The Way of the Camera

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

Is taking photos an act of violence?

Is curiosity, then, a form of violence, a wanting to see, know, capture – for what? Posterity?

I know I will die and it won’t matter how many photos I’ve taken, and it might not matter much to the world either. At most they might be of some cultural significance, or historical value, though these days there is a sea of tomorrow’s historical records proliferating online.

Is there a cost to all this? It’s well-documented that certain tribal cultures believe a photo taken of a person is the stealing of his or her soul. If this is true, we are a world of walking zombies, and from how we tend to imagine zombies, they are a violent breed indeed.

I know that my intentions have never been violent. I’ve always loved looking at the world through a camera lens. When I was twelve I was shooting leaves from a bird’s eye view and making ‘abstract art.’ It was only when I started shooting people – with them unaware – and only after a long, long time of doing this, that I start thinking about the nature and consequences of my behavior.

Of course, one could make an invasion of privacy case, and just as certainly, this is a form of violence, if we can define violence as an act of ill will, malice or harm toward another being. I have no excuse: I couldn’t keep myself from taking these photos, which I genuinely found arresting and beautiful, because that’s what people are to me: arresting and beautiful, without exception.

All the secrets of the universe, which are also without fail mysteriously beautiful to me, lie in the bodies and souls of the world’s creatures. As above, so below. Of this I am sure. But this inability to put others’ possible preferences – to not be photographed, or give their consent – ahead of my own amounts to selfishness, at the very least, and at the most, violence.

When I was travelling in India, my karma came back to me rapidly, and frequently. Just when I was starting to be more conscientious about whom and what I was photographing, I found myself in the hot seat, being photographed constantly.

Babies were plopped unceremoniously – yet with flourish – onto my lap. Children were forced into my arms, whether they wanted to be or not. Men pushed themselves into me and flung their arms around me for the sake of a ‘snap’ or five, usually taken with cell phone cameras, and apparently I was consenting because I didn’t (normally) run away.

It was at turns amusing, surprising, aggressive, bemusing, annoying and comical. Sometimes it happened a few times a day, and I grew used to it. But once, when my husband and I were arguing, not far from a bustling bridge in Rishikesh, a man came up and, uncharacteristically, didn’t ask for a photo. He just came up to me, pointed his large camera in my face, and started shooting. I said, “Not now, please, it’s really not a good time,” trying to be polite despite my mood. He completely ignored me – though I was the object of his photo! – and kept taking pictures.

This felt like a violent intrusion into my life, and it struck me immediately how I have very possibly done this to others. I haven’t been as aggressive, maybe, but haven’t I sneaked photos even after someone in the distance may have shooed cameras away? Haven’t I instinctively felt I should be shooting, but did it anyway?

Love and respect for our fellow Earth-citizens isn’t just a theoretical game. Compassion is not a hobby, and it’s up to us to figure out the boundaries of what is art, what is creativity, what is sharing, and what is respect for the sanctity of others.

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A Beautiful Farewell to Albert Maysles, Pioneer Filmmaker.

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“There are daily acts of generosity and kindness and love that should be represented on film.” – Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles, one of the pioneers of the cinema-verite movement in the United States, has passed away at 88.

Cinema-verite, versions of which emerged nearly simultaneously in Canada, the USA and France, amounted to a revolution in the way documentary films were being made. Filmmakers were longing for greater freedom of movement in order to go out and explore the world, and by the early 1960s (way, way before the reality TV craze that owes its legacy to Maysles and his peers),  new  portable, 16mm cameras and syncronized sound capabilities were finally allowing to go out into the streets and attempt to capture life as it was.

A new kind of observational-style film, quickly dubbed “cinema-verite”, or “film-reality”, was born.

Much debate ensued over the years: is it naive to believe a camera can capture reality, free and unhinged from the subjective perspectives of the filmmakers and their potential biases?

I’ve thought and written a lot about cinema-verite, which became a passion of mind when I chose it as a focal point of my graduate studies in film. I can summarize my views in a very concise way, though, as I’ve come to believe that we can exhaust ourselves talking about biases and subjectivities and how there is no “reality” to capture, uncover or make sense of.

The point, I believe, lies less in a semantic debate about reality and more in the intention of the visionary artists and filmmakers of that time (the early 60s), and this intention amounted to a desire to peel back various overt layers of artifice and approach the world in a spirit of observation. Of course the cameras were angled in a certain way, and decisions about what to shoot and then edit were made. However, looking at the films themselves – “observations” of such subjects as a presidential race, music sensations, a salesman – one is continually struck by the sense of wonder and captivation with the world on the other side of the lens, something that almost amounts to a reverence, and a plea with audiences to regard the world beyond the footage the way the filmmakers did – in the spirit of observation and discovery.

When we approach the world with this kind of wonder and adventurous spirit, and allow our tools and media to follow suit, there are endless things that can be discovered, and an entire universe of awe and magic to behold.

Information about Maysles and the films he made with his brother can be found here – I highly recommend these brilliant films!Some Maysles quotes that I love:

“We get crushes and we get crushed from almost all the subjects that we film.”

“The film is sort of the the beginning of a love affair between the filmmakers and the subjects. Some filmmakers make targets of the subjects they film; that’s not our way.”

“The natural disposition of the camera is to seek out reality.”

“I think my training taught me above all to be unprejudiced. Psychology was social science and so in a way my work has always combined a kind of scientific approach with art.”

“People are people. We’re out to discover what is going on behind the scenes and get as close as we can to what is happening.”

“I have no difficulty in getting access or establishing rapport. Usually, it’s just from the first moment of meeting someone. I think it’s the way I look at them and establish trust right away. There’s nothing in my method that is subversive or hurtful and I think people get a sense of trust right away.”

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I focused on Canadian films being made at that time in a similar, observational style, so I’d like to share an article I wrote on the Paul Anka observational film “Lonely Boy” (Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor, 1961), which began as a longer essay but was published in this form in Dairy River last year. Hopefully my passion for this style of filmmaking, which captures such a fascination with the people and places of the world, will inspire you to check out the films! I’ll provide a link to “Lonely Boy” at the end of the article:

The Sound of Art: Lonely Boy

by Tammy T. Stone

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art … Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art …
-Susan Sontag

This article is an unabashed love letter to a film that many of you may not have seen, but which forever changed the way I look at movies. And since I’ve long believed that we can learn much about how we construct the world around us from the way we watch movies, it’s fair to say this film changed the way I look at the world too.

The movie is called Lonely Boy, a half-hour documentary made by Canada’s National Film Board in 1962, at the zenith of its artistic and technological innovative prowess. Using then-new synchronized sound technology, directors Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor (one of the key inventors of IMAX a few years later) created a brilliant gem of a film, doing – in my humble opinion – unbelievably sophisticated and resoundingly philosophical things with the raw yet profound material that is sound. I should also mention here that Lonely Boy was sound-recorded by Marcel Carriere and edited by Kathleen Shannon, two of the Film Board’s regular posse of gifted artists.

So what is this little film all about? First of all, it was made during a very exciting time in cinema’s history – and the greater cultural history at large. Koenig and Kroitor had just made a series of documentaries as part of a collective, Unit B, at the Film Board. Called Candid Eye, the films used a purely observational style to examine topics like tobacco farming, the Salvation Army and Montreal’s wintry days leading up to Christmas, all with a sense of ironic detachment that became emblematic of Canadian filmmaking in general. At this time, no small thanks to the Film Board itself, it was now possible to synchronize recorded sounds with the images being shot with 16mm Arriflex cameras. As documentary filmmakers, Koenig, Kroitor and their peers were ever-seeking ways to get closer to a more directly experienced and immediate ‘reality’, and more authentic ways of transcribing witnessed actualities as they were happening before them. The ability to record sounds and images simultaneously rather than use recorded interviews and found sound (like road traffic and music) over images – as was the tradition until then in documentary film – would prove to be an instrumental achievement in fulfilment of this goal.

Everything was pointing in the right direction, then, when they decided upon a subject for their final film of the series. They got word that Paul Anka, a native of Ottawa, Ontario and then 19 years-old, was going to be doing a few performances in Atlantic City. Anka was rapidly becoming a superstar in the era that eventually saw the likes of The Beatles causing girls to faint at the mere thought of them – but Anka did it first.

