Dana is more intriguing than Howard Hughes, more fascinating than David Copperfield, and more misunderstood than Dick Cheney. Come read his first ever interview and find out what makes the man tick.

1/7/2013  UPDATE appended at end:

 

BKKSteve:   Dana -  There are few names associated with the Thailand Expatriate more recognized and/or controversial than yours.  Bernard Trink comes to mind, Stick seems to slowly moving into his receding shoes, and then there's the prolific and sometimes gifted writer who everyone gets to know through their stories or in the case of Phet (another exceptional expatriate writer) the saga of their personal lives.

Considering this, it seems we get to know Dana as we would any shock jock, you writing is sometimes wild, sometimes provoking, other times you write visions our minds eyes cannot help but develop and many find those visions disturbing.  But what I like is when you write a single piece that six different people would swear means something different to each of them.  Can you tell us what you're really trying to do? 

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Dana:    Well, I guess the primary thing I am trying to do is have fun.

To entertain.  It varies.  If it is an essay then it is more about presenting a view or being informational.  I write fiction, nonfiction, faction, essays, point-of-view, song lyrics, poetry, science and science fiction, autobiography, one act plays, criticism, etc.  So what  'I am trying to do'  varies according to the form. But regardless of the form or the intent if I am not having fun writing it, it does not get written.  Approximately 500 of my efforts appear on the host website Stickmanbangkok.com under the franchise name Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes.  Much diversity of content.

Perhaps I am like a word photographer open to any idea within the Thailand arena.

I do not get paid or receive stringer or columnist directives from publishers.  So, I am only writing when I want to write, and what I want to write.  This tends to weight the motivation heavily towards having fun.  There is no plan.  Ideas burst into my head like asteroids, I write them out word for word in my head, and then the race is on to get to a keyboard before it all disappears.  If I can get to a keyboard fast enough you will see me smiling.  I am not writing at the keyboard.  I am simply transcribing what has already been written in my head.  I used to be able to write about 4500 words in my head, now it is more like 3000 words.  There has been some mental slippage.  Still, once transcribed, there is very little editing and almost no rewriting.  The way it is transcribed is 95% the way it gets sent in.  I find the mechanics of writing easy.  You can't do this with novella or novel length stuff but with short stories or very short essays or stories it is fun to be able to just bang them out.  I can't think of a photography analogy to this.

If I were a photographer I probably would not work this way.  I would probably get seduced by the wonderful post production things that can be done.  If you are walking down the sidewalk and you see a one hundred dollar bill you are going to lean over and pick it up.  Modern photography now has so many astonishing things that the photographer can do that it is hard to imagine a picture taker limiting themselves for some philosophic reason.

 

BkkSteve Reponds:  I don’t normally interject comments during an interview, but much of what you’re telling me almost requires a response, so if you’ll permit I’ll add my comments at the end of your entire response.

FUN.  This says it all.  This is my goal to my website Bangkok Images and my workshops.  This is important.  Most hobbyist writers AND photographers are just that, hobbyists.   I make the assumption ‘fun’ is the purpose unless specially told otherwise because it changes everything.  Photography as a business is a much different animal than photography for fun.  Much is less and little is gained during the transition.  You’d probably say the same about writing?

You say as a photographer you’d be seduced by the latest methods and I assume the equipment that comes with it.  Based on my experience teaching I’d say you’re right and on to something important.  I loose analogy would be someone liking the latest pop song and then deciding they want to do the same.  But what’s missing from the equation is all the work, technique and musical talent formed through years and years of practice.  We first learn to hum, some go on to whistle.  But to ask someone “we have a day together, teach me to do what’s taken you years to accomplish..” is an entirely different thing.  Perhaps my biggest challenge in workshops is breaking down what’s required to accomplish certain things while helping them have enough fun to stay interested through the years of work it takes to get there.  I’d imagine writing isn’t much different, to write a story for fun is one thing, to write a story that entertains the masses another.

 

 

BkkSteve:    Dana -  Who is Dana?  Tell us where you grew up, what kind of family life you  enjoyed, about Dana the student as you made your way through the system.  Were you a gifted student or average? Who were your best friends?  Were you a " cool kid" in high school or a nerd?   Please give us a picture of who Dana was through the first 20 years of your life.  Your hopes and dreams?

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Dana:   I have had two lives.  As a child I was an introvert and then something happened and as an adult I became an extrovert.  Something like a mental-personality pole shift.  I do not believe this is normal and I have had to struggle with not being normal.  I have never been a bonder or a joiner or a believer, and I struggle with garden variety relationships and social interactions.  I have never been the employee who wanted to win the contest, or get recognition, or earn a promotion.  Mostly I just wish everyone would pay attention to my contract with society.  I'll leave you alone and I would very much like you to leave me alone.

Additionally, I am quick to anger or disgust or criticism or . . . none of this is good and I have to constantly monitor myself in public.  My dreams are not dreams of inclusion or acceptance.  They are dreams of domination or power or violence.  I'm the jerk on the Internet who has to be told not to use all caps for everything.  Early in my Internet career I had to learn that emails of energy and focus do not always transcribe well.

Some of these issues could have been solved with my own website and I was encouraged to do so by readers, but it was not fated to be.  My computer skills still hover near zero after thirty years.  I only started playing (listening to) music (videos) on the computer last year, and all of my writing is sent in to the Internet publishers via email format.  They don't like this but they tolerate it.  It is all I know how to do.  Additional writer complications derive from the fact that I do not have a computer.  I use computers at the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts General Hospital, and a store that rents computer time.  I suppose a measure of my compulsion to write is that somehow it all gets done.  However, all of these computer locations have different bewildering programs.  Maybe I have learned to write fast to lessen the frustration.

Maybe this means that due to personality I would be well suited to be a combat zone photographer.  I don't know.  I think about it.

One of the potentially attractive things about combat zone photography (or  'high risk to the humans'  photography, volcanos, etc.) is that the picture taker hobbyist of his youth might have graduated to the "philosophic notion of doxastic commitment, a class of beliefs that go beyond talk, and to which we are committed enough to take personal risks." (Taleb).  Does this mean that I respect more and expect higher standards from the 'at risk' photographer than from a laboratory or studio photographer?  Well, that seems kind of unfair; but I do think about it.  Not long ago the site administrator of BangkokImages.com did some work in southern Thailand where there is currently a lot of violence due to Malaysian incursions over the border.  Did this heightened awareness of his own mortality help or hinder his photography skills?  I don't remember him mentioning this.

Constantly having to dumb down my presentation skill sets on the Internet in my writing is an enduring frustration.  There are two kinds of people: seducers and hitters.  I am a hitter.  Not the best personality type for day-to-day stuff, but if you can learn to control the internal fires and explosions and poisons you can have an awful lot of fun writing.  Writing is a solitary selfish act.  You get to direct your fingers and your mind to hit the keys on the keyboard that you want to hit.  What could be more fun?  All that hitting.  Yes, all that hitting.  I can't think of something similar in the 'taking of a picture'.  Is there anything similar to this in photography?  I don't know.

BkkSteve Responds:  I have spent some time in the southern three provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Naratihwat..  Okay, months at a time.  For me the draw was to be in such an environment, but with a camera this time.  To seek the truth where the press was letting us down.  And still is.  I was able to use long but fortunately not forgotten skill sets, to feel certain feelings again, to believe that maybe this time I could make a difference.   So to answer your question both:  I was acutely aware of my mortality, but at the same time it helped my photography.   The mindset that kept me alive in the past was now resulting in a higher quality work.  I improvised, substituted skill sets, I was able to solve problems in real time where without the stress might not have presented themselves otherwise.  This is all hard to quantify, but I’m confident anyone who has also done this would know exactly what I’m referring to.

Working for myself had its advantages though.  Being my own boss allowed me to spend the time, be places, and promise things never before possible.  And of course this meant no support, no QRF, no aircover, no one but two very concerned and talented assistants who protected me dutifully.   After three to four weeks of vetting I was finally introduced to the main players on both sides, I heard their stories, recorded and photographed interviews, and both factions only asked me one thing:   Don’t print anything that won’t help us live together like we once did.  Few things were more difficult, but as I told you before, I continue to sit on most of this information.  At best I hope to someday provide a several month window into how the leaders on both sides felt, thought, and what they were really hoping for.   A few things I did print was a delightful visit to Thailand’s only Kris Master while under escort of the military and the real story as told by the monk who hid under a table while his elders were gunned down by insurgents, and a light piece about a delightful Muslim girl in Pattani. Hopefully conditions will improve to allow for volumes more.  All I will say about this is that it’s not what you’re currently reading in the news.

 

 

BkkSteve:    Dana -  If you don't mind, would you share your major in college and if you ended up working in that field?   And if so, did you stay there or move on?  You're in your sixth decade on this fine Earth, where was Dana from the start of his second decade until now?

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Dana:  Originally my major at the University of Michigan was Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering but this was in the Sixties and the Engineering students were wearing black peg leg pants and Bomb Hanoi buttons.  This was a social non-compute for me so I transferred to the Art History department and majored in Art History.  This was the right move.  I have had a lifetime interest in the fine arts and in aesthetics and in art history.    I make art decisions or think art thoughts every single day.

As an introvert I painted, and charcoal sketched, and pencil sketched, and pastel chalk sketched up until age 12.  Then the hormones hit and I became a different person.  I lost the ability to draw.

Nobody I have ever told this story to believes it, but there you are.

All I have is my life and my stories.  Anyway, goodbye fine arts, hello art appreciation.  Thank god there was a bridge.  If  I could will my life, I would be a painter.  My mind is choked with all of the ideas that every other human has but I think about art continually.  If I was a photographer would I think about photography constantly?  Photography seems static to me.  Writing and painting seem dynamic.  It is hard for me to imagine that photography would seize and please my mind the way that writing and art do.  Maybe I am mistaken.

If I get a Buddhist second chance and come back as some kind of human maybe I will get to find out about some of this stuff.

