On a Roll

Apr 6th 2010: New Work, Thoughts

(or: unforeseen challenges of a novice artist)

Yesterday morning I had one of those holy-sh*t moments. One of those that catch you by surprise, early in the morning, just after you wake up, when you are too lazy to get out of bed and, because you are still a bit sleepy, you let your mind wonder to all sorts of random thoughts. Who am I? Why do I only count nine toes on my feet? Why is that kid upstairs crying again? Probably hungry. Why won’t they feed it? And what did they mean by the line “I used my imagination” in the movie last night? What do I need to do today? Wait, what day is it? It’s Sunday. Again? Already? How many Sundays have I had? Holy Sh*t! (<– there it is) It’s already the second Sunday since I started taking photos and the sixth Sunday since I got here. Really? Wow, it’s been six weeks in Buenos Aires and two working fulltime. Holy Sh*t! (<– there it is again) Have I actually accomplished anything? Time to do a progress review:

The last two weeks have been both rewarding and frustrating. The biggest challenge was the switch to doing nothing but photo related work. I am used to set schedules, clear deadlines, and tangible progress. And now, all of a sudden, there is none except for the little man with the top hat in the left (right?) half of my brain telling me: “you are here only for a few months, don’t waste this opportunity. You better have something solid at the end of the trip.” But what? I decided to commit myself fulltime so I can put together one or more bodies of work. But what those were about I had not determined. I figured I would come here and let myself be inspired. Well, turns out you cannot force inspiration. There is no way to say “I’ll be working creatively from 9-12, have lunch, and at around 1pm I will have a great epiphany guiding me for the rest of the week.” I had not thought this through.

Challenge #1: What is my concept, my project? My daily film development capacity is limited to five rolls per day and with plenty of film in my fridge to support that pace I decided to set myself the smaller, clearer goal of shooting around that many every day. Hopefully, as more and more pictures accumulate, themes, patterns, and topics will emerge and I will find some more interesting than others, be inspired, and dive deeper to see how far I can get. I have been pretty good about sticking to this goal. After two weeks have now shot 53 rolls, which is almost 2,000 photos, or 10% of my stock in the fridge. That sounds great, but are they actually any good? Well…. I don’t really know… But I surely would like to. Might help with that epiphany at 1pm…. This leads to:

Challenge #2: How am I doing? My initial intend was to bring a ton of film to Argentina, shoot all day and all night, and then do the post-processing (the darkroom printing stuff) when I am back in the U.S. with an accessible darkroom. While here, I was going to develop the film and only make some quick contact sheets of the negatives, just to make sure things are in order. Without a scanner I am currently taking digital photos of the negatives and inverting them in Photoshop. The result is lousy making it very hard to figure out what is in the image and impossible to judge the quality of the work. So not much help, really. What makes matters worse I just now remembered a story of a photographer doing a road trip across the states, taking all these photos, sending them to a lab for development, and only got to look at them when the trip ended. Turns out they were not what she expected, they all sucked, and she was very upset about the whole thing. Lesson: look at your work while you work. Now, I’m not yet completely lost, but things could be much better. Maybe this challenge could be addressed if I can solve:

Challenge #3: What to do with all that time? Apparently Pablo Picasso painted 14 hours a day. I’m motivated. I can do that. At least that’s what I thought. Consider that taking photos is a very active process, both for the mind and the body. Your feet and legs get tired from all the walking and in the end your brain is exhausted because you are constantly engaging with your environment as you look at and evaluate everything. The most I shot was a few days ago, nine rolls in seven hours, and even with a few breaks that day I was sore and tired for the next two days. On average I shoot about 3-4 hours per day which is about how long it takes for five rolls of film and also close to the limits of my endurance, though I am hoping to build up some more stamina. Adding an hour at night to develop that film and an hour in the morning to cut it up and make contact sheets ends up being only about six hours per day. This is nice in some way as it allows me to think a lot, look at other photographers online, squint at my contact sheets a few more times, make a few drawings, read a little, take some Tango classes, and play around with little side projects like the Johnny Cash Project. At the same time I started catching myself repeatedly wishing I could be in the darkroom right now. Where taking photos is an active effort, the slow pace of the darkroom makes processing the images and looking at them a meditative and reflective process. What you discover in the printed images you take back outside when you go shooting next time. And I am starting to really miss that feedback mechanism. There are only so many photographers you can look at online and only so many side projects to work on. Having already become a night owl, the quiet of the time from midnight to 6am would be ideal for darkroom work. *sigh*

These are the fundamental challenges I currently face, the ones that I feel are impacting my ability to make progress, and that I did not anticipate when I planned this trip. They need to be addressed to be able to go through with this. I am sorry to say I do not yet have a happy end as I am still looking into different solutions. However, there is always the alternative: lower my expectations resulting in watching tons of bad movies online, drinking lots of beer, going to parties, and generally turning the trip into a vacation with some photo taking on the side. I hope not.

PS: there are also other issues I constantly need to deal with, such are worries about being robbed, living in a society with a culture of everyone being generally flaky and unreliable, and the fact that people here don’t like to be photographed, often get suspicious, and sometimes even become aggressive when they see a camera. Fortunately these problems are mostly location-specific and solvable.

(continued with The Red Escape)

Posted in New Work and Thoughts by Ernst Bruening on April 6th, 2010 at 5:51 am.

Previous Post:   Next Post: