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[ VOL 003; ISS 005 ] The Photographer as Critic

On Strant’s Camera Reality blog I wrote a short piece titled, Not Too Many Blogs, Zines, Magazines, and Self-Published Books in which I said that “dissenters might argue that there are too many photographers out there producing blogs, zines, magazines, self-published books, etc. On the contrary however, I believe photographers are diversifying themselves and understanding photography better by writing, editing, and publishing.” I would like to expand on the topic a bit because, as photographers I believe we are often motivated by the consumption of our work rather than the self-reflection it allows. Self-reflection is not the end all of photography, but my argument here is that despite the hemming and hawing to be seen and heard, neither is its consumption. I would like to make an argument for the photographer as critic.

In his book A Short Guide to Writing about Art, Sylvan Barnet says that “in putting words on paper we have to take a second and third look at what is in front of us and what is within us. And so writing is a way of learning… when we write we hope to make at least a little progress in the difficult but rewarding job of talking about our responses.” Those sentences are contained within the very first paragraph of the book. The book is, essentially a primer for college students learning critical writing about art. It is not however, without merit as advice for not just the young critical writer but any creative including the photographer. In The Liberating Role of Conflict in Group Creativity Charlan Nemeth writes that “the encouragement of debate—even criticism—may permit the generation of more creative ideas.” It is evident to the creative process that criticism is necessary, a process of better understanding by commentary and reply.

Not Too Many Blogs, Zines, Magazines, and Self-Published Books was prompted after reading an interview in which the subject, a photographer, noted that the number of photography blogs with a need for new content daily are creating buzz around photography that isn’t good. Within days of reading that interview, a conversation by email came to an end as a potential contributor to a future issue of Strant declined to be included. I absolutely respect the photographer’s decision to decline, especially considering it was a potential conflict of interest with another opportunity by another publication for the project to be published. In the end however, it was not the conflict of interest that lead the photographer to decline but rather, an issue regarding technical decisions. This disagreement lead the photographer to explain, much like the subject of the interview, that there are too many photography publications out there anyhow. I share these stories not to spite either of these photographers (hence omitting names) or out of my own pity. Rather I shared them because I recognize the irony of the situations at hand. First, the interview I read was featured on a photography blog. Second, the would-be-collaborator for Strant is also a publisher of zines and photobooks. Both were arguing that there are too many publications out there. These are two photographers, one taking advantage of an online platform to presumably promote work and the second photographer, attempting to make a go at publishing the very thing of which there are supposedly too many. There is however despite the irony, accuracy in their assertions.

What is the point of a photography publication be it a blog, zine, magazine, or self-published book anyhow? What is the point of the photographer? For one, it is in fact to introduce viewers to the otherwise unknown. Unfortunately for many publications and photographers, this is where it ends. Given the sheer magnitude of good and bad photographers alike, there is plenty of room for plenty of publications taking on this role and as well, there is always room for new commentary by a photographer, new juxtapositions to be explored or even existing ideas to be reconsidered in a more contemporary way. But as the subject of the interview said, and with which if certain presumptions exist I agree, there is too much of this going on. The presumption is that the only role of photography publications is to promote work of the unknown and to continue my vein, the photographer’s role to introduce the unknown. If this were the case, then I agree with the interviewee. But this is not true and there is not too much of this going on. It is simply not being done well, myself as a photographer and Strant not excluded. The photography publication and photographer, at least in principal, should offer up more than just a look at the unknown. There are other roles the photography publication and photographer should take on and if each were doing so, despite the number of photographers out there today (even if the “bad” photographers were included), I believe the notion of “too many” could be dismissed. In short, many photography publications and photographers are not focused on the right thing and instead, are focused on attracting a demanding but inattentive audience.

Let’s consider then, what the role of a photography publication or photographer should be beyond promoting the unknown. To do so, I’d like to cite again Sylvan Barnet who himself cites poet and 20th Century writer W.H. Auden. Auden suggests six functions of the critic. I would like to adapt four of these functions for photography publications and in doing so suggest that in some regard, every photographer could benefit from functioning much the same. Each of the four are introduced below in italics. Words contained in brackets are what I have added or used as replacement for his original text. The full six functions of a critic as Auden wrote them appear in his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand.

1. Introduce me to [photographers] of which I was hitherto unaware.

Given the platform of the internet and the recent boom in self-publishing, this one is pretty accessible and has been thus far, a focus of this essay.

2. Give a “reading” of [the photography] which increases my understanding of it.

This function should go hand in hand with introducing work. Unfortunately thoughtful consideration of work has been exchanged for a mill-churn style of pumping out work to be seen and liked by way of social media. This is almost an exploitation of the photographer, using her unknown status to promote not just the work, but the publication itself. In this form, the act of discovery takes precedence over any consideration of these newly discovered talents. We should give deserved thought to photography if we intend to introduce it to a new audience, which leads to numbers three and four…

3. Throw light upon the [photographic] process.

How a photographer arrived at the photograph or body of photographs should be taken into consideration. This is not an opportunity for a biopic understanding of the photographer, but rather how the relationship of creation and created serves as a framework to understand the work.

4. Throw light upon the relation of [photography] to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

Most any art is a response, be it out of disgust or celebration, of some form of our existence. If we understand the photography in context to when or where it was created we can apply meaning (even if varied) to the work.

We can assume that often we will fall short of these functions. Sometimes photography and photography publications will not be good. But good photography and good publications is not the point. Contributing to critical dialogue is. We often associate criticism with pointing out flaws. But critical thought is not about judgement but rather being self-aware by contributing to the conversation. It is also important that we consider the photographic process much the same as an on-going dialogue. And likewise a good photographer or good photography publication is self-aware and contributes to the conversation addressing how we see and understand ourselves both collectively and individually. This critical process can “both liberate individuals to be relatively free of evaluation apprehension and stimulate them to express ideas more freely. Further, such an atmosphere might also stimulate creativity subsequent to the interaction” writes Nemeth. Being self-aware means understanding one’s own voice. As Barnet wrote, “we turn to criticism with the hope that the critic has seen something we have missed[.]” This is, I believe, just cause for dialogue about our photographic pursuits be it criticism of our own work or listening to the criticism of others. And it can be easily said, that we turn to photography with the hope that the photographer has seen something we have missed. Sometimes a photographer is fruitful in this pursuit and other times, barren. But as I shared in Not Too Many Blogs, Zines, Magazines, and Self-Published Books, “the work might not be outstanding but it is that photographer at that particular time as evidenced by a body of work be it written or visual, but shared… what is valuable is the personal insight gained as the photographer understands his or her voice through means other than solely the photographic.” If we understand ourselves better, then perhaps we can make critical commentary on the world be it through our own photography or critical study of the photography of others.

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[ VOL 003; ISS 004 ] The Overgrown South

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Perhaps more than any other region of the U.S., the South attempts to define itself and to preserve its culture. And intentional or not Southern photographers have been defined by the region and as well, regarded as stewards of Southern culture. William Eggleston, William Christenberry, Sally Mann, Keith Carter, William Griener, Mark Steinmetz, Maude Schuler Clay, and Jane Rule Burdine to name a few are all photographers defined at least in part by geography. Their work is a visual of the South defining the region and even if unintentionally, preserving the culture of the region. Eggleston and Christenberry both by their own account however, were photographing what was in a sense in front of them at the time, documenting their contemporary worlds (as are or were most of the photographer noted above), not acting as delegated historians. Their work has also served as a start point for many contemporary Southern photographers. If it is difficult to understand color photography without the influence of Eggleston or Christenberry, it is even more difficult to have one’s own Southern photographic perspective. I would argue however, that to work as they worked, to start where they started, is no place to begin. This then presents itself, as a problem of where as a Southern photographer, should one start? What should one say? And is it even worthwhile to regard oneself as a Southern artist or not? That last question is where we should begin. If the answer is no, then there is no concern.

