So a funny thing happened earlier tonight. I took part in a Zoom poetry reading. This call took the place of an actual reading that was supposed to happen here last month up by me in Connecticut. But plans change, as we all know, and the best any of us can do is make lemonade from the lemons life sometimes throws our way.
The last time I took part in a poetry reading was about 25 years ago, in a little Rockland County coffeehouse called Caffeine Jones. It's a funny thought now, isn't it, the idea of people gathering together in a dark room as breath becomes words? I admit, I was a little nervous going into the call (but only a little). But the more I listened to the other poets read their work, I realized that vulnerability is all part of being an artist. How else can we truly let the world in, if we aren't willing to lay ourselves bare?
The idea behind the canceled exhibit was "ekphrasis," which basically means to write about art. The poem I read tonight was inspired by a painting called "Old Red Barn," by local artist Kris Lynch. Certainly, I was in good company among my fellow poets and artists. After so many work-related video meetings, this Zoom call, where art was the order of the day, was a welcome change of pace, indeed. Plus, after several photography posts in a row, getting the chance to share a bit of poetry is also a nice change of pace.
And on that note, I hope you like my poem, "New Tenants."
For several years now, I've taken pride in my growing abilities as a self-taught photographer. I've especially enjoyed my unexpected journey as a street photographer. I've come to believe that documenting random moments on the streets of New York City constitutes a kind of on-the-fly journalism that often shows the city and its people at their best when they're simply being themselves. In documenting these random moments and faces, I've slowly come to understand that the act of observation itself is a powerful tool in the way we perceive and even shape the world around us, even as the world seeks to contain and define us. New York City is celebrated for its towering, implacable facades. I myself have documented plenty of these concrete giants over the years. But there's something to be said about missing the forest for the trees, as it were. and all it took was a pandemic for me to realize what I was missing.
It should go without saying that by staying at home, we are helping to keep our friends, our neighbors, and yes, ourselves, safe. As someone who used to commute almost five hours a day, I am thankful for the extra time I can now spend with my family. With this extra time at home has come a newfound appreciation for my home itself. Well, not so much my home as where I've chosen to live out my days (at least for now). And that includes the plants growing around the perimeter of my house. In the "old" days, before the coronavirus, in my daily rush to the train station every morning and my rush to join my family for dinner every night, it was easy to overlook the hostas growing in our front yard. But since the world shut down, I find myself becoming more introspective, and more thoughtful in general about the world around me.
Like observing (and enjoying) the way the afternoon sun transforms the hostas. When the sunlight hits the plants a certain way, the leaves glow. And, lately, I've been photographing them a lot. (I've become a street photographer without the street, after all.) Over the last several days, I feel that I've finally come to understand the unexpected beauty of these sturdy plants. I've also come to understand that there's more to the world than a city skyline. Sometimes, there's beauty at our feet, too. This is a journalism of a different sort, this careful documentation of the natural, observable world.
As for this photo, I'm not usually one for minimalism in my work, but I appreciate the simplicity of this image. And who can't use a bit of simplicity right about now?
I just found out that one of my photos has been selected for the 2020 issue of Kurt Vonnegut’s literary journal, So It Goes. This year’s theme is, quite fittingly, civic engagement--a theme that was chosen long before the world was turned on its head. And yet, whether we're staring down an election year or a pandemic (or both), the sentiment expressed in this photo, is more relevant than ever. The title? "It's Your Call."
The following message was part of my original submission. It, too, I think, is more relevant than ever.
"If the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that democracy is a lot like faith—both are easy to take for granted until something goes wrong. For anyone paying attention, all is not well in this great country of ours. To that end, these photographs catalog a democracy in peril even as its citizens are rallying to save it. It’s not so much a leap of faith as it is a labor of love, these ongoing demonstrations of acceptance and love of our neighbors. We owe it to ourselves to show up at the polls in November, to vote with our hearts, to remind the world that democracy works when we all pull together. When we believe. When we have faith."
