My long-time friend and the most academically accomplished person that I know — who wishes to remain nominally pseudonymous but whose quirky pseudonym I just can’t bring myself to use — sent me the following interview questions.
1. What’s it like to be a photographer sans depth perception? Do you think such vision helps or hinders, and why?
To be honest, I really don’t know what it’s like to lack depth perception. I learned around age six or seven that I don’t have it after my ophthalmologist put a pair of funny glasses on me and showed me a picture of a very, very large fly. Apparently, if I’d had stereoscopic vision, I would have seen its wings pointing out at me instead of being flat on the page. Occasionally I wish that I had it — mostly when pulling into parking spots — but I don’t really miss what I can only vaguely imagine.
Last autumn, I did try wearing a contact to replace my missing lens, but it didn’t work out. I was a bit disappointed but a bit relieved, too. I worried that my photography would become more difficult or change in uncontrollably bad ways if my manner of looking at the world fundamentally changed.
I gather from talking to my differently sighted friends that the way my eyes work may be amenable to photographic seeing. The world around me is undeniably flat. I get my sense of perspective by moving around and by remembering (without thinking) how large things should be. Having the world pre-flattened takes away a large part of what I hear makes photography difficult for some people.
Of course there’s a lot more to photography than compressing what’s visible by one dimension. I still find it hard sometimes to manage clutter in the frame and ensure that what I’m seing in my mind’s eye actually makes it onto film. Harder still is picking what to photograph so that each new image fits with rest of a project and says the right thing (and hopefully something meaningful, too).
2. What do you miss most about Iowa and Wyoming?
For a while, Wyoming had the tourism slogan “Like no place on Earth.” Maybe they still do. At any rate, it’s not exactly true; Wyoming is America’s Iceland, minus Björk.
It’s large, but everyone knows each other. One day while bored in a meeting, I calculated that I had probably met around 10% of the people my age in Wyoming. I knew a lot of really great people from all over the state, and we saw each other quite frequently. With just a few dozen high schools — there were fewer than ten cities with more than 10,000 people when I lived there — we were always going to common athletic and academic events.
I suspect a lot of that 10% has moved away; certainly most of my friends have — the people you might put in the “chattering class.” We chose liberal arts trajectories that didn’t involve the University of Wyoming, and during the bust years of the 1990s, we were probably the state’s biggest export. My mother is still there, and I miss her a lot. But I also miss the serendipity of constantly running into people I knew wherever I went.
Plus, Wyoming is just fantastically beautiful. Because everyone who visits the state only goes to “The Parks,” we have most of the the state’s 100,000 square miles to ourselves, and we’ve kept the best parts secret.
My feelings for Iowa are a lot harder to put into words. I was born there and molded into the person I’ve spent years unbecoming. But I also spent four wonderful years in Grinnell, where I met most of my favorite people in the world and learned a lot, including many things I didn’t realize until after I had left. The half-dozen times that I’ve been back since then — visiting the rest of my family, who I also miss a lot — are all about change, too.
So it may seem odd to say that the thing I think I miss the most is Iowa’s impossible changelessness. It’s so different whenever I go back. (Every place in the world shares this trait!) But in essentials, it’s still the same open-air cave where I spent fifteen years of my youth and four more years not long afterward. I like that I can see traces of my family and myself whenever I drive down any self-similar county road or main street. I love the way that the smell of dirt there reminds me of the edge of town where we always seemed to live. That same smell reminds me of a particular wintry day in ninth grade when my friend and I walked along a frozen creek that had cut deep over the years into the Iowa loam, upon which the brilliant sun shone, sending steam into the air and making me see the world anew.
3. When did you become such a fashionista, and why? Did Lisa have anything to do with it?
It all started shortly after moving to the Bay State. One Sunday at the laundromat I picked up an abandoned copy of the New York Times. Shortly afterward I was hooked and we subscribed. If you haven’t experienced the Sunday Times in print, then you probably can’t appreciate the pure avarice that its advertisements embody. At three dollars a week I was unconsciously soaking up bits of fashion knowledge.
A few years later, Lisa graduated from Law School. Though she decided not to practice, she still needed a new work-appropriate wardrobe. I went along and progressed from simply possessing inchoate fashion knowledge to actively participating.
Around 2002 I started working with a very fashionable, very wonderful person around my age whose tastes ran toward the expensive side. We discussed designer lines the way that we might talk about television shows: “Did you see Galliano’s new line?” and so on. At almost the same time I happened upon a copy of W in the Newton Free Library’s magazine swap bin. The magazine’s high-end fashion photography — occasionally showing fashion disasters — drew me in. Of course, I was hooked.
I had also started a self-guided tour through the library’s extensive photography book collection. It has an endowment especially for photographic monographs, and I proceeded more or less alphabetically. A lot of the early books contained fashion photograhs: Avedon, Beaton, Bourdin, etc. Meanwhile I was perusing old issues of Aperture, a high-end art photography magazine, and came across an article which argued quite convincingly that (some) fashion photography is actually art first and advertising second, which suited me fine since I was starting to see couture as art that uses the body as substrate. (I’m more worried about the bluring lines between celebrity and commerce than art and commerce anyway.)
So I’m no fashion expert, but I can’t hide my love for it either.
4. How do you think your job will differ in 5 years? In 10 years?
There’s an enormous tension in software engineering. Newbies start out not knowing as much as we think we do and needing a lot of direction from peers and management. Usually we learn how to do our job well after years of putting in our dues. But by the time we become masters of the craft, we are also deeply involved with a lot of other project and people management activities that reduce the amount of time that we can actually spend applying our software construction skills. It’s a badge of honour, to be sure, but everyone I know has had a “Why can’t I find time to work on development projects?” moment where they realize how much their job has changed.
In some ways, my job has already started to change in this way, and I suspect it will continue over the next five to ten years. I’m working on my annual performance review right now, and I’m surprised how little time I spent last year working on features for MATLAB and the Image Processing Toolbox. But I’m also amazed by how quickly and correctly I was able to do the things that I did do. (In software engineering, when you take the long view, correctness usually equates to quickness.)
Sometime in the next couple of years, I will have my masters degree and more skills to go along with it. I’m in the optimizing phase of my career right now, where I’m learning how to do things well, instead of how to do them for the first time. In the next five or ten years I suspect that I’ll move into the mastery phase, where I start shaping the world around me rather than being shaped by it.
5. What is the new black?
Black, of course. And never has it looked so good.
I see a red dress, but I want to paint it black.
If you’re interested in being interviewed by me, leave a comment or send an e-mail to jeffmather [at] verizon [dot] net.