Reading Aloud

The hardest part of the transition from photographer to writer is mastering the difference in the creative process.

In many types of photography the creative act is instantaneous. To reduce it to its most basic Cartier-Bresson decisive moment: see it, shoot it. Of course, there’s a lot that must happen before that moment in order to be in position to capture it, but the act of creativity really does take place in an instant. This is true of almost any journalistic type of photography but also holds for portraiture, fashion, even landscapes; any time the subject is alive, or changing light is an element.

Even when there’s a great deal of pre-production preparation and post-production processing and elements of creativity are spread throughout the process, even then, the critical creative act is the instant of releasing the shutter.

Only still life photography is exempt from this and only when the lighting is fully controlled. Maybe that’s why the French call it nature morte.

The act of writing a novel is a very different process.

Larry Walker sent me a quote from William Faulkner on the subject:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

That was certainly true of my first novel – but then the work began and hasn’t yet been completed. The creative process evolves from writing to editing and the number of revisions mounts at an alarming rate. It amazed me how often I could revise the same text and still find absolute clunkers that had to go. I would repeat the process until I hated every word then take a break and ask a friend to read it, after which I could admit that not every word was worthless and revise yet again.

Now, I’ve revised my revision process. I found that when I had trouble with a passage, reading it aloud would often point to the problem. When I stumbled over the reading, it was because either the thought or the language was unclear. In dialogue, it showed mostly in the placement of the “he said, she said” attributions. But in expository passages, reading aloud revealed awkward structures or fuzzy thinking. Enough time and consideration would eventually lead me to an improvement, often after several iterations, and I learned that when the words flowed easily from my mouth they were just better written.

I mentioned this to my friend Jess, who said she’d love to hear my reading, so I recorded the first chapter and sent it to her. In doing so, I discovered a new process: record, then listen while reading the text, stop to revise where needed and record again. Repeat until the words sound right.

Not exactly ready for “This American Life,” but Jess now has a podcast for one, and I’ve discovered an editing tool that works well for me.

I don’t know if other writers work this way. I’d love to hear from anyone who does.

Visa Pour L’Image 2012

Nice to take a break from the wine business and focus for a while on the rest of the world’s problems.

Visa Pour L’Image runs for two weeks in September and in that time the entire city of Perpignan becomes a gallery. There are exhibits everywhere: in bars, clothing stores, post offices, theaters and restaurants. Makes you want to be a photographer.

Eglise des Dominicains ©2012 Ron Scherl

The major venues are spectacular. I spent several days there trying to absorb the images in small doses. After a little while it becomes overwhelming and you just stop seeing, in the same way people can watch war and suffering on the nightly news and it stops having an impact because you just can’t take anything more to heart. That is, if anyone still watches the nightly news.

Now, of course, we get most of our coverage online, in video and immediately, but this is a chance to probe deeper and reflect on what we’re seeing. We absorb the message in our own time through the power of the still image. We’re seeing one moment in the stream of time, a fraction of an incident that reflects the magnitude of what’s happening and generates a greater intensity and intimacy than video. I know I’m swimming upstream here, but I still revere the still image and its place in the transmission of information and advocacy of a cause.

Couvent des Minimes ©2012 Ron Scherl

There’s an expression in French: Avoir le feu sacré, which is translated as “to have an activity or a passion that allows you to live life fully and to continue to pursue it despite obstacles.” This is Stephanie Sinclair on Child Brides.  We know the marriage of children exists but we usually choose to look away and focus on more immediate problems; Sinclair recognized that there is nothing more immediate to these children than being forced into perpetual sexual slavery.  She uncovers the horror of a nine-year-old girl being sold to her uncle to settle a gambling debt and details how widespread the practice of selling pre-teen girls into marriage has become. And she was not content to record it and go on to the next assignment, but has devoted herself to the story, pushing for multiple publications and enlisting the aid of international organizations to help end the practice. She is determined that her photos will make a difference and she is an example for every journalist working today.