Anka-mania preceded the Beatles 1964 invasion of America by about three years, which means Lonely Boy, the little movie that could, is in effect the first film to capture a music idol sensation in all his glory on film. One could even say it’s the predecessor to the now-famed genre of the rockumentary.

What better way to use synchronized sound, you may think, than to go to a few concerts and record the footage of an apparently very likeable star? Anka does, in the film, sing his legendary hits like Put Your Head on My Shoulder, Diana and the song that became to film’s title, Lonely Boy, and watching a teenaged Anka do so is startling and impactful. And we also get interviews with Anka about his artistic and fame-oriented goals, as well as a few scenes of him schmoozing with his manager and preparing future songs. But this is no mere canned portrait of the artist (or celebrity) – the filmmakers have a much more complex and even obtuse interpretation of what they found before them during the shoot. The best moments of the film, I think, occur when the filmmakers deviated from their standard mode of using pure observation to record events, and manipulate the sound and image juxtapositions to paint a multi-faceted picture of a young, ambitious performer.

In one scene, Anka performs at the Copacabana club to an older, more sophisticated crowd than the nubile ones screaming and swooning at his concerts. Anka’s manager, Irvin Feld, has earlier commented in an interview that if Anka could corner this older market his success would be guaranteed. As he performs, the viewer can see that Anka is engaging his audience. The camera shoots Anka from behind so that he appears in the frame alongside the white-cloth tables and metropolitan couples. The sequence also cuts to medium shots of Anka with the microphone in his hand, arms flailing and thrashing about, lips moving in song, and to close-ups of the smiling, calmly-enraptured faces of those being entertained.

But here’s the trick: throughout the sequence, we can hear not one note of the song he’s singing. Instead, we get Anka speaking in voiceover about his having been given a gift to sing and entertain. On one level, this particular commentary is appropriate since the visual images are of Anka performing to a pleased audience. But there’s something eerie about hearing Anka proclaim he has a gift, and then seeing him sing with no voice, move his arms to a rhythm that those in the Copacabana were privy to but is entirely absent to the viewer of the film. It is as though the filmmakers are commenting on the fragility and incomprehensibility of stardom, on the question of what it is, exactly, that audiences are attracted to; they add a great sense of irony by inserting a voiceover discussing Anka’s musical gift and simultaneously stripping him of the very element that gives him this gift, emphasizing persona over performance. But the enthralment of the audience does emanate through the close-ups, culminating in a wave of applause that starts off in silence (again an eerie phenomenon) and reaching a thunderous sound that is also the only synchronized sound in the sequence. The entire film, which never really delves into Anka’s personal life, is about the construction of stardom (45 years before Bieber!). Here, Anka is literally constructed in the editing room out of silent body parts, an off screen voice, and faces of the audience upon which his image depends.

The filmmakers’ vision of Anka here is at once satirical and slightly disturbing. They use the same sound technique in another scene, however, to create a more sympathetic picture of Anka. This scene occurs near the end of the film, as Anka sits at a piano and tries to play a new song for Irvin Feld with some of the crew hanging out nearby. The cutaways to the others in the room enforce, by sheer observation on the part of the camera, an overall atmosphere of melancholy which would have been abundantly clear by presenting the scene exactly as recorded with with sync-sound. The filmmakers go one step further, however, by fading down the piano-playing/singing and bringing in a voiceover of manager Feld speaking in his fast-talk, glibly confident way about Anka’s talent. The film seems to be telling us that Anka’s entourage surrounds him not out of respect for his talent, but for the money. The filmmakers have used editing to literally fade down, or drown out, Anka’s music and his voice.

The girls, however, are always listening. In a time when sync-sound was still a new innovation, the possibilities of which were still being explored in film, it seems paradoxical and ingenious that Koenig and Kroitor used manipulated sound/image pairings to achieve an immediate viewing experience in which we feel we’ve plunged right into the already canned life of Anka, aged 19. Performances shown earlier in the film took advantage of sync-sound to simultaneously present a performer and the sound of his fans – a performer so successful his music was being overpowered by all of the cheering and screaming. The editing of the last performance of Lonely Boy, however, combines long shots of close-ups on girls’ faces with a muting of their screaming mouths to comment not only on Anka’s looming presence but on the girls’ lives, which are portrayed as having become completely devoted to the worship of a star. Tears stream down their cheeks, hands clutch their faces and mouths silently (to the viewer) contort their faces into claims of “I love you Paul!” Nothing can be heard but the song “Put Your Head on my Shoulders”, although the crowd must have been deafening. The final impact of Anka’s godly musical presence hovering over such riveted, lively yet silent faces transcends any discussion of message, intent and underlying philosophy of this film or any other, heading right into the terrain of the ineffable, even the mystical, reminding us why life is such a grand mystery.

