New Mexico

For reasons I cannot fully explain, I’m drawn to the American West. Maybe it’s the steady diet of westerns I watched as a kid (and as an adult, if I’m honest). Maybe it’s the stark differences between there and where I live in the East, the mountains and deserts and open skies that are alien to my daily experience. But whatever the cause, I find the pull of the place doesn’t go away no matter how many times I visit.

This trip was into uncharted territory: New Mexico. I’ve been to neighboring states – Colorado and Arizona – but this was new. As usual, I flew into an airport relatively far from my destination, allowing for a long drive to get a feel for the terrain and immerse myself in the place in a broad sense, rather than just dropping into an airport, a car, and a hotel right off the bat. The drive from Denver to Santa Fe, avoiding the interstate, took the better part of eight hours.

Photographers who’ve shot in New Mexico often talk about the quality of the light. As with anything that gets built up to near-mythical status deserves a healthy dose of skepticism, but having been there I have to say there is at least something to it. The hard, bright sun has a clarity and a directness that is really quite striking, and feels a bit different than what I recall from Arizona. I wonder if proximity to the major population centers of California introduces enough particulates to diffuse the light a bit more further west.

In any case, New Mexico proved to be a very interesting place the visit. Santa Fe, at least the old downtown area, was great for just strolling around, stopping off for a margarita (a proper one, not some cheap, frozen crap), and strolling some more. Out beyond the city there were places to explore between large stretches of very little: Los Alamos, home of the atomic bomb project during the war, and Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keeffe made her home. The remoteness of both places, particularly in the years when their most famous occupants were present, is very much a part of their respective identities.

Thinking further about this sense of semi-isolation that is so much a part of New Mexico – the least the parts I saw – it seems the equivalent in photographic terms of negative space, the absence of information in parts allowing greater focus on the remaining points. The lack of clutter makes it, for me, a place where photographic vision comes a bit more easily than in others. This is a critical part of my understanding of New Mexico, and one of the reasons I look forward to going back and exploring it further.

On to the photos. I’m playing with a more thematic organization of these, so the selections in this an subsequent posts may end up being a bit irregularly sized.

Working Past Perfection

I recently watched an episode of the series “Classic Albums,” a show that chronicles the production of – surprise, surprise – classic rock albums. While I have no musical ability, I find the process of musical creation fascinating, and given the nature of radio in the 1970s and 80s, I know the songs really, really well.

This particular episode focused on Steely Dan’s Aja. I’m no great fan of Steely Dan, though they certainly deserve credit for producing a unique and instantly recognizable sound, and again, with the songs in heavy rotation on all the local FM stations back when that’s how people listened to music, I heard them a lot. Watching Donald Fagan and Walter Becker sitting at the board and bringing up selected tracks from the masters, breaking down what they wanted and why, was fascinating and gave me further appreciation for what they produced. Still not high on my playlist, mind you, but unmistakably impressive and evocative work.

As a duo, they of necessity brought in session musicians, a common practice for many bands in a lot of recording sessions. What I learned, and what was rather unusual, was that for Aja they brought in different groups of musicians – whole different bands, really – looking for the sound they wanted for each individual song. And they worked those bands hard, playing the songs over and over, trying countless different things to arrive at the final product they envisioned. Some were sent home never having recorded a track. One might get the impression that Becker and Fagan were perfectionists, never satisfied until the session players conformed to their vision.

This notion, while reasonable and not entirely inaccurate, doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the players, a guitarist named Dean Parks, suggested that the endless repetition and experimentation were not about achieving perfection, but a conscious effort directed toward what he called “playing past perfection” – getting so familiar with the piece that it became natural; not a forced mechanical repetition, but one that came easily to the whole assembled group. They could play it the same way endlessly, but their familiarity enabled a fluidity and an interaction that brought the parts together in a way that mere technical perfection never could.

This struck me as remarkably applicable to photography. Many, many photographers (self-styled or otherwise) spend countless hours and even more countless dollars in search of perfection (whatever that means to them, and in many cases to the internet acquaintances who are their social arbiters as well). Perfection is, well, perfect, but as I’ve noted here before, it’s also endlessly repeatable and thus hopelessly boring. Capture a photo that’s perfect by every measure – exposure, focus, composition, everything – and you have made something that can be made again by any other photographer with the same gear and understanding of the metrics of technical perfection.

When, however, you become so familiar and so proficient with your equipment and your way of seeing that you can photograph instinctively, as well as technically well, and you have transcended perfection. You have now produced something that only you could, something that is not reproducible by anyone else. A photograph that is yours and could be nothing else.

It seems to me that this is also a pretty strong argument for limiting one’s gear and getting to the point where using it becomes a natural extension of the body, entirely within one’s personal control. By extension, this approach also precludes the use of cameras that do the work for you – if auto-focus and auto-exposure are perfect every time you use them, they are equally perfect for everyone else. You can never go beyond perfection with gear alone. To extend the musical analogy, drum machines can produce perfect time and whatever beats they are programmed for with absolute accuracy. If that was enough, drummers would be extinct by now (and not just due to natural Spinal Tap-style attrition).

I have a lot of cameras, and many of them are used relatively infrequently. Most of them were purchased as I was experimenting with different things, looking for the ones that worked best for what I wanted to do. But that time has passed – I know that my little screwmount Leicas are the right cameras for my photography. It may be time to think about thinning the herd a bit, removing the temptation to load up some odd thing and instead going more often with the old standbys, the cameras that allow me to work instinctively. While am by no means at the point of technical perfection, let alone anywhere near transcending it, I also know that I will make no progress in that regard unless I avoid distractions and focus on the task at hand: bringing the vision and the final product closer together.

Recent Work (March 2020)

In an effort to stimulate some sort of creativity, I decided to shoot a few rolls of film through longer lenses. I had no real expectations, but I figured that changing my view might at least produce something that looked a bit different than the sort of things I usually end up with. I used a few different focal lengths – 85, 100, and 135 – more or less randomly. I think I had a 50 on there for a few shots as well.

Additionally, I pushed the film (HP5+) to 1600 to make it easier for me to shoot at higher shutter speeds and/or use filters if I was so inclined. Naturally, it’s a bit grainy, but I’m fine with that. I knew what I was getting into.