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  We had a good, although somewhat out of date, 35mm camera.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.

 

Decomposition As Explanation

Jae Rhim Lee’s The Infinity Burial Project, conceived of as an intersection of art, science and culture seeks to “promote and facilitate an individual engagement with the process of decomposition.”

Our Human bodies store many of the toxins we encounter, so that when we die, we are, to varying degrees, little toxic dumps.  As Lee points out, most western funerary practices add toxic chemicals after death, and then put the whole mess in the ground.

Lee is developing toxin-cleaning-mushroom-based technology embedded in a burial suit to both assist in the decomposition of human bodies, and to mycormediate the toxins.  The mushrooms growing from the mycelium in the suit would break down some toxins into benign substances, and accumulate others such as heavy metals, allowing for safer disposal.

The video embedded here and the discussion on her website do not explain her decision to use edible mushrooms for the project.  It does seem an apt choice though, illustrating the potential for either nourishment or lethal toxicity that mushrooms represent.

All of this led (lead?) me to an extended mediation on mushrooms and this dual potential.  In the Atomic Geography household we have several favorite mushroom dishes, many mushroom field guides and several mushroom cook books.  So I thought of Alice B. Tolkas’ recipe for mushroom flan that she prefaces with this:

We were seduced at once by the little town, the hotel and the forest. We not only ordered lunch but engaged rooms to spend the night. While waiting for lunch to be cooked, we walked in the forest when Gertrude Stein, who had a good nose for mushrooms, found quantities of them. The cook would be able to tell us if they were edible. Once more a woman was presiding in the kitchen. She smiled when she saw what Gertrude Stein brought for her inspection and pointed to a large basket of them on the kitchen table, but said she would use those that Gertrude Stein had found for what she was preparing for our lunch.” Alice B. Tolkas Cookbook

Which lead me to think of Gertrude Stein and her writing.

Continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing.  These are both things.  And then there is using everything.  Composition as Explanation Gertrude Stein

So there we have, I think a succinct gloss of the Infinity Burial Project: the continuous present, beginning again and again and using everything.

For my part, I can’t help but think of what mushrooms recipes I would want served at my memorial service.  It might take a few years for the first few crops of mushrooms to clear my toxins, but at some point these edible mushrooms would be edible.  Maybe ABT’s mushroom flan made with morels.  Maybe Mushroom Fritters with Tomato Sauce from The Mushroom Feast by Jane Grigson.  Or a simple mushroom omelette.

Lee promises new developments in her project in 2014.  Watch this space.

 

Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Vallyey – Part 3

Image

Part 2 asserts that from  the Uncanny Valley’s forest floor, the drone seems both an uncanny robot and a living nonhuman species.  Of course neither is true.

The drone is a remote appendage of a cyborg. The parts of this entity includes a human at a control panel and all the technological infrastructure the drone needs to complete its mission. Distributed across the world, it is a functional human/machine hybrid, just as a human immersed in an electronic device, or in union with a pacemaker is.

Looking down at the Valley’s forest floor for a moment, perhaps distracted by a sound, or just overwhelmed by the vigilance of looking at the sky, I see this:

atomic angel

Destroying Angels (a group of closely related Amanita species around the world) are among the most deadly mushrooms there are.  Humans eating the various species of Destroying Angel (or the closely related the Death Cap) result in up to 95% of mushroom deaths.

These visible mushrooms though are only a projectile of the underground organism, the mycelium.  This part of a fungus can be huge.  Depending on the criteria one uses, a fungus in Oregon is the largest living organism on earth.

Additionally, the fungus lives in symbiosis with the surrounding trees, fungus penetrating into tree roots cells, becoming a functional entity, becoming one thing, becoming a non-human/non-machine cyborg.

Standing on the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, the potential of death hovers above me and stands as witness at my feet.

About Mushrooms

In a previous post,  I described the events leading up to my grandfather telling me, “You have to understand about mushrooms.”  Learning recently about Charles McIlvaine, I recognized something of my grandfather in him.  Both, I think, trusted his own experience to a degree that would ordinarily seem to result in an early death, only to have it validated.

He served in the Union Army for two years, rising to become a Captain. (Here is a point of difference between the two.  My grandfather came to America in part to avoid service in the Polish army.)

I found no account of his next 17 years.  Another similarity to my grandfather perhaps – a certain mystery about where he was and what he was doing.  At that point McIlvaine moved to West Virginia.  This is his account of what happened.

A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten. I remembered having read a short time before this inspiration seized me, a very interesting article in the Popular Science Monthly for May, 1877, written by Mr. Julius A. Palmer, Jr., entitled “ Toadstool eating.” Hunting it up I studied it carefully, and soon found myself interested in a delightful study, which was not without immediate reward. Up to this time I had been living, literally, on the fat of the land – bacon; but my studies enabled me to supplement this, the staple dish of the state, with a vegetable luxury that centuries ago graced the dinners of the Caesars. So absorbing did the study become from gastronomic, culinary, and scientific points of view, that I have continued it ever since, with thorough intellectual enjoyment and much gratification of appetite as my reward. I hope to interest students in the study as I am myself interested.

For twenty years my little friends – the toadstools – have been my constant companions. They have interested me, delighted me, feed me, and I have found much pleasure in making the public acquainted with their habits, structure, lusciousness and food value.

Charles McIlvaine “ OneThousand American Fungi”

McIlvaine’s method for leaning about mushrooms included eating hundreds of species of them.  The ediblity and poisoness of many of these were not known at the time.  His nickname came to be “Ole Ironguts”.

My grandfather came to America when he was 16.  I don’t know what education he had there.  His family was well off, so I’m sure whe went to school.  But from the rough jobs he had in this country, I’m fairly sure his formal education stopped in Poland.  Maybe he began to learn the ways of the forest there.  Because of the way he talked about “the woods” I’m sure though, that his knowledge came from extensive personal obsevation and experimentaton.

If you ever drank his coffee you would know he deserved the name “Ole Ironguts” as well.