(This post originally appeared December 15, 2018, in my now-defunct photography blog THE KICK.)
In Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, a motivational book for artists, he makes a salient point about what drives creative people to create: “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” Indeed, in its truest, purest sense, the creative impulse is a thing wholly apart from thoughts of potential financial success. At least, that's the case for me. Which may seem odd, given that this post is part of a photography website that includes BUY buttons and a shopping cart. I could easily argue that I believe in my work enough to ascribe an arbitrary value to every photograph. But in doing so--in assigning any kind of dollar amount to my work--it's hard for me to escape the feeling that any aspect of commerce compromises the very creative process itself. I do firmly believe art can and should exist for its own sake.
So then why does this website even exist? Why sell my photos if doing so flies in the face of pure artistic expression?
Well, for one thing, new camera lenses (especially prime lenses) won't pay for themselves. Nor will an upgraded camera body. My current camera is a Canon EOS Rebel, which I bought back in 2016. I love this camera, which was a considerable step up from using my phone for street photography. I've gotten a lot of use out of my Canon and its two kit lenses (18-55mm and 75-300mm) in the last couple of years. But I've had my eye on a couple of new lenses for a while now (50mm and 85mm). I can certainly afford them, but in my mind, I want money from selling my work to cover such costs. It's my way of keeping photography a self-sustaining endeavor. Maybe this is a bit short-sighted and naive on my part, this idea that art can sustain itself.
But consider this:
Earlier this year, I was incredibly fortunate to have two photographs selected for this year's annual issue of Kurt Vonnegut's literary journal So It Goes. Better yet, I was invited to present my work at VonnegutFest in Indianapolis. (I'm working on a separate post in which I go into much deeper detail about this trip--my first to the Hoosier state.) As readers may already know, in addition to photography and writing novels and reviews, I also created a line of greeting cards called Melancholy Greetings. My entire trip to Indianapolis was funded by the greeting card business. All of it.
This isn't to say that I flew first class or stayed in a 5-star hotel, as both things are untrue. But all the same, I was able to make such a trip because there are people in the world who willingly exchange their hard-earned money for something (many, many somethings) I've created. You can't put a price on that sort of fulfillment.
That is, until you do.
Which brings us back to the very existence of this website, to the reluctant mingling of art and commerce. I realize I'm incredibly lucky that my photography is hanging on walls in homes I will never visit. My work represents me at my best, even if behind the scenes I question whether I'll still be taking photos a year or even a month from now. At times I believe I was born to have a camera in my hand, that photography is my true calling. I cannot deny that photography--not my writing, nor my drawing--sustains a deep and constant need for self-expression.
But then I question why I'm still doing this, if I can't fully devote myself to something that brings me such immediate and obvious joy. I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't. Maybe what I'm experiencing is a crisis of faith--in that I'm unable to take a necessary leap of faith--in myself, and in my work. My compulsion to take photos is strong, to the point that I sometimes dream that I'm taking the perfect shot.
One last thing:
Yes, this website exists to share my work, and to offer people the chance to buy it for themselves, if they so desire. But I've also been known to freely give away my work, be it photos or novels or greeting cards. It's not the best business model, generosity. Generosity may nourish one's soul, but, ultimately it won't feed one's family.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield posits an interesting question: “Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?”
For me, art has never been about fame, or fortune. If anything, over the years I've repeatedly demonstrated a knack for breaking even. For all the hours and all the miles I've devoted to filling a camera roll with thousands of meticulously edited photos the world will never see (or purchase), my answer can only be an unequivocal yes.
Yes to the attendant doubts, yes to the many highs and lows, to the fleeting transcendence of capturing the perfect shot. Not just in my dreams, but with eyes wide open.
(This post originally appeared November 24, 2017, in my photography blog THE KICK.)
As an author, I'm very familiar with the idea of killing one's darlings--and I've certainly killed my fair share of them over the course of writing three novels. (And I'm sure I'll kill more darlings in my current manuscript.) For many authors, it's easy to forget the worlds we create and the characters who inhabit them aren't as real or meaningful to others as they may be to us. Enter the editor, who usually brings with them a more objective perspective and a much-needed reality check (and the dreaded red pen). Editors have a knack for finding the parts of a manuscript that simply don't work--even if you think the opposite is true. That chapter or character beat (or even that character) that you love so much may be dragging your entire story down.
The problem is, you're too close to your work; you'd just as soon cut off your hand as you'd cut something from your baby. Even if it means making the manuscript as a whole better. These editors tend to know their stuff, though. The onus is on us as writers to be more objective about the thousands of words we've poured onto the proverbial page. Letting go is hard. Killing your darlings, harder.
When it comes to photography however, I like to think I'm more self-aware about the quality of my work. I tend to prune my camera roll on the fly, deleting shots that are objectively terrible. Sometimes there are ways to redeem a middling shot, whether through creative cropping and editing (which obviously applies more to digital photography/editing). The editing process is not meant to do so much heavy lifting, though. Use it too much, and it becomes a crutch to prop up mediocre photography. Hence the importance (for me, at least) of deleting on the fly.
That being said, I do find myself becoming protective of certain shots. Sometimes it's the luck of capturing something at the right time and place that blinds me to the overall merits of certain images.The photo included here, "Conductor," is not my strongest, but I appreciate the simplicity of it. Plus the title is just too perfect—I couldn't imagine calling it anything else. When that happens, this marriage of images and words, I have an immediate urge to share, to see if anyone else appreciates the play on words as much as I do.
So it's odd that "Conductor" is making its debut in this blog almost a year after I captured it. Maybe because deep down I know it's one of my darlings, one that speaks to me on a sentimental level. I framed a moment, preserving it for all time, or not. Essentially, all that stands between posterity and obscurity is the delete button. Photography is not unlike writing in this way. Wishing thoughts into words and words into worlds does not automatically grant amnesty for possible deletion down the road. Where the two differ, though, is street photography's immediacy. As a writer, it's easy to fret over a single word or semicolon. The closest I come to this in my photography is fretting over cropping a shot one way versus another, or deciding between sharing an image in color versus black & white.
At the end of the day, creation is really an act of self-controlled destruction, of paring away the inessential so that what remains may flourish. Sometimes, though, amnesty wins out over practicality. When that happens, you get to share a moment like "Conductor." Hopefully someone will appreciate this moment in time for what it is: fleeting, ephemeral, a ghost of our collective imaginations.
These hoped-for connections are what drive me forward as an artist. And as an artist, I'll continue to self-edit, to be mindful of darlings, to give them their due, or not. To be true to what works, or doesn't work. To temper expectations. To create. To kill. And, to quote Tom Hardy's character from the film Inception, "You mustn't be afraid to dream bigger, darling."
An awful lot has happened since my last post, which was way back in 2015. Lots of changes, lots of distractions, in the last four-plus years. I took a very hard detour into photography--street photography, specifically. I even launched an entirely separate photography website, where I sold prints and blogged sporadically about the nature of words and pictures. During this same time, I've continued working on three manuscripts--two of which are books in the Cadabra Rasa series. The third manuscript is a follow-up to Blinding the Finches, set eleven years after the events of that story. I've made a great deal of progress on all three books, most notably the sequel to Memento Mori. I'm excited to share these stories with everyone, and I appreciate your patience.
In the meantime, I'll be updating this website throughout the month, and do plan on being more active here in general. This has nothing to do with New Year's resolutions and everything to do with being an errant, absentee creator. Again, thank you all for your patience.
More updates to come, particularly about the forthcoming Memento Mori sequel, including some sneak peeks at the work-in-progress manuscript.
Documenting the world in words and photos.