Some years ago, I went from knowing almost nothing about photography to knowing a fair bit about photography. I did so by following these five simple steps.
This isn’t a roadmap for everyone, but it worked for me. Your experience may differ from mine, and your results may vary.
Step One: Fail to Get Pregnant
Begin by never really considering whether or not you’d like to have kids, and then meet someone who you really like, learn that they want to have kids, and slowly realize that you’d probably like to have children too. Try to do that, and when a year has gone by and you’ve not yet made a kid, vaguely wonder why. Begin worrying and keep trying. Six months later, go to the doctor.
Be told that there’s a problem and that you and your wife might not be able to have children.
You’re a practical person and a hard worker, and you don’t like to give up, so contain your emotions and look for a way forward. Assure your wife that it will all work out, and begin to worry about just how much she’s crying.
Step Two: Realize You Have No Control Over Anything
Spend a lot of time at clinics.
Listen attentively to the doctor as she recites what seems like a well-learned presentation, and follow her words through phase one and two and three of plan one and two and three; contingencies comprising a roadmap that stretches years into the future. Feel buoyed by the activity because you’re doing something, and smartly-dressed professionals are speaking in optimistic tones.
Drive to the pharmacy and take home the thin wax-paper bag full of syringes, follow the instructions, and inject your wife with drugs where and when the doctors tell you to. Be impressed when she doesn’t wince at being stabbed with syringes over and over again for months at a time, but forget to vocalize how impressed you are, because you’re an idiot.
For the next six months, fail to get pregnant. Try to remember that there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world with worse problems and try to stay optimistic. Fail at staying optimistic. Wonder what you can do to fix things as the emotional distance between you and your wife widens. Tell her it’s fine when she apologizes for being so emotional and withdrawn. Apologize too, and tell her that you’re proud of her for dealing with everything so well.
Do not mention anything about any of this to anyone. Do as well as you can at your job. Try to relax and be normal. Try to make your wife smile. Try to do and say the right things at all times, and constantly feel like the things you’re doing and saying are all wrong. Remember that it’s a lot harder on your wife than it is on you, and that you can’t do anything about it.
Go to the doctor many more times. Begin “plan two,” which is more time intensive, more humiliating, and more exhausting.
Spend thousands of dollars that you don’t really have, and know that you’d eagerly spend fifty times the amount if it would help.
Know that it wouldn’t help.
Stand useless in a room at the clinic next to your wife and talk to her about nothing while a team of doctors and nurses do their work, and correctly assume that what they’re doing to her hurts. Assume similarly that she’s being tough and brave. Be excited and optimistic as you wheel her wheelchair to the car in the parking garage, because she’s the closest she’s ever been to being pregnant. Leave the clinic and smile and spend the day with your wife, and remember how fun your relationship was before all of this, and know that it will be again.
Two weeks later, learn that the procedure has failed and that the fertilized egg was lost.
Listen to your wife tell you how frustrated and sad she is. Tell her that you are as well, but always try to lessen the burden on her. Make a joke, give her a hug. Don’t cry because you know it’ll make her cry.
Spend the next six months repeating all of the above a number of times. Pay for and experience more rounds of fertilized egg implantations. Have them all fail, and when your wife reaches a frightfully low emotional point, try to suggest that the lost eggs were nothing more than that – tiny fertilized eggs, not actual people. Suggest to her that she’s just torturing herself when she thinks of them as anything more than a handful of simple cells.
Know that you’re full of shit. Soon after, worry that your wife doesn’t seem to cry as much anymore.
Step Three : Rediscover Your Camera
Sit in your office on a cold night in August while your wife is asleep in the other room. Think how odd it is that it’s become normal to spend a lot of time apart in your own individual seclusion. Worry about that. Be alone in the house. Have a hard time in the silence.
Around midnight, and for no reason that you can pinpoint, think of your old camera that you’ve not touched in years. Go into the basement and dig around for hours until you find the familiar bag. Unpack the camera and remember that you last used it when you and your wife went to Europe. Remember when you’d taken hundreds of photos of her smile. Charge the battery and be amazed that it still powers the camera.
Do some light reading on photography to refresh the foggy memories of that one college course on photography you partially attended. Attach the prime lens that you bought over a decade ago, but never used, and then pack your rediscovered camera and your 50mm F/1.7 into a bag just before midnight on a cold Friday. Contemplate driving into the city in a few hours, before sunrise, to make some photos during the blue hour (a thing you just read about on an internet forum). Decide not to bother, because what’s the point? Then think better, and go anyway.
Step Four: Realize You Can Control Some Things
Get a few hours of sleep and then wake up at 3:00 AM to drive into the sleeping city. Erect your tripod and your camera at the edge of the harbor, aim your lens at the distant buildings, and stand there in the dark and the cold.
Listen to the ocean licking at the land. Listen to your breath, and watch it freeze and vanish in the air. Wonder how a city can be so quiet. Feel small and lonely in the quiet and wonder what you’re doing standing there like a fool before the sun has even risen, while your wife is asleep in bed at home alone. Remember that you don’t really seem to make her happy anymore, because nothing does, and again listen to the ocean.
