Saturday, June 6, 2015

Idle hands are the devil’s Photoshop*

(*I use Pixlr, or the photo-editing software that came with my Canon digital camera, or [blasphemy!] the “Pictures” tab in Microsoft Word – and *not* Photoshop, which I’ve never used before in my life, mostly because it’s not free and Pixlr is – but the real saying is “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” so clearly I had to fudge the truth a bit, in the name of being catchy. And besides, "Photoshop" is one of those trademarked terms that has transcended its nominal meaning and become merely indicative of a reality-manipulating style of photo treatment; see Kleenex/tissue, Q-Tip/cotton swab, etc.)

I’m sure that all of my Facebook pals (for whom, primarily, I'm writing this blog post) have noticed that lately I’ve developed a new little hobby. I hesitated before typing “hobby” just then, because if you say “hobby” to me, I think of pastimes such as knitting or yoga, something you can talk or post shamelessly about and everyone is all, “Good for you! You are doing something!” In my case, while I am doing something, I feel full of shame talking or posting about it. Or at the very least, I feel as if everyone I know is mildly but mutely embarrassed for me whenever I bring it up. 

This new thing I do, when I’m feeling stressed, or feel as if I’ve spent all my words for the day and can’t form even one more, or find myself in that twilight time when it’s too early to go to bed but it feels as if there’s not enough time to do something more substantial, is: I upload older photos of mine to the Pixlr website (I’m most familiar with the Express version), and I “mess with” them until I think they look cool, or evocative, or in some way thought-provoking. 

Most of the time, the photos that I most want to “mess with” are pictures of myself – either moody little self-portraits I’ve taken of myself over the years (the younger generation and the media now call them "selfies," which to me evokes an image of precociously tech-savvy youngsters snapping pictures of themselves with smartphones, so I tend to not use it in reference to what I do), or select shots from photo shoots I’ve done with photographer pals (just for fun; no money exchanged on either end, because: a) I am not a model; b) the shoots were invariably the photographers’ ideas, not something I asked for and therefore would not be expected to pay for). 

I’ve played with non-selfie photos, too – mostly snapshots that I’ve taken out West, which, as everyone who’s Facebook-acquainted with me knows, is my spiritual homeland. But most of the time, for whatever vain or validation-needy reason, the photos I find the most fulfilling to manipulate are the ones of me. Hey, maybe I’m my muse, too!

I feel weird about the Pixlr passion for the following reasons.

1. I am not a photographer. I love photography – it’s the one visual art I can really get into. I don’t like to admit this – I feel as if it’s an indication that some part of my brain or soul is inadequately developed or sophisticated – but I’ve long felt alienated by a lot of the things we lump under the general category of “art,” paintings and such. Mostly paintings. I feel lonely, in a sense, at museums, disconnected from the stuff on display. Being a writer, and therefore technically some kind of artist, I feel as if I’m the type of person who should love “art” (i.e., highbrow or virtuosic paintings). But I just sort of… don’t. (When relatives visiting DC from out of town express a desire to go to one of the Smithsonian museums, I'm always hoping it's the Museum of Natural History so I can look at the pretty rocks, such as those gemstones they have under a blacklight that naturally glow in the dark.) 

If you could see my thoughts in a cartoon bubble as I’m walking around pretty much any art museum, you would probably just see a question mark. Or: "Maybe they have some snow globes or something cool in the gift shop." 

But photos – photos I get. Mostly because they just look like frozen slices of real life, captured from a compelling angle or in an evocative light, and the stories I write are basically trying to be the same thing. Movies – same deal. I often respond to scenes in movies (which are almost better than straight-up photos sometimes, in terms of the emotional power they can exert over me, because they’re photos + dialogue/actions + music sometimes) on a deeper level than I respond to scenes in books or stories. 

I have taken a grand whopping total of one photography class (Photojournalism 101 or something like that, in college; I had to buy a fancy camera and develop photos in a darkroom); I would never call myself “a photographer.” I don’t have the eye, let alone the patience and technical know-how, to use a “real” camera and take “real” photos. (That said: I will always maintain that the camera does not make the photographer; I've seen bona-fide art created via crappy old-school flip-phone cameras. Likewise, a terrible photographer with a good camera will probably still take terrible photos, just... more in-focus or whatever.) And that’s OK – while I strive to be the best writer I can possibly be, I am happy to be forever merely a dabbler, an amateur taker of snapshots and self-portraits. 

In fact, it’s freeing for me to not be a pro at this. It’s less pressure – no one expects any images I create to be any good, so when they are, it’s extra-impressive. Like, “And you’re not even a ‘real’ photographer!” Also, I can break rules (knowingly or unknowingly) willy-nilly or do something gauche (such as create faux-vintage Pixlr photos with tons of fake bokeh or random and implausible bursts of fireworks in them) and it’s no big. My reputation is not at stake; it’s just fun playtime.

But when I post tons of photos all the time, sometimes I feel awkward. Like, “Who do I think I am, foisting these incorrigibly blasphemed photos upon my poor friends’ newsfeeds as if the images deserve to be there?”

I am not a model. Correction: I am sooo not a model. Nor do I want to be one. Some people are – my sister is a fantastic model, and I’m honestly flummoxed about why she isn’t on the cover of about a billion different magazines right now – and that’s cool. But to quote an Ani DiFranco song: “I am not a pretty girl; that is not what I do.” And that is A-OK.

So why the heck am I blasting all of these photos of me into the world? Why would I think you would want to see my face, or more of me, in every possible nuance of mood, lighting, color, and contrast level? 

It feels taboo to admit this, but I like a lot of photos of me. (Is it just some human thing to like your own physiognomy, because it’s comforting and familiar? Or am I some honest-to-god, as-of-yet-undiagnosed narcissist?) I hate tons of bad photos of me, but when it comes to the ones for which either: a) I was in control, and therefore could shoot myself at my most flattering angles (and immediately delete any duds); or b) a good photographer was at the helm those I like. Especially after I “mess with” them to my liking in a most instinctive and subjective manner. 

It’s partly because I’m not a model – not a conventionally attractive person – that I feel it’s somehow pardoned by the universe if I take and share tons of photos of myself. Part of how I used to justify appearing in nude photos was that I’m not your typical Playboy/Penthouse-looking chick. I’m pale (but not porcelain-pale like some goth model in a corset), I’m small-chested, my face is all hooky and craggy and crooked. I mostly look sort of witchy. 

I guess that, to me, posting photos in which I look sort of cool or evocative is kind of like a senior citizen running a marathon. You see it and think, “A lot of folks would say that person shouldn’t be doing that – yet they are! Alright, godspeed!” Due to a prolonged, spectacularly unphotogenic phase I went through that lasted for all of my teens and twenties, I still think of myself as an ugly person. So when I post a photo of myself, it never feels as I'm being vain, per se (like: “Lookit me; I’m so hot! Worship me and feel jealous, mortals!”), so much as it feels… almost transgressive, especially if it’s a cool photo in which you can clearly see I have a Pinocchio-ish (when he’s lying) nose, or that my pallor is the exact color of a dead frog's underbelly (sexy!).

I take perverse pride sometimes in being “a bad model,” and I don’t mean a naughty one (although, now that I’ve mentioned nude photos, clearly there is also that). No one would ever book me to sell something; I’m nowhere near “commercial.” (Actually, no one would ever book me, period; I don't have an account on Model Mayhem or anywhere else to hawk my "services," such as they are.) There’s a place in this world for pretty people (there are many places that welcome them, actually), and they have their charms, I guess. But I prefer photos that are less commercial – less “this could be a catalog photo” – and more… art. If I think that a photo I’m in conveys an intriguing mood, or is evocative in any way, in part due to something within my control (my expression, my body language), then I feel sort of proud. I can pretend it’s a kind of acting.  

Having said that, it’s an unfortunate fact that in too many photos I have the flat, ever-so-slightly-sociopathic, dead-eyed stare of a mackerel. Sometimes – in the case of the photo shoots I’ve done with guy friends – that’s because I was drunk at the time; this is always immediately obvious to me (whenever I look back at those photos later) due to the usual telltale signs, such as dilated pupils or excessively flushed cheeks, but also because of a certain deadness inside that always comes through in the photos. The deadness detracts from the photos, yet I can’t help finding it sort of poignant in its own way, although admittedly it most likely would not seem "poignant" to anyone unaware of the photo’s backstory, of the shyness quenched with booze, of a lifetime of self-loathing that led me to the bottle for fear of being less than compelling in front of the camera. Someone not knowing anything about me would just think I'm a terrible model, which is also true.)

3. Pixlr-ing already-extant photos is really not the most cerebral or requiring-skill pastime. As I mentioned above, sometimes I’ll fire up Pixlr at the end of a long day spent writing for both work and as an artistic outlet. (I’m not well-rounded at all. What do I do at work? Write. What do I do at home? Write.) It’s relaxing, and liberating, to turn off the part of my brain that governs word usage, and to do something purely visual – however lowbrow and faux-bokeh-splattered and "Glamour Shots by Deb" it may be – instead. 

Also – I tell myself that playing with pictures exercises, or electrifies, some normally dormant part of my brain that is delighted by visual things but almost never creates anything visual. It’s not impressive, the way “real” photography is; it’s not even as impressive as taking or posing for the original [pre-Pixlr-ized] photos. Something about it feels silly and junior-high-ish, like doodling hearts and ligers in your notebook. (Clearly having seen "Napoleon Dynamite" is a prerequisite for reading this blog; who knew?)

I’m sure the “results” that I so eagerly (over-)post over on Facebook betray my lack of good (visual) taste, my penchant for gaudy and tacky things, my stomach for a little bit of kitsch. (I swear, if Pixlr had a “Thomas Kinkade-ify Your Photo” filter, I’d probably play with it.) I felt a little bit better when Pixlr (which I have “liked” on Facebook so I can keep up with their updates) held a contest asking folks to create images using their for-a-limited-time-only “Candy Minimal” filter, and I actually created a whole Twitter account just so I could enter (via hashtag), and Pixlr “liked” two of my submissions. (I didn’t win, of course.) I have some of those Pixlr-ized photos hanging in the house I share with my husband right now.

I guess that none of these seeming handicaps – being neither a photographer nor a model; having a hobby as an adult that feels like the equivalent of doodling ligers – is really a big deal, and a handful of people actually like the rainbow-colored, Warhol-ified, gilded-lily fruits of my labors.

It’s not a bad hobby. I mean, there are worse. Such as smoking crack. I have perspective.

But nevertheless I felt compelled to address this new strain of Pixlr-ness that my pals are seeing in their news streams. Because I don’t think it’s going to stop.

For my few readers here who are not synched up with me over in Facebookland, here are a few of my favorite Pixlr-ized photos (you can see the ones I created from my snapshots of the West if you click on the Twitter link above).

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