January 31, 2018

Cloudy, 27 Degrees, South Wind 15 mph

Although it is relatively mild today, the wind is blowing pretty strongly, making it a less than pleasant day. I don’t like the wind much; well, not at all. In one of my favorite series of books, the Don Juan series from Carlos Castaneda, wind is a malevolent force. And it is. It pushes you along, freezes exposed skin, makes you turn away from it.

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When I get to the woods, the wind is blocked by the trees and brush and it becomes a presence mostly in the form of sound. You hear it in the tree tops and it remains an unpleasant force. The howling of wind in trees is a desolate sound. It’s not a big deal in the safety and familiarity of this daily walk, but I remember it very distinctly on one of my photographic adventures. I spent a couple of nights out camping in the middle of winter in the Pictured Rocks area.

Of course I went alone, against all advice from friends and all the books I had read on the subject. I snowshoed miles through the woods with a heavy pack to get to the shore of Lake Superior to find the wind howling in off the lake. Not a single soul had been in there. To make things worse, I got not one useful picture from the trip except perhaps a selfie I took on the way out that showed the haggard exhaustion I felt.

The extreme isolation and cold made the sound of the wind a real force. It was inevitably symbolic of isolation and desolation. As I tried to fall asleep in my little tent, it was a real presence. It made me feel a thousand miles from everyone and everything. Made me wonder why I subjected myself to these things. I couldn’t wait to get out, but I had to spend a long cold night huddled in my sleeping bag before the strenuous walk out. I have never been so glad to see a car in my life. But enough about the wind. It wasn’t that big a deal on this little walk.

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Having declared only yesterday that I intended to photograph and write every day for a year, I almost immediately began to feel that this was just way too much to do. First of all, I’m generating a lot of writing and a lot of images, all of which needs to be edited and dealt with every day. I don’t think humans are really meant to hold to something as rigid and overwhelming as that. As I walked today I had plenty to think about and to photograph but one of the things I thought is that it was just plain grandiose of me to think like that. It’s grandiose on one level to think that anyone would want to read much if any of what I think about. By extension, it’s grandiose of any artist to think that anyone else needs to see what they want to make or what they have to say.

As I was thinking about this I thought ‘This is a typical thing for Curt Miller to do.’ I have to admit that maybe I’ve always had the feeling that I needed to do big things in life. My next thought, probably because I used my name as I thought this, was my father Art Miller. He was described to me as grandiose on more than one occasion. He wasn’t crazily grandiose, I don’t think, but he was an architect and I suppose there’s an innate grandiosity in thinking you should create the environments in which people should live and work. He designed and built a lot of houses, but he also built larger developments which had an impact on communities as well as people. On the other hand, if he didn’t do it, someone else would have and likely someone with less talent. .

Nonetheless, I still have to confess to an element of grandiosity in this project and in many of the things I’ve done. I think I’ve mostly done those things in the spirit of enthusiasm, passion and curiosity, not grandiosity, but there’s something there. When I realized I could make my a guitar, I had to do it. Then I hadto do it again and again, and I thought about it as a business (a terrible idea that I recognized before embarking on it.) The same went for building furniture, motorcycles and many other things. Might I not just have been interested in these things without throwing myself so wholeheartedly into them? Sure, but then what kind of life would I have led? Does anyone wish that they lived a smaller life? Not me.

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But back to the idea of a year of daily writing and photographing. I’m almost certain it’s not practical. I’ll probably have to back off and not write or shoot sometimes. I want to take the camera every day and I certainly want to capture the changes in weather and season, but I may not find something new every day for a year. As for writing, I’m not sure I’d have much trouble doing it every day, but there is more to life than sitting in a room and spinning out the thoughts in my head. So we will see what kind of accommodation I make to the every day thing as I go along.

The flip side of sticking to the discipline is that it would certainly stretch me as an artist and photographer. Can I, will I, be able to see new things every single day? Seems almost imconceivable frankly, but I’ll press on and see what happens.