The American writer Willie Morris (b. 1934, Jackson, MS) said in a New York Times review of the book An American Journey by Anthony Walton that, “to understand the world, William Faulkner once said, you have to understand a place like Mississippi.” The quote within the quote has since been extracted from its context and attributed directly to William Faulkner (b. 1897, New Albany, MS), the context of Morris attributing it to Faulkner, dismissed. Although all a bit muddled, whether it was Morris putting words in the mouth of Faulkner or if he had access to Faulkner text that no one else had (the origins of the quote has never been, as far as I know, authenticated), does not matter. Either way Faulkner had a profound enough influence on Morris to do one of the two. There are within this story three things to consider and that is one, influence happens; two, the South must be important; and three, influence and the South are both very complicated. And so, there is enough justified concern to move forward from here.

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So what is a contemporary Southern photographer to do if not to react to the work of photographers before us? Was Morris not influenced by Faulkner? Is just about any photographer living or born in a three state radius of Memphis, TN not influenced by William Eggleston? Photography is after all, a dialogue in which one photographer’s statement informs the response of another. In Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson says “photographers approach the world that is their subject… relying on the kind of direct, challenging response a later worker presents in his work to a famous precursor.” The “famous precursor” for so many Southern photographers is not only previous Southern photographers but also the Southern past. Many Southern photographers have built portfolios of work with the past as a starting point. This kind of work is good, important, and worthwhile. Like photography, it addresses the relationship between past and present. It often rightfully garners the public’s attention as well as the art world. It is in short, good but to be expected of Southern photography and too often relies more on the past than it does the present through stereotypes and expected tropes.

This is perhaps not the fault of the contemporary photographer just as Willie Morris’ quote about Faulkner and Mississippi would have any less weight if it were ever proven that Faulkner never uttered the phrase. And really, there is no fault even to be had because just as Morris spoke a certain truth, even if vicariously, so does the contemporary photographer. Consider Thompson’s idea however, that contemporary photographers are compelled (either by internal or external forces) to challenge previous photographer’s work, and as I argue for Southern photographers specifically, the past. Rather, it is the fault of the expectations placed upon the photographer by the general public, the art world or editorial outlets (those external forces) which one know what sells, two look for sensationalized content and three, can promote with a certain degree of confidence, what is to be expected from Southern photography: stereotypes of rural and dilapidated landscapes and impoverished people struggling to reconcile race relations. Photography however has the ability to address the less obvious. The rural degradation captured by Christenberry for instance, is a byproduct of the passing of time; or rather it is the passing of time Christenberry photographs whereas the degradation of the South is seemingly the start point for so much of the current photography that has garnered appeal. For the non-Southerner audience or art buyer, the South is a place of mystery. An eroding cultural landscape can provide for plenty of questions of why and therefore, mystery. For the Southern audience, it is a sense of pride. Either way, through depictions of homemade aesthetic, an antiquated place or a visual of poverty the photography we see perpetuates stereotypes by presenting the South as no more than a place of vivid color demarcated by hand painted signs or rural poor people elusively wrapped in questions of how can this exist in our contemporary times. There is however, a subtler more nuanced truth that is for better or worse, often mundane and unrecognizable as something that will one day hold just as much importance or mass appeal as what the likes of William Christenberry or William Eggleston have already photographed.

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Photography allows new relationships to be explored, things as they are as opposed to just what we’ve been told them to be. The South then, for instance, is not fully represented by dilapidation and poverty nor does it only exist in relationship to its former self. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman said once in an interview, “The past is not done with you because you can’t get rid of it.” And this is the sometimes-contentious relationship photography presents, the past married to the present. This is especially so with Southerners and Southern photography. In The New Mind of the South, Tracy Thompson writes, “if Southerners made a big deal about feeling different it’s because in a very literal sense we were.” She goes on to argue that the South is a culture built upon the constant need to amend itself all while maintaining values built upon food, faith, and family. These are constant qualities of the South that weather racism, poverty, and even the huge demographic shift currently happening as more and more Hispanics migrate to Southern states, which demands the question in a place that for so long has been regarding as made up of only two races, who then is even a Southerner?

