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From “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig…

  • “…a zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience, emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself…”

I’ve read the above passage twice today and I still can’t snap out of my “stuckness.” I’m faced with the problem of what to do! I can’t think… and I’m sort of frustrated rather than bored. I must do something. But what?

Stuck? There’s no such thing!

How about anything! These are some of the questions and answers I’ve asked myself before on days like this. Do you share some, all or even more of these problems after you’ve done the necessary daily chores? If so you have a problem, like me. If you are creative, original, inventive, intuitive and imaginative close to one hundred per cent of your conscious time you will not suffer from stuckness – but I have to admit that I am not, and I do. And, what is more, not only am I getting increasingly stuck trying to think of what to do first, today, I find I get that stuck feeling quite often. There are periods of time when I’m not working, eating, reading or snapping when I could be thinking about new ideas, or rehashing old ones (tidying my desk even) but not letting the mental mist descend. This is such a time, but… too late… I am at present befuddled in that fog. If the telephone were to ring I could be out of my fixed state because an outside force would have intruded into my existence and steered me into a pattern of work or, hopefully, some sort of juicily creative action. But no ‘phone call – and whilst the kettle is boiling I’m standing here staring, blinking, eyes darting, blinking again… until I realise that I’m mentally photographing the room, the surroundings, the kitchen, using my eyelids as a shutter, freezing for an instant images and objects which I’ve seen a thousand times before.

Realising that I’m hungry and if “an apple a day…” works, then why not “a film a day keeps stuckness away.” That’s what I’ll do. I’ll photography the things immediately around me that I don’t normally bother to take notice of for more than a couple of seconds – ordinary everyday paraphernalia – but do it with feeling!

But where shall I start? I mustn’t think about it too hard or the dreaded stuckness will set in again. Let’s see, why not choose six subjects, objects, each to be quickly photographed six times? The result may be six great pictures which I didn’t see or have before… or one great picture that I’ll think of as an image (as in “a meaningful statement”) or it might be nothing… but the time would have been wasted anyway so I’ll just load up one of the Leicas and do it! “Uhhh-srip, click, uhhh-srip, click, uhhh-srip, click” (how do you describe the noise, or rather sound, of an M3 being wound on to the first frame? Not easily!) Now start to think about the light in the kitchen – must try to “guesstimate” it this time instead of using the Weston.

Think about the relationship of light intensity to film sensitivity and shutter speeds to lens apertures. When we’re all said and done llford’s HP5 Plus in ID-11 for ten or eleven minutes at one to one will forgive some mistakes… but try to get it right in the first place!

Right… may as well start whilst I’m waiting for the tea to brew. Click, tick, tie, ti, t… Ah, the soft reassuring sound of Leica perfection as those extra “ticks” resonate with a diminishing effect within the mass of the camera body, reminding me of a distant ping-pong ball just before the end of its bouncing cycle on a hard surface. You know everything is working smoothly inside an M when the “tick, tic, ti, t” sound of the 1/1 5th of a sec shutter timing reaches your ear.

But… the jumble on the work top! Typically (for a male) I’ve only really noticed it for the first time looking through the isolation of the camera’s viewfinder… but don’t turn away to    look for something else more photogenic to start this exercise, record the clutter and make a mental note – in fact use the photos as an aide memoire – to have a spring-clean afterwards! What next… a pair of specs lying on my diary. I can’t see through any camera viewfinder whilst wearing my reading glasses so I always toss them aside when I pick a camera up. Oops, too far away; a Leica M can’t focus that near so better fit the Summicron’s close-up “specs” to get the focusing distance down to a workable twenty inches or so. 1/15th at f/4… click, tick, tic, ti, t. And again… and again holding minimum focus on the lens and gently rocking back and forth from my waist to bring the critical plane of focus into being just where I want it.

Next, the sink taps… the sunlight is pouring in through the kitchen window so I must change the guestimated settings from 1/1 5th at f/4 to about 1/ 125th at f/5.6. However, no need for exposure details – the exercise and the subject matters, not the technique. Still, must open the aperture a stop or so if the sun becomes obscured by cloud.

A crisp, barely audible click this time… the faster shutter speed has a very different sound to the slower speed. Ah, the inspiration is bubbling now! Two more shots… the tap drips because the washer needs replacing. But I think I’ve missed it for the third time… it’s easier to see with the M3’s direct vision viewfinder rather than through an SLR prism, I’m not sure I’ve the shot I want. The plate racks look interesting but I know I’m struggling with the contrast there. The eyes adopt almost instantly to changes in light and the assortment of crockery looks as well lit as the cooker area by the window… but I guess that there will be about another stop or two of extra exposure needed… so bracket.

After another couple of subjects I reach the end of the film and find I want to go on doing more though the actual object of the exercise has been completed. I could throw the film away – as notable fashion photographers were reputed to do (still do maybe) pre the digital age because they knew that it took a roll or three to get everyone, not least the model and photographer, hot… and into the swing of things… and get on with the day’s work at hand which I now feel more in the mood to undertake. But I’m curious to see what I’ve recorded; curious to see a fixed image or two of what I normally don’t look at for more than a few seconds or so, if that… to the darkroom!

This light-hearted diversion article was originally published in “Camera & Darkroom” magazine #39 1999/1 and again on the American Salon.com, 6 October 2004.

Image & text © 1999 Ed Buziak.

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