The Photography of Reality

There was much fallout late last month in the photography community when Nikon Singapore awarded a prize to a photo that was quite striking at first blush: an airliner captured through the tunnel of a ladder looking upward at exactly the right moment. One of those shots that’s too good to be true. Of course, it was too good to be true, and photographers worldwide quickly revealed it for the bad photo editing that it was. There have been statements and apologies…not really the sort of thing that bothers me, but rather something of amusement.

Photography is a medium for which I’ve always pined for a talent. When I think of the creative pursuits that I wish I could master, it ranks right up there with the electric guitar. I’m still an ad-hoc family photographer, and I’m perfectly adept with Adobe’s software, but I just don’t have the talent for recognizing the composition of a beautiful photo in everyday life.

I know several photographers, and I know that what they have…that ability to perceive and create a shot as life moves…is a gift, the sort of thing that you either have or you don’t. I don’t. I’ve gotten better with some practice, but every good shot that I’ve ever captured has been pure luck. I’m a creative person, but that is an entirely different sort of creativity with which I am not blessed.

During mine and Karen’s wedding, one of our photographers laid down between us as we held hands and kissed, and took a photo up through our hands with the sky in the background above us. It’s one of the most amazing photos we have of that day, very much one of my favorites. That’s the sort of creativity that I mean.

A couple of years ago, while I was in school yet again, the arts school where I was in attendance held a photography exhibit. I remember looking at many of the pieces that were on display, all of which were very high quality, and thinking that they weren’t really photography. That’s to say, they were extremely creative image manipulations that began with photography, and melded into something different. I felt, though, that I was at an art show, not a photography exhibit.

And I don’t for a moment think that’s a bad thing, but I think that we should perhaps guard what we call photography a bit more carefully.

When I was in undergrad, many of my friends were fellow theatre majors or art majors. Most floated easily between departments and projects as the disciplines intersected. I remember a show in which one of them built a functioning R2-D2. He entered under “mixed media.” I thought of that when I saw the photography exhibit two years ago, labeling the images as mixed media to myself. There were skillfully sought after images there, and equally skillful artistry with Photoshop utilized afterward to arrive at the finished pieces. They were art, something new and fresh.

They weren’t, however, borne of the same skills that brought Karen and I that amazing image from our wedding.

Maybe this is all a trivial attempt on my part to categorize things, but I think it’s important. Being a great digital artist doesn’t make one a great photographer, although I’ve met many artists that are both. As someone who has no talent, but a keen appreciation for, photography, I think there’s something important about keeping the medium pure. Like all disciplines and mediums, it connects beautifully with others. Yet, it is still a distinct medium in its own right.

Virtual Theatre

Concert lights, attributed to iurte under Creative Commons

Sometimes I feel as though I’m glued to a computer screen way too much.

Now that I’ve changed careers for my day job, I spend most of my day in front of a computer writing code or designing page layouts. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But I lament (as does my back after several stationary hours) the loss of the chances to be more physically active that I used to have. I’m still involved in theatre, and this is a huge outlet for me to be physically active…something that I desperately need, now. Between those two things and trying to keep some kind…any kind…of writing rhythm, I stay incredibly busy.

And I continue to be amazed at how much everything is alike in so many ways.

I listened to an interview with a web designer several months ago. She, too, had worked in theatre before beginning a career in the web, so there was immediate common ground for me there. She likened scenic design to web design, and I’m inclined to agree with her. There’s a creative component and technical component to each. The scene designer begins with sketches for what the setting of the fictional world should look like. Then, logistical issues are considered. Models are built. Working construction drawings are made, and then the lumber and drills and saws come into play as the sketches begin to take shape. Everything I know about power tools I learned in a college scene shop. In my experience in the theatre, there is almost always a technical director who oversees the construction of what the designer envisioned. He or she works off the drawings the designer provides and handles the technical details of the building.

The web designer also begins with drawings, but of a digital variety. Wireframes and prototypes are built in software like Photoshop and result in a visual model of what the website will look like. A developer then takes those prototypes and begins writing the code that will build them for your browser.