BkkSteve Responds:  I have a private passion where I enjoy photographing truly beautiful women in states and poses which reveals their rawest beauty and strongest attributes.  You won’t ever see those images on this site, in books, or anywhere else.  I consider it some of my finest work.  But to share it publically would diminish it’s value and mine. Still, there are rare times I’ll share portions of this work with someone I respect or admire as someone who can provide true criticisms and feedback.  I shared a portfolio with Dana before I ever knew of his art background.  Why?  I suppose I knew without knowing.  From his words.  With an accuracy I’ve never before experienced he not only identified my lighting style, but then he pointed out and I might say with a respectful demeanor, where I could have improved.  I immediately knew this was a man who knew what he was talking about, much in contrast to the many posers one meets while in the Kingdom. 

Photography is what you make it.   Armed with a pen or camera you can choose to tell a story as fast and with as much passion as you like.   The bottom line is you’re telling a story.   Tell the story in a way that fits your style and personality and you can’t lose.   A writer uses prose to tell his story, a photographer images.   Learn to use both with a modicum of competence and you’ll start to experience what makes photojournalism such a powerful  skill.

 

 

BkkSteve:   Dana -  Now that we know who you are and where you came from and something about your educational background.. what makes Dana live and breathe.. where during this time did you first start writing?  Tell us about this experience and any other related experiences you feel shaped you as a writer?

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Dana:   I have been a carnivorous and indiscriminate reader since my teenage years.  My parents had a 'reading before bed' plan so that the children would be literate and attracted to reading.  It worked.

Writing came later.  I think this was a good thing.  I am suspicious of the very young writers.  I believe you benefit from reading a couple of billion words first.  Your brain osmotically learns what works and how things should be done.  For instance you learn that is is not 'athalete', it is 'athlete'.  It is not 'stairoids', it is 'steroids'.  Etc. There is no substitute for  reading before you start writing.  There is no substitute for living before you start writing either. 

My opinions. 

Has anyone ever said this about photography?  I have never heard this opinion.  Maybe in the beginning the camera's toy-like attraction allows for less seriousness and lower standards.  It is hard to treat writing or painting as toys.  You have to be pretty geared up.

Anyway, I started writing by inventing plays and sending them to friends as fun gifts.

The family members would be the characters in the plays and some family interest or in-joke would be the content.

This type of format forces you to be focused and economical.  You have to accomplish a lot with very few words.  I strongly believe that economy and speed are necessary skills for writing.  Particularly speed.  If you cannot write fast I will probably not respect you.  The 'great writers'  who take years and years to laboriously hand write perfectly crafted sentences on dozens of yellow note pads are not my people.  Show me a columnist at the front turning out gripping prose surrounded by falling shells.  That person I want to meet.  I suppose there is a name for this kind of photographer.  I don't know what it is.

I violate or disagree with many  'how to write'  theories.

Writing or composing (essays) is storytelling.  If you do not have a story to tell you should not be sitting at a desk.  First the story, then you sit down.  And what is great writing?  There are many definitions but one definition I owe to a feminist who emailed me and said that she found everything about my character and my content disgusting but she could not stop reading.  If your writing skill trumps someone’s politically correct or otherwise prejudices then you have done some successful text presenting.  I confess to sometimes writing provocative pieces to see if I could accomplish this.

Writers would have more fun if they would set challenges for themselves.  Few do.  Do photographers set challenges for themselves that look to the outsider like pointless artifices but help with focus and concentration?  For example: instead of loading up the car to go to the zoo to take pictures of animals; how about placing limits or restrictions.  You are only going to take pictures of birds and you are only going to take pictures of birds with blue feathers.  And when you have taken all of the pictures of birds with blue feathers that are available you will go home.  Treat the experience as if you have signed a contract.

And finally, back to speed.  If I was teaching a writing course there would be speed exercises.  If you can not write skillfully and quickly there is something missing.  Maybe you should find another hobby.  Part of my technique is that once I start writing a story or an essay I do not get up or stop until I have got all of the words down.  I do not look up grammer rules, or spelling issues, or get involved in formatting decisions, or rewrites, or call a friend for advice or . . . anything; those things are not writing.  Those are things that are done after the writing is done.  They come under the categories of proofreading and editing and sometimes rewriting.

If you are constantly stopping and starting I do not know what you think you are doing, but you are not writing; you are playing at writing.  Same with photography.  Examine your behavior.  Are you driven to capture an image because of an external-internal drive (compulsion): or are you just playing?  I think because of all the gearhead choices available to photographers there is a danger that this will hold the photographer back.

Maybe everybody should start out by building their own pinhole camera and assembling a scrapbook of pinhole pictures.  Remember, it is mind control, and then breath control, and then you squeeze the trigger. 

Maybe military snipers would make excellent photographers.  And maybe female military snipers would make the very best photographers.  They have more patience and more control over their breathing.  Maybe just before being discharged or retired from military service female snipers should be given civilian courses in professional industrial contract photography.  Just ramblin'.

Anyway, and in my opinion, when you finally decide to look through the view finder that is all that you should be doing.  Stop being a hobbyist and focus your mind.  Ten year old girls can do this.  You can do this.  Be a photographer.  To translate my writer opinions to photography: I am not an enthusiast of the person with a camera just wandering around looking for a picture opportunity.

I know this sounds kind of needlessly rigorous, but I don't think you should leave the house or load up the car unless you have a plan.  Be professional.

Try to  'write the photo in your head'  before you take off the lens cap.  There are some fabulous photos on BangkokImages.com.  I do not believe these were impulse shots by someone just wandering around looking for  'something to take a picture of''.  First the picture was taken in the photographer's head, and then he tried to figure out how to do it technically.  There are successful writers who say that they just sit down in front of a blank monitor and wait for the words to come.  Photographers will also tell this story.  They are locked and loaded and just waiting for inspiration.  It works for them.

It is not something that works for me.  For me it is first the story, first the image, first the idea; then the follow-through.

Your answer is powerful, something every aspiring photographer should read and understand at any level.   You asked many questions, I’ll answer them in order as we go:

Yes there is such a thing.  It’s the most basic yet most complex concept.  Seeing.   You must learn to see and training yourself to see starts from the day we’re born.   Do we see shapes, sizes, patterns, colors, direction, and even sound just because we now realize they exist, or by paying our dues and training ourselves to ‘see’ after we learn their definition?  I’ll do exercises with students, towards the end of a workshop I’ll tell them it’s their turn.  We’ll drive and I’ll tell them tell me when they see something to photograph and then tell me what it was they saw.  A certain light, a scene,  a moment, tell me why.. all which takes experience. 

I remember during my police academy entry exams.  700 people showed up for the morning exams, 700 for the afternoon.  One part of the exams showed a set of five scenes for 3 seconds each.  We were given 30 minutes more questions not related to these five scenes before being asked to now write down every detail of every scene.  Details such as the number, make, color, and license plates of cars, building types, number of people and descriptions such as race, clothing, hair styles, and more.  I was in the first 50 they called in for the second phase in testing based on my scores.  I was told I not only saw all the details which was rare enough, but added details they hadn’t seen in the countless times they’ve proctored the tests.  What additional details?  Time of day as determined by the direction of light to reference points, emotive states of the people in the scene, and in the case of a few cars certain attributes only a dedicated gearhead would know.. J    The point is we all start off ‘seeing’ to different levels, and we can all increase our ability to see based on our natural attributes, but it’s only time and experience which help improve on both.

You speak of limits to challenge.  Absolutely.  Limit yourself to a 50mm lens, a 35mm, whatever but select a focal length and use only this focal length for the next month.  Chances are you’ll end up making the best images of your life just from this one simple challenge.  Why?  Because it teaches you to focus.  To focus on what you can see at 35mm.  Not 50, not 200, and not 73.  35mm.   Often, as you remove variables you’ll find what you’re really removing are distractions.  It’s called clarity.  

You mention the zoo.   35mm and Zebras:  If you into a zoom armed with a bag of lenses, a hand truck to carry them around, and you don’t have a plan or direction then you’re apt to take a few thousand pictures of nothing.  Or rather nothing you’re excited about.  But if you plan to only shoot at 35mm and only at Zebras, then you’ll discover that the tigers, lions, bears and antelopes are nothing more than distractions.  When you look at a herd of Zebras you’ll notice all those not at 35mm are distractions. 

But.. those zebras in  the 35mm range.. they stand out like Rudolph’s red nose on Christmas Eve!   And you’ll end up with 35mm Zebra pictures made to a much higher quality than the guy shooting next to you who doesn’t have a plan.  Why?  Because you’ll notice which light works best for your subject at that focal length, what shutter speed, and what aperture provides the most desired DOF.  Get the picture?   What you’re doing is allowing yourself to FOCUS your efforts into a smaller area which is essentially the same as increasing your learning speed.   You don’t necessarily need 30 years of wildlife photography experience to pull off the best 35mm Zebra images.. only the self-discipline to place limits which enhance your learning.

As a student at the police academy we all looked forward to a guest speaker who had seen the most actual gunfights than anyone else in our state.  All the gun nuts were straining at their collars wanting to ask him questions about his favorite gun, favorite caliber, etc..  When posed with the first question he said:  It’s far better to have one gun and shoot it exceptionally well, then ten you shoot only with  a general level of competence.  When in a gunfight the man with the combination of the greatest reaction time, draw time, and accuracy wins every time.  Not the guy with the newest gun, or the gun that can shoot 50 times faster than another.  

You still doubt me?   I’d guess 95% of Stickman’s nightlife shots are shot with a single 35mm lens.  He’s learned it and learned it well.  

Note to Dana:  I would also like to think military snipers make exceptional photographers.  And women are proven to hold more steady and to be able to shoot better than most men.  However, shooting is only a small part of a snipers job so I wouldn’t be looking for them have any advantages with photography.  They’ll just have to earn it like everyone else.

