Fun Regained

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IM4_3662Earlier this year, my first public photography exhibition at Washington University wrapped up and home came all my prints. There are in the basement now, propped up against walls. I may yet put them out in the house.

For that show, and the work that went into it, felt like the final culmination of a particular phase of my photographic endeavours. One I might call my public phase. That’s a loose definition that involved exhibitions, entering competitions, attending photography club meetings and critiques, and going on photography group outings.

I’m not going to say these things won’t happen again, but I feel no desire to get involved right now. For none of them hold any particular pleasures and, at this stage, convey a sense of obligation that I find to be more inhibiting than stimulating.

Retirement has taught me two things. The value of time and the value of freedom from obligation. These are qualities that are under-appreciated in a society that often appears to value productivity more highly than the development of personal insight and perspective. The world of work is all about doing things, making money and doing things with the money. Remove yourself from that world and a very different set of priorities establishes itself.

It’s hard to really quantify the change, but it has shifted my creative focus. Rather than photographing, I’m now writing. Very little here, but for myself and with pen and paper. Copious amounts too. Notebook after notebook has been filled over the past months.

I haven’t completely abandoned the camera. I still carry one with me most of the time, but the photographs I take are more casual and less planned. I no longer think of the result in terms of what I might bring to a critique or enter into a competition. This has been remarkably liberating. Without that sense of, again that word, obligation, I find myself enjoying the moment more and caring far less about just how I might render it for others through a photograph.

The results please me – but would they please anyone else? At this point, that question doesn’t really enter the matter at all. Quite a change from how I used to regard my work.

As I said, a very liberating change.

One surprising – and very welcome to my bank account – result has been an almost complete loss of interest in new camera equipment. I have more than enough cameras and lenses to get all the photographs I want right now. Why add to that? Just to chase up a new toy? For that’s really all that it’s about. It’s something of a relief to step off the upgrade ladder, one that is so involving when you care about the latest marginal improvement to some or other technology.

Photography is becoming fun again. Fun as it used to be in the early days when I really paid no mind to what camera I was using or how good or bad my technique was. I haven’t lost all I’ve learned in the meantime. Those qualities just don’t dominate anymore, as they seemed to do not so long ago.

Best of both worlds. Long may it continue.

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Tarot for the mind

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King of Pentacles

I’ve been interested – and I have to say it’s been on and off – in the Tarot for a few years now. I began with a Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the de facto standard, and it continues to be my usual deck (I’ve since picked up the lovely Thoth Tarot, Aquarian Tarot and Deviant Moon Tarot among others).

I find the cards and their symbolism fascinating, but, having delved through much literature and come across a wide variety of interpretations of the origins, involvement of other mystic or mystically associated systems, meaning, predictive power and effectiveness of the Tarot, I have come to my own conclusions.

Firstly, the Tarot has no magical, mystical or predictive power whatsoever. It’s simply a series of drawn symbols on a set of cards. Anyone who claims more is entering the realm of faith, and that seems to be fine for a lot of people, but not for me.

Nonetheless, and ironically, because it needs no superstitious or supernatural association, the Tarot is very powerful and useful tool of exploration.  The subject of its investigation is the mind, and in particular the mind of the subconscious.

Tarot symbolism allows you to bypass rational thought and access deeper and less understood emotional undercurrents. In essence, it gets past the gatekeeper of clarity and what we call sense, and integrates what we rarely, if ever, (except perhaps under deep psychoanalysis or hypnosis) embrace or even acknowledge.

Tarot changes the mind.

Literally.

That is its value and its great power.

Although I have read the Tarot for others, I regard that as an imperfect use of the art. Rather, I believe you should teach yourself the symbolism and its meaning and use the cards as an exploration of your own mind. Some authors I have read dismiss or belittle this approach, claiming that only someone else can effectively do a Tarot read for you. This is nonsense, but it helps support an industry of Tarot readers and why not? People need to make a living and many people get a lot out of a visit to a Tarot reader.

