“I have come to understand that the act of recording, be it the written word, image, sound or video is an important and valuable thing in itself. I have gigabytes of still pictures and I don’t regret shooting a single one. I only regret the pictures I didn’t take and the journal entries I was too busy to write. The funny thing about my mind is that I’m really pretty smart when it comes to understanding things, but my memory isn’t worth a damn. If I don’t shoot a picture, jot down a journal entry or something, I lose it…”
This is a collection of my recent creative work in writing, photography and graphic art. I hope you enjoy it.
Topics: Singular Vision, Remembering and Recording, Dying, Mt. Carmel, Doug’s Spurs, Inner Fires, I want to go moose hunting with Sarah Palin, Heaven Bends Close, Thinking about the Beats, Art, Graphics, Photography, Poetry
These are shots of the fireworks display at Thunder Over Louisville 2012 on April 21, 2012. I had a telephoto lens on my camera to shoot the air show and I didn’t want to change lenses once the ash and smoke began to fall. The telephoto allowed me to get really close to the exploding shells, but it also flattened the depth, giving the photos a graphic look, almost like paintings. I hope you enjoy them. Click on the pictures for a larger view.
I was sitting in the coffee shop at Nassau International. I had just come from Dr. Paine’s office. The news wasn’t great. Blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides were all elevated. I’m sure EVA had nothing to do with it, but he had put me on the “anything you really want to eat, don’t eat it” diet. So, I was staring at a bowl of cottage cheese trying to use The Force to turn it into a plate of French fries. It wasn’t working. My iPhone started playing “The Flight of the Valkyries” and I had only assigned that ring tone to one number, Esmeralda, our dispatcher at King.
“Talk to me, darling”
“I have a flight for you, Senor.”
“Sorry, luv, we’re socked in here.”
“It is VIP Priority One, Senor,” she replied.
“Who is it? Trump?”
“It is Mrs. Cleenton.”
“Aw, come on. Tell me you’re just really bored and playing with the radio.”
“I sheet you not.”
“Do you really mean Hillary freakin’ Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States?”
“Tell them I was kidnapped by Al Qaeda.”
“Pappy won’t buy that.” The weather was absolutely terrible. Lighting flashed in the windows and thunder shook the building.
“What did I ever do to you?”
“Usted tiene mi condolencia, Senor.”
“Tell them to meet me at the hangar in 15 minutes.” There was only one plane that would do this job, the Beechcraft Duke with the turbine engine modification. I needed something with the muscle to get above the clouds quickly, and fight the wind shear if necessary. I called our crew chief, Oliver, and told him to ready the plane. He answered with something cute like, “It’s a nice plane to die in,” but I ignored him.
The secretary of state arrived promptly with her entourage of sycophants and security. One young security dude strode up to me and said, “I need to see your credentials and log books.”
I told him, “If you don’t want to be walking perimeter patrol at the embassy in Zimbabwe, you will get out of my face.” He stared at me for a minute, but I guess he decided I wasn’t bluffing and got lost. There had to be thirty people in the hangar. The Secretary walked up to me and extended her hand.
“I’m Hillary Clinton.”
“Syd Weedon. Pleased to meet you. This really isn’t a good night for flying, Ma’am.”
“I know that. Bill is in Key West, and we have a date.”
“I can only take you and four others.” She conferred with her chief of staff and selected her, the press secretary, a reporter from the Washington Post, and the young security dude who had demanded my credentials. I got them all loaded into the plane. Hillary insisted on sitting up front in the copilot seat because she "wanted to see.” I lit up the Duke. “Clearance, N85EG to Key West.”
“N85EG, cleared to Key West, contact ground when ready to taxi. We have severe weather to the northeast.” I made the necessary magical passes and in a few minutes we were sitting on Runway 14 ready to take off. “Ma’am, do you see those clouds up there with all of the lightning and stuff? They’re full of hail and wind shear. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I read your CV,” the Secretary said. “Is there anywhere you haven’t flown?”
