My camera and my guitar

For several months, I haven’t had much interest in taking photos.

This worried me a little bit, and so I’ve been thinking about what could be causing this downturn, and consequently, about what photography means to me.

First of all, I think that all art is an act of translation. It is a means of taking one’s visceral experiences–emotions, sensations–and translating them into some sort of theoretical representation, which can be shared with others.

For me, making photos has always been an act of love. Sometimes I become so overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding me, even in the most commonplace of things, and feel it completely necessary to preserve it, to translate the present arrangement of photons into more that just a fleeting phenomenon. I want to fix the image onto something physical that I can show to others, or keep for myself to return to later.

As soon as I first began taking photos, my camera became a constant companion. When I realized what I could do with a camera, I wanted to use it all the time to document the beauty surrounding me. I began to learn more about light, to appreciate its physical properties–density, temperature, direction. I enjoyed the act of analyzing the qualities of specific lighting situations.

Light is a beautiful language, and I strove to become fluent in it. I read books by photographers who understand light better than others–Joe McNally, for example–and began using the tools I had available to manipulate light, to move beyond simple documentation and into creation. I loved exaggerating scenes with carefully chosen light, or discovering pleasing light sources in my surroundings to properly illuminate the beauty of what I was seeing.

My camera was also a sort of security blanket. Sometimes I would wear it around my neck for days without actually taking a photo. It just felt good to know that it was right there in case I needed to use it. When I became anxious, I could detach myself and hide behind the lens. It was calming for me to freeze my surroundings, to isolate instants of time into frames, stepping outside of the situation to a degree, and seeing moments and events more objectively.

The more I grew to love photography, the more desperate I became to make the experience as visceral as possible. I wanted control over every aspect of the image; I wanted there to be physical work put into my shots. Deliberately selecting lenses and stocks, pouring chemicals over film, snipping negatives into strips–these things felt lovely. I felt so impassioned about it that I almost moved to another city a year and a half ago to be close to a person whom I’d never met, but had heard about his status as a “master” of fine arts film processing (luckily I never followed through on that foolish impulse, but I nearly did).

So, if I love photography so much, then what has made me stop making photos right now? Well, I feel there are three reasons why.

The first is that my camera phone has alleviated the necessity to carry my other cameras everywhere. I still find myself taking photos every day, but they’re often just quick snaps on my phone. They’re no less beautiful, and when I browse through them I find the subject matter is similar to what I would photograph with any camera. But the freedom of not having to lug a bigger camera with me everywhere is sort of liberating–I do not have all the subtleties of translational control at my disposal, but I have the convenience of preservational capabilities without extra baggage.

The second is that my life has been a lot of exhausting work for quite a while. This entire past year has been a streamlined, hard-won marathon racing toward some very important goals. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve gained so many things. But hard work isn’t so beautiful to photograph. Should I have photographed all the nights I fell asleep with my face on an open textbook? What was there of beauty to document in the 80-mile commute on the same highway that I drove each weekday? Haven’t I already over-documented my house, my immediate surroundings?

In short, the beauty has been scarce, and I’ve been too busy enjoying the bits of fun that I’ve earned to intrude upon them very often with my camera.

But the third reason is a very important one. It’s that I’ve replaced one emotional outlet with another–from my camera, to my guitar. And right now, I feel the guitar suits me better.

I suppose I spent most of my life being sort of a nonchalant musician. Music surrounded me so seamlessly that it was an unquestioned backdrop to my entire existence. My family is full of musicians, music has always played in my house, and as some families require their children to play sports, I was required to learn an instrument when I was in elementary school. I chose the clarinet.

I played the clarinet for eight years without putting much thought into the emotional aspect of performance. Always, there was a goal or regimen–a folder of concert music to prepare for a few months, a challenging audition piece that I broke down painstakingly into dynamics and articulation, a rote memorization of notes while I focused on marching drills at the same time. I play the clarinet well, and now that I have the choice to play it or not, I do enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy doing all the things that I do well. But I don’t quite love it.

Voluntarily, I also learned the violin, taking lessons for two years. But I had really wanted to learn the cello, and the technical mastery of the violin was too far from my reach to ever make playing very enjoyable. The humdrum practicing of boring little interludes in a workbook never became appealing enough for me to progress. I can still play the violin clumsily, but I much prefer to admire the performances of people who play it better than I do.

I used to view the guitar the same way I view the violin. I enjoyed listening to other people play it, and even tried learning a few times, but felt that I was better off being a spectator rather than a performer.

But this past fall, after the analgesic interlude of summer, I found myself dealing with the emotional fallout produced by my last relationship. I was deeply distraught and swimming in a pain so acute that I could barely articulate it. My commutes almost daily involved crying, I resisted any attempts at fresh intimacy, and I pressed all of my focus into my academic pursuits. I understood the nature of my pain in a theoretical, clinical way, and I knew that it would eventually subside, but I struggled to comprehend it viscerally. I knew that I needed to be patient while I healed, and I cared for myself appropriately. Over the course of the season the hurt began to ebb, but it hadn’t quite disappeared by December. And in December, I picked up the guitar.

Something clicked in me that never had before when I began learning this time. I could credit my best friend for being a good teacher, and she is indeed an exceptional teacher. But for my part, I learned the guitar the way a person deposited suddenly in a foreign country quickly learns the language–out of a desperate need to communicate.

The pain of developing calluses on my fingers was barely noticeable over the relief that playing the guitar brought me. I would play for hours until my fingers and wrist were too stiff to make neat transitions anymore. I took on each new challenge with gusto, learning chords and strum patterns and striving to sing along at the same time. At present, I’ve become pretty good at playing the guitar, at least relative to the length of time that I’ve been learning.

Coming home from a day of work and classes to my guitar is like coming home to the warm embrace of someone I love. I can hold the instrument close to me, press the strings, and feel the warmth of the music emerge as I begin to play. I can strum quickly and forcefully when I feel overcome with energy, whether nervous, happy, or angry. I can soothe the knots of my chest into mellow strains as I sing a duet with the chords, to nobody but myself. Sometimes when I’m sleepy, I slouch over the guitar, resting my chin or cheek on the top of it, lightly strumming each string and feeling the sound resonate through my entire body. How could I ever feel alone? How could I hurt?

As with photography, I find myself trying to get closer to the visceral while playing guitar. Last week, I discarded my pick, and began strumming with my bare fingers. At first I was frustrated that I couldn’t play as well, but I’ve gradually realized that, like using film, playing the guitar sans-pick offers me more control over the subtleties of the sounds I create. And playing feels even better than it did before.

Music is different from photography–with photography, I am taking light and time and fixing them into something relatively permanent. With music, I am taking sound and time and allowing them to exist for one brief moment. Recording music would be more like photography, but there is such glory in producing physical music alone, and such joy in having someone else create music right in front of me (I also absolutely love to hear my best friend perform for me). The music IS “the visceral” in the same way that the scenes I always sought to preserve on film were the visceral–and yet I can call it to myself whenever I want it. I can’t always call upon visual beauty to appear before me in a physical form.

I’m not saying that I’ve given up on photography. I’m sure that when I’m surrounded by much more visual beauty, as I will soon be, I’ll be sparked back into the feverish documentation of it.

But I understand why I don’t need photography as much right now. And moreover, I am thankful to have found this new language into which I can translate my emotions, and I am so eager to explore it every day.



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