Notes from the Digital Lab
28, May 2010 § 1 Comment
Tonight the breeze has kicked up. With the chill in the air you wouldn’t know that it was late April in Greece. From the harbor I hear the rumbling of a ferry coming in to port, the hydraulic ramp lowers and the announcement to disembark echoes through the winding streets of Paroikia: “Kyríes kai Kyrioi…” It will be sunny tomorrow, and while warm in the sunshine, the shadows will retain a cold element unrelated to the bright light of day. I have been here on Paros since early March studying photography, my photographic journey having taken me through the world and back several times. Throughout this time I have been documenting my life and travels with my camera and, if French surrealist Jean Cocteau is correct and my camera is an extension of my mind’s eye, then the images have been indicative of my state of being.
Since 2004 I have taken my photography more seriously. This has been an enlightening path and I have sought out mentors and peers in a quest for more knowledge and community. Like any journey, I have gleaned myriad experiences and mixed results. In the summer of 2009, for instance, I took part in three workshop weekends hosted by the Woodstock Center for Photography, near where I live. Although educational, I found the celebrity quality of some of these sessions disturbing, as they focused more on some vague notion of artistry and industry connections rather than skills or craft. But I still came away understanding more than when I arrived, if only to avoid the fad-driven sycophantic consumerism that feeds stardom.
Through a close friend I had been introduced to a small fine arts center on the island of Paros, in the Cycladis Archipelago. I had visited the school in late May 2009 and filled out the on-line application a few days later at a cyber-café 25 meters from the front doors. By November 2009 I had been accepted to the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts. My head swam with possibilities and options. As my departure drew closer, I became more nervous. What if I don’t measure up? What if it doesn’t work out? Indeed, what if…
When I arrived on Paros I was thrilled but terrified. There were painters, writers, photographers and vocalists-19 students in all and about half returning for a second or even third term. The majority were half my age. School began on March 8th and for the first time in many years I felt like the new kid, awkward and obvious. My first class would be Silver Photography, a black and white darkroom course taught by Liz Carson. I had had a fair amount of instruction in that genre and during the past year had been working in my own darkroom at home. This course would smooth off my rough edges and introduce me to the communal darkroom concept, a daunting prospect for a late-night loner such as myself. The second avenue was the reason I had initially applied. Digital Printing, taught by John Pack, the school’s director, would become, in the next few weeks, the most rewarding, demanding and emotionally painful experience I had experienced in many years.
John is a gentle taskmaster. He is a bright soul. He wants us all to succeed, to love artistic creation, growing continuously, both inwardly and outwardly. He wants us all to be poets. I use that term in the broader sense for I feel that his Weltanschauung applies to the whole of the student body, not just those interested in photography or the digital process. With this in mind he began by giving us a basic digital toolbox. This made us all hungry for more but he pulled us back, guiding us rather than letting us run wild. His first koan was “To play-just play”, he said. “Practice. Make mistakes.” His academic philosophy is perceptive and passionate, namely that too many colleges and universities worldwide push students through an academic meat-grinder, producing uniform post-modern drones. He hopes to introduce us to a life-long artistic substance that will have meaning and value beyond the commercial or popular. This is an enriching and painful experience, a satori from which I shall never return. But I digress. First came the pain.
When I arrived here on Paros and began to use my digital camera, I was dismayed to realize that for years I had been taking the same type of picture. My old images failed to excite me. There was no life in their shadows, no warmth in their light. I tried the old ways of seeing, but my eyes, it seemed, had dimmed. Thankfully my silver work did not suffer this dilemma, in part due to the complex ritual and practical restraints inherent in that particular format. My mood became despondent. I searched for answers, but there were none, or perhaps my ears didn’t hear them. I spoke openly with other students about this and other feelings. My psyche was in turmoil and as the days turned into weeks, my inner crisis grew. This sense of failure intensified as spring break approached. All I could envision were my empty portfolios at the end of the term and the lonely ferry ride back to Athens. One day John took me aside and said, “I have an assignment for you. I don’t know what it is yet, but I will tell you soon…” I waited expectantly. A few days later he had my answer. “I want you to take pictures of negative space. Take only 36 images. Pretend you have a roll of film in your digital camera, not a card that holds hundreds.” I felt a weight lifting. In a deep part of my being lies the need for direction, for tight structure within which I find the freedom for work. Without this architecture my conception becomes formless and vague. He had given me a task. So I rented a little car and spent the day driving around the island. I came back and showed him my work. I was happy, but he was happier. He showed me something I had never seen in my work or myself. For years I had always been taking pictures of what drew me, but always from a distance, or at least disconnected in isolated empty space. He said, “You are good at this, but you are also in a very safe photographic place. I am pushing you out of that.” My new assignment was to find what I loved and then discover in that larger space what initially drew me to the image. “Get in close”, he said. “As close as your lens will allow. Take that picture, then come back and show me what you’ve done.” The fog lifted and my eyes cleared. Fear had kept me safely at a distance all these years but fear of what? Personal expression? Art? Myself the artist? Intimacy?
He wants us to be poets. He wants us to find in the visual world not just our voice, but the means of expressing it as well. He wants us to know the craft and the machinery, and then we can make our own decisions and use the best of what any tool has to offer. He wants us to play and practice. The guitarist Robert Fripp speaks of ‘the craft of guitar playing’. After almost 45 years of innovative musicianship, all of it professionally, he still sits down every day and plays scales for at least an hour. He must practice the craft of guitar playing, just as I must practice my craft of seeing and working with light and shadow. The more I practice, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I want to practice with different tools. Only then can my vision flourish.
I am not the same person who arrived here in March. I have left that man behind me, like a snake leaving its skin on a shadowy forest floor. The results of my punabbhava, my “becoming again”, are new to me and exciting and not always comfortable. A vision calls to me, a need to see light, shape, texture and movement as a single event. There is no need for explanation. My work sings and focus measures time in meters. The shadows are bright. The light is warm.
–John D. C. Masters Paros, Spring 2010