If the South makes an effort to distinguish itself, to identify itself, more than any other region in the U.S. and if the relationship to the past, as Hoffman said, is most difficult to reconcile then this is perhaps where the South is in more a quandary than anywhere else. That notion, past in relation to present, not only permeates Southern identity but Southern photography as well. The relationship of past to present is a cornerstone of photography. We are reminded constantly of how young photography is and it is evident, as we struggle to define it, that in its approximate two hundred year existence we are still looking back to understand what is happening. Much the same, if Southern identity is not wrapped up in pride of heritage then it is in an effort to distance itself from the stereotypes that accompany it. This limbo doesn’t do any contemporary Southern photographer any favors. To photograph what was, is easy and admittedly enjoyable and appealing. Photographing the contemporary South without conceding to stereotypes is by far, more difficult.

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The curiosity of non-Southerners, the pride of Southerners, and the demand by the art and editorial worlds for enigmatic images of a mysterious place make it difficult for contemporary Southern photographers to consider the otherwise simple task of deciding what to photograph. It is important to photograph what used to be. There is still plenty to be said about the past. But equally as important, is to photograph what is now, even if mundane. By and by, the on-goings of everyday life in the South, much like anywhere else, is not so distinctive or sensational that those living that life recognize it as anything other than routine work and play. As Eudora Welty said in her introduction to Eggleston’s The Democratic Forrest, “no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say.” It should be the keen eye of the photographer that brings this to light, acting as provocateur rather than historian. This is the world Eggleston so graciously showed us through his democratic approach. What seems to be promoted still in Southern photography however is not what is, but what was the South Eggleston has already photographed. And lastly, it should not be the intent of the photographer, Southern or not, to reveal some Kantian, existential meaning. I understand that I am offering up a contradiction, as I believe that photography is an ongoing conversation by way of photographers continuing to photograph subject matter that has been photographed before. And that this is an important dialogue, one that does create new meaning through new relationships. But that meaning comes by its own accord, not forced on us by the heavy hand of the photographer looking to the past in consideration of the present. We should be careful not to force juxtaposition, conscious that at some point past can usurp present as then we are left with a gap of photographic knowledge, a contemporary world undocumented and a lack of understanding of our contemporary existence that photography can provide. Photography is a wonderful medium to present nothing more than what we recognize each of us individually, Southern or not, to be true. It is the concern of the photographer to react, to implicate and at the same time reaffirm and to hold that truth is defined in relation to but not by the past.

(Photographs by Shaun H Kelly from the series, The Overgrown South)

 

[ VOL 003; ISS 003 ] We Give What We Have – Pause, Foundation, & Process in Creativity; an essay by Jesse Groves

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There are just a few constants in each of our lives; ones we cling to, our foundations of strength, and, sometimes, habits we are trying to shake off. What we hold on to, what we have chosen and what was placed within us. These constants – these roots – form our perspective and are the source for creativity; our blessings and our curses. Our roots connect us to our source, the abundance from which we outpour.

In the pursuit of understanding the formation of perspective and applying this to creative work is both an act of listening and an act of submission. The photographer submits to the camera; the medium itself seems as much the author of the work as the person releasing the shutter. This is a process echoed in a spiritual search: a submission and recognition of meaning beyond yourself. Photography’s greatest value lies in its ability to capture the physical world in a metaphoric way and reference it in a metaphysical way.

Simply putting information in a photograph is never quite satisfying. Minor White explains this by saying the photographic medium’s language is metaphor and if a medium’s language is metaphor then it needs to explore the idea and not just the object in front of the lens. An object is selected for its symbolic value as much as for its literal value. In other words, the human experience needs to come through the work, or at least a sense of the space as much as the space itself. To do this the photographer must move from being a strict observer to being a participant.

