17 May 2020

Another Version of the Truth

A few years back now, a friend of mine committed to paper, and then to film a phrase that has stuck with me: “Photographs don’t tell true stories any more.”

I love the sentiment behind this, especially in the context of the film, but I find it both heartbreakingly true and – perhaps naïvely – too narrow-focused to be anything but false. When I shoot photos, I’m trying to capture a moment, a space in time that wasn’t there before, won’t be there again, but was there for that instant. Whether it’s someone on a stage, a crowd at an event, or someone posing for my lens, there is truth in that image. I know that’s not the same for everyone, since there are photographers out there doing creative editing and compositing, but there are just as many that are like myself – just wanting to catch the moments.

It’s not as easy in the current state of the world we’re in, because there aren’t the same kind of events happening. There are no concerts, no large gatherings, not even groups of friends getting together for evenings of drinks and stories and laughs. I’ve discovered there are other forms of truth though. Truth that’s less about fact and more about spirit.

As I’m certain many people are doing, I’ve spent a lot of time watching videos online. One of my go-to sources of relaxing entertainment has been Adam Savage’s “Tested” channel on YouTube. Savage, of Mythbusters fame, has continued working in his shop, though on his own instead of with a crew, filming himself working on projects and once a week doing live streams that include answering questions from fans. From that came inspiration for my latest photo concept. During his Q&A session recorded on April 28th (and posted on May 5th), Savage was asked about a fictional character he felt connected to. You can watch at the link above as he discusses how he feels about Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Philip Marlowe. While discussing an essay that Chandler wrote in 1944 and published late that year or early 1945, Savage quotes Chandler in describing his character thusly:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

When I heard this quote, it was like the ringing of a bell to me. While Chandler was describing the character of Marlowe, the first line of this quote resonated with me as a description of my friend, writer and director Chris Kelley. We’ve had discussions about the characters and stories he writes, to a degree exorcising pieces of himself through fiction that would never come out in reality. A person exacting revenge for the transgression of talking on a phone in a movie theatre, or a scheming business mogul whose only reaction to shooting a man in the head is fascination and amusement at the way his hat flies off.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”

Chris writes these realistic depictions without a real-life point of reference to them, and he does it incredibly well. And I decided I wanted to share this with him. I thought about simply sending him the quote, or making an amusing meme-image and posting that for him to see. But then my brain started turning. Why make a digital facsimile of something rather than make it for real? With the seeds of an idea taking root, I started searching eBay and came a wonderful prop: a 1925 mechanical (of course!) typewriter for an absurdly low price. On an impulse, I hit the purchase button and I was off and running.

I knew I didn’t want to just put a sheet of paper with the quote printed on it into the machine for an image. The first thing I did was find a font that looked like it would come from a very old-school typewriter. Once I was happy with that look, I took the printed sheets and started testing weathering and aging techniques. I wanted to make it look like a sheet of paper that looked like it could have been in that machine for the entire 75-year period since Chandler first committed the words to page.

As these things were happening, the idea for the image was crystallizing in my head, and more objects to fill the frame were becoming clearer. I drove three hours round-trip for a bargain on a classic green-shaded banker’s lamp. Once I got it home, I stripped it apart and rebuilt it to add a classic pull-chain to it instead of the push-switch socket it had. I also reached out to Chris himself who – along with his wife, producer, and partner in all things, Victoria – are true connoisseurs of fine libation to get an empty whiskey bottle.

Once all the pieces were in place, I set up the technical side. The banker’s lamp would add a splash of practical lighting, but I had the chance to use the new Lume Cube lights, with one to accent the page in the typewriter and the second to fill in through the bottle and glass.

This was a lot of set-up for a photo, and it’s not something I’m used to doing. If you’re still reading this, I appreciate that! I wanted to show a little bit of my process, not just in the physical set-up of the shot, but in the mental behind-the-scenes, too. Below is the final image I created, with editing done in Corel’s Aftershot Pro and Paint Shop Pro (I think I’m the last guy left who does NOT use Adobe’s photo editing software). If all goes to plan, I will have this in a large format print in a week or so that I plan to give to Chris as a gift. I would like to think he may use it as a motivational reminder in his office, but it may end up as kindling in his next gathering of friends! I don’t know (though I doubt the last would come to pass), but I do know it’s been a wonderful exercise in moving from idea to concept to execution to completion.

Thanks for coming along with me.

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