I began my theatre experiences on the technical side. I spent a lot of time doing the technical work of implementing others’ designs. I did my share of designing, as well, but me and a sketchbook were awkward companions, at best. I do the same thing for the web. I do some design work, but generally only page layouts, not real graphics work. I spend a lot of my time coding what others have designed.

Another similarity is that the web has its own sort of rehearsal process. As I write this, I’m getting ready to move a big project to a testing server for a dry run of how it will work. This is only for a select few people…the world won’t see the site until we’re settled that everything works the way that we want. It’s the Internet’s version of a dress rehearsal. A tiny audience will preview what the real event will look like before the curtain goes up on opening night.

There are a lot of other similarities, as well, too many for one post, I think. Isn’t it so fascinating, though, how different disciplines are so much alike the more one gets to know them?

Photo Attribution: iurte under Creative Commons

A Theology of Potential

I’ve never been a great lover of tradition. That’s not really breaking news to anyone who’s visited this space for very long. This fact, though, makes me a bit of a contradiction at times. One of the ways in which I push back on tradition is the way in which I feel compelled to practice my faith. This has actually caused a bit of tension at times, because Karen gravitates toward more traditional, liturgical settings, which tend to leave me dead in the proverbial water. We’re still sort of working on reconciling that.

What makes this contradictory for me is that I view a great deal of life, including my faith practices, through the lens of theatre. Theatre was the first art form in which I found a natural fit. My experiences designing, directing, and acting in different shows molded the perspective that I have on a great deal of life. I can’t separate my philosophical or theological views from that lens. Theatre is, in true Burkian fashion, the way in which I understand every other discipline that I’ve practiced.

How is that contradictory? The very liturgical practice that I find so numbing is actually quite theatrical. It is the kinesthetic acting out of different aspects of my faith during a worship service. The presentational aspects (humorously referred to as “smells and bells” by some), the orally interpretive performance of the script, the choreographed actions, all are quite theatrical at their core. So, why am I not drawn to them?

What’s interesting is that I am quite drawn to theatrical presentations in a worship setting. I spent years directing, acting, writing, and even teaching acting methods in the context of a faith community. That time taught me so much about myself and about my faith. That particular faith community presented very theatrically during a worship service, but in a different way. Sets were constructed. Lighting was designed. When the performance began, the house lights went down and the stage lights up. Every component of the morning was carefully rehearsed. I can honestly say that I had never felt so at home in a worship service prior to experiencing that.

Karen is quick to point out that the architecture in a more traditional setting…that is, a more liturgical setting…is just as theatrical, just as full of meaning. I don’t contradict that at all…it is all exploding with meaning when you learn what to look for. What bothers her about the type of setting I’ve just described as being so comfortable to me, though, is the absence of light. She thrives in the brightness of the artistry of stained glass windows, permitting the natural light from outside to bathe the congregants during the course of the worship service. The darkness of the more theatrical setting that I found so welcoming bothered her a great deal, and she pointed out that the symbolic nature of the congregants entering darkness was sort of opposed to the faith they were there to express and explore. She makes a valid point. For me, though, it was a performance venue that was, quite simply, what I knew. The darkness for the audience didn’t bother me at all.

Several weeks ago, though, I had an interesting experience. I attended a worship service at the invitation of some family members. The building was quite traditional. The windows in the sanctuary were tall and ornate, yet had been curtained off to make the sanctuary darker and assist in setting the stage for a more theatrical presentation of music and media. I was bothered by this, and actually found it to be quite a downer. This made no sense to me. A dark setting had never bothered me before. Why should it do so now?

The only conclusion to which I can arrive is that I was bothered by the absence of potential light. There was light that should have naturally been pouring through those windows, but that had been stifled. This held the same theological and symbolic trouble for me that having the audience in darkness as the house lights went down held for Karen. I’ve never been bothered by a sanctuary designed like a performance venue because I know what to expect.  There is no potential light except for what has been designed as part of the performance. The potential and the actual experience are the same. The potential of the curtained windows, though, had been cut off and never realized. I felt as though something important had been taken away, even if it took me days to determine what that had been.

