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  • Everything I know about photography I learned from a crappy art class.

    Quiet as it’s kept, I’m a terrible photographer.

    Though I’ve studied photography—as a theorist, as a historian, as an oral interviewer, as a curator, as a writer, as a devotee, as a practitioner—it’s this last relationship that escapes me, the one I can’t quite figure out. Really, when it comes down to it, I kind of just suck.

    In the last days before digital cameras, I took a ten day intensive course at my college. Over the period of that week and a half, we had to shoot and process at least a roll of film a day. And from that set of negatives, developed onto a contact sheet (the original thumbnails), we had to select one image to develop into an 8x10 print. No animals and no children, we were instructed. Too banal, too predictable. This was photography as Art, not photography as commerce, Sears photo studio, wedding photographers or Hallmark cards.

    I struggled to find subjects/objects to photograph. At 19, my image vocabulary was limited to fashion and music magazines. I roamed campus (I had neither car nor driver’s license to travel around), photographing staircases & doorways and trees, hoping to capture light and shadow. But I couldn’t get the science of the aperture/f stop ratio and so my images came out flat and overly bright. I was too impatient and unoriginal in my composition. I could never get the framing either, mostly because I always twitched at the last moment. Too loud to be stealthy, too anxious to be still. If I ever had to hunt and kill my own dinner, I’d have to be a vegetarian. So when the magic moment came when the image reveals itself, emerges like Venus out of the chemical ocean, I was inevitably disappointed.

    I really wanted to photograph people. But since the school year was over, there weren’t a lot of folks around. Raising the camera to my eye to photograph some anonymous subject, made me feel like a thief, an intruder, a sociopath. I was too embarrassed to ask, and that kind of reciprocity was discouraged in our Photography As Art class. To take a picture, to aim a camera at someone, to release the shutter, to exchange light and reflection, was to invite a relationship. And if you weren’t ready to be in a relationship, well in my mind, you had no fucking business picking up a camera in the first place.

    This was all compounded by the directive that at least one of our rolls had to be 24 frames of studio nudes. No men. Only women. Because according to our Photography As Art instructor (an old white man who’d published a couple of coffee table books of local imagery and sported a stringy graying ponytail) only the female form was “truly beautiful.” (This was when I began to understand that “desire” is a social construct). Men were just nekkid. Like animals and children, men were, I suppose, predictable and banal. Couldn’t we just take pictures of bell peppers and calla lilies? No. The message was clear: no dicks.

    Shit. Now I had to find a willing subject. And because just about everyone had vacated for the summer, most of the people I knew who were still on campus were my friends of color who’d stuck around to make a little extra cash. Fuck. Now the camera made me a pimp too.

    Nakia agreed to help me out. And she truly was helping me out because I had nothing to offer in exchange. I couldn’t pay her, I couldn’t even promise her a decent photograph. I did make dinner for her.

    I was awkward the whole session—I could only think about the old white Photography As Art instructor salivating over my terrible nudes (this was when I began to understand the importance of “audience”)—and I wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. The best picture I took was afterwards during dinner. A close up of her face, head wrapped, and tilted slightly. The background was dark and her face emerged bright and secure, while the rest of her was shrouded safely in shadow.

    By the end of the 10 days, I couldn’t bear the ethical weight, the burden of my camera. And, after I’d heard classmates specifically seeking out black male models, hoping to take them to a little beach and photograph them semi-nude so they could capture their “dark black skin in the white sand,” I was highly skeptical of those who could.

    I ended up taking pictures of animals and children. And lots of self-portraits. Because I never needed to ask myself permission. And because I couldn’t ask anyone else to offer themselves up if I wasn’t willing to myself. And also I was curious how I might see myself through a device I couldn’t really control. How a camera might mediate the relationship between interior self and public image. I was ok with my own nudity and my own vulnerability. I was ok if I made myself look unflattering. I could experiment. I didn’t mind disaggregating myself and putting my parts in front of the lens for scrutiny.

    If I knew then what I know now about photography, I’d’ve dressed myself up and made myself deliberately familiar but wholly unrecognizable like Cindy Sherman.

    I’d put a cigarette in my hand and instead of fussing with studio light, I’d put my flash on and face myself—bruises and all—disturbingly intimate like Nan Goldin (fuck you, Perv Teacher).

    Or I’d be on one side of the room and contort crotch on full view while you stare directly at me, curious but intimidated from a distance, like Deana Lawson.

    Or I’d attach a giant prosthetic ass and giant prosthetic breasts like Renee Cox, because that’s what you want to see, right? That’s what you think you know, right?

    Or if I really understood, I wouldn’t’ve photographed nude at all. I’d put Nakia and myself in shapeless white shifts and turned our backs to the camera like Lorna Simpson so that all the Photography As Art instructor could see was our refusal.

    I would’ve done these things if I’d known there was a way to make the camera say no instead of a persistent series of submissive yeses. If I knew how to make the camera mine own. But I didn’t know.

    Only the darkroom seemed right to me. Where every eye was mostly blind and we all had to work by sense memory and touch and also by faith a little. A couple of times, freeing the film from its canister, I cut my amateur fingers on jagged metal. I didn’t notice until the film was sticky and I could smell my blood mixed in with dektol and dianine. This was when photography made the most sense to me.

    image: self-portrait at 19
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