Friday, July 19, 2013
What better proof could you ask for than a regularly occurring event suddenly leaps into the future by over a year. Remarkable, but obviously true. Obviously. Time-travel is real – well at least for me.
I've just finished listening to the History of Rome podcast (oh, for you that was last year, right) and somehow in the last two weeks I've listened to it all over again even finding it more interesting the second time around. Oh the pleasures of finding out what we don't know, which for me is quite a lot or at least seemingly endless, but now that I've got time-travel in my kit bag... Say, wait a minute I jumped forward in time. Does that mean I have less time or more time available to me?
Anyway, I've also just had an "opening" for a photo show in the film building yesterday (certainly have been busy the last two weeks). The whole experience of putting up a show validates for me again the power of formal presentations of work. In the process of getting work up on the wall the work gets better. It's a combination of repeated practice and increased self-evaluation; all with a little more internal pressure than usual over a shorter period of time so that in the end you grind out more work of a higher caliber.
Part of the success comes simply from the faster turn-around time of the shoot, edit, print, evaluate cycle and the enforced concentration of effort and thought, repeated and repeated again until you amass a significant body of work you actually like. It's both easy and hard. (If it were that easy everybody would be doing it, but also if it was really hard no one would be doing it.)
It's also a reminder of how much emotions play in the process of doing good work, any kind of work. The emotional landscape is not to be overlooked as an influencing factor in the growth of any significant body of work or even the accumulation of skill sets and professional practice.
If you get depressed or deflated by a few wrong turns, failed outcomes, or lack of seemingly forward progress you can not give up. You need to keep working and try and solve your own problems or perhaps first, find your own problems. This is what really separates the amateurs from the pros. The amateurs just stop. The pros never stop, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. That's why they end up being the pros. Remember they didn't start out that way; they ended up that way. It's not over until it's over, but if you quit it's immediately over and you lose.
If you're lucky and skillful you produce a few "good" pieces of work early in the process that give you enough inspiration and pleasure so that you keep catapulting yourself forward. Once you get going you can build up some emotional momentum to let you glide more easily over the rough times and keep accelerating with the good times. A rolling stone gathers good will.
Oops, I just realized one of the problems of jumping ahead in time – all my library books are really overdue now. Gotta go pay those fines.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Just a few days ago the History of Rome ended. No, not the empire, the podcast. I found the History of Rome just after I listened to most of the Norman Centuries by Lars Brownworth. It made so much sense out of what few fragments I remembered about the Normans. Embarrassingly most of what we know about the Normans comes from what we watch in Robin Hood movies and you can just imagine how deep and faithful to history that is - hah.
So after being impressed by how little I knew about the Normans I though I’d benefit from a run through the History of Rome podcast. The Normans were just 13 episodes long. Rome however, ends up running for 179 episodes and ironically seems way too short by the time you get there. Hey, we’re talking the history of Rome here - a lot happened.
Now, at the end, as the empire fights one petty tyrant after another our author, Mike Duncan, declares that for all practical purposes the Roman Empire is sufficiently dispersed that it’s history no longer matters in the epic sense that we usually think of it. It all degenerates into soap opera and trivial affairs. No one will benefit from continuing, not even Mike. That, probably, is the deepest insight into how the Roman Empire fell than anything else will ever provide. Even the people most involved no longer really care.
However, the easter Roman Empire does continue for another 1,000 years and is still yet another story to be learned. I look forward to someone claiming it as their turf and expanding our understanding of how that part of history unfolds. We’ll see.
But to mollify my grief over the ending of Rome, I went back and downloaded all of them and have started over from the beginning. To my great surprise I hated the first one. Mike is stiff and way too formal in his reading. The writing, too, is stiff and clunky. It’s too pedantic and caught up in trivialities and the whole experience is nothing like what I enjoyed at the end – a feeling you had a personal friend versed in historical perspective who was explaining it all just to you.
But of course – he got better over time. It’s a great example of how doing the thing makes you better. That practice and action win out given enough time should be obvious. Reading a podcast is a practiced art as is the writing and even doing the research. It all takes time and repetition to come together to form a personal style that’s both authoritative yet relaxed. (To say nothing of finding the right mic and sound deadening the room.) He’s built up his own perspective on what’s really important about the epic of time and events passing before us. It’s what you’d expect of study, improvement and knowledge gained.
Knowing more now, at the beginning, gives new perspective to actions and events. I can’t wait to find out how the History of Rome ends, again.
I frequently ask prospective students on tours what they want to study. Often, I get blank looks and long pauses and finally, “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, it seems to be stressful for the whole family, not just the student. At Hampshire it’s OK to relax a little more when someone asks you that question. I certainly don’t expect the response to be a singular answer. Oddly, what you answer back isn’t even important, it’s just a conversation starter – an interaction.
A response to an asked question is really the gateway to leaning; it’s that technique of a back and forth question-and-answer interaction that hopefully turns into a useful conversation of discovery for both people. It’s not that either one of us knows the correct answer(s) – frequently we don’t. Instead we use conversation as a method of discovering our interests and possible actions based on those interests through suggestions of books to read, good classes to take and appropriate people to talk with.