“Writing The Photo In Your Head”   I agree the best photography comes from a plan.  Every assignment, every road trip, every challenge I’ll find myself loading my bags and other gear with my ‘plan’ in mind.  However, if you train yourself to ‘see’ then sometimes it’s just nice and relaxing to head out on the road and see what presents itself.  Some really great images “just happen.”   But I do think most are planned.

 

 

BkkSteve:    Dana - Where have you traveled and did your travels inspire your writing?  When did you first come to Thailand and how long did it take upon your arrival before you realized the first lesson you taught me about writing in Thailand "Thailand has a minimum of one great story a day if you do nothing else but keep your eyes and ears open!"  I didn't believe this at first, and then I realized it took training and experience to not only learn how to listen (or see as a photographer), but how to find the story what was always there waiting for us much like those hidden object drawings in Children's Highlights.  I trained myself to see the image others couldn't see as a photographer, and you encouraged me to see the story others never noticed.  An extraordinary and profound lesson I'll never forget, and I myself will pass it down to my own students.  Please tell us how this all relates in your mind?

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Dana:   In terms of writing, Thailand for me was like finding paradise.

I believe there are many writers with skill that we never hear from because they have not found their special content.  I believe that every human has a particular content that is the ideal cross on the graph of their writing skills and their interests.  Most people with writing skill never find this cross on the graph in their lifetime.  I went to Thailand many years ago on a whim and blundered into the content and the place that was made for me as a writer.  It was like a dam burst.  Writer's paradise.  For me Thailand is a bottomless well of content.  A 'story-a-day' place.  Not a blog or journal entry a day, a story or essay.  For others . . . maybe not.

But for me as a writer, Thailand is just gold. I have been writing about the Kingdom for ten years now almost seven days a week and there is no diminution in my interest.  This cannot be credited to me.  Somebody just decided to gift me.  God bless them or him or her or it for giving me so much happiness in the last ten years.  I believe the same exact thing can be said about photography.  Until you find your special content that lights you up you are just playing.  Not a bad thing, but can what you are doing even be classed as photography?  I guess so but my enthusiasm is only luke warm for this idea.

As for what inspires my writing: I believe my lifetime interest in aesthetics (art) directly benefits my ability to write. I do not 'see' the way most people see.  I see more.  My eyes and my brain take in more data.  I am constantly surprised at what people do not see or observe.  Maybe my lifetime social isolation makes me a better observer and ponderer.  I believe this to be so, but like all beliefs; I can not prove it.  Anyway, ask someone to tell you what color the cactus is and they will tell you that it is green.  The artistic eye will see many other colors, all working together to produce the image that is produced in your brain.  Artists see more detail.  I think that my visual ability to see more is also reflected in my writer's ability to identify things that can be focused on from the point-of-view of text description.

In my opinion, a writer ought to be able to extemporarily produce one thousand words on anything.

Anything.  And fast.  He (or she) ought to have the ability to translate ideas into text with ease.  If he can not do this he is not a writer.  He lacks the skill set required to use words to present ideas.

We are not talking rocket science here. You either can write, or you can not write.  I have no patience with the  'writer'  who states that he spent five hours writing and got two good sentences.  Nonsense.  Not comfortable with this idea?  Research newspaper and magazine columnists.  They produce according to directive or personal idea according to schedules and corporate parameters.  They are writers.  As a photographer why not make a game of this?  Write up a fake contract between you and a made-up boss or customer.  Now go out and capture the images required.

Maybe the best/worst example of this is so-called 'glamour' photography.  Aka, taking pictures of pretty girls.  If you are a male photographer you might find settng limits on your behavior a useful thing.  I do not personally find glamour photography that engaging but as a male I can easily imagine some issues between the photographers hormones and the final image.  Remember, it is mind control, and then breath control, and then you squeeze the trigger.  If you cannot do this; cancel the session.  Above all, be respectful to the lady.

Back to artistic behavior and setting limits and controlling impulse:  you get the same idea in photography only more often in reverse.  Are you the picture taker that takes fifty pictures of a rose and then cherry picks the best one?  That pic is then offered up as an example of yourself as a photographer?  How is this different than just throwing the dice?  I would hold myself to a higher standard.  I know this is a standard professional modus operandi but . . . well, we cannot do that in writing or in painting.  In writing or painting we only get one chance.

I do not write fifty versions of a story and then submit those fifty stories to a publisher and say 'pick one'.  I do not expect you to get fifty great photos out of fifty shots but maybe you should not be doing quite so much bragging either.  You took fifty pictures.  The easiest example of this that comes to mind is the fool dancing around a naked woman going through rolls of film.  And of course let us add rock and roll music and big posters from the movie Blow-Up.  Maybe this is just me.  Maybe I am just not suited for this kind of photography.  Maybe I am only suited to be in a studio taking an industrial picture of a piece of Chinese jade.  Just the camera and the jade and my mind.  Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like writing.

At any rate, when ten years ago the dam burst and I started in on my Thailand writing there was no plan or agenda.  Just compulsion and smiling.  Over time certain points-of-view and writer tricks were repeated.  Also, over time, recurring characters became a cast of characters; helpful and fun in building a body of work.

