A Picture Of The Ideal

So I sold two massive bibles today, huge things, so huge they could be breeze blocks. As with all things that come into the shop, we google them for research and decide on a reasonable price which either ends up being half of the original price or one fourth of the original price, it all depends. The bibles fortunately or unfortunately, were seriously banged up, they had stories to tell, history etched into each scar and tear. The original price would have been easily £150 pounds or higher but our book specialist (who hilariously is an atheist to boot) said I was pushing my luck for pricing them at £20 each. A volunteer ended up selling both for £20 which was still pretty good going.

The bibles left a massive space where they used to sit on the book podium, so I searched around for a photography book to take centre stage. I live in a town populated by hipster students and they love a good camera and a good photography book so I was looking for bait. With no photography books in sight I put a hardback romance novel on the podium. Cleaning up the dust that the bibles left I got thinking about how long it had been since I physically opened my bible. A practising christian, I try not to publicise the fact, rather simply illustrate it in my living. We’re in an age where people don’t paticularily care who you say you are but rather what you do.

There are many wounds that christianity needs to heal. In the name of the church people have been abused, harmed, made to feel less than or simply not welcomed. Shutting the door on people is the last thing God wants. A place that should be open for all, has become an exclusive club, full of people comparing intimate personal journeys as if they’re competing a relay race. The pursuit of the ideal truly beleaugers all. I walked into the lobby and looked up our steep flight of stairs, crestfallen at the conclusion of my musings. I took out my phone and took a picture of the staircase. I named the shot “Stares” after our ability to stare at other people’s journeys with wonder when ours is set before us.

I thought about how we form the idea of ideals not from our own devices but from constructs and values inherited from our own families and friends, our cultures. The ideal picture is not actually a picture of the ideal, we’ve just been told that it is. Our pursuit for perfection propels us to portray a reality that isn’t actually real at all, making it difficult to anchor oneself with realistic expectations.

I thought about my funny mission to take one picture a day of my wife and child. It is a labour of love in my daily goal to be a good father and husband. I sat in bed going over my notes in bed thinking about how my christian walk had become less about reading the bible ten times and more about illustrating what’s in the pages with care and courage.

I laughed to myself when I remembered a time at work when I discovered a beautiful oil painting of Jesus christ going to the cross in the toilet downstairs. I affectionately named that toilet the “Toilet Gallery” because all of our pictures and frames go there since its the only place with the space for such an ensemble. The christ figure was practically glowing off of the canvas. His hair was straight and he looked like a european Gucci model. David Gandy eat your heart out.

The Jesus of the bible is so far removed from this , its hilarious. Isaiah an old testament prophet describes him; “It was the will of the LORD that his servant grow like a plant taking root in dry ground. He had no dignity or beauty to make us take notice of him. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing that would draw us to him.” . Couple that with the fact the ancient Hebrew people had a clear picture of their ideal messiah. He would be cut from the same clothe as warrior King David of old and be solely about the liberation of Israel from the boot of the Romans. What they got was someone more in line with a roaming prophet with ambitions to liberate the rest of the world, not just Israel. Liberation from one great spiritual enemy that had its boot on the neck of humanity, sin. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with officials of the day.

In christianity Jesus is the ideal, unassuming and humble in all the ways we miss out in multimedia. The Servent-King, the template for the ideal man; power and strength tempered with service and humility. I think about this as I walk home and reflect on my definition of the new man and how that doesn’t always line up with the picture of the ideal man for all seasons that is less Thomas Moore and more give me more.

I open Instagram and attempt a selfie and save it on the first go. While I am what many would call handsome, the spirit surging within me anchors me more. I am not really self obsessed, although admittedly I am in my own head a bit too much at times. I have had the benefit of family and friends nurturing the words that come out of me as opposed to what I look like. It’s why my poetry has been such a big part of my life, my rudder even. So I could be forgiven for presuming the new found community on Instagram was solely hyper interactive.

In classic mythology Narcissus attracts the wrath of nemesis and is made to fall in love with his own reflection after rejecting admirer Echo who wastes away into a feedback loop of despair. It’s surely the cautionary tale of our time in a world locked in the jaws of solipsism.

While Instagram is a fantastic app (heck I met my wife on it), it isn’t without its less charming Features. It has become, for many, a breeding ground of rampant ego and vanity. Keeping up with the Jones’s has never been more poisonous, inspiring a vapid culture in the ultra curated world and only those aware of the mirror’s glare salvage a true sense and picture of their actual selves. I worry that it has become a lightening rod of narcissism for a generation more than any other app that comes to mind.

And yet, there is hope. Hope that if we focus on the intangible elements of the ideal beauty we try to display physically so often, we may blossom into more than we currently are. Instagram was a means to an end for my wife and I when we were long distance dating. We video called and chatted but it required us to leave behind all that we had posted online in favour of the vulnerable beautiful flawed people we were (and still are), scars and stars alike. When we finally met in person it was like the convergence of the planets themselves! Face to face, we were at home with each other, in love not with an ideal but with the real deal and it has made all the difference.

I think the Apostle Paul puts it best ; For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

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Be Steady

The title of the first chapter of “100 Ways To Take Better Photographs” was titled “Taking Sharper Photographs”. It briefly and informative talked about taking photos with a tripod (ideally), at the right shutter speed (which basically means nothing to me) and take better shots by being steady.

I’m probably attempting to draw nectar from a rock here when I make this transition but it did get me thinking about life. The pace of life has been accelerated and deemed normal but it isn’t actually our original “setting” at all. The argument is that modern life is faster because of technology. That may be true but as with all tools, technology’s woes and wonders actually arise from the weilder. And evidence suggests we have welded this tool wantonly.

For the most part I have traded the fast life for a slower pace that allows me to breath and savour moments and heighten my experiences beyond and a microwave mentality of having it all and having it now. It isn’t to say that I do not desire a little more wealth, I do but not at the expense of my soul. That isn’t for sale.

The idea of being “steady” is incredibly attractive to me, especially as a father. Being reliable, solid and present, that’s actually the real currency of manhood. Everything else is elaborate window dressing. When you’re younger you think it’s about being cool, which will hopefully attract a mate (not to sound like David Attenborough). However, as maturity sets and solidifies it becomes about the internal fibre of a man’s integrity as opposed to his outer casing, his silver tongue, his worldly goods and credentials.

How did I go from talking about pictures to what it is to be a good man? Well, every young male has some sort of picture of what they would like to be or want to be. I held my phone, turned on the camera and attempted to focus on the book’s page. It was trickier with each thundering heartbeat.

I mulled over chapter one, one more time simultaneously thinking about some of my work choices and whether I had pursued my passion with tenacious clarity. Writing was my passion and still is. My first love that led me to my last love. I snapped the book shut, downed a can of coke and went back to work, digesting the first rule of this book ; be steady.

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Outside The Box

The sky finally cracked open. It’s been raining on and off for about nine hours and it’s showing signs of only getting stronger. Not the best weather for a glorious photo. In an empty charity shop with fifteen minutes to go I mull over the tenets of good photography and while I have an idea, I don’t have concrete points of reference to refer to. Scouring my head for something that isn’t really there is tiresome. I figured it was time to think outside the box.

It’s a good thing I’m at work, it’s the one place that has more helpful books than our local library or our house. If I’m going to learn about A-class photography, this will be the place that has a book on it.

I unashamedly acknowledge that I’m a predictable creature of habit. Most people would just have consulted a friend for basic pointers. I prefer consulting books. In my defence I do actually know a chap who happens to be an exceptional photographer. Unfortunately he’s just as fascinated by my wife’s picturesque architecture as I am so he was an automatic no.

I would ask my wife but that defeats the purpose of this photographic crusade. Her best friend Betty used to work down the road but has moved to Wales. Betty, and her work colleague Matt, had helped me price some cameras that had been donated to the store, with great aplomb.

I planned to ask Matt for advice in person over a drink (which I would buy him) because after two years of living here it had occurred to me that I hadn’t bothered to make any friends outside of work. Us creatures of habit get comfortable with a reliable cycle of predictable events. It’s why I work so well with timetables; there’s barely any room for error. Unfortunately it’s also easy to become stale, devoid of an adventurous spirit and overall less spontaneous.

I attempt to close up for the day, bang on 5pm but a lady, despite my disgruntled countenance, has forced her way into the shop as if letting herself into her own house and proceeds to browse. I take a deep breath, carry the sign in from the rain and lock the door behind me for fear of other petulant intruders avoiding the downpour. While she shops I take things upstairs and mull over what sort of text book might serve me best.

The lady was prompt and cheerful and left about five minutes later having spent a good amount of money. I was happy I hadn’t insisted she leave or I would have missed a sale. Sometimes not sticking so closely to the timetable pays off. Like the shopper I needed a book that was straight to the point. Poignant, purposeful and acute.

Having cashed up I was ready to go home, so I ventured to the book corner in hopes of finding something to fulfill this specific need. I often joked that our charity shop was secretly a genie; granting wishes of customers and staff alike from overeheard mumblings and half prayers. True to form I found exactly what I needed.

