5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It sucks.” – Elements of Practical Critique: Part I

Rain_on_Wrights_Creek_Redoux_tmb
Rain on Wright’s Creek (after applying the judges’ suggestions) copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland

I entered a version of the image above in the 2013 PEI Photo Club Annual Show in the Black & White category.  The judging of the show took place a few days before the exhibition was installed at The Guild in downtown Charlottetown.   Three competent professional photographers, invited to serve as judges, had been given access to the digital images well in advance and had been instructed to give ample comments –critiques intended to help photographers to learn how to improve their craft.  The evening of the judging was the first time they had seen the actual prints, all about 8 x 10 mounted on foam core. The images were laid out category by category on tables for their assessment. I was among the club members in attendance, listening closely to the judges’ comments. (The judges, by the way, had not been given the names of the photographers.)  My image, “Rain on Wright’s Creek” was eliminated  early; it was one of the first to be put aside. “Nah. It’s been sharpened. It’s over-processed,” said one judge answering the rhetorical question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Another judge agreed. “A softer treatment would have served it better,” answering the question, “How can it be improved?”

I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed.  I liked the way my eyes would not settle, but jumped from raindrop ring to raindrop ring, much in the same way as they did when I had stood on the banks of the creek. And while I was disappointed—a disappointment that was heightened when the image that I had submitted in the next category was also quickly eliminated,  I was also heartened by the comments. I knew I could go back to the image and work to improve it. In less than a minute, I had learned something.

Learning is at the heart of critique.

If you want to learn how to write, you have to learn how to read. You learn from reading, reading, reading and from writing, writing, writing. You cannot improve your craft without continual learning, and the best, most relevant source of learning is from the skilled critiques of trusted fellow writers. If you want to learn the art of photography you have to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot, study the photography of others, and learn to give and receive meaningful practical suggestions.

Before discussing the elements of practical critique, I’d like to discuss two things I have learned about the nature of critique:

  1. Practical Critique is neither praise nor condemnation

Several years ago when I took up my pen and dedicated myself more seriously as a writer I joined a writer’s group. Since that time I have been a member of a few different groups. In each of them, however, the members took time to study the work of another member and to offer comments to help the writer improve. But when I joined that first group, I was looking for praise.  I wanted others to ooo and ahh say things like “wow!” and “Hey, that’s great.” When I moved beyond the need for praise, I wanted the comments and plenty of them. I took the critiques home and re-worked my pieces.  I may have moved beyond the need for praise, but I have not overcome it; I’d be lying if I said I don’t want praise.

Praise may feed my ego, but it teaches me little. Similarly condemnation teaches me nothing,  but it is much more dangerous. It serves no useful purpose and can kill my creative spirit. (See 5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You It Sucks below.)

I had an idea of how to critique a short-story or an essay and I did my best to offer constructive criticism.  My first writer’s group met every week and I was blissfully happy with it for the first few sessions. Then a member brought poetry. While I had written the occasional poem, I had no idea how to critique poetry. I fumbled. I didn’t give the poet her due. She gave me her skilled and considered suggestions, but I was unable to reciprocate. I signed up for a course in poetry writing with Sue Goyette ( http://writers.ns.ca/members/profile/87 ) through the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia. I became a better poet, and I began to learn to critique poetry.  As much as I wanted the writer’s group to help me to become a better writer, my experience with it taught me that I had to give as good as I got. In other words, if I wanted help in becoming a better writer, I had to learn how to give a better critique.  Which leads me to point number two.

2. There is no such thing as gratuitous critique.

Writers and photographers and unnumbered artists of other media post their work on the web. I’ve cruised the communities on Google+ and I’ve looked at sites promising forums for photo critique. I have posted my work to Picasa, Flickr and 500px accounts. I have seen many fledgling artists upload their work begging for feedback. And what I find, in the case of photographers, is an abundance of dim praise and a dearth of positive and/or negative criticism.  When it comes to writers posting on-line, I’m sorry. but I’m not about to give freely of my time to read the work of a stranger, let alone take the additional time to compose a thoughtful list of suggestions. My time is not that free. And so it is with most other artists. The posted appeals for critique go unanswered.

