Just to see…This is the hardest thing to do, but that’s all that can be photographed. The camera records the light emitted from the surface of that which is placed within its field of view. Period. To experience the meaning of what is. To stay with it for even a few seconds is no small task. The sound of voice without language…The presence of it, the weight of it, the miracle of its existence, of my existence. The mystery of the fact itself.
Philip Perkis, “How to Take a Picture,”
from Teaching Photography, 2001
Sometimes I have to finish a roll of film in order to finally see the pictures. I find something immediately around me to take, as opposed to laboriously deciding on a subject from the vast experience of looking. The highly selective process turns looser, as if a playful or dark spirit that emerges through delirium.
There was some blooming tree on my block. Or the new person in the studio’s pile of stuff, which included a ceramic cacti made of cat bones and a pair of roller skates. Not terrible subject matter. The floor my shared office is on was terrible though. I couldn’t even get a well-framed shot of the plants stacked in the defunct water fountain. I also haven’t deciphered when a window just looks good to see out of. Finishing a roll of film at work was a bad idea.
It is possible one of those forced images at the end of a roll could surprise me as being good, but when they aren’t, I sense that I’ve wasted film. It’s similar to the fine line between relaxing and killing time. What becomes worth it or not in retrospect. I literally mean worth the $20 it costs for the processing of 36 exposures of color film, 4x6 matt prints with white borders, a CD of low resolution scans. A roll of professional film costs about $6. And my camera cost a paycheck plus. And the cost of any larger prints I decide to make. It comes to about a dollar a picture, even though I am not really calculating that correctly.
End of roll duds are easy targets for what to feel disappointed with. When I see my pictures for the first time I want every one on the roll to totally blow my mind. I want to get nervous looking at a photo but feel forced to keep looking. I want to not remember seeing what I am holding in my hand as what I saw when I took it. I want there to be this sneaky layer. But I'm a trained photographer, which means I know that’s not the way it ordinarily works. If you want more good ones, you just have to take more. It’s the most basic rule.
I’ve had the opposite feeling of questioning a picture as wasted film when looking at my photos from this summer. Like why didn’t I take more pictures on Fire Island? Was I so withholding with my camera because of the cost of each picture? I had the feeling of that’s it, when I realized I got just one of the bulletin board and one of the people on the ferry, and one of the planked alley to the bay. I was afraid the sand would get in my camera on the beach, or I didn’t want to ask permission from parts of the big group that I was somehow inside of. Cameras make people feel weird. When I had my mom as a subject, which never happens, I didn’t splurge and shoot a whole roll. I always forget people are harder to nail, especially the ones who have issues with the camera, the ones who get tense and closed off. The ones I’ve had to remember to tell don’t smile, because if I don’t direct them inside the photo it looks like they are trying to ruin it with their smile.
When I first examine a roll of film, I decide quickly when something does not look interesting or vulnerable enough. An exoskeleton of an opportunity. The photo is still intact; nothing spilled on it; it isn’t deleted or lost or ripped or damaged. I do quick groupings of good as entertaining or good as natural beauty, or good as utterly weird and fascinating. The latter is the gold metal category. What gets initially disqualified from the good picture category is an overestimate. I do this to leave some room for feeling relieved. This judgment on a photo tends to shift depending on what I decide to do with it. A lot of them become good if I decide to give them away as gifts.
Then there are the ones that I expect to be great from the moment I took it—and then a technical snag gets in the way. That breed of disappointment makes me want to expect nothing—equalize all shots to just chance operations. Grow attached to nothing! Or safety net it with some poetry. And then there is listing surfaces that would be impossible to photograph, which is different from but also might include things that don’t end up as interesting photographs, if actually taken. It’s not futile to note technical mistakes as more than a grudging complaint because then I might not do that thing where I overexpose the cat’s head poking through white venetian blinds on a building of white stucco. I listened to the light meter reading of all that brightness and now I have a cat’s head that is just a silhouette and undistinguishable. It could have been creepier if I got a better exposure. While looking at the photo I see how I saw the cat before it became a circular blob of darkness. The information got lost. So I have all the dramatic irony and I am my only audience.
Photography is a game of loss. First I started playing to catch anything in what felt like a landscape of pervasive loss. Then when the pictures started coming back, I saw I’ve already lost a lot of things. I'm not interested in photographing everything. Photography is only an illusion of not losing something. And if I get too upset over one picture not turning out, or a bunch of pictures not turning out, I have to remember that would be like taking a board game at a party too seriously.