“Brooklyn, Ma’am. I’ve never flown in Brooklyn. All the rest of that stuff was just beginner’s luck.”
“Khe Sahn?” she asked.
“Especially, Khe Sahn.”
Tower broke in, “N85EG, cleared for takeoff.”
“Last chance, Ma’am – do you really want to do this?”
“Fly your plane, pilot.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I went to 95% throttle and the Duke roared down the runway. The lightning looked like artillery in the clouds. The Duke surged into the air aggressively. I set the climb for 1600 fpm, conservative, but I couldn’t be sure of what was waiting for me in the clouds. Up through the crap we climbed. Suddenly hail was pelting the wings and windshield. I turned on the deicer equipment. A bolt of lightning flashed across the windscreen and I thought for sure we were hit, but none of the warnings lit up. We were at 12,000 in eight minutes and I set the autopilot and eased back in my seat. My shirt was wet under my jacket. The air was still rough as hell even though we were above the clouds. The Duke bounced around like a cork.
“You don’t like me very well, do you Captain,” the Secretary said.
“I like you just fine, Ma’am.”
“No really, I can tell. You didn’t salute when I walked up to the plane.”
“I’m Navy, Ma’am. I don’t know what the Air Force does.”
“The Marines on the helicopter salute.”
“Yes, Ma’am. They are guards. The pilots are too busy for formalities. Is there a point to this?”
“I want to know what you’re thinking.”
“I flew contract cargo into Mogadishu in ’92 for the Marines. I’m not your husband’s greatest fan.”
“Oh, I see. But what does that have to do with me? I wasn’t president.”
“You were there. You were part of it. You guys wouldn’t send in adequate firepower because you didn’t want to ‘militarize the situation.’ Good men died for nothing.”
“We were new. We didn’t know…”
“Ma’am, for the sake of yourself and everyone else on this plane, just let me get us through this storm. What’s done is done. You can’t bring them back.”
“Does this plane always bounce around like this?”
“Only when the weather is really dangerous. I tried to warn you.”
“You guys don’t forget, do you,” she said.
“That’s not in the manual, Ma’am.” The weather was bad. It was like bouncing down a dirt road in a ’48 Chevy pickup. The secretary was pale, if not a little bit green. Miami Center began talking us down. I really didn’t like the idea of descending back into those clouds, but the Earth was down there someplace, and we had to find it. We broke below the ceiling at 2,500 feet and I could see Key West on the horizon. Center handed us off to Key West. “N85EG, cleared to land.”
“N85EG cleared to land.” I put down the gear and went to 10 degrees of flaps. RPM’s up, throttle down. The Duke was wonderfully solid, even in the lousy conditions.
“You guys have to learn to forgive us someday,” the Secretary said.
“I’ll work on that, Ma’am. Are you buckled up?” I lined up the Duke on the runway and reduced throttle even more. Twenty degrees of flaps. At ninety knots the plane settled onto the runway with an authoritative “clank.” It wasn’t necessary to use the thrust reversers. The plane coasted to a stop and I turned onto the taxiway. I drove to Gate 5. I shut down the engines, went back, opened the door, and stepped out to help people out of the plane. There was a long, black limo sitting on the tarmac. A rear window rolled down and I could see Bill Clinton’s face in the window. I didn’t salute him either.
This is a story my dad told me.
It was July 4, 1942, a month after the Battle of Midway. Things were looking up for us, but it was still shaky. Even after losing all of those carriers, the IJN was a wounded tiger, but still a tiger and it seemed like Russia would collapse any minute in the face of Operation Barbarossa. I was sitting in Sloppy Joe’s in Key West hoping Papa Hemingway would come in and liven up the evening when a couple of OSS guys came in, and made a bee-line to me. They always wore trench coats and fedoras. They were so obvious. They might as well been wearing sandwich boards saying, “SPIES.” They wanted me to fly to Bimini and pick up a Nazi spook who had jumped off of a U-boat and defected. I was to fly him back to Key Largo in the fastest plane I could find. At the time, that was the Lockheed L12A, a sleek 6-seater that could get 200 knots when the conditions were right.
