As a lad, I’d imagine riding my penny-farthing bicycle to the bakery, doffing my straw boater respectfully to posters of my Sovereign, H. M. Queen Victoria. Now I drive to the bakery in my silver-grey SUV, and to many other destinations that could not have been accomplished on my bike.
Sometimes I miss the old days. But I don’t miss them enough. I loved my first view of a Daguerrotype, but not enough to risk mercury vapor poisoning. I went directly to film, and spent years in darkrooms. There was some magic in seeing prints come up in the chemical baths. Sometimes I miss the old days, but, to tell the truth, not that much.
When first I left my native South Africa to make a life in the Unites States, I hand-wrote frequent letters to my parents. Once in a while, I still like to use a good fountain pen (I have several) on fine paper, and send letters with beautiful stamps, yet most of the time I employ email, still maintaining the discipline of complete, comprehensible sentences.
As a student, I loved exploring the university library stacks, sometimes sitting on the floor for hours, reading books I’d pulled off the shelves. I still like the feel, smell and sound of books, though I have an iPad, and use both. I’ve always loved paper maps, and prefer their display of geographical context, though I’m grateful to have the option of my car’s GPS function. I can do both.
In 2012, my friend, photographic historian Dr. Anne Hammond, wrote me email from her Oxford home, asking whether I miss my darkroom. I read her message in the early evening, with a spectacular sunset forming over San Francisco Bay. Taking a digital camera, I photographed those beautiful colors and forms, and within minutes I sent her a picture with my answer: “No!”
I miss the physical feel of my old film Nikons, the way they seemed to be an organic extension of my hands and my mind. But I don’t miss them enough.
Instead of laboring in the dark, inhaling chemical fumes, and wondering whether prints will “come out” the way I wished, I can now sit in my comfortable study, enjoy the breeze, sip tea or wine, listen to music (which I also did in my darkroom), and work on my large Mac monitor, “developing” images in extraordinarily fine detail.
I use Photoshop a lot, making photographs I could only have dreamed about, and often did. I adore the expanded palette that now so mirrors my thinking. Please, don’t tell me that my images originate in Photoshop, which is no more than a good tool. My pictures originate in precisely the same place they have done for countless artists over countless centuries.
Because of my connection with their families, I’ve spent time in the darkrooms of Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock. Being there did not at all explain the wonderful photographs they produced. I have a pretty good idea how that happened.
A fine, well-published poet came to my home, looked at a print on the wall and said “Photoshop?” I said “No, cerebrum,” not asking what I was coyly thinking, about word-processing programs.
Those who know me well also know that my most detested word in the English language is “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy is the mountain that stands in the way of progress and freedom of thought. It’s the gigantic pit in the road to creativity and innovation. I prefer the advice from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Always be a beginner.”
Last night, watching the PBS Evening News, I saw a segment on the new exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s fabulous three-dimensional work at MoMA. For a moment, just a moment, I had a delicious fantasy of Praxiteles, Leonardo and Bernini scratching their heads, wondering “Why didn’t we think of that? Do you think Sculptureshop might have helped?”
© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form.
Raphael Shevelev, FRPS is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries