The Photography Paradox

About a year after my brain injury, things had improved and stabilized enough for me to consider finding something to do with myself.  We had a good, although somewhat out of date, 35mm camera.  We had gotten reasonably proficient with it years before, but had been in the closet for longer than we had used it

Over that year, I had learned the path to relative success with tasks was to break them down to their simplest parts and then to stretch their execution out over as much time as possible.

With a mechanical camera, or one at a manual setting, a photographer has 3 settings to consider:  aperture, focus and shutter speed.   The camera’s orientation is a fourth factor, although it is outside the camera’s mechanics. And of course square filmed cameras did exist.  Finally the photographer had to choose what film to use.

So I reasoned that keeping as much  of this the same as I could would free up as much of my cognitive abilities as possible for the various accidental tasks necessary.  I opted always to use a fully stopped down aperture, Kodak Gold 100 film (readily available at the time and of medium ie affordable quality) and portrait orientation.  That left me with shutter speed and focus at “the decisive moment”, and of course the ephemeral, extra-camera act of composition. (We had a couple of lenses, but at that point I used just the normal lens.)

I could have approximated the effect of all this with a point and shoot camera, but I don’t think any used 35mm film, and none of them had anything close to the lens quality I had grown used to from my previous photographic enthusiasm.

Amanita Mucaria with Slug (Atomic Geography) Easter, 1982

Amanita Mucaria with Slug (Atomic Geography)
Easter, 1982

I found the results encouraging.  My sense of composition seemed unaffected by my injury.  And while the doing of it was taxing, it felt more like growth than destruction. (A photo from the first roll of film taken in this  experiment is at right.)

Over the next 10 years or so, I slowly not only re-aquired the knowledge and skills I had in the past, but extended them considerablily. I now had multiple lenes, filters, a tripod, remote shutter release, a variety of films,  shades and reflectors and 2 camera bodies.  (My friend, George the barber gave me much of this extra equipment when he made the move to digital.)  I got a film scanner and I learned enough digital photo processessing for my needs.

The problem was that at the point of taking a picture, with my increased knowledge, too much had to occur in too short a time.  The ephemneral light of the woods with its interplay of a sun shifiting into different intensities and frequencies with the shortening  morning shadows of the trees and the randomness of clouds obscuring the sun meant there simply was no way to plan out enough to make it manageable. The decisive moment required too many decisions.

Binghamton - Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant Copies Without Originals

Binghamton – Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant
Copies Without Originals

I called my dissatisfaction with this state of affairs the photography paradox. The more I knew, the less I was able to do.  Sure I could have returned, to the enforced simplity of that first roll of film, but I had seen gay Paree (at right).

So I took fewer and fewer photos, and then stopped altogether.  This point coincided with some health problems unrelated to my injury, and family responsibilities that required most of my limited attention.  By the time these things were better enough for me to onsider returning to photography, the digital had taken over.

Gone was the local camera shop, the easy availability of film, its processing and printing.  To resume film photography would require as much re-learning, new learning and new equipment as would going digital.

Digital cameras were becoming popular while I had been photographing, but now they defined the photographic world.  The capabilities of digital cameras were impressive then, but now they are astonishing.  In short digital photography is now a substantially different medium from what is was.

As I have learned more about this I can see that my own personal photography paradox may be a metaphor for digital photography, displayed digitally, conceptualized digitally.  For me, the more I knew, the less I could execute.  Now much more of not just the knowledge but also decision-making needed to make a photograph resides in the various digital technologies involved.  The photography paradox becomes then,  the less one knows, the more one is able to execute.


Not Remembering Charles O’Hara

I just ran across a post, Remembering Charles O’Hara at Blau Stern Shwartz Shlonge.  The post describes Blau’s memories of Charles O’Hara, and asks others to share theirs.  A small part of the post follows:

I first met the late Charles O’Hara in the late 1980s to early 1990s. My Buddhist friend back then, Dave K, and I would drive the 150 miles or so from Harrisburg to the little town of Susquehanna Pennsylvania, just south of the border near Binghamton NY and along the thin northern branch of the Susquehanna river.

