T is for The Nannster

| March 29, 2014

I took four years of photo in high school with Vince Nanni, my old-school Republican curse-dropping, no-shit-taking, Rush-Limbaugh-Show-listening teacher. He was the man, and it was my favorite class. This wasn’t your typical artsy bullshit digital photo class either, to put it like Mr. Nanni. This class, like the man who ran it, was from the old school: black-and-white film photography. We developed our own film, put together contact sheets, made and developed prints. Mr. Nanni ran it like a shop class (his words), and he took pride in that.

“Photography” sounds very aesthetic, almost inherently so. “Shop class” sounds equally un-aesthetic in its focus on technical craft. So how to reconcile the two?

I know this has come up in our class. Several people have mentioned how being a producer of art can cause someone to focus on those technical craft elements in their reception of others’ art, which detracts or even eliminates the artist’s aesthetic experience. (What does it replace the experience with? A “learning” experience? A “technical” experience? No experience at all?)

Personally, I have never felt that knowing technical aspects of photography has canceled out whatever ability I might have to perceive a photograph aesthetically, despite my uncanny ability to observe its use of the Rule of Thirds. But whether or not there is any truth here, for others, or me, or anyone, let me ask this question: is a piece of art like a swan, which appears pristine and beautiful above the water (what you perceive) while its legs kick violently below it (the technical craft you do not perceive unless you are a producer yourself)?

The Bruce Lee of animals.

That question I do not know the answer to. This one I do: was the swan metaphor a blatant excuse for me to tell the Swan Story?


The Swan Story is a story Mr. Nanni uses to introduce a depth-of-field assignment. It’s one of many classic Nanni stories, including one in which, as kids, he and his friends saw another kid play chicken with an oncoming train, lose, and, well, explode (the “Train Story”). It is a thing of beauty.

When Mr. Nanni was a teenager, he and his friends would scuba dive. Now, Mr. Nanni grew up poor in the Bronx, and “scuba diving” meant diving in dirty bodies of water with an oxygen tank he had to lug around with him once it ran out because he didn’t have the money to keep buying new ones. This fact will come into play later.

One day, while diving in a lagoon, Mr. Nanni surfaces in the middle of a circle of swans, which sounds nice and is terrible. Because swans don’t take kindly to people invading their territory.

The swans attack, and there is nowhere for Mr. Nanni to go. He might be able to escape by dropping his oxygen tank and swimming for it; but again, tanks are expensive and he can’t afford to lose it. So he has to tread water, hold the tank, and fend off swan attacks, which quickly tires him out. There is a real possibility of drowning now; what seemed like a comical situation has become life-threatening.

But then Mr. Nanni remembers a crucial fact: swans can’t perceive depth. Now he has a plan, and he just has to wait for the right moment to execute.

Finally, a swan swoops in for the attack and gets too close. Mr. Nanni pulls the Muhammad Ali feint—leaning back when an opponent punches just enough that his arm doesn’t reach Ali’s face—leaving the swan’s neck hanging in the air, exposed. And his opportunity isn’t the only thing Mr. Nanni seizes; he grabs that neck and reels the swan in.

Swans, as it turns out, are excellent flotation devices. So when the other swans try to attack, Mr. Nanni can beat them back without expending his energy. Now with the advantage, he gets cocky: he starts swinging his swan at the others like it’s a goddamned Morningstar. He only stops once the swan’s neck cracks, exhausting its usefulness as a weapon.

The swan of Medieval weaponry.

Beaten by a superior intellect, the pack of swans finally gives up and flees. When they are gone, Mr. Nanni releases his prisoner. But it is too late: as the swan tries to swim off into the sunset, it starts veering crazily to the right; its neck flops over; and it topples into the water like the Titanic…

At this point, Mr. Nanni stops his story and turns to an easel with two columns: predators and prey. Predators have eyes in the front of their heads, and see in three dimensions; prey have eyes on the sides, and see in two. Each column has a few example animals, but the last one in each is covered by an index card.

Mr. Nanni removes the index card on the prey side. Underneath it is the word “Swan.”

Never saw it coming.

Then he reveals the final, apex predator: