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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Friday, August 19, 2016

entry arrow1:00 PM | Still Memories, in Ten Shots



“Photography is the only ‘language’ understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man. Independent of political influence—where people are free—it reflects truthfully life and events, allows us to share in the hopes and despair of others, and illuminates political and social conditions. We become the eye-witnesses of the humanity and inhumanity of mankind…” 

~ HELMUT GERNSHEIM, Creative Photography (1962)

“The camera is my tool. Through it I give reason to everything around me.”

~ ANDRÉ KERTÉSZ


I.

Sometimes I still catch myself looking at life through an imaginary lens, to see how a particular world—or an experience—looks like as a snapshot. In a life that thrives on the ubiquity of images, perhaps doing that is not so strange anymore. We have come to accept pictures—photographs—as something that is almost an extension of human existence. They mark us as having lived, as having been through verifiable experience. And life, as it is, has been profoundly changed by photography as well. The very expression “Kodak moments” defines this influence of photography on our existence. In the frail biology of our memories thus, photographs have become the lasting reminders of everything.

My first encounter with photography was an accident of almost primal surprise, of discovery. The camera for a very long time held no interest for me: I saw it only as a boxy contraption with complex buttons and pins and revolving dials. It was the very paradigm of technological difficulty, especially for someone like me who was not particularly drawn to gizmos or to anything remotely technical. An Instamatic model, with its auto-focus function and point-and-click ease, was enough to sustain a need for documenting moments from my life on the go. Other than that, there was no need really—or so I thought—to take photography very seriously.

But one weekend, a friend—a burly bohemian named Krevo—had brought along his Lyca camera while we traversed the hilly town of Valencia, right near the edges of Cuernos de Negros, on foot.

It was a beautiful day, some time in the summer of 1995. I was younger then, still in college, and thought earnestly of myself as an “artist” seeking a medium to break into, and waiting for some spark of creative drive. I had already spurned painting, and was starting to dabble in writing. Yet for a very long time, inspiration proved elusive.

That day in the hills, there were only the mountains, clouds, trees, flowers, and the occasional passersby to consider in our little trek. Krevo was happily snapping at everything with the gusto of a little boy with a prized toy.

In the midst of his snapping frenzy, he stopped and—putting down carefully his Lyca against his chest, its strap carefully laced loosely around his neck—he told me: “I’ve always loved seeing the world through the lens of my camera.” He went on to say that it offered me something else that one could not readily see with the naked eye. That simple declaration struck a chord in me.

Krevo motioned for me to come nearer, and when I did, he handed over his camera which was already ready for the clicking. “This is what you turn to focus, and this is what you turn to zoom in or out,” he said, carefully pointing out the dials I’d need.

“Now,” he said, “take a shot of that frog on the rock.”

With some hesitation, I cradled the camera with my hands, and squinting, looked through the viewfinder.

There it was: a frog within a world all its own—framed, isolated, angled—the sole focus of my photographic intentions. It surprised me that this image cropped from a larger, unbounded reality was more interesting to consider and ponder over just because I had blocked away the rest of the world by my focusing on this image that mattered to me at the moment.

Photographs, I realized, was an instrument of focus, blocking away the visual noise of everything else.

All pictures have a self-contained story, captured by the four sides of the camera’s viewfinder. Photography is a different grammar of seeing the world.

Snapshots, in other words, are witnesses to living. They galvanize moments to a kind of immediacy that even when each photo has faded to an overwash of time and sepia, they still seem to be always in the present tense.


II.

HERE’S THIS one snapshot, for example, of deep, excruciating pain: my friend Donnie’s photograph of me one quick afternoon, in a government office—after the discovery of the sadness of wooden floors and gravity.

That day, I had carelessly slipped on the strap of my Canon T70 camera over my right shoulder, as if it was an ordinary slingbag. I was on the way to the city mayor’s office. One wrong turn, and I found my camera clattering down to the floor with a few fatal bumps, each thudding sound a tightening vise-grip around my heart.

