Secret Creativity

Secret Creativity

Every now and then, I have to play the introvert card and have a veg out day. So, what did I do with my veg out day?

Played two hours of video games. Cooked almond crusted cod and a pasta casserole. Went to Nashville City Cemetery to take some pictures. Watched Cake (the movie with Jennifer Aniston), which was a really good movie but also really heavy, so save it for when you don't mind sitting around crying for a while.

I have a long, long, long way to go with that camera. Today was my first time using the zoom lens in any real way, and I still can't help but feel like the pictures always come out being not quite contrasty enough. I don't know if that's because my whole experience with black & white photography has been on an old 70s camera, or if there's just something about the Rebel’s default settings that just don't have enough oomph for me. In school, they taught us that the darks should get down to a true black, but not so dark that you lose all detail in the shadows. See this:

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I would expect the dark spots in the flower shadows to be a bit darker. Maybe this is because I have yet to use this camera in really strong sunlight? All of the examples I have are from indoors or cloudy days, so who knows. It's just kind of frustrating because you don't really know what you've got til you get home and a picture that might have been decent kind of goes "wah wah" and flops down limp. Yes, there's PhotoShop, but if you're just going to Photoshop everything for an hour to make it look decent, what's the point? I don't recall having the "I wish I could PhotoShop this" impulse in art school, but maybe my bar was lower then. Maybe I was happy with anything decent because there weren't 5 million people on the internet doing epic shit with their phones.

I didn't get much good stuff today, but that's ok. The city cemetery isn't nearly as fancy as some others in the area, and that was the idea. I wanted to force myself to try to find good stuff where there initially appeared to be a bunch of nothing. How'd it go? OK, I guess. If nothing else, I got re-familiarized and learned my way around my camera bag a little better. I'm just trying to do whatever I can do so I'm not completely fresh once school starts.

It will be interesting to see how that goes. Like, I don't really take "pretty" pictures. We had an Earth Day photo contest at work where people could submit stuff in a given category (Earth, Air Water) and people kept asking if I was going to submit anything. I mean, people submitted some amazing stuff: underwater pictures of coral, panoramic shots of glaciers, close up pictures of flowers…but, fun as that stuff is to look at, I don't see myself doing it at all. Any time I take a nature picture, it's never as cool in the picture as it was in real life. I like doing portraits or weird stuff and I wish I could do that super-slick looking old school fashion photography stuff, like Richard Avedon or Cecil Beaton. It's like, when I did this stuff before, it was just homework for a required class. If we got ANYTHING usable, we were stoked. Now, it's like you have the entire internet in your head going "this is nowhere near as cool as X." The only way to fight it is to be like "yeah, but this is mine, and I'm not trying to be X…I'm trying to be me." Right now, I'm just like "look, just go do it. If you don't get one interesting picture, that's ok. You only fail if you don't try."

That said, I had a good time out there, freezing my paws off and crawling around on the ground to get the right angle on things. There was nobody else out there and there was room to think. Here are my three favorites from today. 

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Learning to See

Learning to See

Pretending I Play PoolIt’s been about 10 years since I took Black & White Photography at Watkins. I feel like I was fairly decent at it, or at least got more and more decent as the weeks went on. We had to take 2 rolls’ worth of shots each week, focusing on a given mission (low light shots, motion shots, etc.), and then we had to do the whole dark room / contact sheet / hand-print while standing over a bin of water thing in the lab. It was probably one of my favorite classes at Watkins, since it basically consisted of running around taking pictures and standing around in a mad scientist apron chatting with classmates. I had an eye for unsettling ways of cropping a picture, and I tended to go more for photography projects that mainly served to document bits of performance art, like dancing in odd places. (I also love performance art, and you should not start telling me how silly and pretentious that is unless you want to hear me try to convince you otherwise for an hour and then try to loan you some books.) My photography teacher briefly tried to get me to switch majors, but she and I both knew that I was not cut out for a life of photographing weddings and children and it’s terribly hard to pay for a house with oddly-cropped pictures of people staging their own deaths.

Not that the graphic design thing worked out much better, but the web development thing certainly did, and the market wouldn’t have had a chance to tell me I needed to build web sites instead of designing them if I hadn’t tried to design them and found out I wasn’t as good at it as my classmates. Graphic design sits in this weird space where there are SO MANY rules and yet you’re still expected to creatively solve a problem. It’s like…stealth rules. I would rather my rules be obvious. When I break the rules, I want Visual Studio to yell at me in the form of a squiggley red line or start throwing exceptions.

But so much development makes one’s brain so rulesy. Eventually, you start wanting to break rules. Do crazy shit. Take oddly-cropped pictures staging your own death. Take pictures that a lot of people would think are weird and shitty but that others find weird and interesting. Or maybe just some pictures that only YOU find interesting. Who cares. The ability to pay for my house does not depend on me taking pretty pictures, so I’m freed up to take strange, creepy, sometimes sucky ones. But I want them to be intentionally weird, not just a weird as a side effect of not actually knowing what I’m doing, so some review and learning is going to have to happen as I’ve forgotten almost everything.

Like my mom used to say, you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can stage your own death. OK, maybe she only said part of that, but you get the idea. That’s why I’m using my Martin Luther King Day holiday (we get this day off! work is awesome!) to review concepts like f-stop and ISO setting. To start memorizing which shutter speeds give which effects. To read the manual for my new camera and learn how to really use it.

If you want a job done weirdly, you have to do it yourself, and you should never trust anyone to stage your death for you.

Flow and The Eye

It is a Friday night and I’m on a treadmill at the local YMCA reading one of Martin Seligman’s books about positive psychology. As I crank the incline down to 13%, I hit the chapter about “flow.”

You know when you get really into some hobby that you’re doing and lose all track of time? That’s flow. It’s not physical pleasure (having sex or eating chocolate) and it’s not the kind of gratification that you get from doing charity work. It’s what happens when you’re doing something you’re good at, which makes you think, but which also makes you feel fulfilled. You’re not even thinking about being happy about what you’re doing…you’re just doing it. You’re so into what you’re doing that you forget to be happy about it.

This happens to me when I’m building a web page, playing the piano or doing a crossword puzzle. But when I read that chapter on Friday, it reminded me of a hobby recently rediscovered.

“It just makes you rethink the way you look at everything. The whole world is no longer just STUFF that is THERE. The world is a playground for light and shadow. You keep wanting to climb under or on top of things, just to see them from a different angle. It makes the whole world newer and more fascinating.”

Those are my words from last weekend, and I am trying to explain to Male Suitor why I was excited about a camera someone had sent me. I hadn’t used an SLR camera in about 5 years, so I am rusty. I need to relearn all of the camera techniques, but most of all I need to relearn how to see a shot when it’s right in front of me. My brain is so used to getting up, going to work and going to the gym that I forget to stop and LOOK at things. With an SLR camera back in my hands, all of the ability to see a picture in front of me is starting to come back. The mindfulness is slowly returning.

I probably suck pretty hard right now, and I don’t care. Photography was in me once. It wasn’t put there by years of schooling; it was just there. Once it was let out, my teacher starting badgering me to change my major. It must still be in there somewhere and all I have to do is dig it out from under all of the obligations and corporate key cards and bills and loads of laundry.

“The light is the whole point, and it’s like a liquid. It flows around the bones of your face, like right now when the shadow is pooling into your crows’ feet.”

I wished that I could take a picture of him standing there with the light hitting his crows’ feet. All I had were parentheses around my mouth from sleeping on my face. But he is camera shy.

“I like those crows’ feet on you. It makes you look like you’ve spent your life smiling.”
“Nice save,” he said, kissing me on the forehead.

I stood and memorized the picture in my head, loving the light and still secretly loving those crows’ feet.

The Pasts of Women and End Tables

It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’ve yet again failed at shopping for end tables. One wouldn’t think that this most “first world” of problems would lead to anything more than going to some other store to look. One would also have to be pretty new here, as finding a blog in the banal is kind of how I roll.

“I can’t just go to a store-store and buy a thing that’s for sale just because it doesn’t offend me. I want what I want, or I don’t want to pay for it and the idea of just walking into a place that sells furniture and slapping down a credit card just seems so…consumerist.”

Jen is on the receiving end of this phone call and I’ve already warned her that I’m probably having a serious low blood sugar moment.

The ultimate answer, as it so often is, is to go to an antique store. To buy something that wasn’t constructed in China and isn’t made of particle board. Something from back when “cherry” meant solid cherry and not cherry veneer glued to pine. Something with a past and a story. The answer today is to go home and clean something, craft something or paint something. But, for the love of God, to not spend Saturday sitting in Rivergate Mall traffic.

