What Shatner Has Taught Me (About Irony And Other Stuff)

Over the past ten years or so I’ve really begun to dislike irony—or more directly: the pursuit of ironic moments as a pastime. Back when I had a job at a design firm, these ironic moments would manifest themselves as Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties or 80’s Theme Nights. As soon as everyone was in the same room wearing the same ironic attire the whole event would become immediately tiresome for me. I just couldn’t keep up the act for very long. (Perhaps my mutual dislike for playing “dress-up” is a factor here, but that’s probably a different rant.)

But as it were, I could never bring myself to enjoy these scripted get-togethers. I would always say: Can’t we just have a party? Serve drinks? Have conversations? Why do we need to pretend to enjoy something we don’t even really like all that much? Soon enough I was branded the workplace curmudgeon. The old grump. I’d still get invited to the ugly sweater parties, but my coworkers kind of knew I wouldn’t show up. To me, it all seemed like too much effort, when all I really wanted to do was have a drink and talk with my pals.

During that same time I had friends who loved to plan elaborate ironic evenings out. On a given Friday they might rent a limousine and spend the entire evening seeking out dive restaurants that offered spicy chicken wings so they could order boxes of them to eat while cruising through the city all night. They might even open the sunroof and begin cheering: “Chicken wings! We’re eating spicy chicken wings! In a limo! Woooo!”

Other friends would join adult kickball leagues or take up ironic hobbies like collecting superhero lunch boxes or cultivating fanciful mustaches. Perhaps it’s not even irony at play here—but more of a desire to simply keep one foot firmly inside the boundary of childhood forever—and I can appreciate that at some level. I really can. But, I still can’t seem to detach myself from the disingenuousness of it all. I do recognize the initial appeal, but I just can’t fathom enduring the followthrough. How does one keep the enthusiasm going? At what point are you really just pretending to have fun? (Maybe that’s the most ironic part after all.)

The musician Beck has made a career out of a peculiar style of ironic music. And it’s good stuff, I like most all of it. But, the one time Beck decided to channel Nick Drake and make a straight, un-ironic folk album, people weren’t so certain what to think. Sure, this was on the heels of 9/11 when irony had supposedly died, but this is Beck—he break-dances in ernest. I actually liked his album Sea Change very much—and I still play it often—but it took me a few listens to figure out that he was being sincere for once. Perhaps this is the danger of living a life of carefully crafted artifice.

All of this brings me to William Shatner. For years, William Shatner has been a very complex, highly ironic version of himself. It’s nearly impossible to discern the line between Ironic William Shatner & Genuine William Shatner. The seminal example of this blurring of the sardonic and the sincere is the musical spoken word album he released in 1968: The Transformed Man. He’s been channeling this debut album and its accompanying persona for a very long time. The first “hit” off the album was “Tambourine Man”, and the song quite possibly had sincere intentions—even though people mistook it for something of a joke. But against all odds, this Shakespearian take on a contemporary pop song eventually became a camp classic. Shatner went on to explain:

…yes, in the beginning it bothered me that people singled it out and poked fun at it. They didn’t know what I was doing. The album The Transformed Man is much more extensive than that song. But since people only heard that song, I went along with the joke.”

So, Shatner understood early on the ironic value of what he was doing, and he played to it for years to come. He even went on to parody himself in the 90s by repopularizing the Shatner spoken word schtick on award shows and then later still on Priceline.com commercials. More recently he did readings of Sarah Palin’s Twitter account in the now classic Shatner spoken word style on an episode of Conan O’Brien. Shatner essentially embraced the character he had long become.

Back in the 90s I would have loved every single minute of this seemingly meta-ironic persona Shatner continues to play. In the 90s I loved irony so much that I once bought an old Jim Backus album where he joyfully sang songs about high society cocktail parties while obviously half-drunk. I played this record over and over for my friends as we cackled through the chorus: “We’re having such a good time!” Backus would sing. “More champagne!” We drank it up. Thurston Howell The Third playing loungy cocktail songs while drunk on actual cocktails. It was perfect for the ironic lifestyles we were fashioning for ourselves. A perfect soundtrack for living a particular version of a real life.

But now, in my middle age, with a certain distaste for costumes and thematic get-togethers, I have essentially dismissed characters like Shatner as perpetual jokes with tiresome punchlines. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always admired Shatner the actor—just not the ironic poet he had become.

Until now.

I recently discovered an album called Has Been that Shatner released in 2004 with Ben Folds. (Not exactly sure why it took me this long to find it.) On Has Been he’s again playing the role of Shatner The Poet, but I’m now convinced that this has never been a “role” at all. This is the Real Shatner. It always has been the real Shatner. And it’s genius! I genuinely like this album for what it is. The writing is great. The music from Folds is great. The guest musicians and singers are also great. And, Shatner is so, so great! This is actually a wonderful album.

I’m now persuaded that this whole time—since 1968, the year I was born—William Shatner has been staying true to his craft. Shatner The Poet is the genuine article. He rode the long wave of irony because it was an opportunity. It was a means to an end. But it’s been Shatner all along. On Has Been Shatner is impassioned. He’s funny. Affected. Almost world-weary at times. And I love him for it. William Shatner has finally won me over.

Listen to this track from Has Been called It Hasn’t Happened Yet. And don’t laugh it off as another ironic two-step. Listen to Shatner. He’s trying to tell you something—and it’s genuine.

In the meantime, I’m off to play some dodgeball. (Not really.)