I remember holding my breath. Like an instance of death, my life with my camera flashed before my eyes in cinematic sensurround, quick but brutal, and comprehensive: I remembered, all too quickly and briefly, many honeymoons with my camera, clicking at this and that. How many moons and mountains and people had I captured with those lenses? Too many images to count and catalogue, and so much scrapbook fodder: smiling faces, contemplative looks, silly poses, erotic montages, and off-guard indiscretions, all caught by my camera’s sheer truth, each click a slice of life, a captured detail the way we could not capture real moments and put them in a jar.

That tragic afternoon, I stayed frozen for a moment or so, and then soon the panic began. What happened? Will my camera still work? Have I damaged it beyond repair? Can I afford another camera?

Donnie’s picture of me that afternoon is a caricature of shock.

After clicking, he shook his head in mute but shared commiseration: “Remember to always place your strap around your neck,” he told me.

I learned this: one could never know the value of something until it disappeared from sight—like a fragile print of a lover’s face on untreated photographic paper, dissolving into chemical blackness if bright light accidentally stole into the red-tinted cocoon of the dark room.

This was several years ago. No photography for me since then. But I missed my camera. I missed most the stories it told.


III.

HERE’S ANOTHER SNAPSHOT.

A picture of Mother after the accident. (Months earlier, she had slipped across the kitchen’s tiled floor which was wet with soapsuds from an overflowing washing machine. She had not noticed the danger; her mind was preoccupied with the romances and indiscretions of her latest Sidney Sheldon heroine. Slipping, she broke and fractured her shoulder bone, and went through three months of intensive physical therapy.) I took it one afternoon sometime after that unfortunate fall. She had fallen asleep for siesta, but the quiet of our old neighborhood in Villarosa was too seductive for me to resist making a pictorial document. I had four more shots left of my black-and-white film—the rest of the roll being a pictorial essay I had taken of an early morning tabô in Dumaguete.

One called these extra exposures “waste shots”—which are unplanned shots taken just to finish the roll and to set the camera’s rewind mechanism running. I decided that the sooner I could finish the roll, the sooner I could get my photos back from the print shop, and the sooner I could breathe easy and see how the pictures turned out.

So I woke Mother up from her nap. “What is it?” she asked, still sleepy.

“I need you to pose for me, for a while, outside the house,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. (Mother was always game to my shenanigans. I was, after all, her youngest son.)

I set her small, brown frame to contrast against our house’s whitewashed outside walls, with only a French light post and our front door’s arch to provide accents to the plain architectural texture. I snapped the picture, and I clicked the lock.

That was it. A waste shot, nothing else.

The rewind button whirred.

But that “waste shot” turned out to be the most beautiful and dramatic shot in the roll.

The photo I took was of a woman in sepia—done with a tinge of brown, endearing and classic in its vocabulary of hue and meaning. Mother in that picture looks up the sky as if in search for meaning in the middle of an afternoon. There is a play of light on her cheeks, which makes her look more vulnerable, too human.

I realized then that photography was a kind of instinct. It was an epiphany captured on magic paper. It was fleeting beauty seized by chance, the way one saw God suddenly in the pictorial details of a flower blooming.


IV.

THIS ONE IS A SERIES OF PICTURES, taken by my brother Edwin, of a New Year’s Eve celebration. We are having dinner with Uncle James. There’s also a salsa-dancing bartender gyrating to a wild Latin beat. The pictures, too, show me on my second glass of white wine, my own digital camera in my hands. All of us are toeing the invisible line between past and future years, wondering what it will be like, this New Year that is suddenly facing us, with gyrating bartender and all.

The photos also show me in a contemplative mood: I am thinking that it is difficult to have deep thoughts about time in the middle of a cacophony of gunpowder exploding, shrill horns tooting, cars blaring, and what suspiciously sound like empty kitchen skillets being pounded against the wall—so much noise gathering up towards the stroke of midnight. We are in CocoAmigos Restaurant. Uncle James sits beside me and looks at me with a hint of concern. “The noise…it’s an ancient Chinese custom,” I remember him telling me, smiling, “and the noise is supposed to drive off all the evil spirits of the previous year.”

“Yes,” I remember replying, “but we did the same thing last year, and it never quite worked. It’s been, on the whole, a bad year for everybody.”

Uncle James laughs a while later. “Sometimes we do certain things because of the comfort the routine gives us, like an old blanket,” he says. I, too, have snapped hundreds of photos with my camera as a curious habit of seeking comfort. Perhaps I feel the world is a much better place when seen through the camera’s lens, with everything captured in a wide-angle perspective, everything boxed and rational, everything clickable and storable like a cache for memory kept in a box. Or a tattered album.

But what the pictures did not show was how things in the restaurant were becoming much too noisy for comfort, compounded by the shrill sounds of plastic horns some of the customers are tooting. From some distance, unseen, the fireworks pulled at my cynical heart with their bright streams of red, blue, and yellow flowering briefly against the dark of the sky. I looked pensive in the photo.

I realized then that fireworks, like photography, might make men smile, but their pleasures were often too brief, too expensive.

What happens between the moments of explosion, of picture-taking, between the collective ohhs and ahhs or “Say cheese!”, and then the quick disintegration of light into the surrounding blackness? There is a rising of spirits, briefly, and then the rush to nothingness: the feeling of emptiness after the orgasm.

I remember us taking more photographs of people dancing. Also photographs of the white wine and the food. Of my brother Edwin and Uncle James in the table with me. Of the bartender gyrating some more.

Each photograph becomes an accounting of things past—and a resolution for things in the future. Each click is an invitation to a quick parade of questions about life and nothingness.

The next day, I plug the camera into my computer to download the jpeg files, but everything is blurry, like life itself.


V.

THIS GRAINY SHOT WAS TAKEN in Manila with a Nokia cellphone camera sometime in 2003. Nobody believed me when I texted from the MRT halfway near Quezon Ave., on the way to Shangri-La Plaza, that the celebrity/model Marc Nelson was sitting across from me. There was an ocean between our distance of about a meterstick, and for a moment there was sudden clarity to clichés.

So near, so far.

My thumb fumbled quickly with my cellphone keys. (Everybody becomes a champion texter when the need arises.)

“Marc Nelson? In an MRT?” Tessa texted back from her condominium in Makati, her incredulity as ashen-white as the backlight of her Nokia phone. From Dumaguete, Gerard texted back as well, his message equally doubtful—accusations hanging in the air like knives for liars: “Naks, I don’t believe you. You’re like Joey.” (Our friend Joey has a famous story about being very close friends with the singer Regine Velasquez. We all smile when he tells the tale: “How wonderful for you,” we all say in patronizing tones, conspirational smiles etched on each one of our faces.)

Unlike Pinocchio, however, my nose did not grow long. “Jesus Christ, nobody believes me,” I whispered to Eric, who was sitting beside me to my left, his eyes equally giddy with concealed star-struck glee. We both tried to avert our eyes, with difficulty. I peeked from my pretend nonchalance, but still careful not to gawk. I took in the man, the celebrity in cognito: he wore a blue baseball cap which carefully obscured his eyes in shades; also a dark blue muscle shirt immaculately and stylishly untucked from his faded blue jeans—all sartorial ensemble dotted by metallic-blue sneakers. He had a gray knapsack mixed with shades of blue—and there were those trademark biceps, all too familiar now from their having graced too many magazine pages and TV shows.

It is the man, I told myself, unbelieving friends be damned.

Marc Nelson was Dressed All in Blue. Like all creations of the small screen, he appeared surprisingly smaller, and leaner than in our imaginations.