That morning when I got dressed, I put my Government Model Colt .45 Auto in a shoulder holster under my flight jacket, and strapped .38 Special snub nose to my left calf in a leg holster that one of the local dicks had loaned me. I wasn’t taking any chances with this bastard. One false move and he was fish food. I really didn’t care. A Nazi is a Nazi, and the best Nazi is a dead one.
I dodged thunderstorm cells all the way out to Bimini. The weather wasn’t good. When I set the plane down at South Bimini and pulled up to the terminal, I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s a good thing it wasn’t 1944 after my brother was killed in France, because I would have shot the bastard on sight. He was standing there at the terminal in the same dumb trench coat and fedora that the OSS guys wore. I killed the engines, unhooked my harness and went back to open the door. Strangely, I offered him my hand to help him into the plane. “Danka,” he said.
“Take a seat,” I said. I got clearance to take off and taxied out to the runway. The big radials roared to life and soon we were sailing into the sky. I thought then that I should just shoot the bastard and push him out the door once we got over the water. I could tell the OSS guys that he gave me trouble.
“Captain, may I join you?” His English was perfect. He was behind my shoulder asking if he could sit in the copilot seat. “Sure, I love chatting with Nazis.” I’m thinking about how long it takes for my hand to move from the flight yoke to the .45 in my jacket.
“I am not a Nazi, Captain,” he said with a solemn tone.
“Sorry. Cheap shot. Do you have a name?”
“Walter,” he said.
“Ralph. Good to meet you. So why did you do it? I heard you jumped off of a U-Boat.”
“This is true. I was to be dropped off at Galveston to chart the shore batteries. You have some impressive guns there.”
“Yeah, we like guns. But, I mean, why? You know you’ll spend the rest of the war in an internment camp,” I said.
“Yes, I know. I cannot bear what is happening to Germany. The Fuhrer is mad.”
“No argument here.”
We sat in silence for a time. The sky floated by, dream-like. I didn’t know what to say to him. My instincts told me he was a decent guy caught in an impossible situation. “Do you like baseball?” I asked.
“Yes, I love the Yankees – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio.”
“You have to find another team. Everybody loves the Yankees. Try the Dodgers or the Giants.”
“OK,” he said. “I will choose the Giants. They sound heroic. Dodgers sound like cowards.”
“They really aren’t a bad team, but I read you. Do you have a family?” His face dropped and he looked at the floor.
“I have a wife… and a young son.” You could hear the pain in his voice.
“Me, too,” I said.
“What is your son’s name?” he asked.
“Syd. I named him after the guy who had the best hi-fi system in Bryan, Texas.”
“So you like music? Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey? My son’s name is Walter, like mine. My family names all of its boys Walter.”
“Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian. Dorsey is OK. Sinatra is a pimp.”
“I did not know that,” Walter said.
“You heard it here first. Walter, I know a little airstrip in Cuba where I could drop you off. They don’t have any radios there. I could tell the spooks you jumped out of the plane and committed suicide.”
“’Spooks’ – this is a humorous expression, yes?”
“Your ‘spooks’ need to know what I know. Many lives could hang in the balance. I will go to Key Largo.”
“You’re all right, Walter. After the war, I’d like to buy you a beer.”
“I would like that. I suppose they don’t have Beck’s in your internment camp in Texas.”
“Maybe. I have a couple of friends in Washington who owe me. I’ll see what I can do.”
“That would be very kind. With a Beck’s I can endure almost anything.”
“I feel the same way about Lone Star.”
We ran out of things to talk about. We listened to the big Pratt & Whitney R-985 radials throb through the air. I have to admit that I was stunned by the man’s courage. He was ready to face anything to do what was right. He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word. The big .45 pressed against my ribs and I thought about how I was so ready to shoot him just a short time ago.
