Contents page from “Special Problems,” Life Library of Photography, 1971.
1. Using Graininess to Make the Particular General
In a park under a roof he squats, gleaming with droplets of sweat, his nude back a constellation. Thread-like rain traces the air down from a darkening sky. He shouts something that is not a word; receives an answer. He plays music, and holds his hands in a shape that could be prayer of combat.
2. Stark Black and White for Emotional Power
He reaches the squat through a stretch that tests the strength of his leggings. They strain at his hip, making a contour of his underwear, visibly white through the black thread of his outer garment. As if disapproving, the grey sky rumbles.
3. Shadows to Startle the Eye
His retreating companion still shouts, scattering monkeys over the clearing. They cast the forest into relief, breaking its blackness into wide shadows.
4. Drama from the Misused Film
His martial pose is not a match for the soundtrack: a saccharine pop song for Chinese girls. There is nothing to channel except dance, which is the opposite of what he’s doing. Instead, the diamond formed by his hands is like a portal, offering a target to socmic energy. But no force could penetrate this cloud of pop, making depth shallow, force farce.
5. Making a Point by Chopping Off Heads
Sport shoes a shade too small, stretched over skin. Legs constrained and straining. Arms set like a mission to keep the hands in place. Torso bare and saturated with sweat, not pooling but patterned; a second scaly skin.
6. The Power of Distorted Perspective
Here my glasses fog arhythmically, as if given breath by the tropics. I switch my phone to a brighter setting, test sunglasses until it rains. The man enters the pagoda in which we’ve sheltered ourselves from four walls of rain. I want to look elsewhere, but can’t see anything, only what’s in front of me – the sweat on his back, neck and head.
7. Tampering with Lenses to Break Up the Light
Reading vertically down from the sky: grey, white, black, green, grey, green, grey. A spectrum of forest under cloud.
8. For Mystery, Focus on the Wrong Thing
His retreating companion continues to shout, scattering monkeys. He is without music, synching his rhythm to the animals’ advance and retreat. His path turns and ascends toward the waterfall, his voice lost among thunder.
9. Mellow Tints from Reciprocity Failure
As the monkeys scatter and regroup, elevating their tails, the white tips catch some element of the light, becoming iridescent. I squint and the earth deletes itself, along with the monkeys, an apocalypse survived only by the deep sea writhing of white tails.
10. Sun Shots to Turn Day into Night
On balance dark clouds lighten themselves by contrast with the earth they shadow. Like a bride, veiling the sun only makes us take notice. When it dims itself, there is nothing else to see. I look out and up at the point of whitest darkness.
11. Sacrificing Detail to Create a Mood
Across the sky: clouds. In the air: rain. On the mountain: forest. Over the clearing: monkeys. Under the roof: a diamond.
12. An Inferior Lens for Superior Effects
As he squats I write, copying an index from a guide to photography. It’s called “Special Problems,” as if art was something to solve. But if this scene is the answer, what is the puzzle?
13. Indoor Film to Create a New View of the Outdoor World
If this roof had walls it would be dark inside. The squatting man would be a monster, sensed by the ear, nose and skin. The pop music would start silly then turn sinister. I would not be writing this.