Once upon a time, before I became a geek and well before the Internet grabbed hold of me, I fancied myself a visual artist. I drew and painted pictures, cobbled up odd kinetic sculptures and shot a lot of photographs. My imaging tools were a twin-lens reflex and a big old press camera with ground glass screens loaded with Plus-X or Tri-X film. I developed my own negatives and enlarged them onto 8x10 and 11x14 paper in a communal darkroom. Armed with a growing portfolio, I entered contests and peddled photos at street fairs. I was really into it.
Toward the end of those days I worked in a university graphics lab exploring how computers could create maps and spatially analyze geographic information. It was a challenge then just to draw shapes and letter text, and color was an option only if your pen plotter had colored ink and its operator would cooperate. All our terminal displays were monochrome.
I taught myself to code algorithms to compose geometries into maps and other displays, and went on to build a package to render grids of data in four or five ways to make thematic maps. The first version ran on a mainframe, controlled by a deck of punch cards. Then I ported it to a time-shared computer to run interactively from a terminal. That was a breakthrough that let me develop the program more easily because I could edit, compile, run, debug and get output online, not on paper the next day. ("Online" meant a dedicated phone line from the lab to a time-shared computer, communicating at 9.6 kilobytes per second.)
Even if you don't code software yourself, you probably can appreciate the excitement I felt connecting with my digital muse one-on-one, commanding her to follow my orders, and what a harsh mistress she proved to be. My social life withered. Relationships broke down because I favored my dominatrix over my human companions. I lived alone and had a terminal in my apartment I shared with my dog, and dialed up the mistress whenever I pleased. If anybody wanted to reach me, they had to knock on my door because my phone was usually tied up.
Like my social life, my art took a hit. Instead of going out and doing doing photography I sat in a lab programming and plotting computer graphics that were not nearly as expressive as my analog images. Even though I could do far subtler visual tricks in the darkroom that any of my code could accomplish, I was consumed with the new technology and had to master it.
At some point, I felt I had to make a choice, and my digital dominatrix banished my muse. Even then, before digital photography, I had come to feel that there were more images out there from fine photographers than the public could ever absorb. Trying to make an impression with mine seemed fruitless. Not only were there much better photographers than me, they already were in magazines with audiences.
So I decided I would rather be on the leading edge in the digital realm rather than the trailing edge of the analog era. I still took photographs, but mostly while traveling and never did much with them. Eventually I gave away my cameras and most of my negatives got mislaid during a move. I didn't really care. With them went much of my desire to capture people and places, all down the bit bucket.
Little did I know how useless those cameras and negatives would become thirty years hence. Now I shoot photos with a little digital camera and my Mac is my darkroom. But it's nothing like it used to be for me. Sure, I can still frame shots, wait for the right moment and fiddle with the results. But it feels like tinkering to me, not art and not even science. At least there was chemistry and optics in the darkroom. Now it's just fake tools, buttons, knobs and switches in Photoshop.
There are serious and accomplished photographers who contribute beautiful and compelling images to Cowbird. Because I lost my photo mojo and don't feel I can compete with their craft (not to mention the billions of digital photos circulating worldwide), I'll just muddle along with my scribbling, hoping to extract meaning from life one word at a time. But I do miss the thrill of seeing my images bloom forth in rubber trays under a dim red safelight in a blackened room. Like these.
@image 1: Vines on a portico ceiling, Storm King Art Center, New York, 1965. Taken with a Yashika D 2.25" twin reflex camera on Plus-X film. Silver print scanned at 200 DPI.
@image 2: Spring flowers, badlands, South Dakota, 1965. Taken with a Yashika D 2.25" twin reflex camera on Plus-X film. Silver print scanned at 200 DPI.
@image 3: Dan, Jean, Frank and Trude, Vershire VT, 1970. Taken with a 4x5" Crown Graphic on Tri-X film. Silver print scanned at 200 DPI.
All images copyright © Geoffrey Dutton, 1965-2012