Can skillful writing be taught?  If the student is a motivated student the mechanics can be taught.  That is usually called business writing.  Can creative writing be taught?  I do not think so.  The already creative writer can be instructed on better ways to format and present; but what goes on in his or her brain is original and un-teachable.  A good example is photography.  A photography student can be taught many important things regarding capturing and manipulating final images.  But if they cannot  'see'  the picture opportunity in the first place nothing can be done.

In spite of a lifetime interest in aesthetics I have no photographer's eye.  This seems very counterintuitive and I have never been really successful in explaining this to someone else, but there it is.  I have limits.  For me to get involved in photography as an art form would be a waste of time.  I respect photography and photographers but I never think about it.  I probably have the I.Q. to learn all of the photography mechanicals and techniques and tricks and procedures, but if you are not thinking about it all the time; you are not a photographer.  My opinion.

BkkSteve Responds::

On discipline:    Photography benefits from a heaping spoonful.    Yet, passion produces some of the most powerful words and images.   Whatever your passion; women, butterflies, food, whatever inspires your passion will show in your work.

On the 50 pictures:  From experience I can tell you those who take 50 pictures of anything.. aren’t doing it for the sake of composition.  What they’re doing is taking 50 images at different camera settings with the hope one will be properly exposed, or focused, or the desired DOF..  They’re taking 50 images to get a “technically” correct image.  Not a properly composed one.    A story:

A love the boatyards.  Last summer I took a few workshop students there, but on one occasion I shot my own camera right alongside him which is something I rarely do.  I rather give the student 100% of my attention.  But this day was different because something was happening at the boatyards I hadn’t yet seen.    So we’re both shooting the same thing, but he’s really going at it.  Many images.  Fair enough, he has a lack of experience which is why he’s there.  But he’s also repositioning himself for different compositions.  Again, fair enough.  He’s there to learn.   But this example goes towards your comments about having a plan and shooting 50 pictures.  A plan (and experience) helps you not do this.  And when you’re not taking those 49 other pictures, what are you doing instead?  Yep, watching the subject for the very best single picture possible.    This is what I was doing, shooting maybe 2 images to his 25-30..  Watching, making a plan, and having enough experience to KNOW my shots would be properly exposed and executed.  

The Mechanics vs. The Writing:   With photography I think the mechanics can be taught to a high level, while you can only ‘help’ someone “see” and compose.    I sometimes relate my own photography workshop attendance.  There’s a landscape photographer who I respect very much.  He charges more for one day of his time than many people make in a month.  I waited nearly two years for an opening that fit both our schedules so we get together.   It goes like this:  “Steve, I can’t teach you anything about the mechanics.  You teach the stuff and know it as well as I do.  But where I see room for real improvement is in your “seeing..” “  Ah geez, did he really say that?  Yes he did.  And he sat me in one spot and we didn’t move for eight hours.  He taught me more in that eight hours than I learned on my own in the last ten YEARS.  The best money I ever spent.   My goal is to learn to teach my students to “see” with the same competence he exhibited with me.

I.Q.   Dana, you and I are in that age group where we once crouched under our school desks while sirens alerted us to incoming ICBM’s.  And subsequently we were both probably administered “The Presidential Battery of Scholastic and Physical Fitness Testing,”   In other words we were carefully administered I.Q. tests, made to run a mile, stand on one leg on a balance beam, and other tests to see just how useful we would be to our country in the event the red commies invaded our homeland.   We weren’t supposed to learn our I.Q. scores lest someone not feel as good as someone else, but if you were in the “gifted” category you might remember your parents being called into the office to discuss your scores.   Or you might have been on the other end of the spectrum and called in just the same.  

Because of this I’ve sometimes had the opportunity to learn the I.Q. levels of creative types and from my observation creative types fall into one of two categories.  Super smart and able to create either through talent or fake it to a good level through intelligence, or so lacking of distractions in life you just “saw” things other didn’t.  Too smart or too dumb.. it’s a wonderous world we live in.

 

 

BkkSteve: Who inspires you?  Who are your heroes?

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Dana:    Heroes? Humans who inspire me? Too many to list. I am an easy admirer. I think to have heroes is to be alert to the extraordinary world around us filled with extraordinary people. I am easily captured by heroic people, regardless of gender, age, interest, or anything else. Just get my attention with excellence. In man country the name H.W. Tilman comes up. Intelligent, risk attracted, courageous, educated, a great writer, and an example of evolution at it's best. H.W. Tilman was an adventurer--mountain climber--author of very dry wit--sailor--and many times decorated military man. He would be quoting Greek and Latin and French and ancient authors as he climbed to the summit. My guy.

Photography inspirers? Well, I am not the right person to ask because of my lay person status but if we stick to just the image without regard to character or personal history or anything else; I vote for O. Winston Link: a cult classic photographer of trains. The images please as your brain processes what the eyes send, but they also radiate intelligence. You can see in each photo that there were selection processes. Give a dog a camera and you are not going to get these images.

Most of my heroes are solitary strugglers or people skillful at solitary pursuits. I appreciate team or group activities but I am less inclined to dream about participating unless I am the boss. And you do not have to be a doer for me to worship you. I love dreamers also.

I'm a great companion in a bar. I will listen to your dream. I may end up adding you to my list of heroes. I had a dream after college.

I dreamed of building a boat and sailing to the Caribbean. I kept a list of all the people who said I could not do it. When I finally made it to the Virgin Islands I sent all of these dream killers postcards. The postcards were to remind them of the value of inspiration.

What would I get involved in if I had to do heroic things in photography? Well I am attracted to the idea of big things and big ideas. Huge heavy cumbersone equipment on the backs of uncooperative burros heading up to a canyon rim for a sunrise shot would be my idea of something worth doing. Big dreams. Big failures. And maybe, maybe every now and then; something heroic. Maybe something inspirational for someone else.

BkkSteve Responds:  My main inspiration comes from nature.  Nature never ceases to amaze, please, and inspire.  I dream of swimming like a fish, flying like a bird, roaring like a lion.  When I’m inspired I’ll write all night long or stay on the road for weeks at a time.  When my inspiration leaves me I aim the car back home and call it a trip.  Twice I’ve had the pleasure of a muse.  Someday I’ll go into that.

 

BkKSteve:    Dana, I am reminded of Plato's idea of the philosopher-king.

In other words, the best form of government would be an incorruptible philosopher who was then forced to be king. Within the arena of government the incorruptible philosopher would have no choice other than fate.  He would rule with virtue and justice in service to learning and knowledge and truth without regard to opinions, beliefs, or self-interest.

What kind of pictures do you think you would take if God put a camera in your hands and forced you to take pictures?

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Dana:   Well, without regard to content, which is the most trivial part of the question; I am a big believer in the project mentality. In photography this means themes and shows. I would take pictures around themes (mountain wild flowers, amateur telescope star shots, time-lapse landscapes, etc.) and then campaign hard to get showings in art galleries. This ratchets up the degree of difficulty.

All other pictures are just record pics or hobby pics. I would delegate those pictures to someone else in the family. I would find post-production work interesting but probably more on the presentation side such as cropping and matting and framing. I would not get involved too much in 'creative' photography (look how the rose tint of the second exposure matches the red gums around the monkey's teeth). Just me.

I think too much time is wasted by beginning students with equipment choices, tricks, and wanna-be activity. If you can not step outside and point to north and south and east and west; then you probably don't think of the sun's location in the sky when you take a picture either.

Time would be better spent by beginning photographers taking classes from experienced photographers on how to 'see' a photo opportunity.

You do not ski without beginner instruction, and you do not sail without beginner instruction, and you do not fly a plane without beginner instruction. Photography is not any different. But ask a photography enthusiast of two years duration who their favorite teachers were and what do you think you are going to get for an answer?

First the basics.

 

BkkSteve Responds:  I couldn’t agree more about beginners wasting time with equipment choices and worrying over their next great camera.   The picture of Angkor Vat you selected  (below) was captured in 2005 with a two year old DSLR.   It is a full frame camera in Canon’s superb 1 series body with their best exposure and focusing engines.  It costs $8000 new.   Today you can find lightly used specimens for about $1000.  I can’t think of a better bargain for any experience level photographer.  I still use it professionally today when I need a weatherproof body, fast autofocusing, and superb image quality.

And I’m asked “But but Steve, what about the new Canon 1d-x”  The 1d-x is Canon’s latest and greatest flagship camera.  It’s a fine camera with improved features.  I truly believe there is very little advantage to a beginning or intermediate photographer in buying the latest and greatest when for $1000 you can buy their 8-9 year old Canon1ds Mark II on the used market.   With 4-5 years of hard practice and learning, you’ll just start to realize enough benefit from the newer 1d-x where we’ll be able to see it in your pictures.

 

 

BkkSteve:    Ok, Dana, one last question and then I will let you get back to the Dana Fan Club and outraging feminists.  To wit: in keeping with your lifetime interests in art and aesthetics, do you feel photography is an art form?

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Dana:    Well, that is the first and only question to be asked at a mixed forum of photographers and non-photographers, or even more lethally; photographers and artists. Everybody should probably be searched for weapons first.

I have traveled the road from contemptuous to conflicted to charitable. I was contemptuous of the idea that photography was an art form for most of my adult life. In the last five years I have become conflicted and then charitable towards the idea. I guess better late than never. I am willing to state that some photographs are works of art. However, it is a belief I would not like to have to defend. One defintion of art is that art brings 'order out of chaos'. How exactly does a photograph do this?

I believe photography's strength works against it being considered an art form. What photography is good at is high-resolution reproductions of reality. And performing too many creative tricks can make photos look gimmicky. But maybe the real problem is with the question or the assumption. Photography is what it is. It should not have to defend itself. Just be. Or not. I am even conflicted about this opinion.

