Walking a gangplank-Letter to Angela
Fujifilm X-H1, XF 16-55/2.8
ISO 200, 1/1000s @ f8
Kia ora Angela:
The last time we spoke you asked me where my work was at.
Can I answer this way?
Lately I seem to have been walking a tightrope unfastened at one end.
Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I have been walking on a seesaw.
No, scratch both of those.
I have been and am walking a gangplank. Yes, that is it. I have been walking a gangplank. The pointed cutlass of The Dread Pirate Ennui pokes me in the back, and whenever I long to return to the self-satisfied shelter of conventional photography, it jabs me in the heart and reminds me that I don’t really want to go back there and repeat the conventions of the past.
So, I continue inching my hesitant way forward, blindfolded and questing/testing out along the narrow plank. Below me I can hear the sharks circling, waiting for me to slip and fall.
However, I am nothing if not a cheat. For I have found a chink in my mask, a small gap that allows me to see my toes and one inch in front of them. No more than that. I can see my feet but no more. I have no sense of destination, only of journey. And knowing Ennui well, for I have sailed with him enough to experience the wide yawn that comes from being becalmed and sailing in circles, I would rather take my chances on an uncertain future.
You see, I think my (our) medium has reached a point where it can be whatever it wants to be. Or not. It is a castle with many rooms, most well-used and thoroughly explored. There is a room for everybody, a place to feel comfortable and to rest in self-satisfaction, among a community of like-minded souls who are convinced of their own aesthetic rectitude. Want to dwell among the street photographers? No problem. They will welcome you. Studio portraiture anyone? Enter here and rest a while, if not forever. Oh, so you want to be a master of travel photography? No worries. There are many masters, all waiting to welcome you, and their number is legion. Companionship and comradeship lie just beyond the brass sign on the door inscribed in Urdu, along with yak butter tea and Vietnamese Spring rolls. War photographers? Always keen for new recruits, because they are an imperilled fraternity.
But what do you do when making an accurate likeness of what is before you is simply not…enough, when your equipment makes it so infernally easy? When you begin to realise that you are saying the same thing as everybody else? When you finally come to trust your own voice and heart and journey and well, nothing else really matters? You really don’t give a shit because you are deep into a conversation that only you seem to be aware of. You realise there isn’t a room in the mansion for you, that there is no one to talk to. As a result, you will have to talk to yourself. Or build your own mansion.
So, you set sail and eventually end up walking the gangplank you were always seeking.
Then it dawns on you, some way out, that, in fact, the gangplank has no end and that although you can’t see the end, it doesn’t really matter.
In the end, you realise that authenticity is truly recognising yourself in the mirror of your own imagery.
I would love to put this question to some of the greats, like Picasso, or Van Gogh or O’ Keefe or Basquiat, but sadly none of them are picking up the phone these days. And, fortunately, bad student that I was/am, I slept through most of the Art History lectures they featured in. Perhaps that is a good thing, because now I can approach them from multiple angles rather than the monocle vision of my AH lecturer. Anyway, the only thing you really learn at university is how to learn. The stuff pointed at you is to be questioned and critically examined. Then discarded. Metacognitive skills are the true gift of a university education.
A long time ago I studied martial arts. In the beginning I would look up to the black belts, who made it all look so easy. And yet they never seemed to work as hard as training as I did. Their uniforms were always uncrumpled and neat at the end of a session, whereas mine was a soggy mess. In fact, they seemed to turn up and glide elegantly through training without any discernible effort or raising a sweat. It was only when I reached their level that I realised that black belt is but a beginning, that First Dan is where the real learning begins.
On a gangplank without an end in sight.
My opinion (for now, at least) is that there is only so much that you can do in capture. And our cameras make it easy. There are no bad cameras out there. They are all good, although the manufacturers don’t want you to think that an accurately-crafted capture is almost impossible to avoid. Making the subject’s photographic likeness is yellow-belt stuff. Making it in a deadly-accurate way is black belt stuff. So, what do have at the end?
An accurate likeness. And what is the point of that?
The world is awash with accurate likenesses. And the greatest likeness is the thing itself.
