Assignments

At the time, I did not fully appreciate how much group projects were preparing me for the real world.

There are three school assignments from my childhood that still haunt me. They don’t haunt me in a sense that I lose sleep over them, I just remember them vividly. Did I do my very best? Yes, there is no doubt about that. The real question is did I do right?

Art was one of my favorite classes in elementary school. Holding our thumbs behind our backs, we would walk single file through the maze of halls to Mrs. Newton’s art room in the back of the school. The sun would shine in through the high windows, casting a ray of light made visible by the dusty air. I loved Art.

One day, my class made the trek to the Art room only to find a substitute teacher. In some situations this may have been welcome, but it was a disappointment for Art. The teacher had big blonde hair and wore lots of make up. I’m sure she was stylish at the time, and possibly even now if you are going for the 80’s Country Singer Sweetheart look. As pretty as she may have been, in my seven year old mind it seemed that she wasn’t very aware of what was going on; like she was a sentence, or maybe a paragraph behind the rest of the adults we were accustomed to at school.

“Mrs. Newton left you an assignment.” She said as we all settled into our chairs.

“She wants you to make a picture using letters.”

I completely understood the assignment. Mrs. Newton had shown us examples in a previous class. She held up a picture of an acoustic guitar that a high school student had drawn. At a distance, it looked like an ordinary picture, but upon closer examination you realized the picture was composed of letters, even words, in varying sizes. I thought it was the dumbest thing we had seen so far in art class.

So I sat there for a moment contemplating this outrageous assignment. I could waste my time and labor on a piece that I detested, or I could put my talents to better use and create something from the heart, something worthy of my signature. I drew a battleship. It was a splendid World War II era battleship with more gun turrets than the Yamato. I was proud of it. Even so, I failed the assignment.

In Fifth grade, Mrs. McManus instructed us to draw a word in a way that enhanced the definition of the word. I was assigned the word “Fat”. Someone who had followed the instructions for the assignment would have drawn the letters F, A, and T with fat rolls. Once again, I fully understood the assignment, but I felt that this was a waste of my artistic ability: I drew a fat man in a tank top and Bermuda shorts. It was magnificent. Not only did I fail the assignment, I realized that my teacher thought I had not understood the assignment.

I took a class called Media Arts in High School, because I had already taken all of the other art classes. Mr. Williamson assigned us a stop motion film group project-which sounds like a good indie rock band name. For the most part, I’ve always loathed group projects. At the time, I did not fully appreciate how much group projects were preparing me for the real world. The idea of a stop motion film was very inspiring, but we utterly failed at creating an interesting plot. There were three characters: A comedian, an old man, and a chef with an unidentifiable foreign accent. In the film the old man is sitting in the audience listening to the comedian try to tell jokes. The old man mumbles a response at each joke before finally ordering a pizza from the chef.

To our credit, the artwork was good. I think we still made an exceptional grade, but we wouldn’t have won- nay, even been nominated for- an Academy Award in the short film category. For some reason, this assignment still bothers me the most. From time to time, I come up with better plot ideas and I think back to that project.

In a sense, life is about following instructions and working with people. There are some areas in my life that I wouldn’t dream of not following instructions; principally, my faith. On the other hand, I have often scoffed at any attempt to set boundaries on creativity. Furthermore, I have a hard time completing an assignment that fails to inspire me, but if I find the work inspiring I’m hardly ever satisfied with my efforts.

Film Photography

Do you remember taking photographs on film?

I love yard sales. Previously loved merchandise. Everything you never knew you couldn’t live without can be found at a yard sale. Part of the fun of a yard sale is digging through the junk to find the treasure. Sometimes it’s only digging through junk. Even when you do find treasure, it sometimes only seems like treasure because the junk makes it look better. This is how I got back into film photography.