Every time someone brings up paparazzi vultures and royal breasts, I’m going to counter with Stephanie Sinclair.

The other exhibit that really moved me was the Guantanamo portrait project of Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer. This is an unusual group of images, not traditional news photography but carefully posed and impeccably lit formal portraits of prisoners in Guantanamo. These are men who were locked away on suspicion, never charged and eventually released and in these intense and compelling portraits they appear to be clinging to what remains of their dignity and humanity. The studio lighting, limited palette, high resolution images and precise prints establish a neutral tone and allow these sensitive portraits to reveal both the suffering and the strength of the subjects.

There’s much more of course, all the major stories of the year and in-depth looks at places we hardly knew existed, but I need to give a nod to Doug Menuez and his coverage of the birth of the digital revolution in Silicon Valley from 1985-2000. Doug made this story his own and it was a treat to see this work again after so many years.

And finally, in what I hope has become an annual tradition, I had the pleasure of the company of three beautiful and talented photographers. Lucky guy.

Sarah, Helen and Jess ©2012 Ron Scherl

A Dark and Stormy Night

Well it was and I always wanted to write that. And don’t forget I’m a photographer and if I hadn’t made that photo I would have had to come up with a different opening. Thunder and lightning but no rain on Maury. Busy week: business meetings (who would’ve thought), new label for Richard, bottle shots at the Coop, music, aperitifs, dancing at Pichenouille and a lovely winemaker to flirt with at Michel’s dinner. Life is pretty hectic here.

So when I told the folks at the coop that I didn’t like the way their web designer was using my photos they asked me if I could do bottle shots for them. You’re thinking non sequitur, but this conversation was in French and seemed to make sense to me. I said of course and then remembered I have no lights. I spent a day trying to jury rig some soft boxes with my Nikon flash units but never got comfortable, then remembered that I’m not the only photographer in Maury and Jess has some strobes and soft boxes that she was happy to loan me. I gave her a bottle of Marcel’s wine and some tomatoes from Ben’s garden just to introduce her to the barter economy.

Let’s talk about tomatoes for a minute because I’m now on the all-tomato diet. Sure, a little basil, olive oil, salt, sometimes even some pasta, but the star of every dish is the tomato. I’ve even cut down on pork for the summer because the garden tomatoes are just so good I’m not feeling much need for meat. Between Ben, Bardot and Pappi I’m feeling pretty secure and eating well. This is a great neighborhood despite the new renters up the block putting out their garbage on Friday although it won’t be picked up until Monday. The ladies of the Olive Tree Salon were outraged, but that great French shrug of the shoulders seemed to indicate that you really couldn’t expect much from renters. Another week of this kind of behavior and I’ll expect to see the mayor down here to mediate.

The Olive Tree Salon © 2012 Ron Scherl

I’m on a campaign now to change my image. Two weeks ago a young American woman on her way to the sea stopped at the café for dinner, heard us speaking English and made friends. When she asked if there was a campground nearby, I offered her a real bed in her own bedroom and she accepted. The next day came questions about where we went off to (as if there’s anywhere to go but home), and a neighbor passing by averted her eyes when she was leaving in the morning.

Then last week came the two gentlewomen from Gerona for a few nights and we were seen in all the hot spots in town. No more lonely old guy for me.

We move along. Heading into August when the harvest will start and I’ll mark one year of living in Maury. I’ve spent most of my time in town but now it’s time to branch out. I’ll be shooting 21 of the little villages nearby that constitute the Communité de Commune de l’Agly-Fenouillèdes and I’ll also expand the wine focus to provide some counterpoint to the wines of Maury. I want to expand the scope of the photo book and soak up some new grist for the blog, which doesn’t mean I’m feeling the limits of small town life. On the contrary, I think I’m just getting to know this place.

Here’s the complete image.

Dark and Stormy ©2012 Ron Scherl