It is when you begin to express the soul of the thing that a wonderful collaboration begins, between both your souls. And that, surely is the point of it all, for at the end of the collaboration, what has come into life is a thing of its own, a union between artist and subject which gives birth to something new and unique.
And is that not the point of Art? We talk about creating a work, about being creative, and that involves two parties, for creation, at all levels, is a binary process (unless, I suppose, you are a(n) hermaphroditic earthworm). There is you and then there is your subject, and from that collaboration comes something new, a record of the space between you both.
So, of late, I have found that act of creation, that mutual weaving together, lies not so much in the act of capture. It is but one strand and to mistake it for the whole is to err. In fact, the gestation of a work lies more and more in the space between capture and manifestation. It lies in the post-production workspace, in the exploration and application of the tools and techniques I have at hand for fabrication, refinement and illumination. Now I have more tools available to me than I could possibly have ever imagined when I worked in silver halide.
So, I appear to be inching out along a gangplank towards Painting, away from the end anchored to the good ship Photography and towards all those masters whose example I slept through in Art History, and who seem these days to be hovering around like helpful seagulls.
I have heard writers talk about the fact that books they wrote seemed to take on a life of their own and to write themselves, that the writers just staggered along behind, trying to keep up with a self-evolving work.
Certainly, my latest work seems to have found its own …way…and, most of the time, I feel as if I am scurrying to keep up with it.
So where is it at?
Somewhere out along the gangplank.
Where is it going?
Ask me in a year.
For now, however, let me share and talk about this image, since to my mind at least, it represents an inch further along the gangplank…
I recently made a trip to Piopiotahi with two dear friends, who hadn’t been there for years, so they took the opportunity to get out there on one of the delightful cruises which play the sound. I dozed off I the car (the sandflies are too ferocious to make it easy to doze outdoors). Then I suddenly awoke with an insistent whispering in my head. Go out to the point, the voice said. You know, the one every photographer goes to.
I grumbled, gathered my gear, battered aside the black hordes and left.
By the time I got out the point, the south wind was pushing drifting curtains of rain onto the faces out there on the other side of the fiord.
Enough. I made perhaps 50-60 likenesses of what was before me and then went back to meet up with my friends.
Later, in front of my computer, I got to work, and this is what emerged.
Now here is where the gangplank metaphor comes in.
A painter begins with a blank canvas and fills in the gaps, moving/deleting copying elements to create a collaboration. Graham Sydney’s Wedderburn painting is a classic case in point. Have a look at his July on the Maniototo (1975). It certainly looks realistic enough. Photorealistic. Until you look at my image made of the same building in 2013 from the same spot. Do you see the difference?
And don’t tell me he stood out there for hours, painting at his easel in the snow. I would suggest that he whipped out his camera, nabbed a few aides-memoires and then used these later in his warm, dry studio. His work is not a likeness, but an impression.
Furthermore, I think Grahame’s gangplank is rooted in Painting, and that in some strange way we have been advancing along the gangplank towards each other. It may be that at some point we walked right past each other without being aware of it.
So, a painter fabricates from nothing, while a photographer simplifies from everything. He extracts. The one builds up while the other takes away. And where is the right place to stand?
Where (ever) you are.
I would suggest, however, that there is a place beyond fabrication and extraction, namely Dreaming. A Dreaming is where you add to your likeness by bringing in aspects of your inner world and your relationship with that inner world.
In my inner world, I saw a gathering of mountains which, lately have acquired a certain quality of the animated for me. I saw the reflection of dreams. I saw a pōwhiri in progress, with the mountains as tangata whenua and myself among the manuhiri.
On the left of the picture was a bright area of sky and a weak shoulder of mountain drooping away to the left. When I used a clone tool to clear the cloud, it replaced the sky with more mountains. And that felt right in the context of the Dreaming. Now the meaning became more obvious.
A pōwhiri, with the darkest mountain in the centre as kaikaranga.
Te Marae o Piopiotahi.
And the camera as aide-memoire, rather than documentary tyrant.
30 September 2018