Monday, July 29, 2013


It's no secret. My cousin Deana turned me on to photography. In this age of digital cameras, camera phones, tablets and stock photos in the cloud, Deana gave me not one, but two real life, analog, film cameras. Film. I haven't used a film camera in nearly a decade. And I wonder how much longer I will be able to use one? I owe her a great deal of gratitude because the last few months with both the Holga 120N and the Pentax K1000 have been very rewarding.

When it comes to photography, Deana is the real deal. Deana has studied this formally. Deana travels all over the world and takes all sorts of exposures. Deana is around all sorts of artists friends who practice their craft. Deana is very—very cool, but I've known this our whole lives.

So, she gifted me the Pentax. That being said, I had had a couple of cameras like this in the recesses of memory. I had that old Nikkromatic for years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, then I had no idea what I had and no appreciation for it. I was very young then and that was that. I traded that old camera in for a point and shoot affair, a Ricoh. That camera I later traded for another point and shoot, the Olympus. I carried that Olympus for a number of years, took countless rolls of 35MM film and loved it dearly. I was with my friend Julia Farkas at a thrift store in southwest Denver sometime in 2003 when I picked up the last Pentax 35MM at a bargain price. Sometime in 2004 I gave up film cameras altogether.

I don't altogether know what's so refreshing about these cameras now. The Holga is so barbaric that it beckons mentioning. I've probably shot eight or ten rolls with this thing and I still don't understand it fully. There are no controls and the imperfection in the design makes this camera a frustrating, exciting and weird thing to use. Mine is red and white and it looks like a toy. Oftentimes people ask me if it's a real camera. I think so. It takes that 120 film. After I expose a roll, it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to two weeks for it to get developed. In a way having to wait for the results is what I think is so refreshing. Long and short, I'm still learning how to use it. I know how to load the film, frame a picture and snap the shutter release, but working with the limitations of this all plastic camera, there are endless possibilities.

The Pentax is another story altogether. There are endless variations, countless combinations and too many techniques for me to even begin to formulate what I'm doing with it. As close as I can tell, there are three major variables with this fully manual 35MM camera: f/stop, shutter speed and the speed of the film (ISO). The f/stop is the focal opening on the shutter, this governs how much light comes through the camera. Shutter speed is just that, this is how long the aperture is open. And film speed is the size of silver halide crystals embedded in the emulsion on the film. I would imagine a competent photographer knows the results of all three of these variables and knows how they work together. I'm still learning this. This is the mechanics of the whole thing.

Mechanics aside, as this discussion comes into focus (cheap pun, I know) there is something more important than gear, know-how and art. The basic composition. The basic composition. What a photographer decide to take a picture of? This is the question of the hour.

I think a photographer, much like a writer, must find a personal voice. In the discussion of writing this is cliché. Find your voice and stay with it. I heard that nonsense a thousand times. But there is worth to it too. When writing, there is a such thing as voice. It's more than the mere tone of the writing, it's everything. Most writers write about certain things, have certain language and certain compositional choices that they stay with for many stories, novels or time. I think photographers are the same way. Whether it's a composition notebook and a Holga 120N, whatever you choose to record is what you like to record. Right? In my limited time with these cameras I've noticed that I like cityscapes, generally vacant of people and lonely. I'll be doggoned if this not the exact same thing I write about: loneliness, cities and vacancies.

Perhaps it's all about the process. Learning the mechanics of something, then applying it and then practicing it is what really achieves results. Should this be the case, think of your camera as the tool, think of the variables as the rules and start the process. Choose good compositions.

Next time: what's to learn in books?

Monday, July 22, 2013

An anecdote, a blog and a function.

When I first began this blog back in April 2010, I had no idea what I was doing. My first blog post was in April shortly after the AWP conference in Denver, but I had started the account six months prior in October of 2009. It took me months to figure out what I wanted to do. At first I thought I wanted to just write fiction on my blog, but that didn't make much sense. There are magazines for that. So, it stayed fallow until the AWP. I owe much of what I've accomplished here to Corrie Vela and one April afternoon at Hooked on Colfax. For those of you who don't know Corrie, you should. Meet her here at Sophia Ballou.

So, there I was. As I stood in the kitchen at Portland City Grill, a Saturday afternoon with a vacuous look on my face, enter my buddy Tristan. “Great blog,” he said. “Thanks man,” I said. “If I ever get in an accident and have to stay in bed for months I know what I'm going to read,” he said. “Thanks man,” I said. “You have a lot of content,” he said. “Well, I've been at it for a while,” I said. Enter Chaney. I like Chaney a lot. Chaney likes to say funny things. “You're a blogger?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said. “I want to be a blogger,” she said. “What do you blog about?” “Writing,” I said. “And I think that's funny,” Tristan said. Yeah, I think it's funny too.

I do write about writing, there is no doubt about that. I write about writing because, well, I like it. The blog, for me, has it's function. Over the years I have developed writing workshop curriculum, sounded out the nuances of small literary magazines and given out my rally calls/war hoots. The blog has been exactly what I think a writer's blog ought to be, it's my CV, my teaching resume, publicity for the groups who claim me as a member: Umbrella Factory Magazine, Rocket House Studio, Ring of Fire Publishing and Sophia Ballou. It has helped me stay focused on work and kept me on a schedule. It has been a real joy.