Certainly it’s not that anyone expects you to know what job you will want for the rest of your life right now. You’ll most likely be wrong no matter what your answer or how much you believe it to be true. It is, however, a question of what you actually want to do all day. What do you like to do? What are you willing to invest a lot of effort in? What, at the end of day has made you happy?
Our style is to find promising situations and jump into them and then later assess the outcome. A Hampshire grad once said, “ Life is full of once in a lifetime opportunities.” Some he took, others he let pass by and later he found more. It’s about thoughtful interactions and timely participation judiciously chosen.
Work on things you find interesting and that will offer you still yet more options later (both short term and long term). You need both sides – fun now and possibilities later. Work on projects that are hard, but doable. It’s just like working out. You need to stretch a little, work up a sweat, build up stamina and get stronger by doing so – over time.
An important criterion for judging the worth of what you’re working on is suspense. Yep, just like in the movies. If you aren’t worried about how your work is going to come out, if there isn’t uncertainty, what you’re working on isn’t very important or hard enough. Some things are way too easy to do to really benefit you. Remember, you’re trying to learn and grow, not just turn in homework. If you just want to turn in homework you should go somewhere else.
Find questions that make the world interesting to you by learning enough to notice what those questions should be. With deep insights and strong questions the answers take care of themselves.
Friday, March 16, 2012
Some time has passed
It's been quite a long time since I've written a new post. At first it was the busy end of the semester rush that turned into the pleasures of vacation time and then it happened. My 95 year old mother calls saying she's dizzy and can't get out of bed. Off to the emergency room for a night of worry and waiting, followed by a diagnosis of vertigo. OK, that's better and understandable although it's irritating and she needs more assistance.
For all of the nice people who work hard at providing health care services my praise and thanks, however health care in America is much like the sea - indifferent, vast, mostly unknown and on a remarkably different time scale. You enter into it and then time and space collapse into grayness and waiting with usually too little understanding of what might occur next and what that might mean.
Things get better, a return to normalcy and then it happens. She falls and breaks her arm. Well, fracture of the arm really. Back to the emergency room with x-rays and more waiting. The orthopedic specialist says it's not bad, it'll take six weeks to heal - just wait it out. Then it happens - she falls at home alone and spends most of the day on the floor in the bedroom.
With more assistance things stabilize again and seem manageable, but the visiting nurses say she can't stay home alone, she should be admitted again. Back to the emergency room and she stays overnight and is admitted to the hospital. I show up to visit in the morning and am led into the nicest hospital room I've ever seen - wow. However this is just a holding pattern to allow her to quality for the next round of care in a rehabilitation facility - where I don't know.
They find an opening in Ludlow which is a 50 minute drive each way for me to visit. It's no where near as nice as the last room. This holds four people in various stages of physical capabilities and outcome. It's a little grim to be honest and she's not too happy about it at all, but she needs the help and the therapy.
A week and a half later they find an opening for her at a facility that's only 8 minutes away from my house and she's transported and settled in. It's much nicer, closer, friendlier and seems more promising, but how would I know.
I visit every day because I can. I collect the dirty laundry and bring back the clean, drop off the magazines, bring a can of nuts and some bottles of water, and sit and talk for 20 minutes each day.
We hit the six week mark and return to the orthopedic specialist and he says, wow, she's heeled quite well, can now put weight on that arm and he'll see us in four more weeks, again.
The therapy is really working, she's out of the wheelchair walking, though a little unsteady. She's reading again - having asked me to buy a desk lamp to make it easier to see. At some point she'll be going home and need more assistance with daily living and we'll see how it goes.
With only Medicare to pay her way it's lucky that she's got enough money in the bank to cover the extra expenses that they don't fully pay. As we all get older as a society there's only more of this to look forward to on a larger and larger scale. I can only hope that not too many of us get caught up in the sea.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
One of the things that strikes me again and again as I see tour groups come through the film building is the difficulty that people have in asking meaningful questions, even when it’s really important that they do so. It’s hard for people to put up their hand and ask a question that would give them sufficient information to make a decision. Most of them just stand there and look around as if seeing a hallway will provide enough information from which to select a future college for their student.
But with a little banter back and forth, a few pointed questions at them, a slow painful response, you can build up a back-and-forth exchange that will finally allow them to express their concerns and address their uncertainties. It takes time to build that interaction and time for it to unfold. Usually that time is lacking.
I see this also with first year students in class. Everyone sits there uncertain what a reasonable question would be. What, they think, do I even know enough of, to be confused about. They’re baffled by the whole thing and sit there in a puddle of inertia waiting for clarity to simply strike them.
How do you break people out of that and get them going?
The real goal is to get them finally to a level where new questions can be self-answered or they have sufficient skills to discover the answer. But, fundamentally, you need to learn how to discover what is the question that should be asked right now?
So I see all of this as much the same problem, the problem of being a beginner. At the earliest stages of learning anything you have no vocabulary, no methods, no history, no resources, and often no hope. It’s depressing.
