Photography and Me: A (relatively) Brief History

What follows is my history as a photographer, such as it is. Consider yourself warned: what follows is some seriously self-involved shit. This is a prelude to my upcoming series of posts about transitioning to a hybrid workflow.

I’ve been writing and rewriting this on-and-off for about a week or so, and despite the fact that I’m sure that probably shows in the quality of writing, if I don’t click the publish button now I’m scared I never will.

Growing up I always wanted to be a comic book artist. I loved to draw and I loved comics, and I entertained that notion until probably my sophomore year of high school, when I was finally able to admit to myself that I was terrible at drawing. It didn’t come easy for me; I had to really work at making something that looked halfway decent. I tend to be a “path of least resistance”-type guy, so coming to the realization that I wasn’t naturally gifted at drawing was a bummer, because I didn’t/don’t have the patience or drive to get better at it.

Around the same time that my hopes and dreams for the future were being crushed, I took a photo class on a lark. And what do you know, I really enjoyed it. My very first project was building a pinhole camera, making a paper negative and then making a contact print. I built my camera, went outside, took a picture of a flower, came inside and threw it in the developer.

Now if you’ve never developed prints in the dark room, let me tell you: it’s seriously like fucking magic. Not in the fuzzy-wuzzy sentimental sense, but real, honest-to-fucking-god sorcery. One second you’re holding a white piece of paper in your hands, a few seconds later there’s an image forming on it. It blew my mind, and in that instant I was hooked.

So one class became two, and then two classes became a series of independent studies through the rest of my high school career. At the time I was getting heavily into punk rock, so I started taking my mom’s old SLR with me to shows until I was able to get my own SLR, a Minolta Maxxum 450i, and then I took that camera with me to shows. I was so deep into it that I even got a job at a one-hour photo place that I kept through college until shortly after I got married.

Like I said, I was hooked.

As high school was winding down for me, I decided that I wanted to pursue a degree in photography. So that’s what I did. I enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall of 1997 and ended up getting a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in photography from there in the spring of 2001.

Along the way, though, I burnt out on photography, and hard. It was an extremely intense program, at least for me. When I hear about other photo programs at other schools, a lot of them sound like they’re more technically-based: exposures, lighting, darkroom skills, etc. Not so at UIC. It was, at least to me, the polar opposite: it was very concept-based. We would take a class with a general theme and then grind out project after project, which meant critique after critique. It was a fucking crucible, and one I was ill-prepared for at the time:

  • For starters, I was almost always the youngest in my classes. Most of the people were in their mid- to late-twenties. And that can be a little intimidating.
  • Next, I’m not a particularly social person. I’m the exact opposite, actually. I find it difficult to talk to other people, to speak up in critiques, to ask for help; anything, really. If it involves talking to people, I’m generally not good at it. So rather than immersing myself in the experience, I felt like I was more of an outside observer.
  • Finally, I was just too fucking punk for my own good. Art school is, by necessity, pretty fucking pretentious, and I was just having none of it at the time. My peers were doing all of these heavy projects, getting into all sorts of ham-fisted symbolism, and I just couldn’t be bothered. At the time, I thought hiding behind metaphors was a waste of time. I still feel that way, actually; if you have something to say about something, fucking say it. And I felt —  still feel — that if you wanted to affect social change, art was a pretty poor way of doing so. Which is funny, because I was listening to an interview with Dave Anderson today, and he said essentially the same thing when talking about his One Block book project.

Really, at the end of the day I was mostly just interested in taking pictures of bands and whatever else caught my eye. Which probably would have been cool with my teachers, but I felt an internal conflict that I had to be making Art with a capital A. Which, even today, is sort of embarrassing to think about. In other words, I felt a constant disconnect between what I wanted to do and what I thought I was supposed to do. And that cognitive dissonance that I constantly felt in the back of my head just ground me down until I burnt out entirely.

I mean, now I know that I should have just done my own thing and been engaging my fellow classmates and teachers about everything I possibly could, and that college was the time to get all of the stupid, pretentious, embarrassing shit out of your system. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. And while I’m still grateful and better off for having had the experience, the biggest regret in my life is not having taken full advantage of art school. Now I’m in a place where I want to talk about this shit, and I have nobody really to talk about it with.

Which, I suppose, is why I’m writing this.

After I graduated, I hardly touched a camera for a few years. I didn’t even want to think about taking pictures. Until we get a little Nikon Coolpix 3500 camera for Christmas, that is. It was a 3.1 MP digital point-and-shoot that I could fit in my pocket, and I fucking loved it. And I gradually started bringing it to shows, and just like that I was once again having fun with photography.

A couple of years after that, I stepped up to a Nikon D50 DSLR. And I took that camera to shows, and started getting back into just taking pictures of things. I’d go to the forest preserve and take pictures, or the cemetery and take pictures, or whatever and wherever. And it was cool and fun.

I signed up for a pro Flickr account and started uploading pictures like a motherfucker. Which was awesome until Yahoo mistakenly shut down the email account I had associated with Flickr, at which point Flickr wouldn’t let me access the account that I paid for with the hundreds of photos that I had uploaded. Which dampened, though didn’t entirely kill off, my enthusiasm. I still brought my camera to shows and still occasionally took it places with me, and took a lot of pictures of our newborn (at the time) son; I just wasn’t that gung-ho about it.

Finally, about a year and a half ago my buddy Justin showed me some stuff that he had done with Lomography’s Diana remake, and I was really taken with it. At the time I had recently got an iPhone and had been playing around with the Hipstamatic faux-analog photography app, and when I saw Justin’s stuff, I got the itch again.

I asked for the Diana F+ remake for Christmas along with some film. And then once I did that, the punk rock DIY part of my brain kicked into overdrive and I thought “Why spend money on processing and printing when all I want to do is shoot black and white?” So I looked on Craigslist and found an old Durst M600 enlarger along with a bunch of accessories. I bought some chemicals and some paper and set up a pretty low-rent darkroom in our basement. Our basement at the time was wide open and had big windows at one end, so I could only print after it got dark outside. I didn’t have any running water, so after fixing prints, I’d leave them in a tray full of water until carrying it upstairs to wash in the mess sink. Oh yeah, and those trays? They were on the floor. I’d be on my knees hunched over them for hours.

At first this was revelatory and the culmination of a dream dating back to high school: I had my own darkroom, however shitty it may be. I could shoot a roll of film, process it and print it in the same day! Despite the inconvenience of the darkroom setup, it was still amazing.

Once again, I was hooked.

Over the course of 2010, I went on an eBay spree, selling shit that I didn’t use anymore and putting that money towards cameras. I hit flea markets (well, flea market, it was only one) and thrift stores, buying anything that looked reasonably interesting. I rediscovered Polaroid, thanks to the Impossible Project.

In the middle of this camera frenzy, we moved to a new house with running water in the basement. I still could only print at night, but I had a much better setup for washing and hanging prints to dry. Plus I had a table for my trays, so I could actually sit while working. Like the Jeffersons, I was moving on up.

Which brings us to now, and brings this post to a close.

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3 Responses to Photography and Me: A (relatively) Brief History

  1. Pingback: Hybrid Workflow, Part One: Rationalizations | WORKER/PARASITE

  2. Pingback: Hybrid Workflow, Part Two: Acquisitions | WORKER/PARASITE

  3. Pingback: Hybrid Workflow, Part Three: Clusterfuckery | WORKER/PARASITE

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