Writer’s groups work, or at least the most of the ones I’ve been associated with do (okay, my first group was a disaster, but that’s another story) because it takes face-to-face time to build knowledge and, more important, trust. Knowledge of the others’ competence as writers will determine the credibility I give to their critiques. If I truly admire a person’s craft as a writer, it is most likely I will give his/her comments about my own work more serious consideration than the comments of a person whose writing is, for me, questionable. There  have been times when I have gone to accomplished writers in my community and have asked for more detailed critiques, and writers have come to me for the same.

It takes time as well to build trust.  The writer’s group to which I presently belong (TWiG—The Writers in Group), is a safe, comfortable environment in which I feel free to reveal myself by sharing the drafts of my precious creations. And I am comfortable with the feedback I receive, because I trust the other members’ intentions to help me.  I dare say, there is a great deal of love among us; we share a sense of common vision and purpose, and we are aware of ourselves as a community. I doubt that this can be accomplished among on-line strangers.

If you want serious critique, you have to pay your dues. You have to earn trust and credibility, and you have to give as good as you get. For these reasons, I believe the face-to-face meetings of photo clubs can be the greatest resource for practical critique.

There is no such thing as gratuitous critique, and outside of a well-groomed photo club, gurushots.com is the best place I know to learn about the art of practical critique. If you want detailed critique from the professionals at gurushots, you pay a modest fee.

And, as promised, here it is:

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It Sucks.”

  1. “It sucks,” is a form of condemnation and condemnation serves no useful purpose.
  2. The desire to create is a spiritual gift mirroring the impulse of the divine. My job is to enkindle the flickering flames of that desire with a kindly tongue and practical advice. What right do I have to extinguish the fire.
  3. Condemnation does not build trust or contribute to a sense of community and common purpose. If you want to lose your membership in the artistic community, offer condemnation. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule applies.
  4. Condemnation does not accept the pursuit of artistic development; it does not accept the potential and possibility that my work can/will improve.
  5. Saying “It sucks,” reveals more about my ineptitude than it does about your craft.

Coming up: Part II – “Every Image is a Lesson.”

There is a spirit here

Numen_Inest

According to Wikipedia,  “The expression Numen inest appears in Ovid’s Fasti (III, 296) and has been translated as ‘There is a spirit here’.  The titles to my photographs are not given casually. I want my titles to capture as much attention as I would want my images to do, and where possible, I’d like the titles to reflect the essence of the particular photographic experience. Numen inest is the title I gave to this photo – a photo that I’m proud to say garnered 1st place Photographer’s Choice and Best of Show in the 31st annual PEI Photography Club exhibition. The show opened last night (September 4, 2013) and will be hosted at The Guild in Charlottetown until September 28th.

There is a spirit here. Every time I visit my mother in northwester Connecticut, I rise before dawn, and more often than not, I drive a few miles to this spot in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts – a spot I have known since early childhood. How often did my late father bring me here – a place he knew in his own Huckleberry childhood. How often did we fish the Housatonic and the Konkapot tributary that feeds into it. How often did he put his boat in at the bend in the river. And how often did our family climb aboard to cruise the placid meanders startling the painted turtles that sunned on the bleached limbs of elms fallen from the banks.

Bartholomew’s Cobble is but a five minute walk from here. During my childhood I heard rumours that at least one Disney animation artist had used the Cobble as an inspiration for the setting of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs (1937). The rumour may be unfounded, but the spirit of the place begs one to believe it.

It is no rumour that the American composer Charles Ives was inspired by the Housatonic River when he wrote the third movement of his Orchestral Set # 1 – Three Places in New England.  “This piece was inspired by a walk Ives had taken with his newly-married wife, Harmony, in June 1908 on a honeymoon hiking trip in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, a rural setting they enjoyed so much that they chose to go back to the Berkshires the very next weekend. While there, they took a walk by the Housatonic River near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Ives recalled,

‘We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.’

