Thursday, March 20, 2008

17 March 2008

It’s 6:45 a.m. here. I woke up at five. Not only can I not sleep, I also can’t come up with a snappy way to start this blog entry. So, all in all, not a good way to start the day.

One of the best parts of living abroad has been the proximity of stunning locations, architecture, and artistry—Fiesole is a 20-minute bus ride away, Venice a three-hour trip by train. Statues by Donatello and Michelangelo can be found in small museums that look like all the other buildings on the street. I walk by the Duomo di Firenze on the way to school. The Arno River is a block from my apartment.

Which is perhaps why I feel guilty for not loving this city. The architecture is amazing, the food is exquisite and fresh, and the coffee is unparalleled. But I still find myself feeling trapped and claustrophobic.

Apparently, or so I’ve been told, Italians have no word for privacy. Never mind, they do—it’s privacy, n. f., which, quite obviously, has been lifted directly from English. Which is fitting, because it’s impossible to find here. There are almost no parks, benches are far and few between, and, unless one ventures away from the center, solitude is nowhere to be found. This problem is redoubled by the fact that high season is starting, and I can’t walk five steps in any direction without tripping over some Japanese or American tourist. (I mean that literally as well as figuratively—people-to-Wendy collisions have shot up 50% since I returned from spring break.)

* * *

Ugly American sightings are also at an all-time high—to cite the worst, I was at the Standa market (Don’t I always seem to be at Standa during these stories? Perhaps I need to find a new grocery store.), waiting in line, holding my German blackberry-raspberry yogurt and Frosted Flakes, and the two groups ahead of me both were acting atrociously in extremely different fashions.

The first is a father, mother, and daughter—for whatever reason, they put their grocery baskets directly on the conveyor belt without removing the items first. I found this particularly bizarre, especially because I’ve never even been to a market in the U.S. that doesn’t require the items be placed directly onto the belt. They also didn’t weigh their produce before getting on line (which is more understandable because customers actually don’t do that in the U.S.), and when the father goes to price their fruits and vegetables, he takes a while and thinks the cashier is just being funny when he says “Hurry up” as the dad is returning to the line. Really though, the mother’s air of typical American snobbery and entitlement bothered me the most.

The second incident was worse. I’d been waiting on the family to finish up for several minutes when I notice a man who seems to be sort of in line, sort of not in line, holding a can of unopened, cheap beer and talking on the phone. He has a hoop earring in his left earlobe, a stupid look on his face, and extremely bloodshot eyes. I notice the last one from about three yards away, and I have pretty miserable eyesight. Of course I didn’t make the “he’s probably stoned” connection until the end of the episode.

So he’s on his cell phone, promising whoever it is he’s speaking with that he’ll buy them a beer at some indeterminate point in time, and he proceeds to knock over a stand of Ferrero Rocher Easter baskets. He manages to do so directly in front of an employee of the store, who notices something stowed in the lining of the guy’s jacket. The dark-haired, mustachioed man reaches in and pulls out a large and bloody T-bone steak.

The employee starts yelling at the stoner, chastising him in both English and Italian, and the guy just stands there, smiling stupidly and shaking his head like the employee is acting like a five-year-old, when, in fact, it’s he who's the five-year-old. And, surprisingly enough, the employee just yells some more, makes him pay for the steak, and tells him the customer’s lucky he’s being so nice. I myself had a sort of “Polizia! Polizia!” chant running through my mind.

These sorts of people make me ashamed to be a citizen of the United States.

* * *

So what do I do to get away from all this? I spend hours in the darkroom.

* * *

As cliché as this is going to sound, (and, as Pam says on The Office, “I know saying it sounds cliché sounds cliché. Maybe I’m being cliché, I don’t care.”) I came to Italy to find myself as an artist. Fieldston, while intellectually stimulating, was artistically uninspiring. Which is somewhat antithetical, seeing as Fieldston is considered the “artsy” one of the three Riverdale preparatory schools.

Because after eighth grade science courses took place five times a week (six during senior year), CSAB was two days a week, and gym sapped up the rest of my free periods, studio art classes didn’t fit into my schedule. I never had the two times a week, A/B band free required to take ceramics, painting, or photography. I removed myself to taking stagecraft courses, which were only fifty minutes long, twice a week. That is not to say I didn't love stagecraft—after all, I did spend two months this summer working as a miserably paid technical intern for the Muhlenberg College Summer Music Theater—I just would have liked to take drawing once in a while.