Dial Tone

While working on a logo project recently I’ve begun to notice a distinction between two somewhat risky methods of working toward a concept. A lot of the time I will research, sketch and ponder for days before I ever approach the computer and begin to execute a design. Sometimes I even wait until the last possible moment before something is due. This can be somewhat risky if all the sketching and thinking doesn’t point toward a solid solution. But, more often than not, it works. It sometimes feels odd that it works at all—that a last-minute tweak can actually become a final logo is surprising at times—and it can often feel like luck. But it’s not luck at all—it’s experience. Experience and effort, even though the effort is difficult to quantify because so much of it floats around in my head. I like to call this method dialing it in because it feels like concentrating a large swath of thinking down toward a final concept before finishing it off with a quick execution.

Another method I’ve identified is called phoning it in where you, again, wait until the last minute to execute, but this time you are relying on your wits—without the benefit of research, sketching, and thinking. That aha moment in the shower never has a chance to surface because you haven’t given yourself the time to formulate anything close to a concept. This method really does require a lot of luck and it typically falls flat. We’ve all been there: too busy, short deadlines, no time for a creative brief, no time to think. We’re left to phone in the concept and cross our fingers. (See also: pulling it out of your ass.)

I won’t lie, I’ve phoned in a few designs and they have ended up working. But that’s the rare exception. Dialing it in works because even though you are cutting things close—you are setting the stage for success. So dial it in if you have to, but phone it in at your peril.

Why Digital Photography Matters

This year (2008) marks the year that I have decided to seriously rekindle my lost love affair with photography. When I first applied to design school and I had to declare a major, my pen wavered between checking the graphic design box and the photography box. In the end I chose graphic design, and that was probably a wise choice as my natural talent still probably lies there. But, even after high school I never really left the darkroom. My Beseler 23C enlarger made appearances in various apartment bathrooms throughout the late 80s and early 90s as I continued to produce mediocre black & white photographs. When I eventually moved to Thailand in 1996 I sold most of my stuff—including the darkroom—and I never developed another print again. I still shot a lot of film with my trusty Pentax ME Super while living in Thailand, but the corner Photomat was as close as I got to any hands-on work.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and the arrival of my first digital camera, a Nikon 4500. While the camera itself did nothing to improve my natural ability to take a decent photograph, it did allow me to take a lot of them. The cost of film no longer mattered. Mixing chemicals no longer mattered. And this allowed me to take huge quantities of photographs, and in that sense it did improve my ability in one important way: I no longer waited for the perfect shot, I just shot.

At the same time some of my old-school artist friends were still dismissing digital photography as a lower art form. It lacked the “hands-on” of real photography: the smell of chemicals, the labored processes, the selection of papers, the dirtying of the hands. I found this rather ironic as I’m sure that’s exactly what the old-timey painters were telling the old-timey photographers back at the turn of the century: that this soulless new art form with its gadgets and chemicals called “photography” will never achieve the museum-quality status of the works of the great painters and sculptors.

As with anything new, digital photography is maligned for the same reason that its older sibling “regular” photography was back in the day. This general distrust of “digital” art is odd to me for several reasons. First, old school black and white photography (which gets the most “artistic” respect) is a process in which silver halide crystals are exposed to light and are then rendered black or white via chemical processing. As these crystals are grouped together they create tonality depending on their proximity to one or another. So really, light affects the crystals and turns them on or off. Black or white. 1 or 2. It’s a binary process. Black and white photography is a digital art form by definition.

Second, when you shoot film, the film itself is designed to react a certain way depending on manufacturer and style (think Tri-X or Kodak Porta) these films have a “look”. From there the processing of the film is typically done by a lab and that process adds to the total number of hands touching the “art”. Next, paper manufacturers design their paper to have specific looks, feels, and textures—you see where this is going. Conversely, when I shoot a photograph in RAW format and bring it into my software application, in this case Adobe Lightroom, I am editing the raw data the camera captured and I have full control over every pixel in the frame—not the camera, the lab, or the film company. The chain of command is reduced to me and the software with no outside forces filtering my work. So really, my “artistic” control is enhanced with digital photography—both by my ability to shoot a higher volume of photographs and my ability to edit each pixel directly. Now, it’s important to mention that no amount of equipment or software is going to make anyone a good photographer, but that’s true of any discipline. If you can’t paint, the best sable brush will do nothing for you. But the converse is also true: one’s medium doesn’t determine the level of artistic authenticity in one’s work, that can only be determined by the execution and vision of one’s endeavor.

But yeah, now that I have the right equipment, I want to spend the next year really focusing on technique—I want to elevate the craft of making photos—both behind the lens and behind the Macintosh. I’ve never called myself a photographer, but I hope by the end of the year I will feel comfortable doing just that. And I really want to start learning more from some of the modern masters. My latest favorite is Jill Greenberg. Her attitude about photography is right on to me, and this quote from a recent video interview says it all:

I don’t really romanticize straight photography. I think it’s nice to just get in there..If you want to change the picture, change the picture. It doesn’t need to be evidence of some actual event that happened.

I remember when I first started printing my own photographs in high school. I would always make sure to allow the edges of the negative to peek through on the final print as proof that I didn’t enlarge the shot in the darkroom. As if by succumbing to the whims of the camera manufacturer’s frame ratio I was being truer to the art form. That kind of thinking seems so silly to me now.

More photos at LookatLao Photography. There’s always new snapshots over on Flickr as well.