* Light, Camera, Shadow, Gaze


A cafe not so unlike any other cafe you have been to in this or another city, any city in Europe or the States, New York I am specifically referring to, a cafe with small tables for two, a couple for four perhaps; three could sit at the tables for two. In this one, the tables are heavy pedestaled round marble-topped tables with old fashioned wooden chairs, he thinks he recalls more often from when he was a boy and came to places like this one with his mother on afternoons when he would accompany her shopping. There is a banquet at the far end to the left as you enter from the street.

This cafe also serves beer; they have two taps–one a domestic IPA from New Hampshire, the other, Farmhouse Saison, also domestic, this one from Cambridge. He is having one at the table–the Saison–a pint–alone. He is writing as he always seems to be writing in one place or another, even on the trains as he travels from place to place in the city by subway, always carrying paper and pen with him wherever he goes, the only discipline he needs as a writer, Alan Ginsburg once told him.

He writes every day, many times a day; he has kept a journal for as along as he can remember being an adult his first time in college. This notebook he is keeping he bought in a stationary store down the block from the Jefferson Market Library–it is an 8 by 10 notebook with lined pages this time–sometimes he would write on unlined pages, a thick thin leather-covered notebook made in Spain he used to write in, having boxes and boxes of them at the bottom of a closet.

He also writes in bistros too, many around the city he frequents for wine and duck–he only goes to the bistros where he can get good duck . . . he loves white burgundy with duck. This has nothing to do with his writing, or being in the cafe now with pen and paper and a pint, writing as he writes on the page, this time with a fountain pen he carries in a box with an aluminum-foil-wrapped bottle of ink he uses to refill the pen . . .

Part One

I gaze at shadows. I look at shadows. I watch the shadows of the winter bare tree outside shake on the wall opposite the window, the street light blaring a lot like a charging Rhino if Rhinoceroses were swaths of light. I look for the line between light and dark, what I see, what I imagine I do, where one begins and the other ends, chiaroscuro. I recall the photos I have taken over the years, my preference for low light photography, hand-held at 1/15th of a second, aperture sometimes opened at f 1.4, a fifty millimeter fixed lens, sometimes veiling the lens with anklet-stockings of different degrees of opacity, one shot I remember of the Jefferson Market Library from the second floor window looking out on 8th Street and 6th Avenue through a thunderstorm, an 8 x 10 blow-up framed and hung on the wall in my living room, opacity.

I have taken so many photographs in black and white,  preferring monochrome to color, the shades of gray, shadows again on the wall moving in time with the breeze that blows. I like low light photography. I push exposure, hand held, the camera steady at one-fifteenth of second, sometimes the  shutter opened less than f/1.4, an old AE-1; what is repetition for a writer but motif. The rain was filter enough.

The Jefferson Market Library Tower in shades of gray through a thunderstorm through a window . . . it is a gorgeous shot almost a charcoal sketch, something of Fritz Lang and Greg Toland’s use of black in the margins of the frames of the shots they used in some of the former’s more significant films. I watched a lot of Dreyer and Murnau during the time I was walking around with three SLRs and three different speed films for New York, Manhattan, sometimes as gray as Paris in the winter, one February, terminally gray, the sky, the buildings, the Seine, a statue of Joan of Arc . . .

I watched a lot of John Ford and Toland’s work here in the states, and the work of Orson Welles when in Black and White–what films did he do in color? I cannot recall.Expressionism in film, particularly the German variety, if there was any other kind, is so much in debt to the baroque . . . baroque light, baroque space . . . I have hundreds of photos with no more than two votive candles for light or other such low lumen sources. I have a shot of my wife’s hand by votive light just having picked a piece of crust from the bread in the basket on the table in the corner at the banquet. Most of my film photography has been in shades of gray, black and white, again, low light most preferable within my greatest preference in photography, monochrome . . . I remember the use of the candlelight effect in certain northern baroque paintings. I recall Georges de la Tour used this effect to great purpose.