We would park in the back and walk up through the yard to the back porch which had huge crates from Nepal stacked all over. It turned out he was a major purveyor and importer of mostly Tibetan Buddhist items from Nepal and northern India, and was a major supplier for Snow Lion, some people there still remembering him.

…Why am I writing about him here 20 years later? Because I think about him often, and I am surrounded by items I purchased from him, and I was recently going through a photo album and found these pictures.

If anyone who reads this remembers Charles O’Hara, or even has a picture of him, I would love to hear from you.

I never met Charles, but my wife and I bought a statue from his daughter (we don’t remember her name) as he lay dying.

I had encephalitis  in 1994 that resulted in my brain injuries.  We had an interest in Buddhism for years, but this event gave a certain urgency to the interest where before there was mainly curiosity. By the next year, we visited Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca which had just opened.  I don’t remember how we heard about Charles, but at some point Karen called , spoke to hs daughter and arranged a time for us to go there.

When we found the house in Susquehanna, we weren’t sure it was the right place.  No one answered the front door so we went around to the back, a big dog, fenced in, barking and snarling at us.  We knocked and his daughter answered.  She apologized for the chaos of the place and explained her father was dying, quite near death in fact.  We asked if we should leave. Graciously she said no and showed us around.

She said the dog wasn’t usually so aggressive. She laughed and said his name was Buddha.  (On the way home, I asked Karen if she thought Buddha had Buddha Nature).

Charles’ daughter said she herself was not a Buddhist, but would continue the business. She left us to tend to her father.  We wandered around among the myriad statues arranged on the floor of several rooms kinda freaked out by all statues of various Buddhist wrathful deities in sexual union with their consorts.  Eventually, we picked out a statue and a wooden mask I now know to be  Amitabha and Mahakala.

She returned and said she wasn’t sure which Buddha the statue was.  Word finding and talking were quite difficult at that point, so I said “I think he is  Sukiyaki” meaning Shakyamuni.  Maybe she missed a beat, but was very kind, saying, “I’m sure that’s it.”

The following year we wanted to buy another statue.  When Karen called, Charles’ daughter said she had sold the business and everything was gone.  I later learned that the name of the business is Tibetan Spirit.

As  I said, we never met Charles,but we will never forget him.

Disabled Disability

I had intended to write here quite a bit more than I have on disability.  This is really saying something.  Eighteen years ago I had viral encephalitis.  It damaged mainly my temporal and parietal lobes.  Making any kind of statement is remarkable.

For most of that time, I did not have much of a disability identity. While I had various and sometimes overwhelming reactions to what had happened, I rarely used the word “disabled” itself.  It was more like “Something happened” followed by various negative emotions mixed in with a lot of confusion, mixed in with a kind of clarity I struggle to explain.

The word I’m most likely to use in my own head is “brokenness”.

This brokenness is certainly the loss of function, of ability.  I have trouble making sense.  Whatever eloquence I attain here requires a lot of effort and leaves me both exhausted and in pain from the effort.   Sometimes I just talk repeating myself in increasingly tighter  circles.  Suddenly seeing a clock I might realize that 15 minutes had passed.  Seeing the worry on my listener’s face, I wonder if it had been all gibberish or “just” a semantic vortex.

This is from a general difficulty processing information, rather than extensive damage to my speech centers – although there is some of that.  Whether the information comes from raw external stimuli, my own mental processes or a combination of the two doesn’t matter.  My experiences of time, object permanence and memory are all impaired, altered, something different.  So I have trouble both making sense and making sense of.

But this brokenness is also a breaking open, a kind of general breaking open of how things are, the beautiful assault I’ve referred to before.  I would have never chosen it, but there it is.