There is a practice taking over online marketing and blogging designed to gain audience and ranking by posting lists of actionables - I offer my list of 5 ways to photograph flowers, in exchange you pay attention to my website and what’s there to buy. This recipe may bake the cake, but forgets the frosting, and after about the third slice, is it one You want to eat?
It is heartening to have all of these how-to’s as opposed to The Way, but with so many lists flying around I find myself listless. Here’s why.
My mother, with six kids to raise, devised novel methods to track and organize our daily lives from chore charts all the way down to our underwear. School morning fights between my four brothers over socks in the sock box were quickly remedied by different colored threads sewn into the toe. Of course the boys would find equally novel ways to circumvent the system by turning a sock inside out, biting the thread off, or hiding a treasured sock until the storm passed. My mother’s grocery lists were epic poems rhymed down to the penny.
My mother will be 80 next month and her lists now live taped to the backs of cupboard doors, on the wall next to the phone, and tucked neatly into her purse. Her habit of pinning to-do’s on her blouse so we could remind her is no longer useful since she lives alone. She actually refrained from the practice prior to her solitary existence after grocery store checkers commented on her paper brooch more than once.
I was the sort of child that ticked off my chores and homework in order to take off into my own world and wander down the street kicking leaves, get lost in a book, sew a hooded purple corduroy monk’s robe, or draw maps of faraway lands with colored pencils. For me, the end of the list was the beginning of exploration. I was also brought up with the List of Ten taught with meetings of a modified wooden Bounce-Back paddle ball and my back end. Without any reason given other than some white-bearded bro wrote the list in stone long ago, it took years for me to climb out of my own contrariness to see that some of the Thou Shalts etched on those clay tablets made sense because they hurt other people. Thou Shalt Not teach a child to Not hurt others by hurting the child.
My thing with lists goes beyond our tendencies to turn them into absolutes. In our hustle-bustle, online lives, we accept the list as a synopsis of reality and move on. In so doing, we fail to find the frosting layered within the list maker’s recipe beyond the quick tip. More importantly, it’s often too easy to dismiss the sixth way of photographing flowers - our own.
Live off-list and find your way.
Fall is my favorite time of year. The garden’s harvested with potatoes and pumpkins in the cold closet; stewed tomatoes, salsa, dilly beans, and pickled beets color up the pantry; and garlic, tucked into its gunny sack, sits in a back cupboard. No stored onions or carrots this year as I planted them too late, but we made several stews and pots of onion soup to use up the large scallions and sweet, orange fingerlings before they turned to rot in the ground. Next fall, I’d like to work with the La Sal store to make our garden surplus available to needy families, this year being our first bumper crop.
The shortening days and weather create more opportunities for cuddling up with a cup of tea next to the wood stove to read, contemplate, and prune old growth and decompose ways of thinking that no longer bear fruit. Every so often, a good book surfaces and serves to cultivate some food for thought.
For months, I have benignly neglected Craig Child’s Apocalyptic Planet: A Field Guide to the Everending Earth (www.houseofrain.com/). The word apocalypse often injects heavy doses of fear-mongering and judgmental fault-finding by those who embrace The Way into those who haven’t been saved in the root cellar for the coming winter. I decided last week to set aside my personal prejudices opposed to That Word and dive into Child’s John McPhee style of writing.
Dive in. That is exactly what the author asks the reader to do. Whether or not you’ve read his other thought-provoking romances, Child's curiosity and willingness to experience and share with us nature’s mercurial moods can best be described as a falling in love with and courting of planet earth.
With Apocalyptic Planet, he travels far away from his usual wandering in the desert Southwest, where he tracks the footprints of water, to the Tibetan Plateau for a first descent down a section of the Salween River at flood stage with his step-father. Having rafted the Grand Canyon four times, I had to re-read sections depicting boats slamming into waves and skating the edge of large, sucking holes – the muscle memory of heightened adrenaline, anxiety, and awe-inspiring fear first turning me away from then rising and high-siding with his retelling reminding me of my own similar, yet less intense river runs.
Childs also treks to the edge of a red, slow-flowing volcano, Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, he flies into a remote ice research station along the west coast of Greenland, and he explores the edge of a glacier near the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. He also travels to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico and the Atacama Desert in Chile where no measurable precipitation has fallen for centuries. His passionate interest in the physique of Mother Nature even sends him backpacking through a mono-cultured, GMO field of pesticide-polished corn in the middle of July and Iowa.
All of this traipsing and traversing is foreplay for Childs as he consummates personal story with scientific research and first-hand experience. He shies away from any sort of everlasting human ending, even a Blakian Marriage of Heaven and Hell. His dowry for the “end” of our human singularity is a historical and scientific perspective of cyclic ruin and renewal without Truths to ultimately define whether the tipping point of change will be cataclysmic or continual and to what degree, if any, humanity might continue as we know it or become worm food.
It’s time to turn the compost.
By Deborah Hughes
I spent a long weekend with a friend in the city recently. She flew in for a conference on community wildfire preparedness and awareness and I drove up from the desert so we could enjoy each other’s company in between sessions.
Early one morning, I walked down to the hotel lobby to get coffee and as I stood in line, a concierge asked what exciting plans I had for the day. With my graying hair, I’m unaccustomed to being approached by young men so I glanced to either side to make sure it was actually me he was addressing. Well, I’m a… a… photographer, I stumbled, the words rolling around in my mouth like the streambed pebbles I had taken pictures of the day before. I volleyed back and forth, all in a split second, about whether I could call myself that name. I have a website, I make a few dollars though not a living, it’s my primary creative expression as well as how I spend the bulk of my time, yet is it I who gets to make that determination or someone else. I live near Moab and Canyonlands National Park and generally photograph the desert, but today I’m going to venture into the canyons of the city, I quipped.
