31 December, 2020

Spirit of the Wok (Annie — People Making Cool Stuff)

"To me, the sounds of a wok are very… very homey? They may or may not be pleasant, objectively… But the sound of, like, when the steel hits steel? Like, when you're moving things around… And you know, when you bang on it sometimes to get things off the spatula?

"It all just goes with the… kind of the spirit of the wok, y'know?"

Some things are difficult to put into words. And in the times I've been fortunate enough to watch my friend Annie cook, what's stood out for me have been the clarity of her intentions, the creativity of her choices, the pride in her craft, and other traits that speak of the soul of cooking, in a way that words don't always reach.

30 November, 2020

Life, Death, and Lack of Experience: Another struggle of the inadvertent historian

A few years ago, I wrote "Life, Death, and Lack of Closure," about a seemingly-inevitable trap of living life after becoming an inadvertent historian: that because inaction — the decision to not document something — is in itself a form of curation, you never really escape from the anxiety of not putting time into documentary work. That is, the awareness that you could be documenting things, but aren't, lingers like a specter throughout everyday life. Even as I described it then, I still feel it now.

I've gotten better at seeing the opportunity and not just the cost — "I am deciding to be present in this moment," rather than just "I'm deciding not to document this moment." But I think some people have a sense of ease at letting moments pass by which I've never managed to recapture.

But I just discovered a new form of this trap.

31 October, 2020

Second Wind

It's kind of funny to think that the last time I saw my DSLR, it was looking back at me. February 29th. My life had just taken a huge turn — after 22 years of pole vault, I decided to retire, and I went to the photo studio to take some self-portraits that would hopefully capture how unmoored and adrift I felt in that moment.

Little did I know, another huge turn was just around the corner. Little did I know that "unmoored and adrift" was going to be the theme of the year.

30 September, 2020

Orange Haze

A gentle giant rumbled in the sky
In older times, when weather was a friend
With eyes shut tight, I'd feel the wind drift by
But patterns, large and small, began to bend

I grew up in the midwest, and it's a place that leaves an impression on you. Winters were cold. Summers were warm. Fall was the browns, oranges, and ochres of falling leaves and pine needles. And springs were the green and the crisp, bright sunlight that promised the start of the next cycle.

It rarely just rained. More typically, there was rain with a deep, rolling, distant reverberation of thunder, at times interspersed with a sharper, but still amicable sound of nearer thunderclaps. It wasn't a crack, so much as the sound of tearing a giant piece of paper, as the vibrations continue to echo through the material itself.

Those were the days when "go inside when it's lightning outside" was something that adults said, and that you did because you were told; not because you actually understood what could happen.

Sometimes, during the perfect thunderstorm, the gentle, humid breeze would feel so wonderful amidst the chorus of pitter-patters emanating from the raindrops landing all around you…

31 August, 2020

[Doc Diaries] Photographing Art: Texture

One of my favorite challenges in photography is finding ways to represent experiences, and sentiments, that aren't just visual. Like, "how do I convey the scent of a field of grass, moments after a long-awaited rain?" Or the sound of the whistling wind, whipping through a barren midnight city street during a winter snow storm? The tart taste of a tantalizing, freshly-plucked tangerine? Or maybe it's a feeling, like the wistful sorrow of celebrating love, even as you let it go.

But you can break it down further, can't you? What about touch? You could show the dull glow of a piece of glass that looks friendly enough, but will bite you with a searing heat if you get too close. The shivering cold stillness of watching the sun set over an ocean beach, having forgotten to wear a jacket but too transfixed to do anything about it now. Or what about the smooth, polished texture of a rapidly-shrinking cube of ice, swirling and bobbing in a cup of tea?

Texture's an interesting one… Of course the key to representing any of these feelings is to reference something the viewer already knows, right? To show something so innately familiar that the feeling, or the sentiment, emerges anew from the viewer's own thoughts and feelings and memories.

But texture is interesting. It is, in many ways, the most visual of the non-visual senses. As humans, the idea of seeing a surface or a material and making inferences about how it might feel is second-nature. This one looks pointy. That one looks slippery. Better not fall over there or you'll scrape a knee… The connection from vision to a sense of texture is surprisingly direct.

31 July, 2020

Wherefore art thou, bilge pump salesman?

What is art?

Sometimes, that question leads you on a deeply philosophical journey about things like historical and contemporary context. There's often some commentary about producing work that appeals to the masses, versus doing art for its own sake, and allowing (or helping) the right audience to find it. You'll also typically find some hand-wringing about skill versus luck, and artistic intent versus pure chance.

To be clear, I've had those conversations. I've dived head-first into those philosophical journeys (sometimes even on this blog, like this or this or this). And the constant tensions between popularity and individuality, and between intent and chance, are tensions that I feel every single day.

