“Raising a camera to one’s face has effects no one can calculate in advance.”
- Anne Carson
The night had not been particularly productive. Around 2 am, with his camera gear practically untouched on the backseat, a 19 year old is stopped at a railroad crossing, sleepily blinking at the blinding headlight of a locomotive facing his way. Finally realizing that the train is lumbering away from him, backing up to hitch a caboose, he warily rattles across the tracks, looks back one last time at the exact moment that the locomotive’s headlight is eclipsed by a line of parked boxcars and tankers.
Mesmerized, he parks in the road, hurries to extricate a tripod, almost drops the camera when the train cars BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! slam progressively together, fumbles frantically for a 50 millimeter because he hears the train begin to slowly chug forward, mounts the lens with a “best guess” stab at an aperture, sets focus based on depth of field, finally trips the shutter, barely breathes for the interminable 30 second exposure because the scene is about to be obliterated by the very element that created it.
When the locomotive’s blinding headlight blasts the lens, the sound of a closing shutter hangs in the air like a sigh of relief.
X-Ray Specs, 2008
I was one of countless kids who fantasized about those X-ray specs that were advertised in the back of every comic book ever published. Even to a kid, though, they were obviously too good to be true. Slightly disappointed, I indulged my voyeuristic stirrings by ordering the little “spy” camera from those ink-saturated pages instead.
When the postman delivered my gadget (with its miniature rolls of film,) it was probably only marginally more functional than the naughty glasses would have been, but it fit my tiny hands so well and, as I played at being a photographing spy, or a spying photographer, I fell in love with the way the little machine clicked and whirred and put the nefarious and enticing world on notice that I was watching.
My attitude was largely unchanged by a cheap 35mm viewfinder camera a few years later, though it at least did produce technically-passable photos. Following that: an SLR, interchangeable lenses, tripod, endless filters, endless whatnot, years of lust for “insert new gadget here” that morphed into a color darkroom, medium format, large format, but I was at least using it all to photograph, wanting the money and time and effort to add up to... something that had no form or name or structure in my backwoods Mississippi world.
While still a teenager, though, I took a particular black and white photograph that provided the perspective that tools for creation were what I wanted, not toys. I was still buying stuff, sure, but I was also studying the zone system, learning archival printing, prepping and hanging my first show, getting that first photo published, eventually earning an MFA in photography. It was all very serious.
A couple of decades later, the postman delivered a tiny digital “point and shoot” toy-like camera that offered the ability to “see” the world as if it was a comic book. I unpacked it, immediately selected that “posterization” setting, and committed to years of photographing with a hypercolor, cartoonized mindset that could be like having X-ray vision.
Beneath a small waterfall, a koi pond oscillates between states of matter, freezing, melting, freezing again during winters west of Boston. Fluctuating temperatures, winds, humidity levels, types and amounts of precipitation affect the character of each incarnation on multiple scales, with patterns, shapes, structures forming in the ice, only to melt away, so the ice is, consequently, rarely the static entity that its name implies.
Any evening, hard edges between solid and liquid can seem immutable but, with an overnight arctic blast, morning can find them feathery and fragile. Bubbles of trapped gasses strain for release into the atmosphere, but some are inevitably incarcerated in impermeability until their equally inevitable release.
Some characteristics are immediately obvious to the observer, while others hide in the minuscule, or under the surface, or only existing when light refracts through ice and the glass of the lens and, in the exploration of the micro in particular, cosmology is often conjured, as are other realms as various as anatomy, entomology, zoology, biology.
Sometimes a landscape emerges, abstract expressions are a given, and an endless spectrum of pareidolia seems determined to manifest, but what continues to unfold is a fluid definition of what a photograph is, or can be, as time, space, matter, and momentary visions, are frozen in this fleeting, entropic dance.
Copyright © 2021 C. E. Courtney
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