But not me. The Tarot is of great use, particularly when I feel a degree of emotional turmoil and I cannot parse exactly what is behind it. It acts as a conduit between conscious and unconscious thought and allows both understanding and integration.

That’s a heck of lot in itself. I find it sad that it is hyped as being far more than that, but it’s quite understandable. At heart, everyone wants to believe in miracles.

 

Starter

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When I took up writing by hand again a year or so ago, I began with a ball point pen.

Black.

It was fine.

But I remembered how I used to write with a fountain pen when I was a boy and felt an urge to go back to that instrument.

So I did.

With a Pilot Metropolitan. A cheap metal pen selling for around $15. Well regarded by the sages on the internet. As a starter pen.

A starter pen.

Isn’t that something? You buy a pen for what you think is a perfectly reasonable price (and a lot more than you’d pay for a ball point), it works fabulously as a writing instrument and yet it is a starter?

This is absurd. It’s absurd as starter houses. Even starter marriages. (Yes, I went through one of those.) Still living in my starter house though.

The reason it’s classified as a starter pen is that it is supposed to lead you into buying ever more expensive pens. And the prices start ballooning pretty quickly. $100. $800. $2,400. Why if you want to buy the Pilot 100th Anniversary set of seven Namiki pens, you’ll fork out $48,000. Pilot does throw in seven bottles of ink and a Japanese folk art display set up for the price, but, still, that’s almost $7000 per pen.

I guess I would call those finisher pens. They would definitely finish off my savings account.

My point? Why do we succumb so easily (and it must be pretty easy or else pens at these prices would not be manufactured and sold) to an object whose stated value so vastly exceeds its utility?

I can think of only one real reason. Perceived status and some need to show off that you are rich. Of course, this applies to cars. Lots of other stuff too. Even cameras, my particular poison. So far I have resisted going down the Leica path.

I think it’s totally absurd. Rather than sink $100 plus into a pricier pen than the Pilot Metropolitan, I bought a few more of the same type and filled them with different inks so I can write in a series of lovely colours. That’s made me very happy.

Utility. That’s what I like.

Status, you can keep it.

 

 

A Change

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I’m writing more now that I have ever done before, and practically none of it is appearing here.

Or anywhere else on the web.

I am, to quote the fabulous Jam single of the same name, Going Underground.

The reasons for this are varied.

I picked a pen about two years ago and realised I barely knew how to use it anymore. It seemed like an almost wholly unfamiliar instrument. So, I said to myself, why not try it out again.

So I did.

And as I wrote out those letters in an uncertain hand, looking to all intents and purposes like the first illegible scratchings of a beginner child, I began to realise a deeper truth. By relinquishing control of my writing to the perfectly formed letters of the computer font, the unceasing surveillance of the the spell and grammar checker, and the forced format of the word processing program, I was losing at least half the expressive potential of my writing.

Hand writing isn’t just the words. It’s now you shape those words. It’s the nib you use, conventional, italic, flex. It’s ink. Free or slow flowing. Permanent or splashed by the rain. Colour. Shade.

In other words, it’s art. Your own little paintings.

Maybe you think you can mimic all this through creative control of a word processor.

You can’t. You can’t because all your fingers do in tap the keys or move the mouse. Maybe with a graphics pad and pen you can get closer, but it’s still just a set of lit pixels on your screen. Ink and paper are real. They exist without the need to power up your computer. You can touch the paper, run your fingers over the text. Over those words formed by the motion and pressure of your hand on that pen.

I found that as I formed words, sentences and paragraphs with my pen, they interacted in quite different ways with my mind. They seemed real in a way that anything I type here does not. I remember what I write. What I put up here leaves my memory almost as fast as I type it.

So I gave up on the computer. Realized that all this was ephemeral, words without impact or meaning.

So now a series of filled journals is lining up on my bookcase shelf, growing about one per month. They may never be read again, by me or anyone, but they seem more real than anything here.

That’s the way it’s going to be.

