yet, one of my editors recently balked at my inclusion of the word “newspapering,” to which I responded...

Ah, there. I’ve done it already—broken the first rule. The rule of clarity, of words seamlessly flowing from thought to thought in an organic current of succinctness, order and form. Me with my jumbled thoughts all askew, positive one moment of the direction of this column, of the legitimacy of that opening line, and then the next spiraling off into disorder and chaos. An altogether familiar transition, and one growing stale. As I am stale, and need inspiration.

And something more. What, I’m still trying to discover. Meaning, I suppose, and perhaps even merit. Substance. I sense a clock ticking that is neither ally nor enemy, merely the steadfast, unwavering pulse of the expanding universe. I’m reminded of Hubble images of galaxies colliding in previously unknown corners of unfathomable space, cataclysms played out on a millennial scale, and here on this spinning emerald globe our own lives as ephemeral as a breath. Perhaps this mounting sensation of mortality is nothing more than the pull of November, or the last light fading on distant trees as darkness descends ever earlier, or the unraveling of another year.

A week ago, maybe more, I roused myself and sought to photograph a nearby abandoned house. Mostly I wanted out of my self-imposed exile, to reenter the world, but there was also an incipient desire to make art—or commit art, as I sometimes call it. The differences between taking a picture and creating art are anything but subtle, made all the more poignant by the artist’s intractable delusions. Sometimes pretentious, always comical, success depends less on talent and equipment and more on serendipity and the artist’s eye, that indefinable term that encompasses worlds, both internal and external.

I lucked out. Threw away a lot of wasted pixels, wondering as I did what prompted me to trip the shutter, what transcendent vision had imprinted itself through the viewfinder only to dissipate as so much morning fog. One image, though, stood out. I worked it like a dog over a bone until it sang, but any congratulations were fevered with the idea that I could be doing better. That I should be doing more.

And that time was running out.

Into this emotional stew came Chase Jarvis and his new book.

It would be wrong to describe it as a cavalry-to-the-rescue, but not far off. The Best Camera is the One That’s With You is a slim work, roughly six inches square, with minimal text and maximum example, of one artist’s attempt to underscore, even legitimize, the idea that an image (meaning, of course, something greater than an image) can come from any camera. Even—and possibly especially—a cell phone. Forget technology or sensor size or prevailing wisdom or outdated rules, he says. All of those are important in their place; but how we see and share our world is more attitude than aperture.

“Inherently, we all know an image isn’t measured by its resolution, dynamic range, or anything technical,” Jarvis wrote. “It’s measured by the simple—sometimes profound, other times absurd or humorous or whimsical—effect that it can have on us. If you can see it, it can move you.”

The pictures comprising the book, all taken with an iPhone, make up a visual notebook, a photographic journal, of a year in Jarvis’ life. One year, two megapixels at a time. Other than some minor tweaking through an application he designed, the images are unretouched. Some are sharp, others blurred, some recognizable, others mysterious. Most are cropped to a square format reminiscent of Polaroids, medium-format or the small Holga cameras with their heavy vignetting and slightly otherworldly contrast. The shape alone is noteworthy and oddly compelling. The idea swept the photographic world almost overnight.

“Every photographer takes crappy pictures,” Jarvis wrote. “Every painter paints crappy paintings, and every actor blows their lines. What really matters is that you’re out there, sending stuff into the world.”

Therein lies the message. Part inspiration, part homespun wisdom, Jarvis’ book has enervated thousands of photographers to make their own photographic journal and, yes, to share. Their creativity and enthusiasm were infectious. So much so that a plan began forming for my own project, one where for an unspecified amount of time I would post an image daily to my Web site.

Now, I have several problems with Jarvis’ approach. For one, I don’t have an iPhone or any other cell phone. Another is with his low-tech approach. I’ve indebted myself on a rig that abolished equipment-imposed limits, so devolving to my old two megapixel point-and-shoot won’t do. But vision and art are all about adapting, especially when on a budget. Going square would be child’s play in post-processing. The rest would be up to the photographer.

What remained was to determine the length of the project. For frustrated, lazy or uninspired writers, November is known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo in short. Every year I promise myself to indulge in fiction for the four-week timetable, and every year the month slips away without a sentence started. This year, rather than make promises I cannot keep, I would substitute one art form for another, and indulge in exploring a personal vision that would allow me to further my craft while compiling a visual diary of my place in the world.

I also wanted my timeframe to fit within a natural cycle as much as possible, counting down to an astronomically significant event. The first of a new year is too contrived, too mundane. But the shortest day of the year, when the sun sets early on the longest and darkest night, a night the ancients feared endless, would be fitting. The end of a cycle, the birth of another. A turning written in the stars. The Winter Solstice Project.

Fifty-one days of seeing with new eyes, trying new ideas, breaking the rules and skirting the margins.

Every day at least one photo.

Every photo a wordless story.

Every photo squared.


Bud Simpson said...

I don't know, that noun thing still bothers me. I have to office at home, so my partnering opportunities are limited. Maybe I can car somewhere and think it over -maybe Nikon a few things. (8-))

Besides, e.e. cummings is the cultural antithesis of my cousin Ada, our lady of the perpetual caps-lock.

Tom Parker said...

There's a wise-ass in every crowd.
Okay, so not every noun works as a verb.

Carol said...

Wow! Many new photos. Keep clicking and I'll keep looking and enjoying. get my hands on that little book. And I'd better start looking around me even more carefully.

By the way, a photographer friend here in town just bought a new Leica. So far, the photos are spectacular. I once had a friend who used a 35mm Leica. Every photo he took was a masterpiece. Granted, he had a good eye, but EVERY PHOTO? It MUST have been the lens!

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- I understand the new Leica M9 is a work of art—and costs about what you'd expect for a work of fine art!
By the way, every photograph I take is a masterpiece.
Except, of course, for the ones that aren't.

Bud Simpson said...

quote: "There's a wise-ass in every crowd."

Only one?

I just got back from downtown with a CF card full of masterpieces. I downloaded them and discovered that my camera must have developed an electron leak - my masterpieces look positively ordinary.

Tom Parker said...

I hate it when that happens!