I have a recurring dream that I find a cache of treasure (usually guitars) for sale dirt cheap at some yard sale or thrift store. From time to time it comes true. Like the time I found a bunch of pocket knives at an estate sale. Today I’m thinking about the time I stumbled upon the motherlode of film camera equipment at the church yard sale. The yard sale itself had a half acre of merchandise spilling off of tables and onto tarps. There was an entire table full of lenses, filters, flashes, and bulbs. On the edge of the table was whicker basket full of film cameras. My mind went back to photography class when I spotted a pristine Canon A-1 Camera with a 50mm lens. I picked it up and instinctively focused the lens on one of the yard sale characters walking around. I advanced the film lever and clicked the shutter release button. There was the unmistakable whir of a shutter quickly opening and closing. A sound that even kids born in the 21st century will recognize from their iPhone camera.

I was hooked. Camera in hand, I walked over to Sis. Tina Updike, who was running the cash register that day. “How much for the camera Sis. Tina?” I asked. She frowned at me like she’d never seen a camera before she asked, “Is $10 too much?” I quickly paid for the camera before I had a chance to talk myself out of taking up a new hobby. I also went and scooped a couple of lenses, another SLR camera, and an enlarger so I could develop my own film.

As I fiddled with the camera and did a little bit of research to refresh my new found venture in to film photography, I began to think abstractly how film photography is more like life than the convenient digital photography that has cemented it’s place in our culture over the past twenty or so years. There was a time when cameras were investments, now they are just features on our phones. Camera phones have made us all photographers.

Think about when you were a kid. Unless you don’t remember having to take pictures with a camera, take your undeveloped film to Wal-Mart, shop around for an hour until you could finally pick up an envelope of actual pictures. Not only did you have to purchase film, but you had to pay for the pictures before you could decide that you were a terrible photographer. You kept the pictures anyway, and couldn’t wait to show them to your friends. The next time you had company, you’d pass around your pictures and you’d all laugh at the ones that didn’t come out like you wanted. The few pictures that came out great got an elevated frame or refrigerator status.

The first roll of film that I shot with my Canon A-1 was interesting. There were 24 frames. It made me stop and think before I snapped the shutter. I had to manually focus each picture. I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could see the fruit of my labor. Long enough to almost forget what I’d shot. Opening that first envelope of pictures was quite emotional. I sat down and looked through them with my wife. Like any roll of film, there were some duds. An image with uninteresting subject material, a poorly focused shot, or improper exposure. Even so, there were few really good pictures that I framed.

A photograph is frozen moment in time. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the decisive moment, or the perfect moment to freeze in time. You can’t retake the same picture, because time will move forward. You’ll stop and refocus, changing the composition. Life is much more like a roll of film with a set amount of frames than a digital phone camera where we can take endless pictures in order to capture an image of how we think we should look. It’s a sobering thought, time.

Mostly From Memory is me sharing with you my life’s roll of film. Sure, I get to edit the pictures a little bit to make the subject material shine, but I can’t go back and take more pictures. Neither can you. Each season in our life is a frame of time on a limited roll. I wish that we could simply “delete” some pictures in life because of uninteresting or embarrassing subject material. Or a poorly focused shot. Or improper exposure.

I have a strong desire to make each season in my life count.

I can’t remember if I was thinking along these lines as I loaded the second roll of film into my now beloved Canon A-1, but I did know that I hoped to make every shot count. I think I took a few pictures of my kids, who wouldn’t be still to for anything in the world. The next day I took my camera to work so I could take pictures of downtown Winchester on my lunch break. There was one shot that I planned on taking. Every day I looked out from the fourth floor of the parking garage across the alley to the fire escape of the George Washington Hotel. The metal staircase against the backdrop of brick formed a perfect Z.

Z for Zane. I focused my camera on the target, but to get the composition just right required me to stand on the concrete barrier a foot from off of ground and lean against the railing with my knees. I took my time focusing and double checked my exposure before I firmly pressed the shutter release. Satisfied that I had not wasted a frame of film, I stepped back from my perch into reality. I was a hair higher than I expected and when my foot didn’t reach solid ground I grabbed for the rail, which was only barely above my knee. I panicked. In my desperation to regain my balance, my prized camera slipped from my hand. I watched it tumble through the air from four stories up. It fell for a long time, almost in slow motion, getting smaller and smaller until it smashed into the concrete and burst into pieces that fled the impact. I stared at the wreckage for quite a while before I realized that I could never take another picture with that camera. Then I walked down the stairs and picked up the pieces.

My busted Canon A-1. A testament to fragility of life.