Still, I think it might be fun to have some major gallery painting vs. photograph toe-to-toe showings. Example: one of the most famous paintings is "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" by Gauguin. This four and a half foot by twelve foot painting totally dominates a gallery wall at the Museum of Art in Boston. Lost or wandering or weary or skeptical museum patrons step into the gallery and are simply riveted, transfixed by the power of this image. Art comes alive for them again. They forget their aching feet. And 99% of them bring nothing to the viewing experience that can help them. It is them against the painting, in most cases an unequal but enjoyable relationship.

The huge painting is beautiful, incomprehensible, spooky, and hypnotic.  When is the last time you heard a photo described with those four words? In addition, the painting gives you nothing. You are on your own. It is all on you. You have to be equal to the painting. You do not have to fall in love, but you should at least leave with respect.

Photos never seem to me to be this demanding.

Anyway, here is my idea; take a wonderful photo like Steve's picture of Angkor Wat and blow it up into a four and half foot by twelve foot image.  Now mount it on the wall that opposes Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From?”

 

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What Are We? Where Are We Going?". Listening to the museum patrons as they view and mentally deal with the two images would be fun. Has this been done before? Not to my knowledge. And of course it would be doubly fun to have a painting and an opposing photo that duplicated the same image.  To those of you that feel this exercise would be irrelevant because of 'apples and oranges' I would plead that we are trying to have fun.

Anyway, I have traveled from contemptuous to conflicted to charitable on the subject of photos as art. I can even state without fear of a brain aneurysm that there are representational photos that qualify as works of art. Some of the classic cult train photos of O. Winston Link qualify in my opinion. Of course the ultimate test would be straight on technically restricted representational photos. Could any of them qualify due to extraordinary photography as works of art? I believe so. In other words, is it possible for without gimmick or post-production exercise photos to be works-of-art?

The consensus is Yes.  Photo historians will point to very early pictures devoid of technical artifice that charm with primitiveness and lack of pretension. By luck or intention, it does not matter; we agree that some of these early images have transported themselves across the line from reproduction to art. Early National Geographic style travel shots, early maritime ship and shore shots, famous landscape photographers we could all name, the United States Indian recorder Edward S. Curtis, etc; photos can sometimes transcend themselves and become something greater. Sometimes we even all agree, a rare occurance. Art. But what of today with it's precision and it's precision and it's precision? Can today's photographers achieve art with today's equipment that so excels at hi-resolution reproduction of reality? I vote Yes. Why? Because I believe I have seen it.

Not too many years ago a photographer went to an Indian gathering here in the Untited States. He set up a studio. Interested Indians sat for photo portraits and those photos became a book. A book of technical mastery and astonishing images of reality that I had never seen before.

No tricks, or 3-D stuff, or holographic sleight-of-eye; just reality reproduced by a modern camera held by a skilled photographer. Works of art? My opinion is Yes, or at least I would be a good listener if someone was trying to sell me on the idea. So, is this a good thing, this new found knowledge of mine? I guess but I would not want to be the wanna-be portrait artist following in this photographer's footsteps. The standards are very very high.

Art is a funny thing. It is not necessarily friendly. Would I want to go back in time and meet some of history's greatest writers? I'm not sure. The idea makes me kind of nervous. Maybe I don't have the strength required to confront a creator. Maybe my mission in my life is to be an appreciator. That's ok. I am what I am, and it is what it is. And . . .    "Gee, look at that: what a great photograph."

I must say that I consider the subject of photography and works-of-art to be exhausting. I think I will sit down and take a rest. Please give me some credit. I have traveled from contemptuous to conflicted to charitable. I think that is all that I will be able to accomplish in this lifetime.

 

BkkSteve Responds:   Fascinating!   I could listen to you talk about art all day long.  Not necessarily because you knwow ore othan anyone else, but because I can sense a rare conviction in your words and approach to art.  

Dana, thank you very much for this interview.  Like most readers I’ve read your work for years and have always been curious about what makes you tick.  Thank you for your body of work, this interview, and I’m already looking forward to next weeks story. 

Thank you Dana.

 

 

Until next time..

 

 1/7/2013 UPDATE appended below:

Steve  -  As soon as the interview was posted I realized there was something missing.  What was missing?  The question:  Did I have an agenda or a purpose to the stories that I posted?  In other words, since I am not a photographer what did all the stories have in common and why did I have fun writing them.  How can someone have fun or be relevant writing about photography if they are not a photographer and if they are not technically knowledgeable or interested?  I took it as a challenge.  My across-the-street neighbor Mr. Curtis, and my down-the-street neighbor Mr. Hopewell were amateur photographers and of course the houses were full of photography magazines.  As a child I can remember them being stuffed and choked with technical information.  But what of the rest of life?

Does that count also?  Isn't that part of the big equation?

My purpose in writing the stories was to see if interesting stories could be written about photography without all of the usual gearhead information:  light meter speeds, aperture stuff, etc. Not one story has this posted info that is so much a part of all photography stories.

In other words, could we expand the subject of photography, come at it from a different point-of-view, have fun in a different way, enjoy a photography story that does not lean on technical stuff for reader attraction, etc.?