 

Early Days with a Digital Camera

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I bought my first digital SLR camera in 2005. It was a Canon Rebel XT a.k.a the 350D, with a modest 8 megapixel sensor. Modest by today’s standards – at the time it seemed like a wondrous thing. That hooked me into digital photography, and it wasn’t long before I added a slightly better camera with similar specifications, the Canon 30D, to my collection. This photograph of a boreal lake in Ontario was taken with the 30D in the summer of 2007.

It’s one of no less than 181 almost identical photographs that I took of the scene. 181! Why did I take 181 photographs of a pretty but entirely average landscape view?

Partly it was because I could. That was a trap – still is, in many ways – of digital photography. No longer limited by film and its parsimonious allocation of frames, you can go hog wild with a digital camera. I did – and not just here. It wasn’t until I returned to film photography in 2014 that I seriously began to reconsider my photographic overload and to comprehend that tens or hundreds of photographs of the same scene added nothing to the artistry of the shot. In contrast, it often obscured it. You become pinned to a particular view and rather than wait for the best light or consider changing your position, you just click away, telling yourself that one of these shots will be a masterpiece. Even though they are all pretty much the same and when you come to view the collection on your computer, they take on a dreary homogeneity that dilutes even the best images.

In photography, less is more. If instead of the 30D, I had a large format field camera, I would have spent a lot more time seeking out the best viewing point for a strong composition and I would have waited for good light and if I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t take the photograph. In other words, a lot more considered thought would have gone into the image and the ‘spray and pray’ mentality that is so strongly encouraged by digital cameras would have been absent.

I don’t have a large format camera. But I do have 35mm and medium format film cameras and I use them frequently now. I take far, far fewer photographs. But more of them are worthwhile. The discipline gained using those film cameras has transferred to my digital photography as well. I am very much happier with the results.

 

 

On Being Publicly Exhibited

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I have a photography exhibition at Washington University.

Fifteen photographs, all chosen by me. No competition, no outside selection. All stuff I like.

They will be there for another two months.

I didn’t have to hustle for this show, nor put out any money beyond the prints themselves. It came my way based solely on appreciation of my work as displayed in earlier art shows. All I had to do was to make sure the work was available to hang and display.

I’ve never considered myself as an artist. Photography has been a simple pleasure, a method of recording my life, and a way to get me to get out the house and look at things anew. It’s a hobby. But now? Even if I’m not calling myself an artist, others are. I already feel that weird sense of being looked at differently. “He has a show, he must be good” – and similar sentiments. Perceptions altered, even if little else seems to have been.

None of this has changed my own view of my work. I take a lot of photographs. A few I really like. Even the ones that I like less are still meaningful. It’s all personal – wrapped around my own life. I’ve never given any real thought to making art for others. Perhaps that explains my persistent lack of sympathy for most popular photography; somehow much of that does seem tailored to appeal to others and, in doing so, loses any character or individuality.

This show may well be the pinnacle of my public photographic career. A career that is no career at all. If it is, I will be perfectly satisfied. One thing I will not do is change to fit any alteration of perception of me or my work.

I guess this means I’m some sort of accidental artist. If I am, well, that’s just fine.

 

The camera doesn’t matter

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Aztec Statue by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I, like many others, eat up new technology like candy. I read the reviews, follow the product releases, and frequently end up buying if not exactly the latest and greatest, certainly the one-step-behind latest and greatest, most often on sale.

In this way I’ve accumulated a lot of cameras and lenses. I like having them and I use them. But one thing has become ever increasingly clear to me over the course of time. The quality of the camera adds maybe 5% to the quality of the result. No more. And that’s a big maybe. In most cases it makes no difference whatsoever.

You would think knowing this would stop me dead in my upgrade quest. It doesn’t though. I still care about that 5% improvement, at least a bit. But I would save myself a lot of money if I stopped.

