My father was a photographer. Well, he was a lot of other things, too—farmer, businessman, practical shooter/handgun enthusiast, tennis player—but it’s the photographer part that’s etched deep in my mind and the first thing I remember whenever I think of him. Was he a professional? Did he have paying clientele? I don’t know. All I know is I grew up tiptoeing around a loft scattered with cameras of all shapes and sizes—Polaroid Sun 600s here, a couple of Leicas there, 35 mm Nikon SLRs everywhere—and other photographic equipment, including tripods, one of them I’m sure I used as hobby horse at one point. When it wasn’t makeshift hobby horse time or Lego time or Atari time I could be found sprawled on the family room hardwood floor, leafing through piles and piles of his prints—some of me and my brothers in various stages of infancy, mostly of my mother in various states of fancy (apparently that was how the courtship had went—my mom skipping and jumping and dancing and laughing and beaming and singing and breathing, and my dad documenting her every move in film). Easily my favorites were his double exposures, and this one print of a chubby-cheeked me as a rotary dial was my favorite thing to bring to show and tell—never failed to elicit ooohs and aaahs from classmates whose baby pictures were humdrum. Of course, toting an instant camera helped boost my schoolyard cred, too. Apart from my dad’s personal work, I was also surrounded by works of genius—he loved collecting documentary photography books, a good chunk of them on war photography, including the first edition of Philip Jones Griffiths’s Vietnam Inc. I suppose there was a darkroom somewhere, possibly tucked between the storage where our plastic model kits sat in various states of disrepair and this room where a small group of his workers packed all sorts of stuff (from chocolate tablets to banana chips), but in the time of A Nightmare on Elm Street you wouldn’t dare consider exploring rooms that were, well, dark, even with trusty old Atari joystick in hand. Thinking about it now, I wish I’d gone looking for it anyway, Freddy Krueger be damned. Oh, well, it bites that you can’t turn back time.
Around the time I turned ten or so I decided I was old enough to get into hobbies outside, well, hobby horses (and Galaga and Donkey Kong Jr.), and taking from my parents’ interests seemed the most practical. From my mom I took her love for music, and went on to learn the piano—the only thing that rivaled the photography books for shelf space was sheet music (her father was a music teacher). For some reason, though, it wasn’t taking pictures that I decided to take on from my dad—instead, I asked him to take me to tennis clinic. I don’t know, perhaps as early as then I’d seemed to know that the former was going to be expensive—a box of Polaroid film alone would cost more than an entire summer of tennis lessons, not to mention they were very hard to come by in the small town where we lived. Thinking about it now, I wish I’d gone for it anyway—if he could afford to buy me some swank racquets there was no reason he couldn’t afford to get me a good beginner’s camera. Oh, well, it bites that you can’t turn back time.
By the time I reached early teenagerhood I stopped playing the piano and dropped the tennis racquets and started toying with my maternal grandfather’s typewriter. I wrote furiously, neurotically, although no one really read my works, save for my maternal grandmother, who would nod in approval every time even when my syntax was flawed and my figures of speech all over the place. Yes, my early works, as you would’ve suspected, were just a tendril short of crap—how deluded was I when I attempted to create, for example, a local version of Sweet Valley High? It all got a little better in time, though, as I slowly outgrew my fondness for implausibly sunkissed blonde twins, and I got published for the very first time in The Philippine Star’s youth lifestyle section when I was 15. Three or so years later I became an editor at a local daily’s youth lifestyle section, and soon after became associate editor and youth section editor at a local magazine. Somewhere in the midst of all this frenzy, I became a stylist, too—I’d figured, to be a credible fashion journalist one had had to walk the talk. This was the time I got to work with some of the most amazing photographers I know. Jon Unson was an incredible to work with—not only did he encourage me to push the envelop in each and every shoot I styled, he also made sure each session was going to be educational (he was always explaining to me what he was doing and what he was aiming to achieve, was always eager to let me in on the planning and conceptualizing stages, and his vast collection of rare art and fashion magazines became my library for a year or so). And then there was Wig Tysmans, whom I’d been commissioned to work with for two fashion editorials for the now-defunct glossy CeBu!, who took us outdoors and gave us a crash course on light and luminance—I remember him talking about “the magical hour,” that sliver of time between when the sun starts to set and when it disappears completely, and I just stood there open-mouthed as it all unfolded, and as he seized ten different hues of a sunset in a single frame. During this period I was living alone, away from family, and being around these gifted and generous people who made work feel like it wasn’t work, and who taught me everything I’d failed to learn from my father, made me feel like I was home. My parents would visit from time to time, and I’d tell my dad about these extraordinarily talented people I was working with and their fascinating craft, and then he’d tell me, “Don’t say I never gave you a camera!” It appeared that he’d given me his Nikon N8008 when he’d arrived from a trip to Vegas in the early ‘90s, but I’d turned it down, saying all I’d wanted was a new typewriter. Thinking about it now, I wish I’d taken it anyway. Oh, well, again, it bites that you can’t turn back time.
