One Block

Before the revelation came upon me that I would rather be poor and know I had fought to do what I loved than be wealthy and know I gave in, I was studying physical therapy. I took a brief internship in that field and caught a glimpse of what my future would be spent doing: butt massages – a lot of butt massages. Also, you’d be surprised how many people don’t mind a stranger catching a prolonged glimpse of their backside, so long as you’re in a button-down shirt and slacks.

After that wake-up call, I managed to get into my first college level art class. It was a digital photography class with several prerequisites that I hadn’t taken. By the end of the class, I escaped with a generous C-, the worst grade I received in college by a whole letter. It wasn’t because I didn’t make work that was good enough (partly thanks to Auto-mode), it’s because I underestimated the work load. In high school, art classes were almost as good as recess was in elementary school. I wondered why my art teacher liked me, but looking back, it’s because I actually cared about what I was doing.

So there I was, defeated. I brooded over it for six months. I then signed up for my second photography class (this time as a newly converted art major — that process is worth its own post), which was darkroom techniques. Working in the darkroom became my passion for the next three years. The following photograph is one I took on an assignment that asked us to photograph within a one block radius of where we lived. Being certain at the time that I wanted to be the next Ansel Adams (my professor was a studio assistant for Ansel in California when he was younger and spoke of him frequently), I wanted to photograph nature. Across the street from my apartment, there was this little patch of land crammed between a road and a large grocery store chain whose name I will not mention. It had a small creek, which was more like a sewer, and a bunch of mangy looking vegetation. I took my camera there, determined to make something work. The following is a scan of the silver gelatin print that came from the shoot; it was one of the first images that I ever was proud of. This was not so much because it was a good print, but because it made me realize one of the reasons why the camera is such an important tool for me: through a photograph, the world and all the things in it can be bent to the will of the imagination.

One Block

7 thoughts on “One Block

  1. Well put again James, and my sentiments exactly, I feel completely in sync with you when you talk about photography, how it is merely a tool to express (and extend) your imagination with. And also what you said about rather being a poor sod than do some awful, menial thing you hate with all your soul, I’m so with you on that one. And yes, I’m a poor sod indeed, but it’s all good…at least I have my pictures.

    Was that professor really Ansel’s assistant? Wow, you must have had some really interesting discussions with him!How about a post, you know, for some inside info on Ansel’s world and methods. Now that would be something indeed!

    Wonderful post, and all the best.

    1. Thank you, JP. Yes, he was one of the assistants at some of Ansel’s photography workshops that he used to have. It wasn’t an exclusive title, which doesn’t negate from how impressive it is, but I did get to have lunch with John Sexton, who was the main assistant for Ansel for several years and who is a very well known and successful protege. I’ve been meaning to make a post about all of that, but I keep forgetting!

  2. A very intriguing story to your process of self discovery.

    Isn’t it interesting to be able to go out to (what seems to be) a familiar area and when you take a fine-tuned look at your surrounding with the mind-set and visions of a photographer, how beautiful and new this world becomes.

    Another Magnum Photographer Eli Reed mentioned photography’s ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, and that’s my approach, as well as photography as the art of seeing. Life is so pronounced when your eye is sensitive to noticing and capturing light and moments.

    What format are you working with? 35mm? With your love for landscapes, perhaps looking into using a 4×5 or even an 8×10 camera would be an interesting option for you. It takes a lot of patience, especially if you know or are willing to learn the Zone System, used by Ansel Adams, but the quality it produces is astonishing.

    I took an intermediate black and white class and our requirement was to use the 4×5… needless to say, I feel in love and invested in my own large format camera. I did a lot of night photography, seeing you can stop down to f64 and use long exposures, seeing the requirement of a tripod (but remember reciprocity failure). It’s well worth the time because the image comes out so crisp. I also attempted portraits with the 4×5 which also produces indescribable glory.

    One of my teachers now, Nigel Poor, had Nicholas Nixon as a teacher back in her college back east. He used an 8×10 camera and shot portraits, along with other subjects. He might be someone to take a look at:

    1. Thank you.

      That was taken with a Bronica, so it was 120. I own a KB Canham DLC45 — a 4×5 (currently out-of-order). If you go back in my posts, I think I’ve put up some work I did with it – the only one I can think of off the top of my head is the Tom’s Alley post. Unfortunately, what I need is an 11×14 or 8×10 so I can contact print. But currently I have no access to, or realistic way to build, a darkroom. I’ve been back to shooting 120 recently, since it can be developed at a couple lonely and stubborn places that still embrace film. The downside of that is it takes away the control of exposing/developing accordingly.

      Yes, I shot between f/22 and f/64 for probably two years. After I graduated I took a vow of not using a tripod for a whole year (for creative work) – that time is almost up, and it will be nice to get into longer exposures again, but with a different aesthetic. Glad to read you’ve felt the distinct love of film, and especially large format – that’s pretty rare. It’s just a different type of magic. That said, digital has its perks. I’m beginning to consider the purchase of a DSLR to encourage myself to be photographing all the time, instead of just at planned times.

      1. Excellent! What a treat to see you working with so many formats.

        I currently work at a photo store and we still work with and process a lot of film and are one of the only photo stores with a working darkroom. It is sad how it’s a dying art. I have a lot of older customers who come in and are still quite dedicated to shooting film.

        Digital is faster, and unfortunately, has taken precedence because of it’s convenience. Granted, that’s mostly all I use because I don’t have time to spend in the darkroom between taking 15 units and working close to 30 hours a week. But then again, I don’t get a lot of time to work on my digital photos either because I’m busy with school work.

        It makes street photography easier, that I’ve found so far. One of these days I’ll get the energy and courage to break out my larger format into the city, San Francisco specifically.

        I have one more semester and will be graduating with my BA in photography and a minor in film studies. I hope to have some more time to invest my heart and soul into photography once I’m done and possibly getting into film production, once I learn.

        Tim Mantoani might another interesting photographer to check out. He shoots with a 20×24 polaroid.

        If you’re on Facebook at all (or I think you can still view it if you don’t have one), I made this page for my photography club specifically for sharing photographers, articles, galleries and everything photography related.

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