4.09.2016

Daily Practice is a good thing for swimming, playing the piano and making art with a camera. Familiarity engenders comfortable knowledge.

Post Swim Self-Portrait.

When I look around at the contemporary landscape I am often surprised that no one carries their camera with them anymore, unless they are on some sort of photographic mission. I guess the rationalization is that everyone is carrying their phone and so are equipped for those times when an image presents itself. Then, of course, if the image doesn't turn out well they have a built-in excuse to trot out --- "it was just shot with my phone." 

When I was a student at UT Austin I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of a photographer named, Garry Winogrand. He was a visiting lecturer in the College of Fine Arts, and also a regular habitué of the hi-fi shop where I worked part time. One semester I took his class. It was a revelation to me; that photography could be nearly totally immersive.

It was back in the 1970s and everyone was into photography around campus. Olympus, Nikon and Leica cameras dangled casually over shoulders, and over the corners of chairs at coffee shops and bars. It was common practice to people watch on the patio at Les Amis Cafe with one's camera on the table; exposure set, ready to capture some wry and interesting moment that might unfold in front of us.

We wore our cameras to class and we took them along with us everywhere but into the pool. 

Garry Winogrand was a role model for some of us. He didn't take his camera with him most places. He took one or two or three Leica M cameras with him everywhere and he shot all the time. He could load those cameras and set exposure and focus without ever having to look at the camera. As he walked down the main drag across from campus he was continually adjusting focus and exposure, and constantly shooting whatever caught his eyes.

Garry made a lot of images but he never had to make the excuse that this picture or that picture turned out poorly because it was taken with his phone. 

Thinking about this now I believe that Garry carried his camera at the ready in order to train his mind to be always ready. To train his mind not to be self-conscious about the idea of, or the act of, taking photographs of strangers in the street, or strangers in the hallways. 

As photographers we seem to have become sensitized to society's anxiety about the use of images. We fear that our behavior will be interpreted as intrusive and sinister, or that it may cause discomfort to the people we observe and photograph. We self-restrict because we are part of our culture and feel the unspoken, but quite real, constraints and pressures that events of the last two decades have cumulatively hobbled us with.

And, like most habits, the surrender to the pressure of the group is ever self-reinforcing. The less we carry our cameras around the more uncomfortable we come to feel when we do carry them around. Some of us become more furtive in our efforts and some quit the field altogether to become "landscape" photographers. Only shooting images without people in them in order to remove one more source of friction from the process of making photographs as personal art. (Even though some artists would say that all good creativity involves some amount of friction in order to be manifested into existence...).

In essence this surrender seems to signal that we have become cognizant that we are doing something almost tabu. Something almost perilously outside the mainstream. But in reality our acquiescence to perceived social norms may be, at least partially, our response to merely the general disappearance of cameras in our everyday lives. We don't see as many cameras. We feel segmented from the group by nature of our extra "plumage." The camera over the shoulder comes to signify our implied differentiation from our social groups. We become outsiders. And the cycle of reinforced behavior continues, and continues to constrict. 

The level of highest comfort will be achieved when we achieve homogenous parity. But.... If we fancy ourselves to be artists then the discomfort of exclusion is part and parcel of the artist's experience. We need to be a bit outside to see past the objective self-image of the group in order to make subjective images as commentary on culture. Just as Robert Frank (a Swiss citizen) was able to step outside the collective emotional reticence of 1950's U.S. culture to shoot "forbidden" images of our tender psycho-social underbelly we, as artists, also need to stand outside the group's self-censorship if we are to express our real and authentic voice. Otherwise the cameras exist just as toys for tactile enjoyment. 

What photographers like Garry Winogrand showed me was that we don't wear our cameras through our daily lives to make a fashion statement or to show off our buying prowess but to become personally comfortable with the "idea" of being able to respond to visual and social stimuli wherever and whenever our muses favor us. By keeping the camera close by we are making clear (to ourselves and the public body) our intentions to photograph. And we do so by, if necessary, walking against the current of our contemporary culture instead of being swept downstream by our own emotional trepidation of seeming to exist on the periphery of "the group." We trade a certain amount of social safety net for a larger amount of autonomous thought and action. 

But the constant carrying and use of our cameras isn't really about thumbing our noses at cultural convention, it's about building a fluidity of both practice (eye, hand, brain and subconscious coordination) as well as re-building our own understanding that one of the rights and privileges of living in a free society includes both our free expression, and the covenant to protect our individual rights as a group. 

I carry a camera with me everywhere and, like the "worry beads" of my Turkish friends, I have the camera in my hands when I am in between meetings, on buses, in waiting rooms. My fingers come to know where the controls of the camera are and how to hold the camera to reduce its movement. The familiarity takes hesitation out of practice.

As a swimmer I know all too well that a week out of the pool means I am "out of practice" and "out of shape." In photography the "out of practice" translates to a weakening of intention to be photographically present now. "Out of shape" translates as a loss of muscle memory and habit. 

Like all rights, the more we ignore our privileges, and underestimate their importance and relevance, the quicker they go away. Our hoped for immersion into our art and our craft suffers when we allow the momentum of popular opinion to sway us into abandoning our public pursuit of our arts. 

But we need to make sure we aren't (in)actively complicit. Making good images in public has always been hard but people have always succeeded in making valuable artifacts of their cultures anyway. The first step is to make sure that our intention to create follows through to bolster our courage to publicly embrace the process. To make other people comfortable with the idea of people carrying their cameras we must first make ourselves comfortable with that idea. 

First step? Well, it's lunch time here and Belinda and I are heading out to our favorite burger joint for a couple of burgers and a shared bag of fries. You can count on me having a camera over my shoulder. Who knows what art may transpire if someone drops the ketchup in a particularly interesting way....