A Dream Within A Dream


I am plagued by sleeplessness, and usually drift off sometime between midnight and 1 am. Lucky for me, my body is used to this by now and I woke as usual at about 6. None of this is terribly important info, it is just providing a bit of context for I awoke from a dream; and dreams that get interrupted by waking always seem to stick with me a bit more clearly. Generally I have weird dreams that make me look dubiously at myself when I actually remember them. This morning’s dreams weren’t so weird. I was having a dream about being in a conversation with someone regarding why I use film. I know, I know, maybe I think about film photography so much that it permeates my dreams. But it was actually kind of refreshing to awake with a whole series of explanations laid out in mind. Or at least it was refreshing that that was what I woke to. There are many worse things for one to wake up thinking about right now.


I have answered this in a lot of different ways. I generally preface it by saying it is a longer, more complex answer than people might be expecting. Perhaps they would be better off continuing the conversation in a dream. Ha. But it is something I think about and I am constantly trying to refine my answer to adequately convey. I witness friends and strangers alike making countless photos with their phone. Instantly created, instantly posted, and instantly forgotten. I do not own a phone camera, and I cannot feel any emotional connection to a phone itself. If I did I think I would be repelled by the notion.


But let me explain some of the reasons I generally hold or give out. The first is that I love the cameras. My Hasselblad, my Nikon, my Leica, my pinholes, my Rolleiflex. I seem to create much more of a connection with these pieces of machinery than I do with any of my digital equipment. But my Rolleiflex is something else. I often introduce the camera as being the same age as I am (it was made in 1961) and it will live just as long as I will, if not even perhaps longer. Knowing it won’t be made obsolete by new technology (it has already faced that distinction) and replaced in a few short years helps. But it is more than this. I like the mechanical nature of my film cameras. I like that they don’t have a library of menus that present a solution to every problem I might face. I like that they don’t show me immediately whether my guesses and calculations were right or wrong. Nah, they are true companions, they listen to me, they share my vision, they chip in with their perspectives but it is an easy-going partnership. It is hard to explain, really. I think using a film camera like a pinhole or a Hasselblad or a Leica is something you cannot really understand till you have tried it. There are tactile qualities that just cannot be expressed. There is a change in perspective that escapes a verbal or written explanation.


And speaking of tactile, I really value producing tangible results. Negatives I can hold in my hand. True, I scan all my photographs into a digital format, but I always keep the file of negatives. If you told me that a member of my family might someday show their grandchildren the pages of negatives that these images reside on, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. But if you told me that one day they would show them the digital file of this image, I would be surprised. Is it honestly reasonable to expect the generations that come after to maintain the digital archive I have created of my generation? How long will my hard drives last? And unless someone takes care to transfer them to new media they’re lost. And what happens when that person no longer cares to? And that is not counting the chances of computer failure. I don’t place much stock in the permanence of digital media, especially given the habits of the average photographer when it comes to backing up and printing their work, me included. And so my film is my best hope for future children to see the life I lived and the images of the world and their ancestors. I put a lot of stock in this. There is a reassuring quality to being able to hold a negative up to light and see the image frozen there in your hands.


And if I were to limit this to just three reasons, you know what the third would be? The cost. I use film because it costs me money. Some claim that digital is great because the photos are free (after you buy the camera, those lenses, a computer and an Adobe CC license, of course), that you can make as many photos as you want with no charge. And this is an advantage in its way, but so is the cost of film. I load up my Rolleiflex and each shot costs me somewhere between 50p and £1. The photos aren’t free at all but because they have a cost, I assign them more value. When something costs you, you care about it more as a resource. I think about each of those potential images a bit harder and more carefully. I make the shots count. And it makes me a better photographer for it. Sure, I move slower. I make fewer photos. I am more deliberate and disciplined. These are not bad things. I can take my DSLR and easily make 400 images, but how much do I value each of those images? Not much. The majority of them are disposable and when I am making them I treat them that way. I don’t really care about 95% of those photos. And as I said, there are times that they are advantageous. But when I carry my film camera I care about each photo I make much more. So using film teaches me to care about each image.


There are other reasons, but those I think are the big ones. I could talk about the aesthetics of film, particularly black and white film. I could talk about dynamic range. I could talk about the delayed gratification of it. These would all be good topics to discuss further. One thing I don’t think you will ever hear me talk about interestingly enough is quality. I don’t go down that long and murky path despite using medium format film. For me it is still too contentious an issue and one that too many spend too much time arguing about, does film make a better image than digital? As if it is all about sharpness, pixels and detail. It just isn’t that important to me.