It would take another couple of years for me to get my very first camera, a Nikon Zoom 500 or something that looked like it—yes, compact, and secondhand, because I was living from meager paycheck to meager paycheck at the time—which I lost four months later on a trip to Manila to stalk the boundary-pushing streetwear designer Cecile Zamora and the equally fierce stylist/DJ Angelo Villanueva. Two years later I got my first digital camera, a Kodak DC3200—again, compact, and secondhand, because it was all I could afford. Boxy, heavy (it required 4 AA batteries), and in the dullest shade of gray (the color of a battleship), it looked (and, I should add, sounded) more like a toy than a camera, but it did the job pretty well, save for the overactive flash, and so it stuck with me for a good four years—such a trouper, I know! I was gonna say the thing served its purpose as a good personal camera, but it would be remiss in my part if I said I never used it “professionally,” because the truth is I sort of have—in my one-year stint as lifestyle editor for a local weekly in my hometown, we used it for a good number of features that required accompanying portraits, even travelogues. Were they show-stopping images? Well, not quite. But I thought they were pretty decent—for newsprint, at least. And then my dad stepped into the picture. Yes, it was around this time that he started to pay attention to my work; normally, you see, he wouldn’t touch on the subject of my writing, but since this time around my work involved accompanying pictures he began to feel the need to pitch in. “You whites are burnt out—what are you doing about that?” “Watch your lines—composition is important.” “Your photos are almost always published in black and white, so understanding contrast is key.” “Practice a little bit of framing; it can be flattering.” For the first of these feedback sessions I kind of listened, but for what followed I took less and less to heart. Because this was a parent there was this childish tendency for me to suspect that he was just taking advantage of the situation to point out the things I was doing badly. Also, with the dearth of stuff to write about in a small town, I had to focus on digging for stories rather than spend time learning a new craft—besides, I would rationalize, people knew me as a writer, not as a photographer or art director, so they wouldn’t care if the visuals were mediocre as long as the writing was pretty damn good. Thinking about it now, I wish I’d paid close attention to what he’d had to say, hung on to every word, taken down notes. Oh, well, it bites that you can’t turn back time.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I learned to recognize the value of photography as a tool to help me see the world and tell stories in ways that could be markedly different from the written word. I was on my very first trip out of the country, and was therefore saddled with the task to document every little experience for those waiting at home. “Your camera ready?” my dad had asked days before my flight out. Naturally, I’d assured him, two cameras, in fact. “You sure you don’t need a new one?” he’d asked, and to this I’d shaken my head, and he’d said OK, fine—knowing me, he’d probably had a sneaking suspicion I’d only put them in my checklist to make sure something was there to document my outfit opportunities, anyways, so he’d fought the urge to push. And, true to form, during my first few days in Los Angeles, all I did was shop and have photos of me in my new clothes taken, under the false illusion that maybe a profile picture of me wearing some Urban Outfitters and against some kickass stencil graffiti down N La Brea would land me a spot in the MySpace Muses section of WhoWhatWear.com (and how depressing is that, right?). And then the day came when everyone I knew was too busy to show me around, and so I was left with no choice but to go around on my own, walking (yes, walking, a breach in convention by New Wave standards since Missing Persons had declared that “nobody walks in L.A.”) a half mile from my friend’s Wilshire Center neighborhood to Melrose, and another two miles down Melrose looking for the People’s Revolution offices to stalk Kelly Cutrone. With no one there to take pictures of me, for the first time in a long time my camera was turned away from, well, me and actually saw the world. Melrose, particularly that section between La Brea and Fairfax, was quintessential, dead-on L.A.—equal parts offbeat and classic, crass and urbane, languid and dynamic, cluttered and tidy, unworldly and worldly, it was like being caught between two places, definitely unlike anything I’d ever seen in the movies or television. Falling more and more in love with the city with every step I took, I yanked my camera out of my tote and just fired away, taking pictures of every nook and cranny, of every hustle and bustle, of every passerby suspecting or unsuspecting. I snapped and snapped, more obsessively by the minute, for the record, for me to look back on, for others who’d ever wondered. It was an epiphany of sorts: Here was a prompt, convenient, all-encapsulating way to document—a pen and journal, albeit brave, wouldn’t have sufficed. So I didn’t get to spot Ms. Cutrone, but I stumbled upon a new hobby—not bad at all. Instant-replaying my shots as I called it a day, waggling at the few hits and snorting at the hundreds of misses, I thought of how much painless all of this would’ve been had I taken my dad up on his offer to buy me a better camera. But, oh, well, I was here, and there was no turning back the hands of time.
One of the last conversations I had with my father was about cameras. I was home visiting, having just returned from the City of Angels, and was showing him my shots from Melrose, a.k.a. my feeble attempt at street/documentary photography. They were nowhere as good as his shots from Vegas/Reno from years back, of course—or any of his shots, for that matter—but he gave me his stamp of approval, and declared I was ready to graduate from point-and-shoot to SLR. At first the idea of a heavy black box that needed to have its own bag (or to be carried around your neck) and that required careful handling and that entailed a number of accessories frightened me, but then I figured, hey, if I had to jump at this I had to go all out. So I told him I was willing to take him up on his offer to get me a new camera this time, if it still stood, and, to my dismay, he said yes, but on one condition: it had to be film-based. “Do they even sell those still?” I whimpered. But then again I’d seen it coming. The thing about my dad was he kicked it old school, tenaciously, almost to a fault—never got tired of his Jeep CJ, for example, which he’d had since his adolescent years, in favor of compact cars or other more sophisticated forms of transportation. And so it was no surprise that he wasn’t a huge fan of digital photography. With film, he said, “you are forced to have this discipline, to exercise restraint, and it gives you room to really study your bad shots—unlike digital, where you can take a hundred shots of a single frame and just discard the 99 that are bad and keep the one that’s good.” He had a point, but I remained obstinate. “If you want to be good at this, you have to learn it the hard way,” he’d added. After much prodding, though, he agreed to meet me halfway—i.e., I was to get myself a DSLR body, and he would buy me all the lenses that I wanted. Sounded like a deal to me. I was excited that I was about to start a new creative journey. And he was kind of thrilled, too—if not at the idea that, finally, he and I had something in common (after failed attempts to get me interested long enough in tennis, or at all in trips to the farm, family business stuff, or pistols), then at least at the idea that his prodigal progeny was going to be needing to see him more frequently than the usual twice-a-year. Am I making this stuff up—the part about him being kind of thrilled? People are going to ask that, knowing my father was nothing if not hard to read. Well, the answer is no. Before we said goodbye, I asked for a photo with him, which my friend Carlo took. My dad, he was never fond of being in front of a camera, always preferred to stand behind it—he was never a smiley person, too, and was always stiff, even when the situation called for one to be tender. But he said yes to this one photo, and even managed to put on a half-smile.
Little did I know that that was going to be the last photo of me and my father. He would pass away, in a freak motor accident, a little over three months later, just three days shy of my thirtieth birthday, which was when I’d originally intended to get myself a present in the form of the camera body that we’d talked about. It’s sad when the cookie crumbles, but even more heartbreaking when your world falls apart. In the wake of his death it all hung like a dark cloud over me, the promises that never came to fruition—not just the more prosaic ones like the camera situation, but the graver things, too, like my promise to be a good son and a good brother, and everything else in between. I began to wonder how the feminist artist Kiki Smith, daughter of American modernist sculptor Tony Smith, must have felt when her works were put alongside a retrospective of her father’s, some twenty years after his passing—“I remember being embarrassed because he had a beard or drove strange cars,” she had been quoted as saying. In my eulogy for my dad I touched on the subject of my self-imposed semi-estrangement from him and the rest of my family. It was no secret that I had distanced myself from and turned my back on him in more ways than one, and I would reason that that was because I was trying to be my own person, but, really, the truth was I terrified that his idiosyncrasies would rub off on me—not knowing that the more I’d ran the more I’d taken parts of him with me, and I had only been wasting my time, throwing away what had promised to be a relationship inundated by creativity. Tearfully I expressed my regret in front of friends and family. But no amount of tears could turn back time. All that was left to do was to move forward, and hope that, no matter how tragic things had turned out, a wonderfully consoling outcome was waiting for me somewhere, somehow. The good son and good brother parts I am still working on up to this very day, as I am writing this. The camera, though, I got to pick up last year, some fourteen months after his passing, and it’s never left my side ever since—a part of my father that has stuck with me, and that is going to be stuck with me, hopefully for a very long time. Of course, the aforementioned last snapshot of me and him is stuck with me, too—as a soothing reminder that, while we are not able to turn back the hands of time, at least some things can be, well, frozen in time.