Does the focus change? You bet it does. As I continued talking to Tristan the other day, I told him about my recent study of photography. Now, talk about a tangible way to share information. The theoretical portion of my study of photography comes from books. I've listed them all on my Bibliography. The recent addition of the three footer at the bottom of the page link to the practical. Each one of these, Holga 120N, Pentax K1000 and Casio EX-S10 are the cameras in my arsenal. It doesn't take long to decide to practice what you read.

Where does all of these leave me? Where does it put me as a writer? And where does it take my blog? Good questions, I'm eager to see that myself.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Autodidact, Like the Sound of It

I have favored some words simply because of the way they look, the way the sound or the very nature of them. For instance, I like the word apple because of the way it looks when written. I occasionally eat apples too, but it's the word I like. I like the nature of a few words too. For instance, I love the German word aufheben which means both to preserve and to annul at the same time. And as far as the way a word sounds, I like autodidact.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Morning, Written

We landed in Chania, Crete very early in the morning. So early in fact, that the sun was not up yet. I know this particular hour of the day. And at the time of this story, September 2004, I was definitely well acquainted with the pre-dawn hour. It was from still being awake and not waking up simple to see this particular hour.

Stefanos and I stood on the dock by the ship and waited for the rest of our party. Later, the group of us wandered into the Venetian quarter of town. The sun began to rise. Stefanos said, “You can see the way a city works at this hour.” And he was right. We watched the delivery trucks. We watched shops open. We watched the world go from the dark of night to the gray of morning to the white of day. All said, it was not a bad thing to do, wake up early, even if it was not my choice. A day later, we were on the way again, another boat ride and another island. Gavdos was the last hop in the journey. While there, I drank a lot of beer and read the last of Richard Brautigan's canon.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Ever Vanishing Book Store: Part I The Stars and Stripes

I am somewhat spoiled when it comes to bookstores. After all, I live in Portland, OR which is home to Powell's Books. I have mixed feelings about Powell's. It's a model of supply. It's very competitive on prices and since we are in Oregon, there is no sales tax. I tend to get lost in Powell's, and that's perhaps the point. I know, for certainty, that there are corners and nooks of the massive bookstores that I have never seen. I secretly suspect that there may even be a floor I haven't seen. I've never fully understood how the place is organized. The real truth of my mixed feelings is simply this, the place is too big and filled up with way too many people. I only go to Powell's very late at night simply to avoid the other patrons. There is nothing that I hate more than being molested in the bookstore.

I felt much the same way when I lived in Denver. I loved going to the Tattered Cover. I would venture to Cherry Creek specifically to hang out at the Tattered Cover. This place, like Powell's, massive, a model of supply and overrun with customers. Even when the bookstore moved to the Lowenstein Theater on East Colfax, I was still a fan.

Both aforementioned bookstores still exist, and they are still independent. Good for those folks in Portland and Denver. I suppose everyone else can look to Barnes and Noble.

I have no beef with Barnes and Noble. Please know this. I worked at the Barnes and Noble when I lived in Tucson during that terrible year of 2005. Barnes and Noble is efficient, easy to navigate and pleasant to be in. Downside, really, all Barnes and Noble are alike and the selection is best suited for profit rather than diversity.

But in the recesses of my memory I know dozens, if not hundreds of bookstores all over the world. They were small affairs too. They were the mom and pops shops. They were used shops specializing in one thing or another. They were new shops that occupied spaces in public places and they may all well be franchised coffeehouses now. This is not the rambling of an old man. I feel like there used to be more bookstores than there are now. And with a wider array of booksellers, there was a wider variety of books available.

I feel like the big box stores, Barnes and Noble or Border's Books came and took the market away from the mom and pops shops. And then Internet and Amazon took the show from the box stores. And where does that leave us now?

I love Amazon. The last few books I bought were off Amazon. I see people reading from the Kindle everywhere these days. I think it's brilliant. I really do. But—

Sometimes it's the experience of wandering into a bookshop that I miss. I miss the selection that each shop sold because that, in a way, helped you to choose the book you'd walk away with. The small shops were seldom overwhelming, seldom packed with people. The small shops could be well lit with the natural light from windows. Tungsten versus fluorescent will be a debate for a different day.

In the months after the war, way back in 1991 and 1992, I wandered through shelves of The Stars and Stripes Bookstore. It was close to where I worked on Katterbach Kaserne. It was on the side of the main road through the base and the railroad tracks were behind it. I feel like I used to stop off at The Stars and Stripes after lunch before returning to work. In those days I read John Steinbeck. In those days I wanted nothing more than to be a botanist. Many of the books I purchased at the time were horticultural books. I don't remember much about the bookstore other than how it made me feel: hopeful for the future, alone in the present and somehow enriched. The war was over, my inner conflict had not begun and there were more books in that small space than I would ever be able to read.

Admittedly, I did not see this commercial until today. But, boy, is it funny: