Lightnin's Magic

One of the biggest influences of my art walked on this month.  I have not known Lightnin McDuff (yes that is his real name) for very long only about 2 years or so.  But I honestly can think of only one or two people who have influenced me as much.  This year there has been one of a lot of down time for me because of health issues.  Lightnin had a lot of health issues as well so we had a lot of time to drink coffee and talk.  Lightning has been an artist since he was 27.

When I learned that he walked on, I found myself feeling the loss deeply.  Which surprised me as our friendship was rather young.  Then I began to reflect on the time I spent with him and the conversations.

One of the biggest things Lightnin did for me was to change how I viewed my self and my art and how I presented myself to others.  If you have followed me for a while you know I used to call my business Jim Livingston Photography.  One day I was complaining to Lightnin that I sort of hated the question, what do you do for a living because when I would answer I was a photographer, inevitably the question of weddings and portraits would come up.  I rarely photograph people unless it is performance photography like concerts.  Lightnin had a gruff voice.  “I don’t want you to ever tell people you are a photographer again.  You are an artist and you use photography to create your art.” 

I let that sink in and I knew he was right.  I don’t approach photography the same way as many of my contemporaries.  I can say without bragging I can nail just about any shot.  After 3.5 million photos if I hadn’t figured the ins and outs of the camera I would be dumber than a hammer.  Learning the technical know how often a matter of practice and I just have lots and lots of that.  I am really no longer interested in nailing the shot per say. I don’t care if you see what I saw at any given moment.  What I want deeply with all my heart is to create an image that somehow conveys what that scene made me feel.   So what you see in my image might not look anything like the scene I saw, any competent photographer can nail an image and show you a great photo, I want to do more, I want to convey the emotion and that is where the editing comes in.  Some of my images have more time in edit than many of my painter artist friends have in their paintings.

The minute I stopped calling my self a photographer, the minute that changed in my head too, there was this amazing freedom to create but not only that, all the sudden I wasn’t burdened with wedding questions and so forth.

I could write a small book on the lessons I learned from Lightnin.  I heard him joke on more than one occasion: “if you buy the bull shit, I will throw the art in for free.”  He hammered to me that every art piece needed a story.  “A beautiful watch is just a watch, but a watch that Jessie James stole and then you chased him down and stole it back…well now, that stops people to look.”  It wasn’t so much that you had to make up a story about the art, but the art itself had to be so compelling that the story dripped out of it. 

Two things about Lightnin, he loves minimalism and classical art and much of Lightnin’s art was poking fun at the establishment.  And so I present to you the legs of Ozymandias.  Based on Shelly’s poem, Lightnin was commissioned to create these legs based in part on both of those elements.  Love of classical art and poking fun.  So it was that two days after Lightnin left this earth, I needed to soak in his spirit (metaphorically speaking) so I went and sat on the legs and photographed them at night. 

Recently I acquired a new lens that I am thoroughly enjoying and endorse a great deal. It is a fast (2.4) 15mm lens by Irix .  I wanted a lot of the sky over the legs so this was the perfect choice for a lens.  My first intention was to create a time-lapse.  For this, I would shoot sequential photos and then take those photos and render them to a video.  The advantage of this for night photographer is twofold over just doing video.  One, a video camera which would do a proper exposurer at night is very, very expensive.  The other thing is by doing sequential photos if something happens like, say a shooting star… then I have a high-resolution photo of that one frame versus a low-resolution photo I would pull from a video.

The legs are just off a busy interstate between Lubbock and Amarillo and the traffic is heavy even at 2 in the morning.  About every ten minutes a car would turn and point its headlights straight at legs goofing up my time-lapse.  I was just about to give up when a Randall Co. Deputy pulled up to check on me and I would like to sing out praise to the Deputy, he was concerned I was broken down.  We had a pleasant talk about the legs. 

I went home a bit dejected knowing that my time-lapse would not be good.  But I also knew that some of the shots were going to be nice.  At 4 am in the morning I got home and dumped my card to the computer and went to sleep, thinking about my times with Lightnin and all he had taught me.

When I got home and started going through the photos there it was a little bit of magic.  A shooting star right over Lightnin’s legs.  I didn’t see it in person as I was visiting with the Deputy.

Lightnin once said in an interview: "Back when we were painting on cave walls...those guys weren't tryin' to create "art", they were trying to create magic."

Magic is what Lightnin said was what it took for art to be good.  Sometimes you have to contrive a little magic but sometimes, oftentimes, it is right there under our nose and we are too busy talking to see it.  Magic is all around.  The artist's job is just to help us be more aware of it.  I am deeply grateful for the time I spent with Lightnin.  he helped me to see magic every day, to laugh every day.  Truly, Lightnin McDuff was one of the greatest men I have ever known and damn sure one of the best artists and without a doubt the most influential teacher I have had.

On a plaque near the legs which looks much like a Texas historical marker reads:

“In 1819, while on their horseback trek over the Great Plains of New Spain, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), came across these ruins. Here Shelley penned his immortal lines, among them:

I met a traveler from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert… And on the pedestal, these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

The visage (or face) was damaged by students from Lubbock after losing from Amarillo in a competition.  A stone cast of it will be when it is ready.  The original is on display in the Amarillo Museum of National History. Souvenir hunters have scrapped off the bottom of the pedestal but archeologist have determined it was as Shelly described it.”

Every time I read this, I hear it in Lightnin’s gravelly Texas drawl and smile deeply at a life lived well.