I remember his “Penitent Magdalene” at the Met, the candle flame before her mirror, my mirror tonight, the mirrors at Jule’s, I’ve used the votives and the mirrors to great effect in my photography, her hand, the delicacy of her hand above the bread, a glaring burst from the candle to the side . . . very few shades of gray, as close to true black and white as is possible while still holding interest, there are areas of the most intense black, the white softened by the diffusion of light, wavering flames shedding light more diffusely than penetrating incandescent light.

“What’s the Point?” I cannot imagine the point. I have forgotten the point. The use of chiaroscuro or veiling the lens to gain what Da Vinci called sfumato, not identically, but in a way associated, or so I think I can say, thus should say. The sharper contrasts of light and dark–I see the world in monochrome.

I recall ignoring suggestions for photos from friends or family because what they were looking at they were seeing in color, and what I had in my camera was black and white film, and sometimes, even if the monochromatic scale was good for black and white, the speed of th film I had might have been all wrong for the scene, perhaps the exposure as impossible for me to hold without a tripod, which is why I had a couple of portable tripods–not that my big and tall tripod was not portable, just not as portable as the smaller ones I bought.

Oh, light and shadow, the shadow world I thought I could reveal, what shadows do veil, what they do reveal; yet there is also how light blinds and creates another kind of darkness, what is eclipsed, as the aureole of light around an eclipse of the sun can block out portions of the shadow of the moon passing in front of the sun. Penetrating the shades in the shadow, sitting in the shade of a tree or a building or under an umbrella in the heat of the afternoon in the summer, at the beach, much, much cooler.

Part Two

Would I prefer snow to the drizzle that seems terminally expressed by the color of the weather these last several days, a mood evoked by the grayness of today and yesterday and the day before that? Perhaps I would–what would I? Another question to beget other questions about weather and mood. My soul is romantic, I imagine, or so I say I do, whether I actually imagine effectively or not on if I have soul, or what a soul could be, how it would interact with me–is consciousness separate from this thing we call soul. Here in the United States where we speak English, soul and mind are separate.

I use the word ‘romantic’ in the same sense or senses as the term has when applied to the poetry of Byron, of Shelley, of Keats, of Wordsworth, of Coleridge–I could go on, but will stop here. No, I won’t. It has lost it’s steam, though, hasn’t it, this idea or ideal I have about romanticism–or is it romantisme, as we used to say–some of us, anyway–in the English Majors’s Lounge. I am a reflection of the violence of nature; I am sturm und drang? What could I mean by this–and saying this means what? I could ask, but do not, knowing what I mean by what I say when I say what I have said here, saying not in itself meaning, though, is it? Costume and scenery are not enough to carry a play, of course we think we know. But meaning without saying is what? is next to impossible, no?

It is finally snowing. These last several days have been miserable.

Who wouldn’t prefer snow to rain? I ask rhetorically, secure in the notion that snow must be universally preferable to rain. I know it is for me in December. I prefer 28 degrees Fahrenheit with snow to 38 degrees Fahrenheit with rain. Yes, I would prefer 30F with snow to 34F with rain. Who would not? Everyone would, no? Preferences for weather are often determined by mood, mood determined sometimes by weather; there are times when these are not mutual, nor reciprocal. There are times when it is exactly this mutually, a mood determined by weather and the preference for weather in my mood.

Gray, gray and more gray these last several days–terminal gray I said when we were in Paris one February for ten of the most charcoal drawn days of my life. Yes, gray, gray and more gray, everywhere gray, the river Seine, gray, the Louvre, gray, every Place, gray, gray–charcoal gray from atop the Arc de Triomphe; photos in charcoal or 6B to 8B from atop Montmartre . . . mood affected by the lack of sunshine.

Yes, weather reflects my mood, my mood reflects the weather. I used to be sure and oftentimes said the same. Yes, my mood, the weather–I am the storm that blows, the sun that shines, the rain that falls, the night that comes, the waves and the wind and the clouds, the salt spray, the sea gulls squawking at each other over a barely together crab, and so on and so on . . .