So I am trying to use the computer and social media less, and just focus on real life and the people I love and my art. Of course I am not going to be fully off the grid, because as you can see I am publishing this post. At times my head feels like it is exploding with the amount of information we are forced to consume on a daily basis and how that information is so distorted there is almost no longer any tangible truth. I feel there is this blanket distortion on society/media and the way we gather our news and important information, and more and more of us are feeling lost and looking for new ways out of this distortion and back to the truth. Finding hope in places like the Forests or beneath the big Sky, finding hope in the land and in the water and in old books offering new ideas and most importantly in each other and love. And using good old fashioned film to capture this beautiful world of ours.


Well there you go, a glimpse into my head this morning from my first few moments of consciousness.



Paradise Discovered


Susan photographed with the Daguerreotype Achromat Art Lens.

This photo has nothing to do with Vivian Maier, but this post does.

Who was Vivian Maier? Nobody really knows. She was born February 1st, 1926. She lived most of her life in Chicago, working as a nanny. She was a bit reclusive, never married nor had children. She died in 2009. She was an avid photographer. Some 100,000 of her negatives (many as undeveloped rolls of film) were purchased in 2007 by a fellow named John Maloof from an auction house after they had taken possession of them from a storage facility after Vivian had failed to make payments on the space.


Much of the haul is street photography, much of it Chicago from the decades of the 50’s through 70’s. The images, without question, are lovely. At some times warm and empathetic, at other times a bit more distant, but no less engaging. Her story is almost like a fairy tale in a way. Or a story of paradise lost (but doesn’t it all tend to become paradise once we have lost it?). Or maybe it is paradise found, at least that is how the world of photography is treating it, and I am not sure quite why. It is almost like we were hungering for something like a Vivian Maier. And it cannot just be the story of her obscurity, discovery and Mr. Maloof finally identifying her and tracking her down only to find she had died just days previously. There is a quality to the work that just isn’t easily found these days. Perhaps it is because of the subject matter. We are drawn by the notion of the good old days, even when that grass wasn’t as green as we always think it was.


I think her meteoric rise does have something to do with the story though. I think it strikes a chord in many of us photographers, the fable of toiling away at our art to be near-magically discovered one day. Or the belief that the work of our photographic lives will continue to carry meaning even once our mortal lives come to an end.

Or maybe it is that in this age where everyone is connected digitally, we can tweet, text, e-mail, facebook, tumble, digg, pin, and instamatic all our friendships down to a digital shadow of what connection once meant, maybe some of us photographers hunger to make work that touches audiences, moves them, connects them to us, in a way that Vivian’s work has done. Of course, it would seem that Vivian herself wasn’t interested in that connection. She never showed anyone her photography. She was a bit of a loner and a keep-your-distance type of woman. Without a doubt she had a voice to speak with, but it apparently carried no further than herself, her subject and her camera. Maybe Vivian never wanted that audience, or maybe she was all the audience she needed. Perhaps this is something to consider too, especially in comparison to today’s world where it is common practice to not only barrage your audience with dozens, if not hundreds of images at a time, but then to post the same stuff across Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr, 500px, and every other social site to insure maximum saturation in this already saturated world of imagery.

Maybe the answer is there is no answer at all, just a bunch of questions to ponder and consider. I don’t even know how I feel about Vivian Maier. I love her images, but am uneasily uncertain about the story. Is its popularity just a combination of fad and sensationalism? Will we still care about her in five years or ten? How long, after all, can a photographer’s work survive their death? I don’t know the answer to this either. Nor do I care to need to know any of these answers.


Ultimately, what it all comes down to, as it often should, is that her photos move me, and that to me is reason enough.



Just Waving (Arriving Somewhere, But Not Here)

WAV1Nine o’clock in the morning
I’m taking the overnight train

Checked the Date – February 2018

I’m riding to someplace
Where I’ve never been

WAV10And I’m waving through the window as we go
Somebody says
What are you waving at ?
Well what do I have to lose
Somebody might wave back

Seven o’clock in the morning
I’m carrying bags under my eyes
Been awake all night
Counting the hours to sunrise

WAV6Drawing patterns on a breakfast table top,
I lift my gaze, my mouth just drops

There’s someone in the room waving at me
Hey there
What are you waving at ?

What do I have to lose


Somebody might wave back