photography in reverse: day zero

big mind


I’m reviving my old blog-muscles in order to keep some record of another intensive session at the Penland School of Crafts – the eight-week Spring Concentration in Photography. For this class, I’m attempting to do what I’ve always wanted to do: everything. See, I have always been equally obsessed with the purely physical joys of the handmade object and all the cerebral pleasures of theory and a Big Think, determined as I am to show that there is no decent making without thinking, and there should be less thinking without making… or something like that.

Penland is the perfect place to do it, not only because they encourage me to do what I like here (now that I’ve been coming here for half of my life) but also because the school puts a premium on creative work and the handmade object. It is fundamentally a crafts school, although that opens up an argument of a different flavor, for a different time. Nevertheless, no matter where I go these days, I find myself pushing an agenda that calls for a headier but handier way to work – Big Thoughts in Plain English. It’s pro-art, anti-artspeak, and it calls for the interrelatedness of all aspects of the creative life: History, Theory, Daily Life, and Hard Work, among others. “Everything’s related,” I say. “There are no accidents.”

The plan is to cover the whole history of photography at most of its key points, backwards.* We will start with today, with iPhones and “social media”, then work through the advent of digital photography, the everyday of color prints, slide-carousel memories, the 35mm black-and-white document, the medium-format point-of-view, large-format artistry. We will talk about the heyday of the Gelatin Silver Print, the retro romance of Pictorialism and non-silver processes, the technical brilliance of wet-plate and albumen prints, the struggles of the paper negative, the dead perfection of the daguerreotype. We will look at the Pre-Photographers, their origins, and their early attempts to “fix a shadow”. On the last day, we might just have to draw… At each of these moments, the very physical syntax of how a photograph was made affected the way we thought (and do think) about pictures. Yes, everything is related, and our plan is to get in there, push it all around, and make our own unique work from those ideas.

I’ve stacked the deck by inviting along an old friend as my assistant, one who, like me, was a favored student of Christopher James (although a good twenty years later.) She’s kind, capable, and able to kick ass, and could probably use a couple of months on the mountain to get back into her own work, too. Bringing someone to Penland might be the best gift I could give anyone, especially a good friend.

As for me, I never actually get much work of my own finished here, but I always allow myself to experiment, and I open myself up to new ideas, new media, and new methods. I leave here somehow both exhausted and refreshed, disconnected a bit from the rest of my life, but more connected to my creative self than seems possible from where I’m sitting now. It’s daunting, and I’m in a little over my head, but that’s where I like to be. I am trusting from experience that something wonderful will happen. Let’s begin, shall we?

*My idea to cover everything in this way was exciting, but credit for the genius of doing it backwards goes to Wes Stitt, a former Penland Core Student, current graduate student, and all-around excellent dude.

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