I found out that you don’t finish a book so much as the book finishes you. The process of writing a book is like smoothing out a rough finish over many months or years. The rough finish is the book, of course, but it’s also the writer in the process of writing, of spilling out what is in his head, none of it much good until most of it gets better.
A rough finish is what we start out with–a writer with an idea. Look at him, all shaggy and filthy, hair falling over his eyes, coarse and barely civilized, speaking in grunts. He cannot be brought into polite company. But gradually he becomes presentable, except for the flaws which will always be visible to him, always ruining the finish. And then, if he is lucky, he gets grotesque all over again, a writer working with a new idea, a troglodyte returning to the cave, a troll rutting in the mud of a new obsession.
I just hung my “Carolina Grasslands” exhibit at the Nature Art Gallery of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. It opens on August 2 and closes on Sept. 2. For the last month or so I’ve been printing in the darkroom for the show, but for the first time I’m exhibiting inkjet prints along with the silver gelatin prints. About half the show is made up of inkjet prints. All of the work is film-based, so the inkjet prints were made by scanning the negatives and then working them up in Photoshop and Aperture.
It’s probably unusual to exhibit both inkjet prints and silver gelatin prints in the same show, and I have a lame excuse and a better excuse for it. The lame excuse is that I ran out of time to do the show entirely in the darkroom, which is where I prefer to do my exhibition work. A better excuse is that, truthfully, some of the digital prints were superior to prints that I had labored over in the darkroom for a couple of days. That, of course, really bummed me out because I think of myself as a pretty good printer.
Having admitted that to myself, I could have gone in two different directions: I could have said the heck with the labor and time involved in film and darkroom work, I’m going digital one hundred percent. I’ve been tempted to abandon the darkroom for a couple of years now. I know many photographers who are doing wonderfully creative work with digital materials.
The other thing I could have done is say that I need to improve my darkroom printing skills, and, no surprise for those who know me, that’s what I’m doing. I signed up for a Vision and Skills weekend course with Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee in Ottsville, Pa., in September. They are two wonderfully skilled veteran photographers and printmakers whose work I admire. I’m hoping to benefit from seeing how they work in the darkroom.