Each Age a Lens
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
I don’t remember exactly when my mother brought home the cameras. She probably bought them in a thrift shop for about a quarter. That was her favorite way of shopping and her price point at the time. There were two of them, one a cream-sickle orange and the other a creamy mint-green – both sweet confections in their coloring. The orange one went to my sister Millie. I got the green one. I probably chose, maybe because I was there first when they came home. I don’t know for certain. I do know I liked the green one best because I associated the cream-sickle orange with girls. I was six and this was my first camera. At this time, I had not thought of owning a camera. I had not asked for one, but for a near-sighted boy who was used to looking at the world narrow and close, this new toy would become a magic box that opened new ways of seeing.
The camera was an Imperial Mark XII, fixed focus, point and shoot. It was not complicated, its optics were cheap, and there was no flash. As an image-maker it was limited, but I would learn intuitively to work around those confines. It took 620 roll film, which was not expensive if you stayed with black and white. It made 12 exposures to a roll of film, standard at the time and enough if you were trying to find out what a camera was good for. I was eager to get started, my sister not as much.
My family was of the belief that photographs were used to record family holidays and events. Photographers, to my family’s understanding, did not exactly fall into the category of artists. There were photographers who had portrait studios, and photographers who shot weddings. Then there were photographers for newspapers and magazines who seemed to be a different category because they were doing a job. Then there were people who took up photography as a hobby. They seemed to just amass a lot of expensive equipment but took no better pictures than anyone else. Real artists drew and painted. Photography was somehow cheating for an artist. There was an awe and magic to the skill and talent of drawing and painting “freehand”; of translating an image to paper or canvas with only your eyes, hand, and a pencil or brush. With a camera, anyone could push a button and “take” a picture. Photographs just didn’t have the authorship of art. A photograph was something a machine made. They captured identity, but had no inherent identity. While this may have been the family zeitgeist, I was not thinking about any of it. I had a new toy and I wanted to play with it.
Thacher Park is a New York State managed wild area that lies to the west of Albany, where we lived. It is named after John Boyd Thatcher, a former mayor of the city of Albany and sits upon the Helderberg Plateau. The Helderberg Plateau was once the bottom of a Devonian sea 419 million years ago. It boasts some of the richest fossil bearing limestone on the East Coast. But its fame with the locals is for the Indian Ladder Trail. The trail was once accessible only by ladders made of tree trunks and was formerly used by indigenous people as a trade and transportation route. The log ladders have long been replaced by a metal stairway and the trail is short, easy, and has been prepared for tourists. It includes caves, waterfalls, underground streams and low-hanging rock, where you must stoop or crouch to walk under. It takes less than a half hour to traverse, but for children who were raised in the city with romantic ideas about Native Americans and life long ago, the possibility of walking the same trail that strange prehistoric animals once lived on and then Indians used, was pretty exciting. My brother Michael and I loved Thacher Park. Practically any rock you picked up had some kind of shell or ancient creature fossilized in it. We would explore the creeks that abounded there as well as walk the trail. We always came back with my father’s car laden down with several fossil rocks and a toad or two in a jar. Upon arrival at home, my mother would convince me to release the toads into the back yard. Where I would be disappointed never to see them again.
Thacher Park would be where I shot my first roll of film and Memorial Day would be my first chance to use my camera. We were going to have a family picnic. I was excited to have a chance bring along my new prize, so I asked for film so I could use it. My mother bought the film and then showed me how to thread it onto the spool to load it into the camera. The process seemed tricky, but I quickly got the knack.
With my first photograph, I naturally tried to capture the nearsighted way I was used to seeing. I wanted to photograph a close up of columbine flowers among foliage. I thought the flowers were unusual with their back swept spurs, and colorful with their red and yellow petals, which stood out from the green foliage of the brush surrounding them. However, in the resulting print, you cannot see the flowers at all. It did not register to my young mind that the film I was using was black and white. I had no experience with the way black and white film rendered the world, stripping out the color, leaving only shapes defined by their shadows and light. I also did not understand the limitations of the fixed-focus lens, or the concept of focus at all. My eyes, with the help of glasses, seamlessly adjusted to the distance I was looking at. But a camera does not have the advantage of a biological brain to make these judgments and adjustments by itself. I believed, in my youthful innocence, that what I saw would be transferred by whatever strange abilities of the camera onto the film, just as my brain made sense out of what I saw through my eyes. Not only was my new camera not good for close up images, but it necessarily reduces the real image to fit on the film. My image returned from the developer devoid of the green, red and yellow that attracted me, causing the bright colored columbine to disappear into the blurry gray of the surrounding foliage. I brought the camera closer to the subject than its lens could clearly focus on. So, there were rules and methods to learn with this new toy. Ideas would need an understanding of process to be executed. This was the first rule of art I may have learned.
My second image fared no better. It was a long view of a landscape from the top of the Indian Ladder trail. I was drawn to the white verticals of birch trees contrasting with the dark green foliage across the escarpment, but when I saw the printed photograph, the white line of the birch trees that I was so taken with were barely noticeable. And so, it was with most of the roll. Photographs with fingers poking into the frame edge, bad focusing, strange cropping, no consideration of the background and on. Now I see that each encounter with my camera was a learning experience, but at the time I may have been frustrated with some of the results. Yet, for the most part I was delighted with this magic box that captured these fleeting scenes forever. I could look back at these images and relive exactly the experience of being there. There was a wonder to this that I embraced into myself and made it part of me.
From then until now, I have not been without a camera. This became an important part of my image-making as I explored what being an artist meant to me. Since then, I have studied photography as well as other methods and means of making images and objects. I decided to look back to those first eager explorations of the camera. I wanted to see what I saw then and how I might change them now to improve (or not) what I captured at the time. Perhaps my more experienced and developed eye would better enhance the idea I was trying to convey; or even restructure the idea entirely into something different. Certainly, what fascinated me at six may not fascinate me now – unless it is true that by that age we become who we will be for the rest of our lives.
This revisiting of my juvenile work is achieved with digital prints, because following the wisdom of my mother, I threw out the negatives the day I retrieved the prints from the photo processing lab. My mother believed that the prints were what mattered, since I would not be purchasing (or she would not be funding) copies. Still, scanning the vintage prints offered more creative possibilities with reversing the ravages of time and reworking the concept of the image or the limitations of the camera. The processes are the same as I would use to approach any new work of art I were to create. Each image presented its unique possibilities to me. Some needed a fresh approach, some needed only an enhancement of contrast, others I cropped differently to make the composition work, still others I found worked best when I allowed some of the evidence of age and accident to remain. Then there were the few which I believed at the time were failures because they did not meet my expectations, were flawed, or suffered a faux pas of the shutter. These were always the most interesting to me, because they allow a different vision that I did not possess at that time.
I was told once by an instructor, that an artist should never try to revisit his earlier work. The general idea is that your concepts and skills have developed beyond that early work. Photography however has a lag time built into it that other visual media does not. It is often a two-part process, creating the image in the camera, then completing the image in the darkroom or in digital programs. The time from one step to the other can vary from seconds to years. Many photographers take years to develop finished prints from the backlog of images they have amassed. I find looking back at my juvenile interactions with the camera the same for me. I have been studying these images for many years, but now, some new vision has formed within my artist’s mind. I feel compelled to rework them and put them out in the world as new work. I see a different potential for these images than just my beginning fumblings with the camera. They make sense within my oeuvre for the first time. I am able to revisit them and bring to them some of my experience and as each age brings a different lens to the work, my hope is that how I reimagine them will still do honor to the past.
Arthur Bruso © 2019
This essay opens my book of photographs Each Age A Lens.
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