Truth and Beauty in Film – By John-Paul Menez

It was my first time in West Texas. Georgia O’Keeffe once said she, “couldn’t believe Texas was real…the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.” Speeding west on the empty road from Alpine to Marfa as the Sun left me behind in its wake of twilight, I couldn’t help thinking this was the biggest most wonderful part. The Chisos Mountains on the horizon brushed by the light bending into the valley of the badlands shocked O’Keeffe’s sense of grandeur. I felt the same. On cue, the local community radio station started playing Patsy Cline.

Big Bend National Park, Texas – Rolleiflex SL66E + Kodak TriX 400

After a steak and bourbon at the Hotel St. George in downtown Marfa I ventured out into town. Marfa lies in the middle of the largest International Dark Sky Reserve in the world. Of course I forgot my tripod. All I had for this night patrol was my 40 year old Leica rangefinder and a roll of Ilford Delta 3200. Marfa this evening is a sound stage after the martini shot – no characters, but with stories hiding in the shadows. I’m shivering.  Snapping a stoplight here, a neon sign there warms the nerves for the long handheld exposures.  The night does not seem promising. But then after half an hour on Highland Street next to the county courthouse I saw the minimalist front for a local art gallery Wrong. Architectural Digest called Wrong one of the most beautiful independent stores in America. A single street lamp and the evening stars framed the white façade… like an Edward Hopper painting.

I took one portrait of the store. To my luck, a young couple was walking South down the boulevard on their way to after hours drinks. I stepped back to get a wider shot, braced my body against the wall of the opposing building, held my breath as the pair approached the edge of the darkness, and squeezed the shutter. I developed the negative 600 miles away in my bathroom a week later.

Wrong Marfa, Texas – Leica M6 + Ilford Delta 3200

Artists like O’Keeffe, Hopper, and Cline are why I take photos. I picked up a camera 20 years ago because I peaked as an abstract painter in elementary school – unappreciated in my own time. Though I had zero artistic skills, the World: history, nature, people were all subjects I still wanted to study. My interest in modern Art became the foundation for my photographic eye. I’m a crotchety old sailor when it comes to ideas. Some will say Art is “subjective.” That view is not wrong, but I think it misses the point. People pay to visit an art museum to be inspired. And the label “artist” isn’t given out freely. So it means something.

For me Art, including photography, has three features. First, it is the expression of the Human Experience. It’s created with sincerity – work made with an agenda or cynicism, lovely as it may be, is in my view commercial or propaganda. And lastly, artists seek to create an aesthetic. In other words – the Human Experience in pursuit of Truth and Beauty. These three prop up a big subjective tent, but when you see a photograph that moves you, you’re indulging in this cocktail. As John Keats wrote, “Beauty is Truth, truth beauty.”

Menil Drawing Institute, Houston  – Bronica ETRS + Kodak TriX 400

As film photographers, seeking Truth is the force keeping this medium alive. My friend, a digital photographer, mocked my love of “the process.” Why in this time of digital sensors that instantaneously render noise-free images would someone subject themselves to potential chemical poisoning, or worse – underexposed shots? You have to be disturbed…or a hipster. He had a point. Canon A1 hoarding is a serious public health issue in Brooklyn.  However, “the process” is a real thing especially as it applies to Art. When Keats emphasized “Truth,” I think he was saying the truly beautiful experiences in our lives are the ones with permanence. The greatest one is Truth, which never perishes.

Brooklyn Museum, New York – Leica CL + Ferrania P30

The film process is time consuming and permanent. There is no going back. Shooting film removes the distraction of instantaneous reviews. Our attention is not on a digital screen, but on the scenes in front of us. Every roll, forcing us to ration shots and hunt stories, is a quest heroic photographers must prove themselves worthy of. Time also extends into the darkroom. We spend hours in a room lit with only a dim red bulb to create, destroy, and then finalize physical artifacts. These prints made of silver crystals hang on our walls from nails hammered into the beams of our homes.

St. Peter’s Basilica Square, Vatican City – Canon Elan 7 + Fuji Superia 400

Film has a dimension of time, and hence Truth, that computers cannot replicate. I think this has driven the resurgence in analog photography. Not surprisingly the renewed interest in film photography, nearly written-off 10 years ago, shortly followed the generation of digital technology that definitely surpassed the image quality of film and the rise of social media. The World is so chaotic because everything is so convenient. We have everything, but it requires nothing of us.

Galveston, Texas – Leica M3 + Adox CMS 20 II

The art of film photography, however, comes at a cost to the convenience of our contemporary lives. What obsessive and tortured is for normal people was inspirational and byronic for Van Gogh and Morrison. I am not these guys (for the sake of your health you should not be either). The extent of my suffering for art is TSA hand checks of my film canisters and I intend to keep both of my ears.

But when you feel discouraged by your results, slow the process down even more. You may even put the camera in the bag just to sit in your scene for a few hours with the phone off in your own personal art gallery. Maybe you strike up a conversation with the people you want to photograph. That is what human experiences are. It is worth it. You will get the shot. The most beautiful things in Life take time and effort and demand the most of us.

Galveston, Texas – Leica M3 + Adox CMS 20 II

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11 thoughts on “Truth and Beauty in Film – By John-Paul Menez”

  1. A wonderful post, John. These words hit me hard: “The most beautiful things in Life take time and effort and demand the most of us.”

    As a shy introvert, I have a hard time with the personal connection part of portraiture and street photography. Striking up a conversation with people is nerve-wracking and exhausting, but it makes the achievement so much more meaningful in the end. Also, as a Texan living outside of the state, it’s always nice to see glimpses of the less-crazy-pants side.

    1. John-Paul Menez

      Thank you Ben! Portraits of strangers are hard. I really enjoy taking candids of people who are doing something they love. There is an extra element of authenticity…the subjects letting you into their world, but still something approachable for strangers. Having an old camera also is a great ice breaker and easy way to ask for a picture.

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