Thursday, March 20, 2014

To What Extent Would You Go To Get That Photo?

Trillian Stars, by Kyle Cassidy
To what extent would you go to get that photo? What extreme? In a blog I posted recently, ”Graves Beneath the Snow" (see link at end), I wrote about how I managed, through an arduous process, to make some photographs with which I am quite pleased. They came about serendipitously toward the end of a trying-too-hard shooting day, when I was tired, and my guard was down. These scenes, replete with shadows and fleeting light, appeared  like rabbits at dusk, popping out of their burrows to feed. The image, "Snow Waves," below is one such image. Another is "At Rest," a bit further down the page.

"Snow Waves"

The tombstones in the snow were “found” objects – still-lives, though not set up in a studio. A studio setup is challenging too (see my image, “Skullroses”), but at least with that, you usually know what you’re after. “Found” subjects are much more elusive. I remember when I was dating, I went to a rock concert with a girlfriend. I wanted to smuggle in my camera and so she offered to conceal it in her pants. That worked. This past winter, I’ve put myself through a number of physical challenges to make photographs in abandoned places. The abandoned stuff is dangerous on many levels. As artists, we strive to be original, to be uniquely creative. (The actress Tallulah Bankhead said, “Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”) I like the photographs I’ve been able to make - I surprise myself sometimes, but it's not always easy.

Abandoned railroad car

West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
In the name of art, I went out of my way to make the most of the non-stop snowfall we’ve had this past winter (2013-14, the second snowiest winter in Philadelphia’s recorded history). Make lemonade, and all that, but don’t eat the yellow snow. I’ve avoided winter photography in the past, because it’s so damned inconvenient, cold, and difficult! Having recently done more of this than ever before, I have come to the conclusion that now that it is Spring, everything looks rather boring.

Do I always achieve my photographic goal, my Eureka! shot? Hell no. Actually and usually, no. But I keep trying. Maybe what I should do, instead, is “Don’t Try,” which was writer Charles Bukowski’s approach to creativity: just let the words flow, don’t try to make sense of them. So about those tombstones in the snow (like those below "At Rest"), and how they sort of snuck up on me when I least expected them. Folk/rock musician Neil Young says in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, that he can’t force a song to come out. If he does, its crap. To quote Neil:
Read about Bukowski's grave in California

"At Rest"
“When I write a song, it starts as a feeling. I can hear something in my head or feel it in my heart. It may be that I just picked up the guitar and mindlessly started playing. That’s the way a lot of songs begin. When you do that you are not thinking. Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song. So you start just playing and something new comes out. Where does it come from? Who cares? Just keep it and go with it. That’s what I do. I never judge it. I believe it. It came as a gift when I picked up my musical instrument and it came through me playing with the instrument. The chords and melody just appeared. Now is not the time for interrogation or analysis. Now is the time to get to know the song, not change it before you even know it. It is like a wild animal, a living thing. Be careful not to scare it away.”

Trillian Stars
That last part holds true for cameras, as far as I’m concerned – they’re just different types of instruments through which we photographers channel our creativity. (Incidentally, I too play guitar.) Like Neil Young writing a song, I am seldom looking for something specific when I go shooting. I push my limits, but not too far at any given time. I suck at portrait photography, for instance, so I don’t even try to do that. I leave that to the masters, like my friend Kyle Cassidy. It’s much more enjoyable to admire his work than to try and figure out how to duplicate it. Just look at this portrait he made of his wife, Trillian Stars! Talk about making the most of all the snow we’ve had in Philadelphia – he blends costume, choreography, technical expertise, and a masterful imagination with the radiant beauty of his wife to create a stunning portrait of which I am in total awe. But that’s Kyle. I don’t believe he forces anything to come out. (Incidentally, Kyle, too plays guitar.)

"At the Abandoned Cross," by Ed Snyder
There’s actually a bit of a backstory to Kyle’s photograph, which makes it fit in even more closely with my theme of the seemingly serendipitous capture. When I asked if I could use his image in this blog, he relayed the following information. It ties in with my lemonade-from-lemons approach to creativity and like my tombstone shots in the snowy, abandoned cemetery. His photograph involves making snow work for you instead of letting it impede you. Conceivably this can apply to all sorts of adverse conditions.

On the day Kyle made the photograph, the heat in his house went out and it was freezing inside. He and his wife “went to the thrift store, partly because it was warm, and got that dress and then ran around outside taking photos because there was nothing much else to do, and whenever we'd race back inside from the 21 degree weather to the 36 degrees inside, it felt positively HOT in there. The heat was out for two or three days … our furnace died.”

Abandoned train
So the images you see on this page are serendipitous, quite like me stumbling upon my stolen guitar displayed for sale at Guitar Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey last month. I had an Italian-made 70s-vintage 12-string acoustic for sale on consignment at a guitar shop in Delaware County back in 1985. The store was ransacked and all the instruments stolen. Nearly thirty years later, I walked into the acoustic room at the Guitar Center (always looking for that needle in the haystack, that amazing find!) and there it was, staring me in the face! I bought it, telling the store employee my story afterwards. I really wasn’t interested in how it got there, calling the police, or trying to prove that it was mine (which I couldn’t). It had telltale cracks in the finish and an odd little hole plug near the sound hole. Besides, my worn picks and guitar strap were still in the case! It looked as if no one had touched it in 29 years! A serendipitous find, I must say. What a lovely sound this thing makes – maybe as I mindlessly strum it, a few songs will come out. As with wild animals, I’ll be careful not to scare them away.

I leave you with something that Frank Zappa’s record producer Herb Cohen once said, “If you don’t know where you are going you can never get lost.”

References and Further Reading:
See Kyle Cassidy's work on and/or @kylecassidy on Twitter
"Graves Beneath the Snow," Cemetery Traveler blog posting by Ed Snyder