I guess that’s what’s good about love in the time of the camera.
It hasn’t been easy having to learn the ropes on my own. Sure, there are people around me who’ve been doing this a long time, but every time I push my luck a door is slammed on my face. No hard feelings, especially since I’ve come to understand that times have changed, and are changing—advancement in digital photography has made the craft accessible to almost everyone, and as the landscape becomes oversaturated people are looking for more and more ways to stand out and be cut above the rest, and unfortunately for some one way to do that is to hold back on the sharing. The deplorable part is when people accuse you of being a “copycat,” thinking they own the craft just because they happened to pick up a camera a few years before you could do so yourself. I was unlucky enough to have undergone such travail. There were days it would get so bad and I’d find myself giving up cold turkey. But somehow during these days memories of my father would manage to manifest, and so I’d pick my head up. Case in point: Just a couple of months ago I was in L.A. visiting my sister, and I was this close to selling my camera to a friend from college, but then I made a quick trip to the Getty, and at the time Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties was on exhibition, featuring the works of the likes of Mary Ellen Mark, James Nachtwey, and Philip Jones Griffiths, and then I was brought face-to-face with a print of Griffiths’s seminal image of a Marine talking to a Vietnamese peasant girl in a paddy field, my dad’s favorite image from Vietnam Inc. And just like that I decided to keep the camera. It’s kind of a bittersweet thing, really, how he’s no longer here to teach or guide me, and yet it’s like he’s all around me, just pushing.
You might be wondering why I chose to tell this story to inaugurate my blog. Well, the principal reason is a rather simple one: Today is Father’s Day, and what better way to celebrate than by paying homage to my old man? There is a collateral reason, though, that I feel needs to go on record. You see, ever since I got a camera I have been getting a lot of flak from friend and foe alike, saying that I only got interested in photography because of a boy. While I will admit that, for a time there, I was head over heels with a guy who happens to be a photographer—and a very, very talented one at that—he wasn’t, isn’t and will never be the reason that I got myself into this. Does this boy inspire me? Well, yes. But then so do a lot of other stuff, like the Pacific Coast Highway, grunge, horse names, Beat poetry, birds, Catherine Deneuve, Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. And that’s just talking about right now. Maybe tomorrow it’s going to be, well, “Maybe Tomorrow” by Stereophonics. My point being that, while inspiration is a critical part of every creative process, it is often fleeting, temporary, and can be substituted at a snap of your fingers. A birthright, however, is steadfast and headstrong, has no hiding place, and is not something you can just shake off or put away. Trust me, I am tempted to attribute this whole thing to affairs of the heart, but there’s no denying that there’s no affair quite like a family affair. And so, once and for all, to dispel the rumors and to disabuse some of you of that notion, let it be known that I’m doing this not because of a boy, but because of a man.
This blog is dedicated in loving memory of my father, Jose Francisco Serafica Kangleon. I am probably never going to be as good as him—or anyone in this field, for that matter. I am probably never going to get people to stop and say oooh and aaah. I am probably never going to get people to show some respect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop soldiering on. Some people are going to do a cursory glance-over at my work, dismiss it as amateur, perhaps even make ominous forecasts about it, but that’s alright. Because maybe it is amateur, maybe terribly so even. I will come clean and admit that I’ve never attended a single photography workshop, that there’s no more technical know-how in me than in an intermediate-level child photographer (I mean, I look at my lens blower and I am baffled by it!), and that I do not have the discipline or patience to organize my camera bag or my mood boards or my shooting schedule. More often than not I rely on whim and not on white balance, forget to mind my composition in favor of caprice, attach importance to accidents vs., say, aperture. Pretty clumsy, you might say. Like on this one late afternoon two years ago, in the fall, I was walking towards the corner of Wilshire and S Manhattan Pl looking for The Wiltern (to see if I could score tickets to an Aimee Mann/Fountains of Wayne gig), and I stopped dead on my tracks and pointed my camera to the sky upon remembering it was my dad’s birthday, his first since his passing. The resulting picture was not of his face among the clouds, of course—it was of a flock of birds, gracefully gliding through rays of the California sunset, almost Hitchcockian, top-to-bottom surreal. Is that sort of stuff amateur? Maybe so. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s magical. And I have my old man to thank for it.