* * *

As I wrote in an enthused email to my friend Monica recently, I love every part of the photographic process. Every damn tedious step from loading my camera to inserting the washed print into the RC (resin-coated) paper dryer.

Printing in particular has become something of a mania with me. For most of the semester I spent my time photographing and developing. Now I have 24 rolls of developed film, 36 negatives per, all begging to be printed. So I’m trying to slow down on the pointing and shooting and pick up on the…hmm, there is no phrase for printing.

I’m a perfectionist. Those who know me well are probably saying, “Uh, duh!” right now. But I’m trying to make a point here, people—printing, like film editing, appeals to my push towards the unattainable, that which is without flaws.

For those who have not printed their own photos, I’ll walk you through the process. For those who have, I apologize for telling you something you already know.

In each enlarger there is a negative cartridge—essentially two glass panes joined by a hinge that hold the negative in place.

Now commences what I’ve dubbed the “War on Dust” (for those who don’t immediately recognize the reference, I’m alluding to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy). Even the tiniest speck of dust on the glass or on the negative itself will be noticeable on the print. So I use an antistatic cloth and natural sunlight as my battle weapons.

Once I’ve hopefully cleaned everything off of the negative cartridge, I insert it back into the enlarger and turn on the light. First I focus the image—to do so, we look through a sort of microscope to see if the grain is visible and sharp—and then I set the aperture (which determines how much light comes into contact with the photographic paper; the settings range in value from 2.8, the most, to 16, the least) and the contrast (which determines the blackness of the blacks and the whiteness of the whites—the higher the contrast, the greater the difference between the two, and the grainier the printed image).

Let’s say I’m printing an image of an old Parisian man with wispy white hair and a pitch-black jacket. When I’m making my test strip to determine how many seconds of light to give the final image, I place a fifth of a sheet of photographic paper vertically on the subject to observe how the different times affect the two extremes.

Then I put the test strip through the processing machine—which really is a brilliant invention, as anyone who has ever had to manually develop a print could tell you. The process, which would otherwise take thirty minutes or more, multiple trays full of unpleasant smelling chemicals emitting somewhat toxic fumes, and a hell of a lot of water, only takes about two or three minutes and a twenty-minute archival washing.

Then I look at the gradations of light given to each section of my test strip—I usually make five intervals of four seconds each, so that the intervals will have been exposed for four, eight, 12, 16, and 20 seconds respectively—and decide how much time I think is required for my print. Then I go expose a full sheet of paper to light for that amount of time, put it through the processing machine, and, if all goes well, I have my final print!

* * *

For my portrait assignment, I wanted to photograph faces that have aged in some way, that evoke the character and life experience of the subject. So I chose to take my photos in Paris, where I would be able to ask people in their native language if I could take their picture. My first day there, I went up to lots of people, most of whom were obliging, only two of whom—an elderly couple by Notre Dame—politely said no.

Three of these were taken in Paris; the first was taken by the Arno in Firenze.

Eventually I got bored of the classic centered portrait and reverted to my preferred method, which I like to call guerilla photography. I like the excitement and spontaneity of not knowing how the image will look until the very moment it’s taken.

For example, while exploring the area around the Bastille metro station, I ran across a group of skateboarders. Hoping to capture one of them in the air, I stood and waited for this guy to jump onto a concrete ledge. When I finally took the snapshot, the other boy who was standing nearby with his skateboard noticed me and flashed a peace sign, and the one trying to do a trick fell.

The two of the homeless men were taken with permission; the two atop the Arc de Triomphe were not.

My favorite image was taken at night. My sister Rachel and I were walking along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and I stopped at a cart to buy a crêpe avec oeuf et fromage. Right by the cart, next to the metro, this seventy something woman was dressed to the nines and singing in a croaky yet oddly beautiful voice. Based on her apparel, I supposed she didn’t know the twenties are over. Four drunken passerby were swaying along to the music. I gave her some money and took two photos with a different aperture and shutter speed for each, praying that one would come out. Here’s the final print:

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