Perhaps the only recent time when there was a real sense of technological change was during the 2000s as digital sensor technology went through a series of rapid improvements in sensitivity, resolution and self-cleaning technologies. But by the end of that decade, even though improvements continued, they became more marginal in impact as usefully effective limits were reached. These days, continuing improvements in resolution and dynamic range are helpful for those operating at the edges of camera technology. Not for the vast bulk of normal uses.

Much the same argument can be made for lens technology. Overall sharper lenses, lenses sharper over a wider range of the field of view and more flare and distortion resistant are undoubtedly being made today. Yet unless you are obsessed with looking in far corners at pixel level, holding a ruler to a horizon line, or desperate to have the sun full-on in your image without a picture full – or even partially full – of artifacts, there’s nothing today’s lenses will give you that wasn’t available fifty years ago – or longer for some lens technologies.

The real point of all of this is simple – cameras that are ‘good enough’ have existed for a very long time. Way back into the 19th century. What we have today are cheap, easy to use, and readily available but all they have done in democratize the ability to make a good photograph. They have done nothing to guarantee that good photograph.

Every time I find myself being lured by whatever neat technological trick is being marketed to sell the latest iteration of camera equipment, I need to remind myself of these truths. Mostly, I don’t. Then, after I’ve used my latest wonder camera for a while and found no real improvement in my results, I remember. And promise not to make the same mistake again.

But, so far, I always do.

 

Drifting Along

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Farm Landscape, Mappen, Il. by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I haven’t written anything here for a long time.

Three months.

Well, that’s OK – not many read this (but if you are one of those, I shall tell you right now how much I appreciate it). Plus sometimes I really don’t have anything to say. Or, at least, anything to say here. Other records, such as my expanding collection of written notebooks, step in instead.

I should make a point of that. Over the past months I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of writing. As with a pen and paper. Writing without any intent to broadcast my thoughts.

This has been liberating. Even though I regard myself as a lesser addict, I am nonetheless addicted to social media. I have placed limits. I do not own and do not plan to own a smartphone. I deliberately place myself in situations where I cannot use this computer for social interaction. I have renewed my embrace of solitude.

The result has been interesting. I find myself feeling less competitive, less caught up in desire or envy. Concurrent with this is a lessening of anxiety.

Of course, being retired helps enormously. My time is my own and I am making good use of it.

Next month I have an exhibition at Washington University. Fifteen of my photographs – although not the one you see here. No, these are rather more what I might call exhibition friendly, a little closer to what you might see in a gallery. They will up for three months; a good length of time and hopefully will be seen by a lot of people.

Is is the culmination of my photographic endeavors, at least the social ones? Possibly. This may be the high water mark and if it is, that’s fine. It’s not going to change my outlook or why I photograph. If anything, I might retreat. I’m certainly pulling back from local photography competitions, for all photo competitions ultimately seem to boil down to being a money making enterprise for those behind them. A bit like gambling; the house always wins. And, to be honest, I really don’t like the sort of photographs that win photography exhibitions even though I’ve made some myself. Hard to describe why, except maybe they tend to fall into a certain preconceived notion of a ‘wow’ factor photograph and these are so clichéd as to be pretty much unbearable. Give me an ordinary snapshot that has real meaning for someone anytime over these.

The triumph of the ordinary. That’s really what I want see. The photograph here is exactly what I mean by that.  A simple landscape on a cloudy uneventful day.  Nothing demonstrative. A small moment in an uneventful day; this, to me, speaks more vibrantly about real life than anything extraordinary. We spend so much time chasing high drama – why not simply realise the drama in our daily existence? I think we would be much more content if we did. I certainly find I am.

In A Different Place

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Hillside near Slapton by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

 

Wandering an unfamiliar countryside encourages all sorts of thoughts. There’s the familiar and the unfamiliar; landscape much like that found elsewhere yet populated with vegetation that’s sometimes the same, sometimes a little different and sometimes a lot different.