Save for Eric and I, nobody else in the MRT noticed the celebrity in our midst—people in Manila, I quickly thought, have perfected the typical metropolitan blindness to other people, a syndrome one develops as a protective bubble from brushing against too much humanity in one’s traffic-laden ordinary day. No one really looks at anyone, and all places around are empty and vacant in one’s eyes, in a metropolis otherwise teeming with three million people.

But Eric and I were not regular city folks; we were both promdis newly landed in the great metropolis, and our eyes were still forever searching and observing, hungry for the sight of new things. My skin breathed in the unfamiliar, the strangeness, the bigness of it all. In Manila, I whispered a prayer of contentment, of suddenly finding myself without the constant view of my little Visayan city’s boulevard, its small streets, Scooby’s, Silliman Avenue Café. All things Dumaguete and blah. Manila was a stranger’s home, a welcome foulness in place of small city pristineness.

“I read once in MEGA magazine,” Eric whispered, “that Marc often takes the MRT on the way to ABS-CBN.”

“And now we’re in the same train car with him!” I whispered back.

We quickly dismissed plans of asking for autographs. We are not jologs, we told ourselves.

Marc Nelson held a Tagalog paperback romance. I raised my eyebrows. Tacky, I thought, but the book managed to hide his head effectively. His anonymity became a shield.

I couldn’t stand any more of the suspense.

Then I remembered that my phone had a built-in camera. I clicked furtively at Marc Nelson while pretending to text. Hastily, I sent the picture to unbelieving friends to confirm my Truth.

Pictures, I realized, had that magnificent power to reinforce the sense of what was truthful and real, perhaps even more than words could. On the middle of the MRT ride to Shangri-La, I decided it was a perfect day.


VI.

HERE’S ANOTHER PHOTO, of an old friend’s obscured face, in sepia, showing only three-quarters of his whole visage: one can only sees his eyes, ears, curly hair, Gaelic nose in blurry details.

But to blur is often not a mistake in photos. To blur lends meaning to one’s subject—the way one intends to convey a certain fastness, or a certain unreality.

This is how I remember my friend Quddus: as a dream in my head. Quddus has gone far and away—I do not know where he is at the moment. Is he in Miami looking at the stars? In Palawan finding the perfect beach?

He was the one who taught me how to cradle a camera like one would a woman, or a comfortable lover: to place between the loving spaces of palms and fingers something sacred, the camera’s bottom placed squarely on top of one’s left upturned palm, with left fingers turning the lens like one would touch a lover’s skin, while one’s right hand secures the right side of the camera, with right pointer finger gently pressing the click button.

To photograph is to make love with the contraption, and with the image in the viewfinder.

In college, I took pictures of frogs, of cats, of flowers, of people rushing about in an existence of motorcycles, restaurants, and parties. Quddus was the technical one in our duo: he devoured photography books and knew the technical nuances of backlight, shutter speed, apertures (f/16, f/32, f/27…), exposure compensation, filters, peak sensitivity. He knew well the photography dark room and its procedures like the back of his hand: the steps in the intricate wounding of unexposed negative round the roller, the careful exposure of light and negative onto sensitive photographic paper, the right amounts of fixing and washing solutions.

I, on the other hand, had the creative “eye”: the language of images.

Once, Quddus kept vigil outside Silliman Church one night. He had his camera on a tripod, and on a timer. For the whole night, he kept his camera and one shot open to the night sky. By morning, he had his shot printed.

And there it was on print: a bright geography of stars moving across the photographic paper—streaks of mesmerizing light the way you can never see stars with your naked eye.

I knew at once why I took pictures: it was for revealing moments like this, to be able to see stars as fireflies dancing in the dark.


VII.

HERE’S ONE PICTURE my photographer friend Donnie took some years ago, and gave to me—framed—as a birthday gift.

Donnie likes taking pictures of people. Portraits. When I see him around town, he is always sporting hair like Jesus Christ’s, and wears his constant backpack. Inside it, there is always a camera. He likes taking “fashion pictures,” he says—and he doesn’t know why: his portfolio is littered with beautiful women (and men) in exotic locations, on the beach, in some café, in private verandas, in gardens, in the private darkness of bedrooms.