The book was titled “100 Ways To Take Better Photographs” by Michael Busselle. Honestly I didn’t need one hundred ways. Five would have been perfectly adequate but now was not the time to be snarky. I had found the perfect book! Now all I needed to do was read and practice!

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The Je Ne Sais Quoi Test

So how will this one picture a day scheme actually work? The general gist is to throw paint at a wall and hope a masterpiece appears from the wreckage of effort. I joke, partly. I’m taking something of a more mathematical approach to this, the law of averages one might say. I’m hoping if I take an average of ten well shot pictures then at least one of them will pass the Je Ne Sais Quoi Test.

In french Je ne sais quoi translates to “I do not know what”, at least on google translate anyway. My french friends may disagree. Some pictures just have that special something, it’s hard to explain, or even identify at times but they perfectly capture an essence and take on a life of their own. A picture is worth a thousand words so the saying goes and some pictures say what you hope they would and so much more. The Cambridge dictionary describes je ne sais quoi as ; a pleasing quality that cannot be exactly named or described. The hope is to capture moments from this beautiful time that defy description, after all that is the miracle of the photograph.

My wife is currently feeding our son whilst scrolling on her phone, she’s a natural multitasker and a natural mother, its hard to imagine it is her first time…at times. I remember meeting her for the first time at a train station and looking in to her eyes. She would humbly deny it of course but she passes the Je ne sais quoi test. She is both beautiful and talented and blisteringly intelligent but there is a special something that I cannot quite place. Whatever it may be, God bathed her in it.

I find this phenomenon with less majestic things than my wife. Certain songs just have a special something that makes them catchy, repeat-worthy, or my personal favourite, nostalgic. Bon Iver’s re:stacks has a magic about it that submerges me into feelings of nostalgic warm memories I cannot quite place, yet always happy to visit whenever I listen. That is the aim of these pictures, to be transported to those moments, and the feelings we felt then and be able to feel them anew as though they are barely a day old. Obviously it’s a tall order but I’m remembering to have fun. I get the distinct impression future me will be very happy I took such an approach.

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Picture Perfect

Laying next to our four month old watching him sleep peacefully, I thought, “my wife would take a brilliant picture of us right now!”. That wasn’t true at all, it being pitch black in the room and all, save for an over-eager street lamp awkwardly positioned outside our window. Second, I was somewhat skeptical about how well night-mode actually works on modern phones.

Gripes aside, my wife could be a professional photographer, she’s that good. she knows how to capture a moment, those wonderful seconds that are like distilled liquid diamond drops, invaluable. It’s something of an art and she is an artist. In contrast, I actively avoid taking pictures, I think the hanging around, posing to fit into a frame irritates me : which makes no sense of course because that for the most part is how you get a picture taken. I get restless and want to get on with the actual act of making memories as opposed to calcifying them on paper or a digital white screen.

I guess that also explains why I hate passport picture taking. It’s bad enough you can’t even look happy in any of the snaps but you have to fit your weird shaped head into an equally weird shaped oval, before being asked to sit still, while holding an impossibly uncomfortable position. It’s utterly exhausting.

My wife complained that I hadn’t taken very good pictures of her in comparison to the masterpieces she had taken. She pointed out the way I’d cut off a foot here, and not quite centred the shot there and completely botched that one. I have a much better phone than a year ago and while it has improved my photographic endeavours and not left them completely to my more competent wife, I have still found myself getting frustrated at the complaint that she simply doesn’t have enough photos with our infant son, who is looking more and more like a toddler each day.

I explained that helping her survive brutal breast feeding woes, sleep deprivation, washing baby bottles, changing nappies and keeping baby and mum well fed was a surprisingly physical and mentally exhausting challenge. The last thing that comes to mind is to get the perfect shot of what is often untempered chaos. And yet she always seemed to… a diamond in the midst of all the chaos. I agreed. There was always time, there has to be, because one day we won’t have the time because he’ll be all grown up.

It made me realise I hadn’t been as present as perhaps I had always prided myself on being. Perhaps that was the problem , pride. A presumption that he’ll be small for a little while longer and wasn’t I doing enough without setting up a mini photo shoot everytime a moment seemingly presented itself. Perhaps some of our son’s best moments were happening now and I was a little too in my head about the functioning day-to-day to notice him in all his budding glory…perhaps.

And so this was how I came up with the idea that night, looking at our infant son, who was currently wearing a 6-9 month baby grow and making it look good. He was already so big. What if I took one good picture a day? What if I took the perfect shot each day for a year, Just mother and child? I wouldn’t have to worry about not being in them because she already took so many photos of us anyway. At the bare minimum we would have 365 perfect pictures. Or better still, present. They would be present pictures. As present as I was with him, waiting for his mother, to come to bed.

A combination of several attempts.

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