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25 November 2015

We were having a pint with Jack Handey the other day when things got silly. "What is it you actually do?" he asked us.

"Press a button, Jack."

We were thinking of the estimable Iris Apfel who, at the age of 93, is the subject of a documentary by Albert Maysles. In an interview earlier this year with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, she was asked if she thought it was easier for older generations to be glamorous. Her answer:

Well, it took some work and a little imagination. I think most young people have been totally devastated with the advent of all this pressing buttons. That's all they seem to know how to do. I mean, just look around. Very few relationships they have last. They don't know how to read. They don't know how to write. They have no social grace. I am just appalled by it.

We count ourselves among the button pressers rather than the glamorous. But we can read.

"Really?" Jack pressed, trying to wrap his mind around our answer. "That's all there is to it?"

"Yep." We persisted. "If you don't press that little button, nothing happens. Nothing at all."

Which is true. You can buy anything you like, charge the batteries, focus until the cows come home, zoom in on them, wait for the light, bring your own light. It doesn't matter what you do, if you don't press the button, you don't get a picture.

Jack ordered the next round.

Which gave us time to think. And what we thought was that a little haiku by Kobayashi Issa probably describes what photographers do better than we did.

We found it in Jane Hirshfield's Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, which came out about the time the Apfel interview did.

Here's how Hirshfield has translated it:

We wander
the roof of hell,
choosing blossoms.

The word "choosing" may not hit quite the right note for photographers but we like the image. Maybe swap it out for "chasing." Although so many other words suggest themselves you might consider this something of a party game.

You might think we discussed this when Jack came back with the next round. But no. He'd been distracted by some woman at the bar who had not been distracted by him.

No social grace, you might say. Of either of them.


Very perceptive piece, Mike -- I've been studying a great deal lately about "refuge." That investigation began with a re-reading of a couple of interviews with my friend Richard Gere (yes, him). Reconnecting with the ideas he credits for his own sense of refuge sent me to some Dharma works and led me to this: I find refuge in my images and I've stopped letting Lightroom clean my house. I push the button to reinforce my belief that refuge is internal -- otherwise we suffer Plato's Idols of the Cave. At least it works for me.

-- M. J. Melneck

Thanks for the kind words. One of the ironies of the art of photography is how personal this seemingly mimetic art can be. And, surprisingly, how universal the personal can become if you stick with it honestly. (Oh, now I'm starting to sound like Jack.) -- Mike

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