This time, however, he gives me a picture of two country men passing through rural landscape, each astride mobile means which are perfect opposites of each other: one man is on a cow, another man is on a bike. I like the paradox of the subject matter: it is poetry at work, drenched in irony.

See how young the cow rider is? A boy in puberty. And the bicycle rider? An older man with an abundance of wrinkles. A portrait of generations passing and continuing, and contrasting, and evolving. Old and new as they are, and old being new, and new being old—elements of post-modernism contained in a panorama such as this.

See how the color complements the subject? The blue of the sky bleeds into the deep yellow of the cornfield in the background, and of the brownish skin of the men and the cow. A swath of pastoral colors—the photo borders on the magic of oil paintings.

And here’s my other photographer friend Razceljan’s photo of Siquijor in the twilight. Skies red, and the beach blue and empty in the low tide—only the stumps of occasional mangrove indicate any presence of life. He took this photo while we—all three of us—were on vacation during Holy Week, the day Rico Yan died.

I remember there was only a pervasive silence that day—a quiet beach, a quiet day. Each of us—Donnie, Razcel, and I—were armed with our vacation books and probing cameras. We all whiled away the Siquijodnon afternoons chasing after surf, and chasing after images. Siquijor was magical that week. Razcel perhaps best captured that magic in his photo: a place tinged with blood red, presupposing a psychology of place and witchcraft.


VIII.

SOMETIMES, THOUGH, too much of our lives happen quickly, and passions are often set aside, often for years. Accidents claim your stake. Or sometimes you just lose focus.

I have said I haven’t done photography for a number of years now. Such a long separation from the photographic bent can make rusty one’s sense of photographic proportion, frame, and vision. Always, and everyday, I ask myself, Do I still have the ‘eye’?

Because once smitten with the artistic possibilities of the camera—both still and moving—one cannot help but continually appreciate the photographic possibilities of the world all around us. My bible in better days was Susan Sontag’s seminal book On Photography, which was in many ways a condemnation of photography as moral influence, but which also made the singular claim of photography as an art form that mattered.

Sontag wrote in that book: “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images…. To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

When you’re young, the thing to do is just that: to collect a world of sensation and experiences. Photography thus was, for me, the perfect escape into that occupation. I also made a short film in those days titled “Trahedya sa Kabila ng Liwanag,” which was done in collaboration with a bunch of friends for several courses in filmmaking in Silliman University’s School of Communication. It was an experience which distilled all that I knew from all those years studying the shots and mise en scene of Hitchcock and Ozu and Welles. But I never did another film again after that.

Still photography, however, was a bug that bit me harder than moving pictures. The love for it grew when I was editor-in-chief of Silliman’s student paper, when I was often driven to madness with what I considered the lazy ineptness of my staff photographers. “Photography is more than just capturing a moment in time,” I used to tell them in-between the pressing deadlines, “it must also be a story, a narrative.” Give me an angle that frames the story better, I’d tell them. And when they couldn’t deliver, I’d take the camera and do the snapping myself.

But something has struck me anew in the light of current trends: photographic film as we know it is dead. Everybody has gone digital, and even for those who can’t afford the new digital cameras, they have their camera phones now handy to take a shot at anything, and everything. This is a testament to the prescience of Robert Frank, who once, perhaps wearily, claimed, “You can photography anything now.”

Those who can’t afford cellphones with cameras instead go to Internet cafes where they pose, often without shame, in front of webcameras all too ready for posing, then posting and emailing the photographic evidence of themselves for the rest of the cyber world to see.