Yes, and so on–but what this etcetera has to do with the world in monochrome . . . it does not, does it? No! It does not have anything to do with the world seen through a monochromatic lens–not the world in pink, but gray.

I am certain that shooting the human body naked or nude in color is more pornographic than if it were done in black and white, in monochrome; just as shooting in or out of focus can determine the line between pornography or art; just as the limits of posing or not posing determine if nudity or nakedness.

You do not agree?

I cannot for the life of me figure why.

Part Three

I impose my preferences on my judgements of the world. But snow would make the graying of the day less intense, less grayed. Night photos with snow around are always clearer than when there is no snow and thus no intensifying of whatever light is around the scene shot. I remember having learned how long ago I cannot tell that black and white photography is an arrangement of shades of gray–yes, we will to be able to escape the movie for a while–but this monochrome scale does and does not have everything to do with the film by the title, Is there no real black and no real white? I’m asking. Waiting for a response; En Attendant Pour Une Response.

I have been told that in any black and white movie there is no black and there is no white–for sure. There are how many shades of gray in our optics? What is it that I do see on the borders of the film in Fritz Lnag’s M? The same circumambient dark I see in De La Tour’s “Penitent Magdalene” at the Met, surrounded in her room by the dark, a pitch black perimeter?

Everything from one end of the monochromatic scale of black to that of white I am able to imagine when taking photos–I can see color arrangement; I can also see the many shades of gray with the eye in the mind–and this is not an allusion to the film. How many shades of gray make up a black and white film? I am genuinely asking. The black and white film I buy at B & H on 9th Avenue across from the Cheyenne Diner I have used for decades now–is it that long, really?

The last time I was there was with my Dad? No, it wasn’t the last time I was there, the time I am remembering. I was there getting some 8mm movie film processed–color–when? My last time there–the last time I was there with my dad we did go to the Cheyenne Diner, we did have hamburgers, we did–how long ago now was it?

There are many things I become surprised by how old they are in my life, how long ago they happened. I cannot say that the last time I was there with my dad I bought film at HB and burgers at the Cheyenne Diner. We did go and get burgers at the Cheyenne, my Dad and I. How long before he died? He died in the morning with the sun breaking through the clouds after having snowed a few inches the night before. It’s four years ago that my dad died as the sun broke through the gloom . . .

I was once told that neither extreme on the monochromatic scale is actually present in a film–but that can’t be, can it? This is not a point of contention for me when I shoot with black and white film; is there true white and true black in what I have shot. I have gone into the extremes of low-light photography and let me tell you I have recorded on film, black and white.

I have hundreds and hundreds of photos in black and white stored in boxes in a closet in y apartment. . . a closet photographer, no? Interesting, this idea about being in a closet, or about being closeted is not only about sexual orientation and sexuality. Every human soul experiences this closet of his own, this closet of his desires, his feelings, his ideas, whatever have you that’s locked up in you–in me. No one escapes, really, one Chinese box of closets.

All black and white photography is the world in shades of gray . . . I won’t be able to wait for the film to go away, fade out–I am not able to talk the truth of monochrome without one or another allusion or reference to the film made–how many shades of gray are there between black and white–why is it white and black in France?

There are always illusions we keep for however brief a time, a moment we have . . . moments of equal length have different durations in the mind–time in my head passes according to another rule rather than the one that governs the ticking of a clock.

What do we have? To have or not to have, where we do, when we do, how . . . there are 512 distinct meanings listed for the word ‘by’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I have the monochromatic scale in my head; I see scenes in monochrome everywhere. I can translate color to shades of gray. There are many scenes in the world that are not to be recorded in monochrome; there just isn’t the contrast for them. There are sets that should only be shot in black and white. What makes a beautiful photo in color can be the dullest and palest in contrast of all in black and white photos.

After shooting with black and white film long enough, you get accustomed to seeing the world in shades of gray. But how do you flip the switch? Some people ask me. I have no words for them. If they need to ask as they do, with the inflection that implies what it does about what they do not and cannot understand, explanation might not help, which does not mean that I do not sometimes try, although I will not here, now.


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