It is problematic, but if you make your way past this initial stage with even some modest amount of understand under your belt you might find yourself, through positive actions, miraculously able to do things , which then allows you to feel better about what you’re doing, maybe even good, which then makes it easier to learn the rest of it all. A rolling stone gathers good will and then goes faster, sometimes even in the right direction.
If you miss that turn in the road of simply being able to do things, you will, mostly likely, never succeed. Energy sapped, you’ll give up and walk away disappointed and disgruntled thinking you failed. Mostly, you never had a chance. The deck was stacked against you and you didn’t even know that.
So what’s it take to show up at the right place with just enough skills to do something that makes you feel good enough to keep going and eventually get much better?
Part of it is understanding that there is an emotional landscape that we’re walking across with dips and hills, elegant vistas and murky views, quiet times and hectic days. We’ll experience a range of emotions and feelings that we need at times to embrace or ignore, but always realize that it’s a flow that’s as natural as the passing of the day. Some days it rains, some days the sun shines brightly, but it will always change and then change again.
We also need to feel that there’s actually a path we can follow. Even more useful, that there could be a map to show us where we are, where we’ve been and what the options are for future exploration. With out a map to discover the terrain we’re not just lost, but lost with no insights about where we even want to be. Maybe we’re actually right where we want to be, but we just don’t know that.
Questions are like surveyors sent out ahead to draw the landscape, plot the pathways, find the way and then report back information that we can use to make better informed decisions. Without strong questions we’re just wandering in the wilderness, just short of being totally lost.
The Hampshire way is to ask, ask again, and ask someone else. None of the answers are necessarily true. So not only do you need good questions, but you also need to question the answers. It’s up to you, with strong questions and valid answers, to build the map to find out both where you are and where your really want to go.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
This week Johnathan Singer, the person who printed Jerry Liebling's fantastic show, visited Kane Stewart's photography class and spoke for about three hours. He was quite interesting and shared a lot of background information about the process and his studio.
It's really remarkable that even after Jerry has died he's still leading the way for us, showing us what photography has to offer. HIs show in the film building now is a collection he curated himself and had printed on large format Epson flatbed printers at Singer Editions in Boston. The images are from Jerry's original film negatives scanned at high resolution, lightly processed in Photoshop and mounted and framed in Jerry's traditional white frames.
It's a great show and Jerry was really happy with the results, seeing things in the prints that were not possible with previous darkroom processes. It shows that photography isn't tied to any one medium or process. It isn't a fixed concept, but a constantly evolving approach to capturing images from our lives, from the world and sharing them in the form of prints on the wall.
These images are much larger than we've seen before which just by itself allows us to see deeper into the image, with new discoveries, new appreciations. I feel inspired to shoot more myself. It's like Jerry is there leading us down the hallway as usual, pointing to things we should see and waiting for us to hang our own prints to talk about. It's all quite inspiring, motivating and emotional.
As always, thanks Jerry.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Thinking in small units is sometimes a big help.
What the heck are you talking about?
Constraints. If all you have is a one foot ruler, then all of your measurements end up being in units of one foot. If all you have in a light kit are three lights, then you start thinking in terms of a three light setup. If all you have available to you to shoot with over the weekend is a Canon HV-30 camcorder then thatʼs what youʼre going to use. Life gets easier, well sort of, but you see my point.
We donʼt really have to know how to use all of the cameras in the world, just the ones we can get our hands on. Suddenly the world is a little easier to understand, well, at least for a while it is.
Iʼve been reading a very interesting book (Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner) on the history of audio recording and the mutual effects that both technology and commerce have on what we think is a viable and desirable recording, or more accurately the sound of a recording. Weʼve gone from the attempt to capture a faithful acoustic recoding of what it sounded like to be in a small room with a bunch of musicians to electronically manipulating sound recordings to produce previously unheard sounds and effects.
The evolving commerce of records, tapes, and CDs over the years has taken itʼs toll on what passes as good music. The complexity of multi-track recording moves a lot of decision making away from the performance of the music to the mixing of the music.
The early Beatles recordings were faithful acoustically, certainly more immediate and most likely more fun to make. The performance was the recording. Later with 24 track tape decks, the song was manufactured in the control room on playback, not during the recording. That meant the performance part was really just collecting elements from which you would later build the song. You were just making parts for the whole, more like filmmaking than a faithful live performance.
This approach of after the fact mixing led to many heated discussions in the control room and fostered conflict among the participants. A lot of bands didnʼt survive the method. It wasnʼt what they signed up for.
Itʼs no longer can you play the drums and sing, but later can you survive the discussion of what kind of filter should be applied to the sound and how many small clips from multiple takes can you cut and past together to produce a completely new sound. Many additional people get to throw their opinion up against the performers view of what they should sound like. More people, more opinions, more arguments. Bands now need counselors to keep harmony on the emotional plane, not just in the music.
So thatʼs the other side of constraints - how many. When your options multiply and more and more people have a vote in each decision the kind of work thatʼs happening changes from a maker to a manufacturer, from artists to committees. This is the dangerous side of the concept of collaboration.