When the idea of such photographic democracy was still in its infancy, the possibilities promised all the bright things. Imagine! we told ourselves, we could be on top of a mountain, or in front of a waterfall, and we would be able to take photos of ourselves—with our phones! It took a year or two for all of us to also find out cellphone camera culture was not all roses. It also brought out the inner porno star in all of us. Who would not be amazed by the sheer amount of personal porn coming out of the woodwork these days as new gizmos increasingly become more affordable and readily available in the market? All sorts of sex scandals—known mostly by their places of misdeeds, from Dumaguete to Bacolod, and from Mindoro to Cebu—have been passed on from cellphone to cellphone through MMS and regurgitated by the VCD pirates in our midst. Who hasn’t seen the TV midgets Mahal or Mura doing their striptease? Or the comedian Terry Aunor urinating? Or the TV personality Ethel Booba playing with herself with her boyfriend behind the camera? Or the news reporter JV Villar baring everything for his Bluetooth phone camera to record? Or the model Cedric Carreon letting his body be gazed from head to foot? Or the actor Troy Montero “playing around” with some of his buddies? And now, an alleged buggering of the actor Piolo Pascual? Forget Reality TV. The real thing -- sleazier, but more exciting because more real -- is going on beneath our noses. It’s like everybody has become their own porn star—the ultimate penance for the ubiquity of image-making, in a culture drowning in it.

I doubt anyone can say camera phones are evil. But camera phones have indeed awakened “something” in many of us, and we can piece the puzzle as thus: there is now the ease of recordability in the modern age, revealing to us the illusory promise of privacy, the universal and perverted wish to “perform,” the subtle pornographic influence of pop culture, with all moves learned from Deep Throat onwards to Playboy Videos, and to the gyrations of the Viva Hot Babes (and Men) all for a buck or two on DVD.

Images can be deadly.


IX.

BUT IMAGES CAN also be inspiring. I remember it was the renowned photographer Eduardo Masferré who finally cemented my love affair with photography. In particular, it was his famous photograph of a beautiful, young Kalinga woman which first made me pause, and which made me first consider the politics and aesthetics of image-making.

In Masferré’s picture, the Kalinga girl is bare-chested, a necklace adorning her throat. Her arms are covered with tattoos, and a cigarette hangs down a smiling mouth. Her eyes are alive.

Seeing that for the first time, I was instantly smitten with the possibilities of photography as something that familiarized what was for me alien, but also something beautiful. It was the first time I knew for sure that photography had something to say.

My first encounter with Masferré began with rumination, edging on studious devotion, over his picture book, People of the Philippine Cordillera. I had accidentally stumbled upon it in the library while researching for a theme in my political science class. As I slowly fingered through every page, every Masferré photograph seemed to drip with quiet importance, each declaring itself to be a masterpiece of the late Father of Philippine Photography, as he was often called. I felt myself wishing I had taken those photographs. I wished I had his “eye.” It was not only that the photographs he took—no matter the subject—were beautiful, but that they also aimed to teach us about the ways of a forgotten people—an advocacy not always to be found in art. As Jill Gale de la Villa once wrote, “Eduardo Masferré’s legacy is irreplaceable. To read about the mountain people’s culture is one thing. To really feel that culture one needs to see Masferré’s photographs. He has left a body of work that will show the ancestral life and ways of the people of the Central Cordillera, so that we may visualize how the Cordillera forebears lived and worked, painstakingly carving vast areas of rice terraces into steep mountainsides, using rudimentary tools to fit billions of rocks neatly together to make thousands of kilometers of walls; know that they discovered and used highly advanced principles of hydraulics to accomplish the job; realize that they had intricate cultures that provided appropriate activities for all stages of life, from prebirth to beyond the transition to the next world.”

I knew the biography of the master well. Masferré had exhibits of his photographs virtually everywhere—Manila in 1982, Copenhagen in 1984, and Tokyo in 1986. In 1989, he became the only Filipino to be given the honor of having his work exhibited at the prestigious Les Rencontres Internationale de la Photographie in Arles, France. Later, in 1990, some 120 of his prints were purchased by the Smithsonian Institution for a six-month exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

In my thoughts, I had sworn that someday, I would meet the man who created a statement of beauty from a simple snapshot.

A journey to the mountain would be that chance.