So on to photography. Today I focused mainly on photographing tree trunks. I edited and printed some of the ones I shot yesterday and I like them. The light was different today, darker and flatter, and the tree trunks looked different through the lens. They too looked flat and gray. I doubt they will work as well as the shots from yesterday but maybe they will just be different and good in their own way.

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I can do a lot in the editing of the pictures. We will see if that helps. It’s a delicate subject with photographers, the matter of editing pictures. The fear is that viewers will see the pictures as false, mere Photoshop exercises. Some photographers go to extremes to claim their pictures are pure and unadulterated. Not me. I want the pictures to appear and feel natural, but I make a thousand choices about each picture as I develop it for printing. Often, these choices are very important to the final result. Almost always. Next time you look at a photograph, ask yourself if what you’re seeing could really have happened without editing. Still, short of real extremes, editing doesn’t bother me.

What I do now is really no different than what Ansel Adams or others of the film generations did. Photographers have always worked to control exposure, contrast, the values in a photograph. They’ve also mostly done what’s called dodging and burning to alter regions of the photograph. I actually learned to do this as a young man in my father’s darkroom. You make little shapes from paper or cardboard to hide or expose parts of the photograph from the light coming from the enlarger. You hold it up above the paper with a little wire and wiggle it around so you don’t get sharp edges.

Today, we make these sorts of edits with ease and immediate feedback. It’s a lot easier, but it’s still the same thing. I personally don’t like artificial looking photographs. I do aim for a naturalness in the images, but any photographer who claims he doesn’t edit his photographs is either a liar or a fanatic.

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The trees have a real presence. You could see them as real individuals, which of course they are. What I suppose I mean is that they can be seen as people or at least metaphors for people. These “people” are standing alone in the forest 24 hours a day. Metaphor anyone? They grow incredibly slowly. They change through the seasons and endure them in a way that we could not. But again they make a pretty nice metaphor for us. And here I come along and notice them individually and photograph them and print their pictures.

It’s interesting to me that the act of writing about this idea fleshes it out or explains it much more than I had thought about when I took the pictures and printed them. Many of my best pictures had unconscious depth to them that I know was not conscious when I made them. Maybe it’s just reading into the images after the fact, but the only important thing to me is that people have an emotional or spiritual reaction to my photographs. I’m not making pretty pictures for people. I want them to experience or learn something or have the pictures connect with their experiences in a meaningful way. wilWhen a person actually buys a photograph, its for sure that they are feeling this connection with something in the image. You wouldn’t part with the kind of money my photographs sell for unless the photograph really spoke to you.

Perhaps another time I’ll write about the experience of finding gallery representation and beginning to sell my work. It’s a big one in an artist’s life and not all artists get the experience. In fact, most probably do not. It changed things for me.

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I can’t help thinking of these photographs as a potential exhibit. I can easily imagine them all gathered together in a sleek modern gallery. There is a simplicity and monumentality to the images that I like. Perfect for an exhibit. It’s not likely to happen though. Finding galleries to host exhibits is not easy. Actually, I can think of one where I had an exhibit before, but I sold nothing from that exhibit and spent a small fortune on printing and framing. I can’t afford to do that kind of thing easily unless I hang them without frames. I’ve done it before, but I don’t know if it would be acceptable to many galleries.

That’s the problem with art exhibits. Unless it’s in a very successful commercial gallery, something that is rare and hard to get exhibited in, you’re not likely to sell much. And you have to sell in order to justify the effort and expense. It’s not that it’s about the money, but if you don’t sell then you’re mostly satisfying your ego while perhaps entertaining a few people. If I’m completely honest, at the first gallery I thought of not one single person from the public showed up at the opening. A handful of my friends came and my father came and that’s it. It was really nice to have my father there. Maybe the timing was wrong or the gallery didn’t do a good job of promotion. I don’t know. I can’t say that I was really embarrassed. I thought the show looked great and I got a nice write up in the paper and nice comments from the staff. But all in all, it wasn’t a success.

Nonetheless, I would still like to do it if the images are strong enough. After all, what’s the point of making art if no one sees it?

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