Chris Coffey
Sorting it out

Opening up the file drawer I pulled out the fattest, heaviest one in the cabinet. Buried in this file was not a stack of negatives but 30 years of notes about photography, light, travel, learning to see, and dozens of other thoughts jotted down on whatever was handy at the time — the backs of envelopes, Art Fair Parking Passes, hotel notepads. Some of it legible only to me (my penmanship borders on illegible) and a few a complete mystery (likely done while driving 70 mph down the highway). These days I use the iPhone for a “notepad”, one of the many things that incredible device has proven to be the answer for.

During the decades I traveled this country from coast to coast there were times stuck in the rain at an outside art event or sequestered in a hotel room that had the same lack of personality as the 100 I stayed in before it, I dreamed of the day when long delayed projects would be brought to life, the words and research done to accompany the images transcribed formally, the idea and its narrative brought into the light.  Covid provided an un-asked for mile marker for all of us and its arrival along with personal tragedy would be the poke in the ribs I needed to go after these “buried treasures”. Last winter I locked myself inside and went after a photographic project titled “Extracts” and different stages of its production would pop up throughout the year that followed. This would include a workshop on making the handmade artist’s book in December where I would learn to make every facet of the handmade book from sequencing the images and text to the printing, sewing and binding of the signatures, to the final part; the cloth cover.  Extracts had jumped the line from the very last project on the list to the first once I started sifting through a career’s worth of negative files. It also is the least viable one financially (abstract is artist code for “ this will never sell”) but it called to me and ignoring such an urgent prompt from “within” is done at your own peril. The rest of the projects can now be done in the order in which they speak to me. The abstract nature of “Extracts”, placed last in line before I go “into the final wash” , meant it may have been thrown in the trash bin if I didn’t live long enough to bring it to term. The other “likely to never be completed” project was not one of pictures, but the words on scrap paper mentioned before. Why so much random information on such a vast landscape of subjects? For one simple reason; it was the “stuff” learned along the way as I honed my trade-craft, the things I couldn’t find in workshops or books. 

In the early days of making pictures I was not unaware of how “wide of the mark” a lot of my work was. Detailed notes of the failures were jotted down in an attempt to not repeat the failures (I still do this) as the successes, while enjoyable, taught me nothing. But here is the crux of the reason I kept all of those pounds of notes; I could find books on exposure and printing, on travel destinations, and the commerce of art, and tons of magazine articles on the ever changing gear. I could not find much if anything regarding how to grow myself artistically, how to find those experiences and truths that eventually result in a reliable and valuable Photographic IQ. This isn’t just a photography phenomenon — LeBron James ( a fellow Akron product) often speaks of playing with other players that possess a high basketball IQ. In a way, these Lessons in Light are about growing the work, but also growing the worker, simple but mostly obvious truths that could be adaptable to other endeavors like writing (Stephen King’s book on the craft of writing and Anne LaMont’s Bird by Bird are two of my favorite photographic books and have nothing to do with photographs). As I read through my notes, sorting them by subject (and yes, throwing some away), it was clear they had value as lessons, dispatches composed by an older me and sent to a younger version myself. There are no discussions of “what lens, what paper” and I avoid these kinds of conversations as they distract from learning. Choice of hardware is the last link in the chain of creativity and the most perishable information in the process. Hanging with people who worship at this alter will stunt your growth. Over the years I have dined with painters of various methodology and talent and have yet to hear a conversation about brushes.

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