Saturday, February 11, 2017

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826

Draft of the first page of a hopefully book-length manuscript on photography.  In memoriam Robert Linsley, and for Jamie, Beck and Helga, who asked.


First, an anecdote:

In 1999, just prior to opening the bookstore, I went on a trip to the US Southwest that involved driving around in a rental car, buying every saleable thrift-store book I could find, and UPS-ing them all home to Vancouver.  Most US thrift stores were closed on Sundays, so Sunday became a travel day.  One Sunday found me driving down a stretch of former highway in Colorado Springs.  Motels; taverns; payday lending; hair salons.  Up ahead, a big, attractively weathered sign on a pole advertised someone's garage or autobody shop.  I braked hard; I'd like to think Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, or Stuart Davis would have braked, too.  Somebody honked behind me: no stopping, even on Sunday.  I drove down another block, parked, and walked back with one of the disposable plastic cameras I'd bought to document my trip.  I stood in the business' driveway and focused on the sign, squinting through the camera's cheap plastic viewfinder.  Soon a pissed-off woman came out of the building and down the driveway toward me.

-Can I help you?

-I'm good, thanks, I said, not taking my eye from the viewfinder.

-What the hell are you doing?

-I'm photographing.

-I'm calling the fucking cops!


I walked -- jogged, really -- back to the car and split.

What bugged me back then -- what still bugs me today, if I'm honest -- is that I could not have given a more cogent answer if I tried, not to her and certainly not to the cops.

What are you doing?


Doing what, exactly?

In 1999 I didn't know, and in 2017, definitions don't help much.  "To practice photography."  (  "The art of capturing the beauty of life, the act of appreciating 'the moment.'" ( Or (via "The art, process, or job of taking pictures with a camera" (DEFINITION FOR ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS); "The making of pictures by means of a camera that directs the image of an object onto a surface that is sensitive to light" (DEFINITION FOR STUDENTS); and, finally, "The art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or an optical sensor)."  I like that last definition best; I think it is almost truthful.  The STUDENTS and ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS definitions are too awed by equipment; their thudding insistence on the camera as the thing-that-does-photography ignores Corot's cliché verres (c. 1850), Man Ray's photograms (c. 1920), Pierre Cordier's chemigrams (1956-present), and hundreds of other counter-examples.  Does a simpler definition exist? Throw out cameras, and film, and anything else extraneous, and you eventually end up with just two limiting conditions: light and a support.  Light understood as an electromagnetic spectrum running all the way from infrared to gamma radiation; support meaning a surface (paper; panel) or plane (projection screen; cellphone screen; computer monitor; camera sensor).  Merriam-Webster's insistence on a sensitive surface is too specific; right away it eliminates James Nizam's room-size camera obscuras, whose images appear on the upright interiors of derelict Vancouver houses, and Abelardo Morell's temporary marriages of internal and external architectural space.

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