But sometimes, you sit down, and are greeted by your presenter for the evening, Joshua J. Ladgrove. Sometimes the presenter gets things moving by squeezing some toothpaste onto a banana, eating that banana with the peel on, and then chugging some Listerine, and that's when you know you're in for a wild-ass ride.

Sometimes, you only recognize art in hindsight.

30 June, 2020

[Doc Diaries] The Truth and Beauty of Diversity

I mentioned last time that Singapore's "gleaming architecture, wondrous glass-covered skyscrapers, and spotless streets" felt as if they were devoid of humanity. When I got to downtown Melbourne, I again found myself surrounded by towers of metal and glass. But… this time it was different. This time, I could admire the dazzling architecture without feeling like I was losing my grip on reality. I could look up, but still feel my feet on the ground.

I'm still not entirely sure why, but I think it has a lot to do with space, and I think it has a lot to do with utility. Let me try to explain what I saw, and what I felt.

A bunch of the architecture in Singapore was exquisitely designed, but it felt so special as to seem otherworldly. Out-of-place. It felt like a mystical wonderland that you would visit, but that didn't seem to have as much connection with where and how people actually lived. You would look around, and you would see works of art that placed form before function, even though they did still function.

When I looked towards the sky in the Melbourne central business district (CBD; basically, "downtown"), the trappings of everyday life remained in view. And they fit into the place. The angles of the street lamp fixtures matched the angular design of the buildings. The towering heights of the skyscrapers were echoed in the way that the netting of a play area also reached towards the sky. It felt like design was… an everyday thing. Like the difference between a beautiful sculpture and a nicely sculpted fork. They might both be works of art, but you observe one from afar, and you use the other one every single day.

31 May, 2020

[Doc Diaries] Echoes in Subtext

Speech is power.

When I was writing my post about the gleaming architecture in Singapore, I felt something that I couldn't quite put into words. As I sit here writing this now, with the sound of police helicopters overhead, and amidst the turmoil resulting from a murder that didn't need to happen, I think I've found some of the words.

I am a documentary photographer. My calling is to witness and document people. And when I document objects, places, works of art, or whatever else, my goal is always to relate those things to the people. To see them, but also to see their inevitable, undeniable connections to humanity. It was written and has often been repeated that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all\ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn", John Keats).

I disagree. Or, at least, I think that is incomplete. That sense of incompleteness is what bothered me as I wrote about Singapore before, and it's what I finally realized as I start to write about Melbourne (and Footscray, a suburb) now.

30 April, 2020

[Doc Diaries] Ebb and Flow

Last time, I discussed the juxtaposition of places, textures, and other facets of the built infrastructure that I encountered in Singapore. But as my time in Singapore waned, and eventually gave way to a flight down to Melbourne, Australia, it was a different juxtaposition that caught my eye.

Somehow, water is both everywhere, and nowhere. For some reason, you can see through miles of visually clear yet water-laden atmosphere, to see the stark undulations and crisp form of a distant place where the water is… just… opaque? Why is the delineation between "cloud" and "blue sky" so clear and abrupt in one spot, but so hazy and mysterious right next door?

31 March, 2020

[Doc Diaries] Place and Time

It's one thing to say it. That infrastructure is a product of its place and its time. But it's something else to travel somewhere new, and to see combinations that you haven't seen before. To see familiar pieces of infrastructure that are accomplished in completely unfamiliar ways, or just as interesting, to see modes of infrastructure that don't feel familiar at all.

A few months ago, I took a trip to Singapore, and so much of what I noticed were the things overhead and under foot. The ones that are built once, and then gradually fade into the unremarkable march of everyday life.

29 February, 2020

Leaving Love Behind

I have so many questions. And I know that the answers, if they come at all, will only come with time. Looking back doesn't feel like it'll help me move forward. I don't know how 22 years of "I am" can really prepare a person to say "I am not" for the first time. But I'll do my best.

I grew up playing soccer and tennis since before I can remember. But in 7th grade, a funeral kept me away from tennis tryouts, and opened the door to track and field. I tried the pole vault because it seemed cool. I stuck with it because I was right.

31 January, 2020

Retro: A long look back and a little peek forward

There's a saying, originally by André Gide, that "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore."

Every December, from 2012 through 2017, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill was a mainstay of my photographic schedule. It was always a huge challenge, as well as a huge opportunity.

The challenge was to see the race in a different way, from a new perspective, every single year. But the opportunity was a chance to witness facets of the race that are often hidden from view, and to use them to help people understand why that race was — is — so special and so unique.

In fact, when I made my first book, "Behind the 25," my approach was to gradually peel back the layers of the 2016 race, starting with the pomp and circumstance of the event, and ending with tense moments inside the control tower that even many racers might never witness.