Choosing What to Photograph

When I'm in Vietnam, for example, I take pictures mostly like a tourist, so that I can remember places & people & events; occasionally I photograph more self-consciously, looking for the same sorts of things I look for when taking pictures at home: pattern, quality of light, strangeness, color. For the last couple of years, until it became hard for me to walk around outside, I've been obsessively photographing clouds. I don't generally like vistas or landscapes, though there are exceptions such as the lush absolutely flat rice country of the Mekong Delta. I like abstraction. I like sequences. I take lots of pictures & erase most of them off the memory card & never think of them again. As a Buddhist, I suppose I should be drawn to the relatively new movement of contemplative photography, which emphasizes spending a lot of time looking before squeezing the shutter. Several photographers I admire have used this method--or at least taught it. Minor White was a pioneer of the contemplative aesthetic & he was the teacher of John Daido Loori, who founded the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, in which I am a student. Maybe I just don't trust my technique enough. As a poet I am committed to technique as a means of elucidating subject matter, but when I pick up the camera, I keep my technique basic. I usually use the aperture priority setting on my camera, which allows me to set the f-stop & control depth of field, letting the camera figure out the correct shutter speed.[1. With these self-portraits, though, there is virtually no technique since I am using my iPhone 5c, hand-held.] I find it hard to compose in the viewfinder, so I usually crop pictures in my photo-editing software, where I also tend to either punch up the color intensities, or mute them--often all the way to black & white. With the self-portrait sequence, I decided that taking photographs of my face while I'm ill[2. I hope I'm not being melodramatic: I have a diagnosis of cancer, but I won't know for a few days what kind & what treatment I'll need & my prognosis. Perhaps I'll get off easy.] is just too, well, "in your face," so I settled on taking pictures of things I can hold in my hand. Question: "What has someone's left hand holding a common object got to do with the self? Where is the self?" Response: The self is a composition of different, ever-changing objects, relations, conditions--or so I was taught in Buddhism 101. The hand & the object hold each other. They need each other. Whatever the specific object chosen for the self-portraits, it has to be small enough to hold in my hand. The specific objects were not chosen according to a particular plan other than a kind of intuitive attraction, sometimes rooted in childhood memories. That is one source of numinosity--but color plays a part as well, because it seems so fundamental, & cultural allusion. Culture & allusion--a technique from literature--come from widely differing modes of cognition & feeling, but both have operated in the process of selection. And I think this is true of most of my photography--not just the recent self-portraits.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.