Getting Serious

At some point, a photographer who has been bit by the bug, who has drunk the KoolAid, gets ideas. Begins to aspire to art. And that’s when it gets dicey.

Know thyself. -Socrates

Some say this is the primary task of any human. I say good work if you can get it.

As the son of an honest Southern Baptist preacher, I say the primary task of a human is to justify your existence on the planet. Did you do your best? Did you leave the planet better than you found it? That there is a full time job.

Say what you will about evangelical preachers, the ones who are in it for The Kingdom–which is not the same as being in it for your kingdom. The true believers don’t laugh all the way to the bank. They rejoice all the way to their ultimate reward. And by ultimate, I mean not in cash. And by reward I mean not in cash. Either way, cash is not involved. At least not in any appreciable quantities.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
-Polonius, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–80

Here’s the thing about Polonius. He gets a bad rap. Yes, he may have been a “windbag” or a “foolish prating knave” as some critics have said. Say all those things. Say he penned every kitschy inspirational placard to be found in every cheap gift store, every annoying bumper sticker or internet meme.

Who’s to say those terms don’t describe all of us at some point in our journey? I dare you to read those three lines of advice from Polonios the Windbag and tell me you have that down. Checked the box. Mission accomplished. Arrived.

If you have the temerity to take that route, I refer you to Socrates and offer you this slim nugget of wisdom panned from six decades of experience.

Humans are past masters at the art of self-deception. -The Wunderfool

Hold on. I seem to have wandered far. I was talking about photographers and pretensions to art. That’s the thing with writers. We get going, and God only knows where we will end up. Down philosophical rabbit trails chasing a wild hare. Cul de sacs. Dead ends. This is what happens when you are your own editor. Self knowledge is such a tricky thing.

What I meant to say is that somewhere along the way I grew bored with straight lines and smooth curves. Bored with things as I saw them, captured faithfully in the lens and transferred to film. I yearned for something more elemental. I found myself drawn to an image that was less precise, more elemental.

I awoke one day, starting the morning as I usually do, which is to say searching for a reason to actually get out of bed and do the needful. This is my life. Each morning I wake up feeling like I’ve been dragged behind a truck, struggling to justify starting everything all over again. Existence is relentless, and you don’t get coffee breaks from reality. In those moments, I reflect upon a central truth.

Life is so interesting, it’s hard to stop. -Garrison Keillor

I dragged myself from underneath the covers and looked out the back window. I could barely make out the house across the alley for the fog. The ramshackle dog house in the back yard glowed in a romantic haze. All the prosaic elements of my unremarkable world had been redrawn into images that I had wandered far to experience and capture.

This is how you know you have a problem. Just search the online checklists. Choosing your addiction over other responsibilities and obligations. Indulging your addiction in secrecy.

That morning I didn’t go to work. I went for my camera bag. And I didn’t tell a soul.

[curate photos from that day and intersperse commentary about f-stops and shutter speeds.]

I showed up at the office around noon, quietly euphoric after shooting several rolls of film, put my head down, and went to work justifying my existence on the planet. It is the way of my people.

When I got the prints back, I felt a second rush. This was jazz, the next thing I was looking for. Shooting on the fly, pushing the exposure to compensate for the internal light meter, bracketing my shots to make sure I got the picture I saw.

[work in the still life[

In the following days, I pondered on the question of how I could shoot in full daylight and yet approximate the style of the impressionists and post-impressionists. You know. Monet, Manet, Van Gough. Those guys.

As I pondered this problem, I realized that water was the key. Real life produces smooth, continuous lines. I needed something that would break up those lines.

I started with puddles. It worked, but I quickly realized I needed something much larger, so I sought out the Brazos River and Lake Waco, but I was constrained by whatever was on the opposite bank. Then it hit me. The Riverside Water Treatment Plant off Colcord.

I pulled up to the gate of the plant, parked my car and pulled out my camera bag. I didn’t see anyone around, so I walked on in and started shooting. It was exactly what I was looking for. The tall smoke stacks were fractured in exactly the way I had imagined.

Then the the authorities showed up in the form of two workers at the plant. They said access was restricted to authorized personnel and I couldn’t just wander around on the property. I apologized, explained why I was there, and asked them to pose for a photo.

Suddenly their demeanor changed, and they obliged by posing for a half-dozen shots. Fortunately, this was not my first rodeo and I knew what I needed to do to get what I wanted.

I didn’t write down their names, so I titled the shot Rocky and Bullwinkle.

[shot goes here]

Life takes us to places we don’t see coming, and in the next twenty years it took me to a lot of places I never could have predicted. But everything comes down to choosing a thing and doing it like we mean it.

For the things that matter, you do it not for the payout, not for the cash, but for the love of the thing itself. To bring some beauty to this world. To leave it better than you found it. Even if it is just one photograph that tells the truth while distorting the image.

We are all a collection of pixels, a perception rippling across the face of time. Make it count. Do it for love.

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

-Polonius, Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, lines 1211-1214