Two days later, on 30 June 1908, Ives sketched some ideas to try to capture the atmosphere of this rustic scene.” (Wikipedia)

Housatonic is a Mohican name meaning “beyond the mountain place, and “Where beyond the mountain place it bends”  is the title to one of my first attempts at a panorama. It was also taken near dawn very close to where “Numen inest” was captured – or where, as Vincent Versace would have it, the image took me. The bend in the road follows the bend in the river seen at the far left of the panorama. This image is comprised of 10 vertical exposures stitched in Photoshop, and it won an “Honourable Mention” in the photo show’s panorama category.

Where Beyond The Mountain Place It Bends

While this spot has been endowed with meaning by my family history, I am not the only one attracted to the location.  During one pre-dawn visit I found another photographer there. He and began to chat, but when the sun’s early light rimed the tree tops we were spellbound; we stopped and turned to our cameras.  I have sometimes come across fine art painters working at their easels capturing the late afternoon light when cooler autumnal temperature have called for the annual performance of the foliage magic.  Visit the many galleries in the area and you’re bound to find visual art inspired by the Housatonic.

Last year another of my Ashley Falls images, “Housatonic Dawn”  (below. Sorry, that title could have been better chosen.) won 2nd prize in the Reflections category. All of these images were taken within 100 yards of each other.

Reflections -- Paul Vreeland -- Housatonic Dawn

Dirty Tricks or Photographic Arts?

Lady Kristin

Lady Kristen – Copyright 2013 – Paul Vreeland

“… there is no such thing as an absolutely unmanipulated photograph.” 

Mia Fineman – curator Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A companion piece to “No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time and laziness is not the only reason why it’s been delayed. As a “slog” (slow blog), I can say that, until Lionel Stevenson’s recent book launch at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Gallery, it wasn’t ready to be written.  It had begun weeks ago as a post about photography having a bad reputation as a conveyer of truth, and how things go downhill rapidly when we consider what happens after the camera shutter has been pressed.

Lionel Stevenson is a distinguished and well-known Prince Edward Island photographer. A retrospective, “career survey” of his work, “Fifty Years of Photographs,” had been on exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts since last October until this month. I took in the exhibit several times and loved what I saw. The prints were gallery large and with few exceptions were black and whites. Stevenson’s subjects ranged from portraits of Islanders, to barns, wintry street scenes, and huge erratics—boulders deposited by glaciers at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. My curiosity was piqued by the brief curator’s note, “Stevenson’s contention is that subject matter is largely secondary…” I had learned that if I wanted to make beautiful photographs I had to be alert to beautiful subjects. I had learned that beautiful photography was dependent upon beautiful subjects. In other words, the subject was everything. Well, almost. The application of artistic skill is supposedly responsible for the rest.  evans_wife3

This posting is, once again, about art and truth. In “No News from Poems” I wrote about the truth that fiction would offer relative to the truth that creative non-fiction asserts. That discussion has a parallel arising from a confusion of purposes served by photography. Is it the duty of the photography to record and document the truth as does creative non-fiction? Or is it the function of the photographic arts, like that of the short story, to probe the nuances of more subjective truths? (And I would agree with those who say the function of fiction is simply to entertain. But I would ask, is it possible to be entertained without an engagement that begs the reader to resonate in some way with character—a resonance descriptive of our human condition—descriptive of a truth?)  Both discussions are founded on what is “seen” on a purely materialistic plane and the meaning of “seeing” or “envisioning” on a more spiritual level.

Lionel Stevenson is a master printer. He worked as an assistant to American documentary photographer Berenice Abbott.  It is important to note here that Abbott, was of the pure or straight photography school.  Popularized in the 1930s by photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans, straight photography held to a realism and objectivity that renounced methods of image manipulation. It was distinguished by high contrast, sharp focused, uncropped prints—images that were “representational”—creative non-fiction, if you will. (Right: Straight Photograph — Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama, by Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Straight photography was a refutation of the Pictorialist Movement of the late 19th century in which images were manipulated and processed to look like paintings. In fact a number of painters including Manet, Cézanne and Gauguin used photography in their work. The pictorialists are to photography what fiction writers are to literature. Steichen The Flatiron

“Work straight,” a critic is reported to have said. Produce photographs, not imitation fine art. And the purists renounced soft focus, darkroom trickery, drawing or scratching on negatives, and gum printing.

Whether an image is bathed in chemicals in a darkroom or is digitally enhanced by software, the term we use is “post-processing”– “post” because it refers to all the work, all the processing that is done after the shooting, after the camera has done its job. (Right: Pictorialist, The Flatiron Building by Edward Steichen who trained as a painter. The photo was taken in 1904 before the advent of colour film. Here Steichen achieved an artistic moodiness through a process that suspended pigments in gum bichromate over platinum prints.)

Why is this important to me? In Stevenson’s work I find a hint of what it is that I try to accomplish. Perhaps by understanding him I can come to a better understanding of what I am about. You see I spend a lot of time post-processing images and the debate for me is about the manipulation of the image. I found it difficult to reconcile the notion that “the subject is secondary” to a straight documentary photographer; I didn’t understand how realism and objectivity can be reconciled with a concentration on the processing of the image after the shutter has been pressed.  There is something akin to a moral dilemma here, because an adherence to the lofty goals of realism and objectivity has given post-processing a bad wrap. Post-processing is, shockingly, a dirty word in the vocabulary of many accomplished photographers – those who should know better, as well as the neophytes who promote an ignorance that “the camera doesn’t lie,” – a fallacy dating back to 1895.

He looked up from the proof at me and said:
‘Good Lord! Do I look like that?’
‘The camera doesn’t lie about such things’, I replied. (1)

This is not another article on the use of the photographic arts to deceive. There’s a host of worthy articles out there such as the art review by Ken Johnson in The New York Times, “Their Cheating Art: Reality and Illusion—‘Faking It at the Met, a Photography Exhibition” (2). Or, as one post title read: “Photos don’t lie, but liars use photographs to deceive…”(3)  We live in a culture of photographic deception. Just take a look at the tabloids when you’re standing in line at the grocery checkout—the celebrity victims of extreme weight gains, losses and aging.   Think about it. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word photoshopped? This aspect of the photographic arts has been deemed “evil” and a “sin.”

The preeminent tool for contemporary post-processing is Adobe Corporation’s software known as Photoshop, and when an image is said to have been “photoshopped”, we often mean that it has been stripped of its veracity and journalistic integrity. To ‘photoshop’ is to lie. I’m not the only one concerned about this. David Peterson posted an article questioning, “Is Post-Processing Evil?” Peterson writes:

Artists can be a self-righteous bunch. There will always be the purists, those who don’t even own a digital camera, and then there are those who recognize the importance of Photoshop and other tools. When it comes to the ethics of photography, post-processing tends to get the bad end of the stick because it involves the direct manipulation of a photo after it’s been taken. There is always the opportunity to cover up bad photography with computer-generated effects, so some consider it to be evil. But is it?

I’d like to offer a couple of points in defense of post-processing, not because it needs defending, but because I need to understand what I am doing.

First, the lie begins in the camera. There is no perfect lens, and the truth of what we see is distorted by whatever piece of glass is in front of the sensor or film. The truth is also altered by the choices the photographer makes before the shot is taken—choices of aperture, exposure, shutter speed and ISO. As the well-known American photographer Edward Steichen said, “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.” And who in their right mind believes in a realism that witnessed the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, or the testing of the atomic bomb at Bikini atoll in black and white. That reality is limited to those who are colour blind.

Secondly, post-processing can help render an image to more closely replicate what the human eye sees. A case in point is a trendy technique called HDR which stands for high dynamic range.  The human eye is at least ten times more sensitive to luminosity or a range of brightness than is the camera. Most of us have taken a photo in which the sky offers up its true brilliance but our subject, Uncle Wally or whoever, turns out to be a dark silhouette. Or maybe Uncle Wally is properly rendered and the sky is a blinding white. To compensate for the technological shortcomings of the camera, some photographers take multiple photos of their subjects, each at a different exposure setting.  Through post-processing the different exposures can be layered to create an image that better approximates the human eye. Unfortunately HDR is contributing to the notion that post-processing is evil because the technique is popularly abused. The internet is awash in HDR images so blatantly over the top that no human eye could have ever perceived the subject so. Peter West Carey, in a post titled “Knowing My Limits – Why I Don’t Do HDR” writes:

It’s not that HDR is totally evil (just mostly) and should be done away with. I know it’s a bit of a craze and newfangled thing right now. Just stop taking it too far and stop using it in place of proper exposure and accepting the limits of the scene in front of you. There is so much great stuff to learn about proper exposure that the HDR gadget can just sit at the back of the drawer like the outgrown toy it has become. Care to differ? Please do! Just keep it civil.(4)

I would agree. If you can tell that an image is HDR, then you’ve crossed the line. You want the image to stand out, not the technique that produced it. I can hear the critics of the pictorialists saying that. By the way, the photo above, Lady Kristen, is an HDR image.

Camera technology has advanced to the point where we now need to ask is HDR a post-processing technique. What if the HDR processing is done in camera? Several digital cameras now offer that feature. And apps for iPhones and other smart phone cameras enable users to snap HDR photos.

But hold on. What if the photographer doesn’t want to render a scene as his human eye “sees” it? What if he wants to render it as his imagination “sees” it? What if he is less concerned with capturing an image than in creating a new one? What if he wants to document his vision? What if the harsh, garish reality of what the photographer envisioned is best rendered by an over-the-top and in-your-face HDR treatment? I’ve gone too far, but I want to make a point about the seeming difference between documenting a truth and creating a new one. Which brings me back to Lionel Stevenson who said,

Although the referent is important in my photographs, and it is the stimulus to pick up the camera, for me the photograph is more important than its referent. [It] is essentially about what pleases my eye. I want to make beautiful sheets of paper.”(5)

Mind you, Stevenson is a straight photographer. He’s a documentary photographer who wants “his prints to be as true as possible to what he originally saw.”(6). But, for Stevenson, it’s not about snapping pictures, rather, it is the much slower matter of controlling the process to enable the aesthetic object to emerge.

At the recent launch of his book I shared my questions with him. I pressed Stevenson about being a straight photographer and post-processing.

“Yes,” he said, “When you go out, you remember what you see, you remember the grayscales.”

“But,” I countered. “Is it a matter of your physical eye or is it something greater? Is it a vision?”

He nodded and drew my attention to a quote by Berenice Abbott in the book I had just purchased.

The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objective is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework—that to me is the art of photography.(6)

Is there a difference between a recorded documented truth and one created by art? Maybe. If we limit our understanding to one perspective and accept all others as “wrong”. And maybe not. Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other, but a matter of one and the same. Here, for me, is the reconciliation. For photographers like Stevenson, print-making and post-processing are the arts that bridge the gap across a false dichotomy to create a new documentary truth seen someplace between the eye, the mind, and the soul. Simply seen, but not so simply rendered.

Am I a straight photographer or a pictorialist? I don’t know yet. But I do know that this is creative non-fiction.

—————————

The Sandusky Register, Sandusky, Ohio, February 1895 (see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html)

2 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/arts/design/faking-it-at-the-met-a-photography-exhibition.html?

3 http://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/photos-dont-lie-but-liars-use-photographs-to-decieve/

4 http://digital-photography-school.com/knowing-my-limits-%e2%80%93-why-i-dont-do-hdr#ixzz2UV53P6Wv

5 Lionel F. Stevenson – Fifty Years of Photographs / Cinquante ans de photographie (1962-2012), Pan Wendt, Acorn Press, Charlottetown, 2013, p. 9.

6 Ibid, p. 10.

7 Ibid, p. 13.

Painting with Light and the Metaphysical Reality of Literary Photography

World Unity Still LifeUncle Wiggily & World Unity – copyright 2012 – Paul Vreeland

The members of the Carry On Gang, one of the writers’ groups I participate in, recently put their heads down for an exercise of list-making. One lists of the 12 most terrifying or dangerous words, another of the most beautiful words, and a third of the most annoying words. “Reality” was at the top of my most annoying word list along with “real” and “really”– a list of words that I find so overused as to render them meaningless – a list that includes “nice”, “cute”, and “perfect” (as it is so commonly offered by waiters, waitresses and retailers and nearly everyone who wants to pass judgment on my choices). But now I’ve done it. The word “reality” is up there in the title of this post. Tell me it’s not perfect.

The photo above (Uncle Wiggily & World Unity) was taken in the dark. Inspired by the excellent tutorials by Dave Black offered at Kelby Training (http://kelbytraining.com/course/dblack_lightpaint/), I set my camera on a tripod, hung a black cloth over the window, and turned out the lights. I opened the shutter for about 30 seconds, and with a small flashlight, I “painted” the objects with light.  Dave made it look so easy, and his sets were much more complicated than mine. I took twenty, thirty shots before I had a glimpse of satisfaction.

For those of you who read my last post, “Listening to the voice that call, “Come back. I’m not finished with you yet,” – those of you who remember that I promised a shot of the Wright’s Creek foliage, it’s coming up. No. This time it’s not a tease. Keep reading.

It didn’t occur to me that “painting with light” was a theme of the past several weeks until I stumbled upon the breathtaking work of Irene Kung (www.irenekung.com), a Swiss photographer living in Milan, Italy. Check out this short video about her: http://youtu.be/YSFmKxSArgc Irene Kung’s work is a far cry from my still life experiments, and her images will stay with me for some time. They’re worth a study. How I wish that she would offer a tutorial. Sigh.

But what does painting with light have to do with writing and literature?

Enter Mary Ellen. She’s a rather insistent journalism student, a character in my slowly emerging and as yet unfinished novel. Recently she told me to read The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam’s account of reporting from Vietnam in the early 60s. Now Mary Ellen says that I’m to read In Cold Blood. She knows that I’ve seen the movie (1967), but that I haven’t read the book. Truman Capote’s ego hails the book as the first “nonfiction novel”, a literary feat opening up a new genre of literature, better known today as creative nonfiction. Interested in the thin line separating creative nonfiction from journalism, Mary Ellen wonders what would have happened if The New York Times had sent Capote to Vietnam and had asked Halberstam to cover the murder of the Clutter family in the sleepy plains village of Holcomb, Kansas.

Literary photography?

Continue reading

Listening to the voice that calls, “Come back. I’m not through with you yet.”

Solitary in Fog II

Amble Towards Epiphany – copyright 2012 — Paul Vreeland

“I know something is there. I just haven’t found it yet,” he explained. I was watching a video of a talk given by Scott Kelby at a photographer’s conference hosted by Google+.  Kelby, the author of several how-to books, and host of www.kelbytraining.com, is a well-known name in the world of digital photography. The title of his talk is “Crush the Composition” and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the art. Crush_Composition

Click here to watch the hour-long “Crush the Composition” Youtube video

Scott was talking about “working the scene”. “Try this, try that. Create a shot list. Shoot wide, shoot tight. If something makes you stop, there is something there. Your job as a photographer is to find it.” He was offering another stop-and-think-about-what-you’re-doing slow movement dictum. “It’s our nature to want to go on to the next thing—shoot the next shot. Once you’ve done a lot of shooting, stop, sit down, look at the back of your camera and start going through your shoots. Make sure you’ve shot it every way possible.”

Every morning on the way to work, I pass Andrew’s Pond and Wright’s Bridge. The transformation wrought by the change of season on the foliage overhanging the water was remarkable this year. For several mornings I drove by, glancing over my shoulder at the crimsons and oranges bowing towards the dark water. Each time I drove by I knew the foliage would diminish both in intensity and in mass. I knew the lighting would change. I knew that if I continued my habit of getting to my desk as quickly as possible and diving into my comfortable routine, I would miss the shot, whatever that shot was. I stopped and I shot. On three consecutive mornings I stopped and I shot. Are you expecting to see the results? Keep reading.

Sometime during the past year, or maybe two, Alanna and I watched a film set in the middle east. A foreign movie with English subtitles, the plot had something to do with a two men making a road journey across a hot hard-scrabble and treeless terrain. I’m sorry, I can’t remember the reason for the journey, or the title of the film, but what I do remember is one scene in which the driver of the dusty white automobile, who happens to be a photographer, is taken by the beauty of the landscape. There is something that he sees that makes him stop. Scott Kelby would have told him, “There is something here. Your job is take your camera and find it.” We watch as the driver looks out the car window assessing the view, knowing that he will never return to this locale. His partner senses that the photographer’s talent has been tempted and he asks, “ Do you want to take a picture?” It is a moment of decision—a moment with little in the way of dialogue, and much in the depiction of self-betrayal. The photographer doesn’t get out of the car. He doesn’t take up his camera, and he doesn’t honour what his eyes have been blessed to see. He puts the car in gear and drives on. (If you know the name of the film is, please leave a comment.)

Perhaps the image of the landscape will haunt him for some time. If he retains the image, even if it is confined to his imagination, isn’t that enough, you ask. At least he has that.

Would it have been enough for Michaelangelo to “know” that his David(1501—1504) was confined to a giant block of Carrara marble—a block that had first been worked on by Agostino di Duccio and later by Antonio Rossellino, and then neglected for twenty-five years? Michaelangelo is reputed to have said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – a statement that echoes Kelby’s suggestion that when he is attracted to a scene, “I know something is there. I just haven’t found it yet.”

The character in the Middle-Eastern road trip film is not a great photographer. He wasn’t as well-know a talent as Michaelangelo was a Renaissance master. But I don’t believe that this matters. The question is this: what of the writer who doesn’t apply his pen? What of the photographer who doesn’t use his camera? While we and millions of others have benefitted from Michaelangelo’s talent, isn’t it also true that Michaelangelo—something of what he discovered about himself as an artist, and as a human–was imprisoned in the stone until he brought forth his David. Maybe, for a writer, it’s not so much about the event of publication, as it is creative process of discovering who it is that is writing, who it is that is self, mirroring glimpses of the divine. Maybe, for the photographer . . .

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Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity

Sacrifice

Sacrifice (copyright Paul Vreeland 2012) Scott Kelby 5th Annual World Wide Photo Walk — Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Adding years to our lives is not a numbers game; it’s about living a thousand years of experience during the four score and ten we’ve been allotted. Is that you muttering, “Platitudes and philosophical pap”. Hold on. There’s scientific evidence to the contrary—evidence that also offers a valuable tip to writers. But before we get there, let me develop a theme.

There are, it seems to me, at least three things we can do if we want to extend and expand our lives. First, we can join the slow movement, taking the time to savour moments of our lives. Secondly, we can re-examine portions of our lives and re-live and re-create them. Thirdly, we can live the lives of others, real and imagined. We can be a confidant to earth-bound articulate people with exciting lives and experience the stories they tell us. We can be readers living through characters on the printed page, or we can be writers living through the lives we create.

You’re still muttering. I can hear you. You want the science, I know. Let’s take a walk.

October 13, 2012

The hard edge of a chilly and windy autumn morning pulls at my inadequate jacket, the end of summer sleeping in my eyes. A cold front paints a plain blue pallet on a clear sky. I’m walking the Confederation Trail through Charlottetown with a camera, having joined 32 thousand other photographers in 1300 cities for the Scott Kelby’s 5thannual World Wide Photo Walk. It’s my first World Wide Photo Walk. It has a fixed term of two hours, from 10 a.m. to noon, and a couple of kilometers of fixed locale. And given a dozen other photographers, there is a competitive aspect to the event. How much can we “see” while strolling along a well-trafficked urban path? How much can we “see deeply”? We start out together after a group shot, and the pack soon disintegrates.

Some promoters have billed the Photo Walk as a social event, yet every photographer shoots alone. A hundred meters down the trail another photographer joins me. He chats, I listen, all the while my eyes wanting to be engaged elsewhere. He stops to take a photo, and I leave him. Grateful for the tips he’s given me, I’m happy to be alone again.

Setting out I am overly self-conscious, overly sensitive to a self-imposed pressure to “see” better than the others “see”, or to see what they don’t. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m self-conscious about my entry-level gear.