Funny that I now understand experientially exactly what Karen has expressed for years since we’ve been married…even if it took a completely different experience for me to get there.

Swimming up the Creative Stream

Poor Amazon just doesn’t know what to make of me.

That was the discussion that I had with a colleague tonight. She was talking about a book that she is reading about working with a specific component of the Autism spectrum.  We work together doing applied theatre with an agency that uses theatre to work with students on the spectrum. It’s one of the several things that I do for a living. I like being diversified. The variety is, as they say, the spice of life.

I don’t actually buy much from Amazon these days, but it was my go-to supplier for grad school textbooks, and music for a while. I’ve talked before about how I continue to receive emails for suggested purchases, ranging from theology texts to counseling texts to fiction to web development guides. I wonder sometimes if people like me don’t threaten to make the algorithms explode. We’re spread about everywhere, exploring and practicing all manner of different disciplines and craft, loving the variety and eschewing routine wherever possible. We defy compartmentalization, which is quite abrasive to a culture that is becoming increasingly boxed in concerning roles, expertise, and skill sets.

I used to have issues dealing with this. Even when I came to embrace the wildly different aspects of myself, I still felt as though I was continuously swimming upstream. It’s been quite refreshing to live in an area where a lot of creatives live very similar lives, simultaneously exploring very different pursuits.

Except that I don’t see this as a “creative” thing, at least not as the word is typically defined in regards to people. Or, maybe more to the point, I see it as a creative thing in the sense that everyone is creative. I’m such a passionate advocate of an interdisciplinary mindset because I believe that “cross-pollination” of different disciplines enhances everyone’s lives. We all grow, and we all benefit.

Of course, it’s difficult when you’re encouraged to become overly specialized and to fit yourself into a box. Many things worth having, though, are not easy.

Spend the rest of the week defying your boxes.

Photo Attribution: lovlihood under Creative Commons

Collision of Worlds

I was spending part of my lunch break yesterday across the street from the building where I have classes, mentally adding to the ever-growing list of books that I would buy if had money (and will buy when I do…being a full-time student again has serious financial downsides).

The problem with being so passionate about an interdisciplinary perspective is that sometimes (or, in fact, often) you experience a collision of worlds. The subcultures of the disciplines that I’ve studied can be so wildly different that it’s difficult to reconcile them. Theatre culture and theological culture can be on opposite ends of the spectrum, for example. The literary world and the world of the Internet have critical disagreements on core ideas, such as how (or even if) we read.

I was struck by this yet again as I stood in the bookstore yesterday, lamenting the fact that I haven’t had time to read or write fiction at any substantive level in the last three months. And, while I am reading a great deal, Javascript or PHP manuals simply don’t create the same mental synergy, even though they are tools for creativity.

I liken it to my theatre experience in many ways (theatre has always been the lens through which I view the world). A great deal of my theatre experience during my undergrad days was as a designer. I acted very little, and only began directing within the last five years or so. Theatre design, whichever sub-genre you choose (I was mostly a sound designer, with occasional scenic or lighting flirtations) is very technical, but creative in its problem-solving. It creates a wonderful scaffold for the rest of the medium to do its work. Web development is much the same. I’m no visual artist, and, by extension, I’m no graphic designer, nor would I ever claim to be. The way that the web functions, though, requires similarly technical design and scaffolding, and its that area into which I’m (fingers crossed) making a career change.

I don’t think, either, that Internet culture has to be mutually exclusive of literary culture. The Internet is a communications medium, not a work of art in itself. It allows us to experience works of art more easily and even more fully, though, be it beautiful visual design (perhaps even of the website itself), or a wonderful work of contemporary literature, or anything in between.

That’s sort of how I reconcile the discord between the subcultures that I’m convinced only appears on the surface. When we dig deeper, we find, as always, that every discipline overlaps every other, and that we are always more alike than we are different.