RUSSIAN roulette is not an intellectually demanding game, and it is probably best played when you are extremely drunk. For those unfamiliar with the rules, they are simple. You load one chamber of a revolver, leaving the others empty; close your eyes; spin the cylinder; hold the gun to your own head, and pull the trigger. Assuming it has the customary six chambers, you have a five out of six chance of survival. I have to admit that I’ve never played it, and I don’t think that this has much to do with the fact that my favourite revolver, my stainless-steel-frame Ruger . Magnum, is currently in California.
Those who have played it and survived are generally of the opinion that it gives you a whole new perspective on life. Of course, there are those who have played it who are in no condition to comment on this. The estimable Nassim Nicholas Taleb reports losing ‘a comrade’ to this game during the Lebanese civil war. Recent re-reading of his fooled by randomness, which I read after his subsequent masterpiece the black swan, reminded me of this and prompted the present musings. The game I propose is utterly trivial compared with Russian roulette, but perhaps represents an interesting approach to so-called ‘photographer’s block’, those ‘dry spells’ when we don’t seem to be able to muster the enthusiasm to take any pictures.
It is merely an expansion or hypertrophy of a well-known piece of advice, which is to leave your camera at home for (say) a day, a week, or a month, while still looking for opportunities to take pictures. The theory is that you will be so frustrated by the lack of a camera that you will start carrying one again. Instead of this, I propose carrying your loaded camera with you, but with the resolution not to take pictures. This, I suspect, magnifies the power of the experiment a hundredfold.
After all, taking pictures is at least in part a question of kinetic memory. Again, for those unfamiliar with the terms, this derives from Stanislavsky’s theory of acting. He refers to ’emotional memory’, a tool for actors. When you have to play a character who is depressed or miserable, you remember a time when you were depressed or miserable; when you play a character who is newly in love, you remember a time when you were newly in love. ‘Kinetic memory’, also called ‘muscle memory’ and ‘physical memory’, is a part of this. According to mood, we square our shoulders, or slump them; stride proudly, or drag our feet; breathe deeply or shallowly. Lee Strasberg is responsible for the truly awful New York version of what Stanislavsky originally taught at the Moscow Arts Theatre; but even so, his analyses are not without merit.
This ‘kinetic memory’ is an essential part of what I am talking about. Operating a camera, when you are really ‘in the groove’ and taking great pictures, is essentially a sensuous experience: we speak, after all, of the rhythm of shooting. Arguably, manual film advance is en important part of this: the ballet of eye, thumb and index finger is more satisfying than just pressing the shutter release and hearing the clack of the motorized shutter of a digital camera or (in a few cases, even now) automatic film advance.
Although sudden death is seldom in prospect, unless you are contemplating taking pictures in extraordinarily dangerous circumstances, the parallel between having your camera with you, and playing Russian roulette, is astonishingly exact. Either path — shooting with no camera, playing Russian roulette with no revolver — can be pursued as a though: experiment. But as soon as you have the camera or the gun in your hand, it is all vastly more real, more immediate. The weight of the camera or cun; the familiarity of operating it; the textures, ergonomics, even the smell; everything conspires to make you think, ‘Why?’ or ‘Why not?’
This is where the two examples diverge. Sooner or later, if ycu continue to play, you are likely to lose at Russian roulette. When you do, you will have lost for good. From all I’ve heard, the more you play, the more you tend to grow blase about the possibility of losing. With photography, it’s rather different. Losing isn’t anything like as bad, or at least, anything like as permanent: it means anything from mild disappointment to serious depression. Winning, meanwhile, covers a vast range of possibilities from mild elation to heady euphoria. But, like Russian roulette, all you have to do is flex your trigger finger. Isn’t it worth trying?