My expectations are low and this event is challenge. I’ve walked this trail before. I know where it goes and I know the major landmarks along the way. I wonder if others have scouted the trail in advance, lined up pre-shots. After a few minutes I spot a collection of orange pylons in front of a red storage shed, and I slip into that slow zone where imagination and creativity take control of the clock. The two/three kilometer walk may as well have been fifteen or a hundred and fifty; so much was “seen” during the two hours that passed as two seconds. Cold coffee syndrome: when I take my eye out of the viewfinder, the day’s half over and I’m at the end of the walk, grateful for the lesson.

World Enough
Christian McEwen opens her new book World Enough & Time: on creativity and slowing down (Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 2011) with George’s story—a story about another exercise, another walk, another lesson:

Twenty-five years ago, I was teaching a creative writing class in London. Some of my students were young mothers, relieved to find themselves in adult company again after the unremitting demands of their small children; some were middle-aged, with modest private incomes, and the rest were older people, recently retired.

There was a man in this last group whom I’ll call George, a creaky, lanky, doubtful sort of fellow, perhaps in his mid-seventies. I don’t remember his real name. But I do remember his response to one of my assignments. It was the sort of lesson, at least for me as a teacher, that I hope I will never forget.

`I had asked the class to take some ordinary task—washing the dishes, tidying up the children’s toys—and to tackle it at less than half the usual speed. “Look at the bubbles on the knife-blade as your rinse it,” I told them. “Feel the hot water on your hands. Enjoy that moment when the room is clean, and every single toy is put away.”

The point behind all this, of course, was slowing down: slowing down enough to be there in the present moment, enough so they could notice and describe. I didn’t know much about eastern religions in those days, but what I was proposing was in fact a very basic exercise in what Buddhists would call “mindfulness.”

Several mornings later, everyone gathered around the long oval table to report back on what had happened. George was one of the first to speak. He had a part-time job, he told us, even though he was officially retired. It was a job he had been doing for a great many years. He always walked home along the same few streets, taking the shortest possible route. But the previous afternoon, fulfilling the assignment, he had walked home from work a different way. His face creased with pleasure as he described what he had seen: the pink geraniums in someone’s window-box, the unfamiliar houses. It had taken him perhaps half an hour longer than usual. But he had enjoyed every minute. For the first time in thirty or forty years, his journey had seemed fresh to him.

I read the first chapter of World Enough & Time, and then did something unanticipated. I went back to the beginning and read the chapter again. I’m still reading the book. I wish I could say that about all the books I have opened. Now it seems that when I say, “Oh, yes. I’ve read that book,” stressing the past tense and the act of completion, I’ve missed the point.

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You Can’t Hurry Love: A Justification for Slow Writing

Luminous Crossing-2

The crossing of luminous souls – Paul Vreeland copyright 2012

If Blog posts are quick, gut responses, the “Slow Scholarship” alternative, the “Slow Blog” or “Slog” involves the posting on the web of short, thoughtful essays that have been carefully thought through. Typically they will not be posted more than a few times a year. ~ from the “Slow Scholarship: A Manifesto”.

http://web.uvic.ca/~hist66/slowScholarship/

In allowing the thoughts that I expressed last month to percolate, and in pursuing the paths they opened up to me, I recently read In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré. When I read his chapter on “Leisure: The Importance of Being at Rest” I wanted to take up knitting. If I did, maybe I’d finish my novel. Honoré cites Bernadette Murphy who claims, “It’s a wonderful cure for writer’s block.”

While there are many facets to the slow movement—slow food, slow sex—a few hold a particular interest to me as a writer. Surely you will not be surprised when I say that slow reading is one of them. Patrick Kingsley writing for The Guardian (Manchester, UK, not Charlottetown PEI) picks up where Nicholas Carr left off.(See last month’s blog “The Dreaded ‘D’ Word: or Why the Internet is not to blame for my Unfinished novel” for a link to Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.) Kingsley opens his feature “The Art of Slow Reading” with:

Is it time to slow our reading down? If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/15/slow-reading

While it may be obvious to you, I need to beg the question: just what is meant by “slow reading”?

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