Later that day, I took my camera and ventured downtown through the cold shadows and blinding reflections from the storied layers of glass and stone. Memories of meetings in the those steely kivas of financial smoke and mirrors while still a student skittered around the sidewalk along with fragile, fallen leaves. The lofty views and the promised possibilities pecked on those office walls now lost and buried in the detritus of time and done trying.
I watched two homeless men store Styrofoam containers of other people’s leftovers in an abandoned newspaper vending hutch across from a GreenBikeShare dispensary. I walked by a line of commuters waiting for TRAX, each face stained by the glow of a smartphone screen. I didn’t stop walking. I didn’t take pictures.
I returned to the inner courtyard of the hotel where an array of maples, hackberry, and tulip trees had scribbled their Crayola color leavings all over the manicured lawn and shrubbery. A few hangers-on writhed high above in the light breeze. I pulled out the camera and started shooting.
It’s not that I’m insensitive to other’s suffering and boredom. I’ve held tight to the thin thread that links poverty with prosperity a time or two in my life and I have a smartphone that I whip out whenever an interruption or delay in the flow of attention arises. I realized though, for me, photography is not a spectator sport – not for me as a photographer being watched as I take a photo or for me as a photographer capturing images of other people.
As I peered up at the many flights and floors I’ve watched my own story evolve from – a tier up, a tear down, each account leaving stretch marks on my view of what it means to be human, I considered how maybe the hesitant story I told the young hotel clerk was primarily about exploring and doing and becoming. Doctors practice medicine, lawyers practice law, and as an accountant, I practiced accounting. Practicing photography, I take photos of what moves me based on my tools, prior experience with the subject matter, the light, and other variables that inform good image making. I increase my skills by taking classes, engaging in research, and well, practicing, practicing, practicing.
We all have the opportunity to tell and shape our own stories and images.
Doing it makes it happen.
Keep doing it.
By Deborah Hughes
In this age of information where we share reports from around the world about grave injustices and tragedies, we send our social media contacts links to everyone else’s version of rising from the ashes, and we post ten ways to twist and turn various body parts into a heart shape, we often fail to tell our own story. We’ve learned from an early age from every mouth imaginable that other people’s laments or lack of shoes are more important than the telling, feeling, or hole in our own. I’m not advocating against altruism, I’m just saying that at some point as you back link through the great chain of humanity, you are going to be someone else’s other.
Electronic devices and their tools of interconnectivity enable us to describe and distribute instantaneously the stream of atrocities we perpetrate on each other. From our perspective of being in the middle of it, this overload of evidence often feels overwhelming and chaotic, but maybe it’s just another appendage in the evolution of our human narrative. Outside of the moral debates about our increasing social congress, we can see and hear whether all of the advocates and promoters of The Way are walking their talk. From the U.S. government to Anthony Weiner and his, well, wiener; from Yahoo to Marissa Mayer and repudiation of professional photographers; to the Catholic Church and ex-Pope Benedict’s claims of no cover-ups; we’ve traveled from The Truth to Hey, your video on YouTube sucks.
We need to fine tune the design of these tools and there are going to be a lot of sore thumbs in the meantime, but we have the opportunity like never before to tell our side of the story. From my own experience, short, metaphorical Flash Fictions and poems help to release and enable reflection on some of the more murky potholes and for those depths, the telling doesn’t need to be shared beyond the blank page/ screen or a close friend, yet they need to be told.
Expressing our life narratives to ourselves can give a glimpse of our own humanity beyond the fictions of our own and other’s making. Exposing our personal accounts to others allows for insights to emerge toward a more humane human version of existence on this planet.
I’ve said enough here. It’s your turn to write.
In the practice of photography, regardless of the tool – DSLR, point-and-shoot, smartphone, or some other electronic device – timing and approach are critical elements to consider when composing a shot. Whether you rise before dawn to capture the blue hour, sync your flash for effect, or tilt your smartphone to avoid sun glare, getting the light right can be a make or break affair when attempting to communicate a certain mood beyond the simple taking. Likewise, distance from your subject, focal point, and framing provide access to the field of reference you’re asking a viewer to consider.
With all these gadgets and apps designed to facilitate and share our vision, it’s easy for each of us to remain safely behind the lens snap, snap, snapping up images of reflecting surfaces while the darkness that informs, contrasts and defines our own subterranean negatives remains outside the picture. Photography and visual arts are more than “a picture paints a thousand words.” Big-cheeked babies, cat and dog tricks, awe-inspiring sunsets all tug at something beyond and beneath a motif or a moment. Images are an integral part of the language we use to connect with and share our humanity. Taking a Black Hole Trip or witnessing a volcanic eruption on YouTube is exciting, yet we leave to the neurologists, psychologists and cognitive scientists to interpret our own internal weather patterns.
As artists, the expression of our inner vision is often a solitary and sometimes private concern and ownership of the conception and/or its resultant objet d’ art has a capricious past. With our current social media and sharing capabilities both a boon for the masses and a bout of head scratching and scrambling for those trying to make a living through their art, the timing of these new tools in light of current economic instabilities allows for the development of new approaches.
We all need to focus our lenses on a kaleidoscope of metaphors and images to inform the greater human conversation. So gather up whatever tools enable you to see through the dark and lighten the load.