Friday, July 10, 2015

Busy, busy, busy...

If I stop to think about it I could easily become overwhelmed: 11 rolls of film to process, 6 rolls waiting to be edited and scanned, oops just bought another book before finishing the 5 I picked up last month, letters not yet written, 3 upcoming doctor appointments, sit the gallery for 6 hours, don't want to miss that poetry reading tomorrow night, dinner guests arriving in a half hour. But I don't think about it much. I just keep moving forward. Slowly of course, but forward. 

I don't watch TV or go to movies and that totally baffles many people. I'd rather read or sit in a cafe with a cappuccino and a good friend. I'd rather photograph on the streets of North Beach than spend a day in the woods experiencing nature. I'd rather write a letter by hand with a fountain pen on good paper than send an e-mail.

Sure some things pile up, tasks are put off, I fall behind. But I pursue what's important to me and I find I have little or no desire to seek out diversions. I enjoy what I do despite the underlying threat of becoming overwhelmed.

Keeping busy doing the things that are important and fulfilling, creative and enlightening, that's great motivation. No I can't read it all or learn it all, but I can dive in and spend the rest of my life swimming in that vast sea of wonder and possibility. 

It's a matter of perspective, sifting through all that human culture and society has heaped before us. Sure there's a lot of dreck out there, but there is no need to become mired in it.

Photographer Jay Maisel has had a long career honing his creative vision. He's never in a place or situation that leaves him unable to find a scene of visual harmony. He does a good job of sifting through that dreck. Maisel has talked a lot about the practice of being a photographer and once said, "Don't try to make diamonds out of crap." And he's right, there's no need.

Photo: ©2015 David W. Sumner

Sunday, May 17, 2015

For The Record

In recent months a few friends and I have been reading some collections of interviews with well known photographers. Our discussions have been interesting, with a variety of points of view making each of us think deeper and consider alternative approaches to thinking about our work and photography in general.

The process has been fun and has led me to seriously consider what I think of photography’s role in society and why I continue this particular creative pursuit.

I began working on a sort of essay, trying to get all my thoughts on paper in some coherent fashion. It turned out to be more of a chore than I was up to at the time, so I decided to mimic an interview style similar to the writings we had been reading, taking it one question at a time. So that’s what you will read in this series I call For The Record: answers to a number of questions that have come up during our discussions in response to our readings. Also I’ve included questions that I’m often asked by friends or students new to or not at all involved in photography.

This isn’t a record of a specific interview but rather an essay written in the interview format. This format makes writing about certain issues easier and more interesting for me and allowed me to cut to the chase and speak in frank and simple terms.

So far I’ve had fun with this writing. It’s been interesting to give serious thought to these questions and it’s helped me form a clearer notion of what I do and why. The reading and now my writing have also allowed me to be much more comfortable with my point of view and have even more fun doing my work.

I hope you to find this fun and interesting and as always I am writing to promote and encourage discussion, so please feel free to leave comments or send email. I am always interested in other perspectives.

“For The Record”

Q: Do you remember the first picture you took?

DWS: No. I remember my first roll of film. But my first picture, no. No one since roll film came available truly remembers the first photo they snapped. The first snap of the shutter is usually just practice to see if everything works: is the film loaded properly, is it transporting smoothly, that kind of thing.

The first picture on your first roll or even the first snap with your new DSLR, it’s all just to see if everything is working. That’s  sort of a silly question when you really think about it but it’s one that’s often asked.

Q: Why black and white?

DWS: Black and white gets you to the essence of a thing. It presents the information you need to contemplate, to ask questions, to consider the nature and circumstances of the subject. I mean this is true for the photographer making the image and the viewer looking at a print.

Color is distracting. Because we see in color we make assumptions. Our brains process color information based on a lifetime of visual programing. Like a computer program it interprets that information, categorizes it according to the limitations of the programing. It does all that work for us. So we spend less time looking and see less.

Black and white forces us to “do the math” so to speak. We have to think about what we are looking at, slow down and figure it out.

Q: You call yourself a documentary photographer?

DWS: Yes. While “documentary photography” as a term covers a wide variety of imagery it’s often thought of as “news” or “events” coverage.

I document my social environment. I really look at my social surroundings with the eye of an archaeologist, that’s how I was trained and that carries over into my photography. I document my environment in a way similar to an archaeologist cataloging the artifacts recovered in an excavation. The subjects I photograph are the artifacts, the composition of the photograph is the context, the provenience in which the subject/artifact was discovered.

The interpretation of this documented evidence, meaning my image, is left to the viewer. I don’t care how my images are interpreted. I have no specific message I’m trying to convey. If the viewer is moved to consider the subject and its context in an image then the photograph is doing its job and I’ve done my job.