As the sun begins to rise, turn the camera on, set the dial to “A,” which you assume stands for “Automatic,” and frame your shot. Take a picture and look at the LCD screen to see the horrible photo you’ve just made. Vaguely recall that it’s exhibiting the properties of something called “under-exposure” and try to remember how to remedy that. Incompletely remember your photography professor from twelve years ago telling you about shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Switch to manual mode and set the aperture to a random something, F/2 maybe. Then set your shutter speed. You’re guessing, trying to find something that works. Choose 1/1000th of a second and take a second shot. The photo is slightly brighter, but still dark. Slow the shutter even more and take a third shot. This one is decently exposed. But the auto-focus seems to be struggling, or there’s camera shake, maybe, because the shot is blurry. Do not understand why it’s blurry and feel acutely that you haven’t done “photography” in a very long time.
Switch to manual focus and press your eye against the viewfinder. Focus. Take a fourth shot, and when this one too is blurry, try to remember if small apertures create sharper images or blurrier images. Set your aperture to a higher number to increase clarity, F/16 maybe. Take the fifth photo and review it on the LCD display.
Stand back from the camera and feel the outsized surge of frustration rinse over you. Feel anger grip the base of your brain like an oily fist. Blink against your illogically watering eyes as you fail to understand why this last shot is the worst shot you’ve taken so far. Walk away and sit on the edge of the sea wall and blink down into the water. Notice that a park bench has been thrown into the waves and wonder why a bench would be in such an incongruous place. Laugh at the absurdity of how mad you just were. Be halfheartedly proud that you were able to stay calm enough that the tears didn’t tumble, then sit there for a while breathing deep and looking at the sunrise.
Scoff in self-deprecation at how silly you are. Wonder at how odd it is that you could be so depressed for so long over a lack of a thing that you didn’t even know you wanted. Laugh at the irony. Laugh because you’re practical and stoic, and you’re not someone who cries because crying doesn’t help anything, and laugh that you’re a fool, sitting and staring out at the distant sunrise as if you were a character in a maudlin movie on the Hallmark Channel while remembering that people all over the world are suffering through worse calamities.
Move on from all of that and wonder if your wife is awake yet. Wonder how it’s going to feel for her to wake up with no one in the house but a hasty note. Wonder what the fuck you’re doing sitting alone at five in the morning with a camera you’ve not used in years trying to take a boring picture of a sunrise.
Decide to pack it up and go home.
When you get back to the camera, look at the screen again, and for the hell of it, think one more time about why that last shot might have been so dark. Remember that closing the aperture requires a reciprocal adjustment to shutter speed. Do not know which way to adjust the speed relative to the aperture adjustment, but take a guess. Logic that the shot got darker when you closed the aperture down, so slow down the shutter to compensate. Set it to ten seconds, the longest shutter speed you’ve ever seen. Take the shot.
Frown in disbelief when the entire photo is in focus and the shot is properly exposed. Be unsure how any of that happened, and be even more surprised to notice that all of the points of light are magically flared into multi-pronged starbursts.
Think that the photo is not bad, for someone who hasn’t taken a photo in ten years and feel good.
Decide you can spare another ten minutes taking photos. Adjust aperture and shutter speed independently, then as reciprocals with one another. Learn through experience that you can make the sky darker if you choose by adjusting some dials.
Importantly, you can make things brighter as well.
Take long exposures and walk slowly across the frame. Marvel at the LCD screen when you see yourself rendered as a ghostly blur traveling across the harbor. Get distracted by flowers and take fifty photos of them with varying degrees of depth-of-field. Learn instantly how aperture impacts this, and the offset required in shutter speed to make a proper exposure. Shoot a photo of a homeless man sleeping, realize it’s in bad taste, delete the shot, and lay a five dollar bill next to his pillow (which is a piece of folded cardboard).
Realize that for half of an hour, you’ve not dwelt upon all the things that have tortured your mind and heart for the last couple of years, and realize that photography might be worth doing again.
Remember that your wife will be waking up soon and know that you want to be there when she does. Drive home, step quietly into the house, unpack your camera gear, and make two cups of coffee. When she wakes up, say “Good morning.” Ask her what she’d like to do over the weekend, and tell her you love her. Over coffee, show her the pictures and talk about how quiet and peaceful the city was. Talk about how much you miss the hobby photography. When she asks if you’ll keep doing it, say maybe.
Chat casually about the upcoming appointment at the fertility clinic. Agree with her when she optimistically says that it will work this time. Be amazed at how resilient she is. Don’t let on that you had a weird morning, because she’s got enough going on.
Step Five : Have a Baby
A year later, with an emotional depth the likes of which you never suspected you’d be capable, appreciate the miracle that doctors had performed ten months earlier.
Far more powerfully appreciate the miracle your wife has just performed, and watch in awe and with mild terror as your daughter is born. Amidst the commotion, catch the eye of your wife, who’s still crying, but smiling too now.
Two years later, make another miracle baby. This time, with ease. Funny, how that works.
Spend the rest of your life taking pictures of your family.
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