I tuned to Miami Center and began the process of descending down to Key Largo. Soon the plane would touch down, and this place would not exist anymore. Two men from opposite sides would go different ways. I would go back to the bar in Key West and Walter would go to a prison camp in Texas. In two years, my brother would be killed in France by Walter’s people.
I kept my word. After VJ Day, I called in some favors and got him out of the camp. I drove him to Austin and we had a beer.
Editor’s Note: This story is completely fictional. My father was not a pilot nor did ever threaten to shoot anybody, and I certainly was not around in 1942. There are elements of truth here from stories my dad told me from the WWII era. The purpose for putting it back in time was that I wanted to write a story using this great vintage airliner which is the same plane Rick put Ilsa on in the closing scene of Casablanca.
I am still in possession of every film negative I have ever shot – well, excepting a couple of rolls I shot of a girlfriend in a motel room in Nashville which I destroyed because I’m a good guy – but excepting those two rolls of slide film, I have them all. Yes, it takes some plastic tubs and shelves to store them all, but I have never thrown away a negative. I would no sooner pitch a negative than hurl a Morgan silver dollar into the alley. We all have our principles, and that’s one of mine. Think of what a rich vein of personal history that is: me and my sister at the San Antonio zoo in 1961, old shots from high school, my loves and friends, hiking trips through the mountains, the birth of the first-born, my “arty” experiments, every place I have ever been – you get the idea. I could probably spend the rest of my life just going through my old negatives and making prints, but sometimes dealing with the past can take too much energy, and I prefer to be working in the present. Yet, still I know I have my archive of forgotten treasures that carry all of those parts of my life into the future.
Quite a few of those negatives are really terrible. They are bad shots of people with eyes half closed or with dumb expressions in their faces. Some are just flat-out mistakes, a twitch of the finger that fired a photograph at nothing all, but I have them. I have every single one of them. But, that is also truth. We have those times when we wear dumb expressions on our faces, and times when the finger twitches and fires a picture at nothing at all. There are those times when it would have been a good picture, but we had something set wrong on the camera and it came out dark or blurry. Those moments are also truth. Those are all there too, in the boxes and binders.
Contrast this with the digital camera that you take to a party. You may shoot 3-4 dozen shots and then look at them in the view screen of the camera, “That sucks… delete, that sucks… delete, that really sucks… delete…” Maybe a handful of these photos survive, and maybe they’ll get uploaded to the computer, and maybe they’ll survive a while, at least until the next hard drive crash, when everything you’ve done for the past couple of years suddenly vanishes into the cruel and indifferent clutches of cyberspace.
I have been working with personal computers since their beginning, and if I have learned nothing else, I have learned to never trust them. They die; they fry; they crash; they burn. And they only work when the power is on. My negatives don’t need electricity to remain in existence or even to be viewed, and, were I to get really hard-core about it, I could devise a way to print them without electricity. Fortunately, I’m not quite that compulsive, but it could be done. My negatives are among the most persistent elements of my “memory.”
I transitioned to digital photography for professional work in 2004. The case for digital is compelling: faster, more economical, greater capacity, instant availability of the images, and, on average, the onboard computers of digital cameras do assist us in getting more usable pictures more often. At this point, I have shot oodles of digital images, have stacks of boxes full of CD’s storing terabytes of digital photography. A lot of it has been very successful; in a number of situations digital has been an absolute life-saver. This is not another “digital versus film” screed. I love my digital cameras. What I have found, however, is that I also love my film cameras, and I do not want to be forced to abandon film photography.