J.M.W. Turner and Eugene Richards are two artists who have always provided a sense of the sentient within the confines of their frame. Turner painted events, or scenes where the emotion and feeling of the event took the front seat and the exact detail stepped back. Modern abstract painters recognized the foundational thought behind his pioneering work to reflect human experience in art.

“Rothko, Still and Motherwell responded not merely to the optical and physical qualities of Turner’s painted surfaces but also to what they saw as their deep moral resonances. In other words, they admired him, not because he relinquished subject matter…but because Turner seemed to have found a new way of expressing enduring human concerns. To them the word ‘subject’ meant more than just narrative and anecdote; it also embraced the states of mind and feeling that color, form and the handling of paint could produce. As Rothko, together with his colleague Adolph Gottlieb, once wrote: ‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial.’”

 – Barry Venning, Turner

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In his painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, Turner combines in one image a social commentary regarding the transition from a fading agricultural society to an industrial one that rushes in to take over, all while capturing motion in this painting like never before. People of his time would swear that they saw real rain in the painting along with a train that was speeding through the image at 50 miles per hour.

Turner was attuned to the change of pace that was rushing over society, and this pace, this enveloping rush, was what he recorded. This is, however, not a pace that today’s society is unfamiliar with. Turner may have captured in this painting the very sense and vehicle – the train – that would place culture in a state of time-obsession and interruption. It is the beginning of the railroad that gave us our anxious experience of time. The sense foreign, yet crucial, in today’s culture is the sense of pause; a necessary experience for creativity.

The photographer Irwin Dermer once wrote of culture, “how many ‘faces’ lie hidden, waiting for the time when curious eyes will find them in their secret places: in the heart of a leaf or the bark of a tree, in the frozen pond or the turning sea, in the twist of a chair or the look of a key.” The act of shooting has always held this potential for the power of discovery – by a patient observer. There is dialogue just waiting to be started, all around, and no word need be spoken.

With The Blue Room, the photographer Eugene Richards has found some of these ‘hidden faces’ among the abandoned houses of the American west. This book is Richards’ first photographic work in color, and with it he has created a collection of images that are a historical document of this time. It is a reflection on the lives once lived in these spaces that, seen through Richards’ camera, causes personal introspection. These images are an uncontrived record of our world, yet they hold a deeper meaning that reverberates with the viewer. They seem to ask the viewer to consider what is truly being captured, and if that relates to the viewer’s own life; what they value, what they treasure, and what they will hold on to or abandon.

His style is exemplified in his image Near Wildrose, North Dakota, 2006. His use of a wide-angle lens and the slight tilt of the horizon is a technique he adopted from watching films, this technique that brings a sense of instability to the image. With a simple frame, Richards documents a space to convey a fleeting sense of life. The inside of this abandoned home begins to disappear into the outside, as if being erased by the external elements of the seasons: as if to say nothing is permanent.

Nothing stays the same, and yet the strong human desire for foundation and permanence is ever-present. We all need something to come back to, to cling to in the midst of the change. We need to believe there is deeper meaning in what we see.

Judith Schulevitz, a journalist, has devoted the majority of the last 10 years of her career to research and writing on the Sabbath. She makes a case for the value of a process-focused life. Schulevitz writes about how we have established a society that is so work and goal oriented; we want to change, “but the inability to stop scheming and striving and fussing and communicating is not an individual problem. It’s a reaction to an environment in which work is always being done or distraction always being had, and there is never a moment when everyone just stops pursuing their usual pursuits.” This constant striving never allows rest or satisfaction with the goals achieved, but pushes from one straight to the next.

The lesson of the Sabbath is that we are not the master. That we, as human beings, need to pause in order to be present in our place. Intention is where we begin, and what clarifies our motives. We must begin our creative process with intention – and to have intention we must find a place to be quiet; to accept what comes, and make our work from what arises from the stillness.

