Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A flickering flame, a twittering twit asks 'what's left for the writer/photographer?' As Henry Miller once said, 'He's up shit creek, don'tcha know...'

In the flicker-ing of the twitter age, what’s left for writers and photographers? Is it time to fold up the tent and go home?

I’ve constructed several conventional novels and I enjoyed writing them. One almost sold big. Almost only counts in horseshoes and atom bombs and not, for damned certain, in novel writing. I’ve also almost won fellowships. And, I’ve almost given up.

Which led me to read through a few pages of a would-be novel from this time last spring. When school is out I always get the bug. Sometimes it lasts all summer. Sometimes, like last spring, it lasts a few hours.

I liked what I had written but I was not bitten by the bug to finish it, at least not in the form it was begun. First, I realized I had stolen the idea from another novel I had read. Second, I realized the only places with energy were places where I let go. And letting go seemed right though I’m not sure I would want my students or my dean reading those parts. Could I bring myself to write a novel that did not portray me in the way I wanted to be portrayed?

Ah, I thought. Exactly. I’ve constructed my entire life to portray me in a certain way… a certain boring way. A safe way. A wholesome way.  But, now, I want to write something that’s all energy and no regret. Something that isn’t about how I want to be seen. Something that takes more chances with the reader’s ability to understand the writing and the reader's willingness to give the writer a little slack.

A while back it struck me that photography is always trying to define itself. Better said, the photographer is always trying to define photography. The very nature of photography is to answer the question: What is a photograph? Ansel Adams defined the difference between a postcard and a photograph. Diane Arbus defined the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. Frank Hamilton found a photograph in an old door and the edge of two windows. Every successful photograph answers the question “What is a photograph?”

I’m as obsessed with technique and skill as the next guy with Dektol-stained fingers. But, I’ve come to realize, “Why did you make this photograph?” is a more important question than, “How did you make this photograph?”

A photographer stands poised with the camera, composing. The question he or she faces is always the same. Why pull the trigger?

This, it seems to me, is a dilemma particular to photographers. Surgeons and strippers don’t have this problem.

One photographer photographs a naked breast covered in goosebumps and droplets of sweat. Another photographs a garden trowel wet with rain. Each sought unconsciously to define the purpose of photography.

So it is with writers. Every writer, it seem to me, is trying to define writing by answering the question, “Why write this?” In a world exploding with words, this is not an easy question for any writer who isn’t a journalist to answer.

Maybe you are writing to be paid and if the reader will buy what you’ve written for her own purposes, her own entertainment, you have an answer.

Maybe, like me this morning, you are writing to write, because it feels good. You have answered the question.

Maybe you’re writing to work out your problems. The Santa Fe poet, Donald Levering, says writing makes lousy therapy. I agree. It also makes lousy writing.

Maybe you have something to say. Maybe you have some insight because you’ve been there or because you’re paying extraordinary attention. Either one answers the question.

But notice, none of this asks about the words, the grammar, or the plot. None of this asks about character development, feminist critique, modernism or paper stock. Photographers in the age of Flicker are going to have to define what a photograph is because their images will be swimming in an ocean of exquisitely colored tropical fish. And writers will have to define what writing is in the Amazon-dot-com era when suggestions of a dozen new stories whose algorithms fit your particular taste appear every morning in your e-mail basket.

The bigger question is this. To what use should writing be put? This is the same as the photographer’s question. To what use should the camera be put? What can the camera do that still needs to be done? We have enough novels, poems and short stories to last us several lifetimes. We certainly have enough photographs, especially in the era of iPhones and Flicker. Exactly what should we use these tools for in our short time on the planet? What can we do that hasn’t been done? And, done to death.

--Lofflin… for a set of photographs that test these questions  check this out...


  1. I think the most powerful thing about viewing writing and photographs to me is what it makes you reflect about yourself and your mortality. A good example is the novel Lolita - you can definitely identify with him at the beginning, and by the end, you're questioning your own sanity. At some point, you've forgotten where you stopped identifying and started loathing. You forget where you made an excuse in your head for him and yet can't separate from it.

    It's the same with the controversial war photos we look at in ethics class. You have to reflect on your own humanity when you see someone about to get shot, or on fire, or running from a bomb. You have to wonder what the photographer was thinking, and that mystery makes the photo more powerful.

  2. My observation is that most inquisitive people explore the nature of life, and our place therein, through various activities; teachers shape minds (‘reality’), artists and photographers frame their interpretations (of ‘reality’) for us, financers create whole systems of (reality) exchange based on (notional) scraps of cloth, writers relate…well, every piece of ‘reality’ they can articulate.

    And on and on and on.

    This is what creative, enquiring minds do…attempt to understand, shape and relate ephemera.
    Limiting the scope of these activities/dalliances/obsessions to what use they should be put to is rather missing the point I think. Despite our own egos all arts are illustrative, not formative.

  3. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the best virtual strippers on my taskbar.