I am finding that film and digital are different channels for me, as different as oil painting is from magnetic tape recording. I don’t try to do everything with film as I once did. I don’t have to. If I need a picture of a bottle for a brochure, I grab the digital, fire off a few frames and dump it to the computer. Life is good – no waiting for the lab to process the stuff. The job gets done and I’m off to the next thing. When I get a feeling in my mind that I want to express visually, I am still inclined to pick up a film camera and load it with a favorite film that I know will support the mood I want to capture. I’m talking about me here, not everyone in the world. I have years of experience with film. Like a painter who knows intuitively that cadmium yellow will produce a different feeling than yellow ocher, I know that particular films and developers will produce particular effects and moods in a photo. It’s not rocket science; it just comes from fooling around with them a lot. Most new photographers just coming to the art will never have the opportunity to explore film. They may create great pictures, but there is a sensibility that film imparts to photography that they will miss unless they make the effort to experience it. For most, that won’t be practical, and that’s fine – no judgment intended. I’m just glad that I spent enough time in the darkroom that film is hardwired into my psyche.
If I have a gripe with digital, it is with its perfection, a perfection that verges upon sterility. Assuming that you have adequate light, a digital camera will kick out a correct image every time. Film isn’t like that. Film is full of chaos and unpredictability. If you shoot film on a manual camera, and especially if you develop that film yourself, every roll is an adventure. There are surprises. You can get the “how did that happen?” moment in film. And yes, there are times that the camera can make you look better than you are.
Film carries the truth of the moment: This is what I saw and what I did in that particular moment. There is no little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” I won’t bullshit you: there are plenty of times that I want that little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” But, that’s not my truth. That’s the truth of me and the engineers at Nikon. I love them. They are a talented group, but there are some parties I don’t want to invite them to. Sometimes, I want it to be just me and the light.
Most people who might read this will not only have no nostalgia for film photography, they will joyously cheer its passing. To be freed of the expense, uncertainty, effort and processing delays of film is a godsend… for most people. I don’t condemn that point of view because I understand it completely, but you won’t find me in the cheering section. I am discovering that for me, film is an important color on my palette, one whose value is not negated by the development of newer imaging technologies. It is something I like to do which even now still engages my imagination.
To make such claims, I suppose I should get down to specifics and try to illustrate what I’m saying. I’m not going to stumble down that old “x is better than x” road, because it’s pointless and subjective, and in many aspects, film certainly does not win that debate. Contemporary digital cameras have achieved true excellence in image quality and function. Instead, I want to explore what it is about film that continues to fascinate me.
Mindset – The preparation for a shoot with film involves decisions. Film comes in color, black & white, and transparency (slides). It has speeds (ASA). Once the film is loaded in the camera, you are committed. You can’t just dial in a different speed in a menu. There is a huge trade-off between speed and grain (image quality) with film, which is far more pronounced than with digital. The difference is that with film, the grain can often produce a pleasing graphic effect, whereas it almost never does with digital imaging. Further, films have different characteristics in tone and color, and to a discerning eye, each formula is different. To me, Tmax 100 from Kodak looks different than Ilford Delta 100, even though they are both 100 ASA black and white films. So, when you’re preparing a shoot with film, you sift through your memories of the different films, matching those to the feelings you have about the images you want to produce. The film is already informing the final image you produce. Choose a Polaroid, or a 35mm SLR loaded with Fuji Velvia, or a medium format TLR loaded with Tmax, and the final product will be significantly shaped and formed by the choice of film you make. The film participates in the creation of the image. A good digital camera goes the other way and it’s a tremendous strength of the digital: it gets out of the way and gives you what you are seeing, quickly and efficiently.
The photographer’s mindset when shooting film is inherently more conservative about exposures. Film costs money and exhausted cameras have to be reloaded. I shoot fewer exposures when I’m using film, but I really look carefully at the picture I’m about to take. If it will be one of twelve rather than one of 175, it had better be right, or at least as close to right as I can get it. This is a slower method of doing photography, but it demands that you slow down, look around and get really present in the location where you are shooting.
