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Ever so often someone will ask how I got started in photography. It is a common question, nevertheless I enjoy having it posed. The story I tell is one I enjoy sharing frequently. It reminds me of the love that I had, and still have for the craft and art of photography. Every time I tell the story i feel in me a stoking of a deeply set fire. I get excited all over and the edges of my passion, that sometimes feel dull and worn by the rigors and demands of working as a professional media maker, are sharp again. There is a tangible sense of renewal I get from telling the story of my beginnings.
My pursuit of photography began long before I purchased my first 35mm camera. At least 7 year prior if I were to guess correctly. It began subtly when I was in high school and I became enamored by the printed image. It is hard for me to pinpoint when and where this enchantment began. I can say going back that it is tied to the many vintage National Geographic magazines that were stored in my mother’s closet and my grandparents’ basement.
But it is not this alone. Somewhere, somehow, my exposure to the black and white photographs of the Civil Rights Movement made an imprint on my psyche. People in struggle. Black people in black and white connected to their divinity even in their oppression. This was a deeply emotional and intuitive understand I had a a boy of only seven or eight. In thinking about this I am led further back into childhood. Back to my parents’ deep appreciation for 1960s avant garde and free jazz. Many of the jazz albums and posters that they owned were emblazoned with the black and white imagery of the era. When I think of these images i hear the songs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ it is ‘A Love Supreme’. There is sunlight streaming through the windows, give form and substance incense smoke. There is the scratch of a needle on wax, and the image of a saxophone, a furrowed brow, tense fingers and stark tones of black, white and grey on an album cover. Maybe plantains and curry are cooking in the kitchen and my father’s thick Nigerian accent is somewhere in the background. I am sure I have coupled these visual and aural sensations into one resonant emotional experience. An experience that later drove me to collect photographs as a passageway into my deeper self.
Whatever the beginnings, there was a definable point in my life when I began collecting photographs from every conceivable source. From magazines, post cards, newspapers and posters. I would xerox photographs from books. All of these images went up on my bedroom walls. Where the average teenager hung posters of their favorite pop artists and celebrities , images of people I admired only made it on my walls if the beauty of the photograph was equally or even more admirable. I had images of historical figures, photographs of landscapes and far off places around the world. I collected images of people from across the African Diaspora and mediated on photographs of significant social movements from American history.
My bedroom walls were a literal photographic tableau of my desires, my aspirations, my identity, my affinities, my imaginings and my curiosities. I would mediate on these images regularly, picking one and allowing my imagination to slip headlong into it. I would fall in and wonder what their backstories might be. For the image of a photojournalist, what the happening in that far off country? Who were the people in the photograph? What were they like? What were they feeling at the moment this image was taken? I would create stories to fill in the blanks. For portraits and studio photographs I wondered similar things. But I also wondered about the photographer. What was she/he thinking and feeling that led to the creation of this image? Insatiably curious, it wasn’t long before my imagination turned to self-inquiry. I began to wonder ‘what makes this photograph so moving to me’? It was this simple question that I mark and the very beginning of my active pursuit of photography as an art form.
For each photograph my response was to create a running catalog of elements that made the image meaningful. Most times it started with the content. Who was in the image? What they were doing? What their emotional expression? Where were they in space and time? What was importantenough to be photographed? Later I moved on to listing the more abstract qualities. What was the light like? Where was the light coming from? How was the subject illuminated? How did all of this make me feel? I listed where and how subjects were placed in the frame of the photograph and thought about the importance of the setting. I thought about what I saw in the photograph and tried to image how what I didn’t see might have impacted what I could see. I did’t have intentional language for all of this, but intuitively I was grappling with the very fundamentals of photography: subject matter, lighting, composition and focus.
I went on like this for years. My relationship to photography was one of inspired intuition and imaginative tutelage. As time went on my interest grew less passive and more defined. By the time I finished high school I knew I wanted to pursue some sort of image making profession. By my first year of college it was clear that motion picture film was very important in my vision of my future creative self. It was also clear that still photography had become a deeply emotion aspect of my identity. Whatever I did in life, it was clear that it would be in someway filtered through the lens of a still camera.
All of this background gets me to the point of this story and the point of this photo essay. By the time I purchased my first still camera in my third year of college I had already been steeped in years of intentional and unconscious photographic self-study. In a very real sense, by the time I picked up the camera to take my first photos, I had already gone a long way toward developing my photographic eye. This essay, ‘Early Experimentation’, is a visual testimony of my first years pursuing photography. At the time all of these images were taken I had absolutely no formal photographic training. Yet screaming out of each and every image is a clarion voice, an articulate vision of the world and myself as seen through the singular eye of my Canon AE1 35mm single lens reflex camera.
While I was in college I lived in my own apartment, kept a half to three quarter time job, took as many classes as I could manage, and spent all of my extra time and money pursuing photography. I took a darkroom class at a community center where I learned to process my own film and make prints. From there I turned my bathroom into a part-time film processing lab. When I ran out of film. I spent hours processing what I shot and when I ran out of film to process and money to buy more film I spent hours sitting in my apartment window looking at my negatives in the sunlight. I would do my standard checklist of what I liked about a particular negative and would imagine in my mind’s eye what it would look like printed.
Beyond that I spent an equal amount of time thinking about the negatives I knew would not make good photographs. I meditated on what I did to make those images. What was I thinking when I pushed the shutter button to make that negative? What was my motivation? What was I seeing? What was I feeling? How were all of those things different from the times when I made a good negative? I began to understand who I was as a photographer. I began to understand the emotional, psychic and spiritual experience that photography was for me. I began to understand when I was motivated by what I was actually seeing through the lens and when I was motivated by what I wanted to see through the lens but didn’t actually see. I began to recognize in my unsuccessful images the deep emotion bond I had with the creation of a successful image. I began to recognize that more than creating a pretty picture, I was seeking to create something of emotional and spiritual substance. Something that embodied the divinely creative essence of being human. I sought to be lifted up and edified by the very thing that I created. Each successful image was an active meditation, an austere act of submission to the being-ness of the universe around me. It was a recognition and reverence of something in me, around me, of me, and greater than me. It was, to draw a far-flung parallel, a kind of dervish path, a very sufic pursuit of visual art, a mystical engagement of life.
The images in this essay represent the breadth and depth of how this spirit moved itself through me and my lens in those early years. This essay represents me exercising physically all of the principles of creation that I practiced mentally for so many years before picking up a camera. In a way these images are a retelling of a story I had already lived. The story of my coming into being as a creative creature. I was visually mute for all of those years before I purchased my first camera. When I did get that camera it was like getting a tongue for the first time. My story came pouring out of me, nearly fully formed.
Title of this essay ‘Early Experimentation’ also speaks to a very practical pursuit. In these images you will see that my first love in photography was in the black and white genre. Going all the way back to the black and white jazz photographs in my parents’ music library, what you see in these images is my infatuation with light and shadow. By the time I purchased my first camera I had already worked out how light ‘works’ in photography. I had mapped out the mechanics of how light waves behave in my mind and set out to create photographs that would serve as thesis for my understanding. So even as I sought out the spiritual aspect of photography, I was also working out my theory and practice of lighting, composition, focus and subject matter.
When I look at these images I am taken back to the love and the awe. I am inspired to set down any pretense I have constructed around my life as a photographer and embrace the simplicity of seeing and being.
I am inspired to fall back in love.