This entrancing blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar is unsettling, but not in an unpleasant way. As I wrote, it encourages a lot of thinking. Particularly about place and what it means to be in place. To different places I bring the same mind and the same curiosity, but how they work together is subtly altered by the environment. In other words, although I might think I am the same person in Devon as I am in Missouri, I really am not.

This porous relationship with the world around me is one of the more interesting aspects of travel and is perhaps the main reason why I like to do it. To find yourself a different person simply because of what surrounds you might seem like a frightening relinquishing of self, but the reality is that it is an expansion rather than a retrenchment.

Perhaps this is one reason why I find myself unable to deeply empathize with the untraveled. I understand the fear – and it is a fear – of placing yourself in a situation that lacks familiarity, but I lament the resulting small mindedness. This is unfair I know, for an insular approach to living works for some people and I’m not yet arrogant enough to feel I know all the answers. Let’s hope I never am.

But that said, I feel a delicious clarity of thought that grows stronger each day I move further into retirement. Part of this is due, as I wrote recently on Facebook to feeling like acres and acres of thought-landscape have been freshly ploughed and left fertile for new growth of all kinds. This analogy to the land is no accident and reinforces much of what I have been writing about here – only in this case, my mind is recalibrating its own assessment of its surroundings and is open to fresh interpretations.

But what has any of this to do with photography?

Everything.

I am finally coming to the understanding that my photography has nothing to do with any of the concerns and preoccupations that I read about in the vast majority of articles and books on the subject. Only when I come across writings about art – and the art doesn’t even have to be photography – do I get closer to what interests me. But only closer; not there, for much of the philosophy of aesthetics is somewhat tangential to my own, deeply personal, rationale.

I photograph to create an image that represents my state of mind at the time of taking the photograph. Whether this image is good art or ostensibly uninteresting is irrelevant. What matters is how closely what I photograph acts as a key or cipher to what I was at the time.  Knowing this, I now understand why I have been drawn to film so emphatically over the past three years – the film negative represents a solid key, an artifact as important as a Rosetta stone, to my consciousness at the time and place where I took the photograph. Digital images, ephemeral by nature unless captured by the printer, lack that sense of substance, although they still can do the job fairly well.

Is this, then, the end of my attempts to become a ‘good’ photographer? Perhaps. Almost everything that I thought was important about photography has become – and, truthfully, has been becoming so for a long time – irrelevant. But I have identified what’s meaningful to me, and that’s a greater prize. I certainly won’t be stopping.

Last View from the Old Path

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Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I’m retired now. No longer do I get up in the morning and come home in the evening to go to and come from work.

It’s far too early to say whether retirement will suit me well or not so well, but one aspect that is changed forever is the cycle ride home through Forest Park. These photographs are from my final days and represent scenes I’ve followed through the seasons over many years.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s not like I’ll never see these views again – I’m sure I’ll be back in Forest Park over and over again. What’s changed is the association. Before, this journey represented the escape after the restrictions of the day, and even though the escape was short lived before the cycle repeated itself, it still offered a sense of relief.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

As such, these pictures represent the essence of meaningful photography. They may be meaningful only to me, but that’s enough.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I constantly find myself torn between expectations of what a ‘good’ photograph should be and the reality of what really matters. Given that almost everything we photograph represents something that has already been portrayed, either with earlier photographs, or older still paintings, it becomes practically impossible to create something wholly original. So why bother? On other words, why try to scrabble out an image that fits some preconception of what a photograph should be? Why not simply use the camera as a record of time, place and the accompanying emotion?

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

That’s what I’ve done here. I will be unable to regard any of these six photographs without summoning the emotions associated with a huge change in life circumstances, one of the most significant waypoints in one’s journey from birth to death.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

So that’s how they lie. Fresh for now, but destined to be encrusted with time’s barnacles and the opaque distortion that follows. Emotion will overlay emotion, memory will metamorphose into nostalgia. This is how it always is; it’s impossible to truly recapture the feelings of any time passed. However, as markers of a particular moment, they will anchor more of the past that might otherwise be saved. As such, they are more worthwhile than many a more celebrated set of images.