I return home to continue the project of going through everything I own to compile a closet worth of stuff to put in a yard sale. It’s part of phase 3: ditch the Ikea furniture you bought on Craigslist and deliberately, mindfully choose furniture that you like. On purpose. Like an adult. While it is true that no one really “needs” end tables in the way that they need food or water, I’m a nester, and I’m tired of nesting on hand me downs and things I bought because they were cheap and not because I loved them. Everything else in my house is there because I love it: the pictures, the cats, any other people who might be around…why does the couch get to be the one thing that gets to be here simply because it was really cheap and it didn’t fill me with contempt? It doesn’t make me feel like I’m home. It just makes me feel like “here’s this place to sit.”

(As a side note, “cheap and doesn’t fill me with contempt” is a phrase a redneck might include in the “what do you look for in a partner” section of a match.com profile.)

I so much prefer the cheetah print chaise someone gave me: it is fabulous and comfortable and when I sit on it, I think of the friend who gave it to me. I look at my nightstand and think of the little old man who sold it to me, telling me the story of where it had been since it was made almost 100 years ago. I look at the bed frame and think of the tiny songwriter and his tiny wife and how I liberated it from their guest room as the tiny songwriter told me stories he’d heard. Stories about the father of the guy I was dating at the time, who was also the reason I needed a bigger bed. Nashville is a small place and Craigslist makes strange bedfellows, no pun intended.

Part of the process of bringing in intentional furniture is clearing out unintentional things: art supplies left from a past life I don’t plan to revisit, quantities of hand-me-down dishes that I will never need, text books on things like ActionScript 2.0 (ancient!) and accessories I have outgrown. 35 year-old grown women needn’t own large, plastic jewelry in heart shapes and candy colors. I could deny this fact, but denial just makes me feel sort of sad and ridiculous, like a 60 year-old woman wearing sweatpants with “Juicy” written across the butt. You have to know when to walk away. If you’re lucky, you feel like you’re walking toward something better, despite its lack of bright plastic hair accessories and Catholic schoolgirl skirts.

Halfway through cleaning out my craft closet, I found the box containing my negatives and contact sheets from photography class. These negatives are snippets of a life whose residue I am slowly cleaning from my craft closet.

So many pictures of my life at 24. Mark and me in a Halloween store. Me sitting in my office at Vanderbilt. The horrible, scary shower in the apartment on Louise Ave. A younger, sprier Mr. Puss. A younger, less attractive version of myself with hair down to her butt and a penchant for wearing said hair in long pigtails. There are a couple of rolls that look like the world’s most depressing ad for the Cherokee nation, where I’m sitting in the foyer of my apartment building wearing a baggy t-shirt and shoes that should only be worn by an angry feminist from 1995: chunky Mary Jane creepers whose only redeeming quality is being shiny. I remember a blur of long days, 3rd shifts and feeling like I was living in someone else’s body. My recollection seems accurate: I am smiling in only 3 of the 50 or so pictures of myself, most of which skew toward “art school dramatic” a tad more often than they should.

Still, I am glad for these pictures. They are little time capsules of an era that was a blur. They make me wish I took more pictures now. They make me sad that no one will let you photograph them anymore because they’re afraid of what you’ll put on Facebook. They make me wish I owned an SLR camera and had someone forcing me to make time to use it. I must have done something right: my teacher tried to get me to switch my major, but I didn’t want to spend my life photographing weddings.

All of these pictures also make me wish I could send a letter back ten years to the girl in those pictures. The one glaring impatiently at the camera, wearing chunky feminazi shoes and Willie Nelson braids.

It will get better in every way that you hope it will. In five years, panic will leave you, almost as if by magic, but mostly because you stop caring in exactly the right way. In six years, you will close on your first house. In seven years, you will lose the weight that Paxil gave you. In 9 years, you will get a job that you love. In ten years, the boss at that job will tell you you’re kicking ass at that job and you will get a raise. You will try to go buy end tables and fail, only to realize that, if that is the biggest problem you have on a Saturday, you’re doing pretty well.

Through all of this, there will be times that are hard. You will keep putting one foot in front of the other and walking right through, emerging a little bit stronger than you were, having learned to anticipate the hard things and step over them like a ninja. Should you fail at this, there are plenty of people who will help you step until you find your balance.

24 year old self, I know it sucks right now.
Stay with me.
It gets so much better.