The dog of small things
October 8, 2022 Comments Off on The dog of small things
I got into photography when I was a kid, shooting in black and white with my dad’s Olympus on Ilford film, then developing the negatives and making the prints at a little camera store around the corner where you could rent darkrooms by the hour. My principal subject was my dog Fletcher. I’m not sure how he liked the photos but when he saw the camera come out he knew it was time to go out into the yard and play.
In my 30’s I began taking photos for my job. I was one of the first people I knew who used a digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix. My mentor, a horrible photographer who was also my boss and mom’s husband, had the typical parochial view of photography: Take beautiful pictures.
Of course all his work was anodyne, lifeless, antiseptic, infinitely edited, perfect. There was nothing that could put you to sleep faster than one of Ted’s slide shows and later, digital photo galleries. He was like Wynyon Marsalis, a genius trumpeter who knew nothing about music. He had art inside himself, which was a good place for it.
This approach to photography was savaged indirectly in an essay I recently read. It didn’t critique travel photography per se but it pointed out the pointlessness of trying to newly interpret any major travel destination with a camera. The thing that has made digital photography ubiquitous is the same thing that has robbed it of its interpretive qualities. When you can take a hundred shots in a second and edit them to perfection in a few more, you are no longer in the sphere of art, which is the sphere of chance, and you’ve landed squarely in the sphere of the Philistines, also known in college as the School of Engineering.
If a picture is simply a carefully designed interpretation of light that leaves nothing to chance and is infinitely tweakable, why do it? Or rather, why give one twisted fuck whether or not it’s beautiful? Since the only role left for the camera is to document, why not simply snap the pic and move on? You and your camera have nothing to say besides an aside to the selfie: This is my amazing body and face, and here is where I was, looking at this perfect thing.
So I decided to cast off Ted’s crippling camera-ism, as represented by all of social media, and strip my phonamera down to its most essential function (besides tracking my every move and thought and purchase). I would allow myself no more than a second or two, snap the photo and move on. No edits and no filters of any kind. What I see is what you get.
It’s harder than you think, snapping and moving on. Your whole body will scream “No! Take more!” and when you sit down to review you will positively shudder at the unflattering images, which shudder will morph into an irresistible urge to hit the edit button. So deeply has Ted’s fake perfectionism worked its way into a lifetime of picturetaking that it’s virtually impossible to break the habit. And indeed for the butterfly I took about fifty pictures.
Old habits don’t die in an outing.
Otherwise it worked out fine. There is plenty of random unfocused capture of subjects that aren’t even proper subjects. No ugly artifacts or distracting items were harmed in the taking of these photos, the collation of which I’m calling “The Dog of Small Things.”
You see, there are a host of tiny oaks that have begun growing since I began watering the trees. Though my brown thumb is omnipotent, I’ve carefully not killed anything and have simply given regular water to what’s already here, and oddly enough, native plants know what to do with sunshine and a little extra water.
In addition to the oak babies, I sprinkled some Sequoia seeds when they began to spill out of a green cone I’d brought home. They once grew all over these hills. Why not in the yard? In 1,500 years or so I might have some really impressive shade to sit under.
I also took pictures of things that no one can see but me, for example the leafy mulberries that may not look impressive but which have doubled in size and which now throw out ridiculous amounts of shade and cover for the birds. Or the dead apricot that holds the seed feeder, a perfect perch for the finches and jays, the nuthatch and occasional house sparrow. Or the shrubs that are now busting out all over with golden berries–this time a year ago they were almost dead. Or the things that were hewn to the ground, now making a fine recovery. These photos of things that are invisible are the best of all.
A more satisfying series of pictures I’ve never taken, unblemished by fake colors that were never there, unamputated of ugly appendages that were, free and naked and running wild beneath the soil and sky, a prayer to just moving on, motherfucker.