I remember Friday, the 24th of March, 1995, quite well. It was the beginning of summer. School had ended for the term, and there was that sudden sweet acknowledgment of freedom from all that academic wrangling. It took some planning and a little strategy to decide what to do and how to spend my upcoming days under the sweltering summer sun. A trip to Luzon, I finally decided. To Sagada. And so it was. My boat ticket for Manila was dated March 25, a Saturday. I was to leave at 10 o’clock the next morning.

With Satuday came sudden spring as I started on my journey to the mountains. The boat was late. Above the chaos and the sweat, people hustled to get on the vessel that would take us far north to a place I’d never been to. Finally, amidst the noise of the throng of loud porters, Dumaguete seemed suddenly so far away. Through my camera’s lens, Dumaguete’s shores was a panorama of goodbye to what was, for me, familiar. But the unfamiliar north beckoned, and I had my camera in hand.

Several days later, and on that mountain in Sagada, I finally saw Masferré’s pink house. It was quiet. And then I knocked on the door.

“Would you like to meet my husband?” the Manang who opened the door asked me as I stood in the living room of the pink house. The place was small, but there was certain coziness to the house: it felt warm and uncannily familiar. Here and there, black and white prints hung on every wall, like testaments to an artist’s greatness. I stood mute before the mounted pictures of people of the mountains, the Kalingas. The pictures were expressive, and often playful in their depiction of simple lives. There was a man clad in a bahag looks forlornly over his village from atop a hill as the sun sets behind the mountains beyond. There were toothless women smiling, clad in intricately woven clothing, stripped in the festal colors of their tribes. There was an old pensive man sitting in his dap-ay. There were frenzied dancing, and complex rituals before the backdrop of sweeping rice terraces.

The Manang repeated her question. I quickly nodded in answer. She smiled, and then left the room. The realization that I was to meet the man—the legend I have heard about for so long, and read about so much—finally hit me. I prepared to document the moment with a ready camera.

I waited for him. I wandered through the house. In one room, I saw how the great photographer had fashioned his own natural light source in one huge space of a “dark room.” The light was from the ceiling, where the sunlight could pass through a well-fashioned box. The rays went straight to the developing table, and I could see what his intentions were: to be able to make large prints of his photographs. It was ingenious.

Then I heard some noise, and Manang was back, pushing a man in a wheelchair. It was Masferré. He did not talk. He could not walk. He was, to my silent and surprising dismay, somehow wasting away in old age. But I could see there was still life and genius in those old eyes.

“You can shake his hand,” Manang told me. “But he has to rest soon.”

I went to him, and shook his hand. “It is a great honor, sir, to have finally met you,” I said, with a catch in my throat. Did he nod? I was not sure, but I was happy to meet the man.

“Do you want me to take a photo of you together?” Manang asked me. “I see you have a camera with you.”

I thought about it quickly. And then I shook my head, No.

After coffee, I bade them farewell, and went home.


X.

It is best to take photographs in the “magic hours” of the day: very early in the morning, or at sunset—at that precise time when the sun is horizontal in the east, or in the west.

The light then becomes parallel to the ground, and there are no downcast shadows to overwhelm the subject in front of your camera. Natural lighting becomes perfect, and the sun’s light becomes more diffused in the atmosphere, perfect for pictures that come out more ethereal, more… “magical.”

But “magic hours” are too short. Soon, noon and slanting sunlight threaten, or night’s darkness looms—and you have to fold your tripods and put away your cameras in your bags, and you have to wait for the next magic session to begin, or for the next photogenic image to unfold in your sight, ready for the clicking.

I miss Masferré’s genius. And I miss my Canon T70 camera. It still lies crippled in my camera bag, perhaps ruing the day it met the reality of wooden floors and gravity.

I have realized that even photography has its sense of mortality—like life, like an old picture curling to gray as time moves on, and even memory becomes a memory of itself, like a snapshot suddenly turned dark, turned to a nothingness.

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