Montana Book Festival-12 September 2015
Image and Text: Intersections
Most photos I take are for the purpose of painting from them. As to text, I've written a few essays, but mostly I work in fiction. Which is to say I may not have much to offer this panel on those subjects directly but I can make a stab at several parallels where they intersect.
The first deals with the ethical problems of stealing beauty from people. When I'm photographing people, I usually take most of my pictures covertly. I don't like aiming my camera like a gun, so I use that little fold-out screen. In markets, for example, I often walk through with the camera held in what I hope looks like no orientation whatsoever. I glance ahead most of the time while my lens is stealing images off to the side. I don't want people straightening or slumping, smiling or not smiling, or thinking of themselves and what they are doing as an image.
But people do key in on the nosy, voyeuristic thief a camera represents, and I often get caught no matter how casually or cleverly I think I am playing the spy. When it's clear to me that someone does not want their picture taken, I stop doing it and erase what I have of them.
So a camera is a wonderful thief of beauty, and unless you're only taking pictures of natural landscapes and animals, the creations of other people get lifted. A bridge, a car, a building, a hair-do, a particular kind of expression, these are creations of others that can be seen as a commodity of sorts. Here, empty your purse into my camera.
In writing fiction or non-fiction, as well, a writer or a journalist steals conflicts, personalities, dialogues, histories in pretty much the same way. And sometimes they get in big trouble for it. But there are tricks one can use to manage the heist. If there is a particular personality I fall in love with and want to use, I will change their race or nationality. Often I will change their gender. All these changes require some major overhauling, of course. But I have what I want and my theft is clean so long as I don't hurt anybody in any way.
All art that I can think of indulges in one form or another of theft. We call it culture, heritage, history, that sifted collection of past achievement we stack our own little offerings atop. Who can paint, write, compose outside of the framework of all that which has been painted, written, and composed before? Whereas neither George Balanchine nor Jerome Robbins might complain of dance elements borrowed from them by Lar Lubovitch, what’s been taken came with or without their permission. What did the Impressionists take from each other; Renoir from Monet, Pissarro from both of them? Brahms from Beethoven? Miles Davis from Spain? Paul Simon from South Africa? In one sense, all music is World Music. When copyrights expire all beauty goes back to the people, from whence it came.
To recap then, there is an intimacy inherent in taking someone's picture, and any intimacy with anybody becomes a delicate dance. Setting matters. In general, most native people of the New World seemed to me more sensitive to the invasion of the uninvited camera. Most Mexicans, on the other hand, I found the least bothered. In general, Mexicans have a kind of national carefree way, a confidence that reminds me of something Dizzy Gillespie once said when asked about all his imitators. "If they can hear it, they can have it."
The second parallel I can offer this panel deals with tricks of these two crafts. All writers have their own general approach to tell a tale, but I what I have found works best for me is to start with rudimentary forms. Any story or novel depends on strong characters, but if I concentrate on them too much, I don't have any structure. The narrative has to go somewhere and get something done. If I concentrate too much on the plot, I end up with characters who mutiny. I had one novel with what I judged as a firecracker plot, only to get about two-thirds through it before realizing my characters would not jump through those hoops. That wound was fatal.
So what I do now is go back and forth between the unfinished shapes I have for characters and plot. In this way, the story helps tell itself. Following an outline for me circumscribes too many possibilities, limits the life there.
In painting, a common ploy-one I try to follow-is to block everything out from the start. In this, I'll get the drawing of the big shapes right, then thin my paint and use a big brush to slap out all the major shapes in their right colors. The strokes then are wide and can be sloppy. But then with this map, I can move into detail, mindful of the interplay of colors, edges, values or shades. All these reflect off each other in the same way a plot can feed off a character and a character can off a plot. In an art workshop that my wife, Janet, took, the teacher provided a great technique for managing this. "Just imagine someone's arriving in fifteen minutes to take your painting away." If you maintain this state of expectation, the whole painting is at work telling you what to do next, where to go next.
In sum then, what I find works best is to be a better watcher than a thinker. If I recruit feedback from what I'm making, I get more insights and more surprises. All of which I hope translates to others.