My job as a photographer is to evoke thoughtful consideration and increased awareness, not just of our social environment, but also of our place in it. The photograph is a simile of its subject. It is the photographer’s job to interpret the subject in in a way that transcends the physical limitations of the photograph itself.

Ultimately the photograph is the document, the document of a moment, a specific thing or place in time. It doesn’t matter if the subject is news worthy, historically significant or a rose in a glass of water on a windowsill. The photograph of that situation, circumstance or thing is a document of something specific in a space in time. No matter how mundane it is, it’s a unique fragment of an existence. It also reflects a fragment of time in the photographer’s existence, so actually every photograph documents more than is apparent in the image, and that’s why the viewer’s interpretation becomes so important.

(More to come...)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Lockheed, Leukemia, TCE & PCE

“Lockheed Propulsion Company (LPC) began operations in 1961, after acquiring the site from Grand Central Rocket Company (GCRC), which began operations in 1954. The site consisted of approximately 400 acres which were leased from the City of Redlands…In the 1980's trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent, was detected in groundwater wells in the Redlands area.“

“In April 1997, the San Bernardino District field staff of the DDW began testing public water supply wells in areas where perchlorate contamination was suspected to exist. Because Lockheed used solid rocket fuel, the DDW field staff in the San Bernardino office sampled wells located to the west, downgradient of the Lockheed facility, including two wells of the Victoria Farms system. The well samples were processed by the CDHS Sanitation and Radiation Laboratory located in Los Angeles, with a quantification limit of 4ppb. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) provisional action level for perchlorate in drinking Water is 18 ppb, at which the water purveyor would have to notify their water customers.”

FEBRUARY 11, 1999

“Since the mid-1970s, several epidemiological studies have suggested an association between organic drinking water contaminants, especially chlorinated volatile compounds, and an increased cancer incidence. In Woburn, Massachusetts, exposure to the solvents trichloroethylene  (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) were linked to a leukemia cluster, primarily acute lymphocytic leukemia among children, while another recent study in Massachusetts observed an association between leukemia and PCE.”

Drinking Water Contamination and the Incidence of Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
Perry Cohn, Judith Klotz, Frank Bove, Marian Berkowitz, and
Jerald Fagliano

New Jersey Department of Health, Environmental Health Services, Trenton, New Jersey 08625


Friday, March 6, 2015

Listing the Facts

The little red dot on the map above marks the house I lived in when I was eight years old on Holtville CA.

The town is, as it was then, surrounded by farms. The single source of water to irrigate all the fields is the All American Canal.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Connecting the Dots

Lockheed Jet Propulsion Company rocket engine test at the Potrero Ranch site near Beaumont, California. 
Photo Courtesy of Banning Library District

In 1966, when I was eight years old, my family moved to a small agricultural town just s few miles from the Mexican border. Holtville was a small community, a mix of old buildings, civic offices, small businesses, a movie theater and a few tracts of new homes. All this was surrounded by farms. This was the Imperial Valley, Imperial County, California.

The crops on the farm at the end of our street were regularly dusted with chemicals. Many Saturday mornings I woke to the buzz of a biplane as it pulled up to make another pass over the fields, spraying what I now assume was DDT.

After eighteen months we moved again, this time to the San Bernardino Valley, specifically Redlands, the heart of California’s citrus industry. Our new home was in a tract of houses built on the ground of a cleared orange grove.The groves were giving way to housing, but many citrus ranchers were hanging on. Redlands boasted five operating citrus packing houses which employed many of our neighbors, the parents of many of my friends and eventually my mother.

To combat the winter frost citrus ranchers routinely burned crude oil and kerosene in smudge pots creating a thick black smog that would warm the air and insulate the trees and fruit from the cold and descending frost. Many mornings friends would arrive late to school with singed eyebrows and missing eye lashes. They had been out from midnight to 4:00am helping their parents light smudge pots. We’d listen to the radio for the frost warning so we could make sure windows were closed on nights we knew they would “smudge.”

A few miles away in the village of Mentone was the Lockheed Martin plant, another employer of many of my classmates’ parents. Lockheed Martin had a government contract with NASA to manufacture solid rocket fuel. Growing up in Redlands we were used to drawing water from the tap and having to let the glass sit a few minutes while the bubbly, milky cloud dissipated.It was air in the city’s water lines, we were told. The water in the glass would slowly clear and we would drink the water.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the California Department of Health Services found trichloroethylene, a solvent, in four out of twelve groundwater wells supplying drinking water to the population of Redlands. In 1997, ammonium perchlorate was discovered in a number of the wells. Drinking water as far away as Loma Linda was contaminated. For years Lockheed dumped spent rocket fuel and other byproducts into unlined dirt pits to be burned at some point as allowed by federal policies. In 2003 the California Supreme Court ruled that the citizens of Redlands had no grounds for filing a class action “toxic tort lawsuit” against the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

In 2007 I was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a blood cancer. It’s time to start connecting the dots.