Visualization – There is no view screen on the back of a film camera. You will not see how an exposure comes out until the film is developed. You can’t really shoot “test shots” to see if the camera is getting what you want. You have to “know” or be able to imagine what the camera will do with this film in this light on this subject. In a secondary way, you have to know what you can do with a particular exposure when you print it. You can shoot a basically “correct” negative, but know that to really get the punch out of the negative, you will need to increase the contrast and push the exposure some to get that dark, moody feeling you want in the final print. All of this exercises the muscles of imagination. Film “kicks away the crutches” in photography by strengthening the capacity to visualize images. When you know you can take a film camera to a shoot and get the picture you want, you achieve confidence. When you see the image in your imagination, making the machinery capture the picture is easy.
I love cameras – I have always loved cameras – big, small, old, new, fabulously expensive, and el cheapo. Cameras are just cool. There has always been a bit of magic about cameras to me. There are some cameras that are such wonderful instruments in themselves that I want to load and shoot them, just to be using the instrument. The Nikon F3 is such a camera for me. It has an almost hypnotic pull on my psyche.
Tactile – There is something very neat about souping your own negatives. Your hands get wet; you smell the chemistry and hear the timers going off. Development is a multi-channel sensory experience that results in a set of negatives that are truly yours. There is a tremendous sense of ownership that comes with successfully developing a good picture. It’s different from five mouse clicks in Photoshop.
Texture – Film has texture. At its most basic, the texture of film comes from the tiny silver halide crystals embedded in the emulsion. When light hits them, they change chemically and this produces the image on the film when acted upon by the developer. You can see this texture in what we call “grain” in the film. In the right amounts, grain produces a visually pleasing organic effect. With too little grain, objects can begin to look plastic and two-dimensional.
Chaos – That bit of uncertainty which clings to every roll of film excites me. Going back to my “almost sterile” observation, a good digital camera becomes highly predictable once you get familiar with it. This is a good thing. On a lot of shoots, I want the confidence and predictability that my digital gives me. On the other hand, a bit of uncertainty and not knowing how a shot will turn out creates excitement and a sense of anticipation. I get more of the uncertainty with film. I enter “the cloud of unknowing” easily. Call me a romantic if you want to, but I like to play with the chaos in the universe.
Individuality – The choice of camera, film and lens creates a distinct and individual look in an image. Probably the best known illustration of this is the work of Ansel Adams. When you see an Ansel Adams print, you seldom need to be told that Adams produced it. It is obvious in the deep, rich grays and resolution of the photo. The great Edward Steichen is another example of a photographer whose technique produced a distinct and individual look. Our choices of films, developers and printing methods give us another way to achieve a distinctive look.
Permanence – As I said at the outset, my negatives stay with me. Nothing digital has lasted as long as my negatives. Someday in the future that may change, but it will be a long time from now.
Hopefully, this outline has given you a sense of why I continue to use film for photography. Maybe I have even encouraged you to dust off Dad’s old film camera a run a few rolls. That would be great. One of my agendas is to keep Kodak, Fuji and Ilford in business. Even as carefully as I have written this, I know that it ultimately fails to capture the magic of film. Perhaps, you just have to see that for yourself.
Click on images for larger version
“Many people, even some good photographers, talk of the ‘luck’ of photography as if that were a disparagement. And it is true that luck is constantly at work. It is one of the cardinal creative forces in the universe, one which the photographer has unique equipment for collaborating with. And a photographer often shoots around a subject, especially one that is highly mobile and in continuous and swift development–which seems to me as much his natural business as it is for a poet who is really in the grip of his poem to alter and re-alter words in his line. It is true that most artists, though they know their own talent and its gifts as luck, work as well as they can against luck, and that in most good works of art, as in little else in creation, luck is either locked out or locked in and semi-domesticated, or put to wholly constructive work; but it is peculiarly a part of the good photographer’s adventure to know where luck is most likely to lie in the stream, to hook it, and to bring it in without unfair play and without too much subduing it. Most good photographs, especially the quick and lyrical kind, are battles between the artist and luck.” – James Rufus Agee