And in this case, the sublime has been achieved with sound, and its equally towering other half, silence. When I think of Lonely Boy, how brilliant it is now as then and how affected I can be watching it over and over again, I remember how possible it is to create our own worlds into the fantasies of our making while remaining truthful to our experiences and to life.

See Lonely Boy here!

I Want to See the Moon as the Moon.

Hello! This piece was recently published in Rebelle Society, a beautiful site with so much great writing on it! As I read it again, a new title formed before my eyes, which I use here. It’s about the kind of rabbit hole I fall into sometimes, thinking about why I take pictures. Thanks for reading, and to check out the original piece, (and the gorgeous image hey chose to go with it), here you go!

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

I Want to See the Moon as the Moon

I’m feeling sliced through, spread bare and screamingly, achingly alive.

Moons do that, on this balmy, nostalgic night. The fragments come before me, memory slides, assaulting visions of future things.

More and more these visions, as photos and images, become an in-between space, a meeting ground where the outside comes barreling in and my insides go to play. This is what my photography practice feels like sometimes.

I think about all the photos I’ve taken. There have been so many, and suddenly I’m confused about what they are.

Are the images already in my head in a state of always-have-been or do they only surface once the photo is taken?

This idea strikes me and I’m haunted by it. I don’t want to overthink, but somehow there is a sensation of all these pictures living alongside me, all these years, waiting for me to find them. Waiting for me like a new lover who will be gone by morning.

How many things do we wait for? And how hard the wait, with so many things lying underneath our impatience.

I feel like a glutton when it comes to images.

My head is so full of them all the time, giving birth and waiting for them, that it’s hard to tell whether this state is guiding me to take photos that have already known time and space, because that’s how necessary it is that they come into being.

Or whether I’m, in fact, discovering something new as I wander around with my camera.

Sometimes I hate images and I never want to have, see, or take another picture. In times like this, I want to go lie in a field, close my eyes, sigh, and enter a dreamless space.

Sometimes they taunt me, full of allure and promises that sour long before coming to fruition. But right now, I ask these questions without judgment or resignation. I’m just curious.

Where are the images that float between the world and my head, and what are they for?

This is almost like asking, Where does my heart have its strongest voice? Deep within, or in connection with the people and beautiful things of the world?

Where science meets the cosmos… where love takes its chances… the images are so glorious (I am still working to say this about my heart), fleeting and momentous.

It all falls behind; forgotten. Images fade and fall away. I don’t want to forget. I’m so scared of forgetting.

I rarely take photos at night. At night, I prefer to see without filters. Like now, seeing the moon. It’s a hazy yellowy slice I move to position right above the nightline of lush trees caving in to the walkway below. This is a view I don’t often have.

I move so the moon is dead center above the place where the trees meet. I’ve framed the view like I’m about to take a picture, before I can feel what I’m seeing.

So I stop, and look at the moon and sky and dark trees. I fall to the ground, and lie on my back, making angels with my arms and stretching until my heart hurts. Tears flow. Then I continue looking, and thoughts creep in.

I wonder about what the moon is, astronomically, in relation to the earth and the universe, and I try to grasp the cosmos from a technical perspective, and can’t. All I see is a pretty picture that could be found in a fairy tale or a children’s book.

My tears bring me back. The moon is palpably one-dimensional and plumply of this Earth, like it’s an echo of my very deepest longings and not a creation or a fact.

I feel like a million different people, but something about this night takes me to my teens again, when I was sure there was a unified me somewhere in there behind all the lives I knew I’d live, a me that was good and pure and waiting to find magic and light.

Which is to say, love. There’s never anything else.