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Image One: Eugene Richards, Near Wildrose, North Dakota, 2006
Image Two: J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

This essay was contributed to Strant by Jesse Groves who was raised in the woods outside of Hanover, New Hampshire, the state that proudly holds as its motto “Live Free or Die.” He is a curator and photographer living in Southern California who believes that art at its best is an important dialogue in intention, truth and community. www.jessegroves.com

[ VOL 003, ISS 002 ] Shelby Lee Adams & Our Collective Identity

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Why do we need to define everything? Take for instance, the religious practice of snake handling. Faith manifested in a practice most would avoid. We tend to qualify this practice as foolish, practiced by dull-witted people rather than, at the least, ignorant-to-potential-health-risks or more graciously and probably accurate, as simply a chosen way of life of which we do not participate. We are more comfortable in defining things rather than letting things exists as the mysterious and inexplicable contradictions that they are. Many ways of life are all at once foreign but familiar too in our collective identity as Americans.

There is an experiment of normative relativism in which two participants are asked to define water. In the experiment, a bowl of room temperature water is placed on a table. On one side of the bowl another bowl of hot water is placed and on the other side, a bowl of ice water. One participant is instructed to hold her hand in the bowl of hot water while the other is to hold her hand in the ice water. After an allotted amount of time, participants are to simultaneously place the hand that has previously been in hot and cold water respectively, into the bowl of room temperature water. They are then asked to define the water. More often than not the participant’s responses are conflicting as they describe what they are feeling rather than attempting to define the water. The participant having had her hand in ice water describes the room temperature water as warm while the other participant having had her hand in hot water describes the same bowl of water as cool. The experiment illustrates our tendency to define something by how it makes us feel rather than what it actually is.

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As Americans, we love best-of lists, charts, and graphs. They quantify and distill down that which we either didn’t know correlated or that which otherwise would be incomprehensible or confusing. They are often used in demographics and attempt to define large swaths of people by standards such as poverty and education by what we have attributed as “normal”. And then we believe that because we can see a correlation like poverty and ignorance, that we can understand causation or that the two are related. Now I don’t understand my neighbor at times anymore than I understand snake handlers. My neighbor is neither impoverished nor ignorant but the strange things my neighbor does I can more easily wrap my head around than say believing it to be God’s will to be handling a venomous snake. And that’s saying a lot given I once caught my neighbor urinating off his balcony onto my front stoop. Both acts are easily dismissed as strange and my neighbor was drunk and therefore his behavior although irrational, is explained. But I should not define my neighbor by this act alone or rather, how I feel about his actions. A singular understanding of him or the people who take part in other strange behaviors intentional or not, would make them out to be slightly bizarre, odd characters… this includes the pissing drunks and the snake handling charismatics. I know my neighbor is more than just a pissing drunk because I have had more than just that one interaction with him. It makes some sense though (although unjustified) that we attempt to distance ourselves from these people, which we have indeed deemed as odd characters based on one particular behavior because by association we don’t want to be considered odd. But they are just as much a part of who we are as a nation and they are more faceted than what even their most extreme behavior would have us believe.

We tend to promote a fragmented American identity, one in which each and everyone can be on his or her own while being set apart from the whole. And we believe falsely that our identity is unique from the next person and that I can be me and you can be you and we won’t overlap unless we elect to do so. Yet each year lists are generated ranking states or regions as the fattest, the poorest, the most liberal, etc. We latch on to these lists and define the others who we are not a part of by a narrowly defined scope while still maintaining that our own identity is broader than that. And each year that state or region and the people within becomes defined, despite a nuanced culture in any given place, by that singular title, especially the ones with negative connotations such as the “poorest”. Collectively they are seen as a pity, a poor shame, and beyond hope. But this isn’t the collective identity of the poor. It is rather, an incrimination of those insular places not considered poor. I live in one of those insulated places where the ease of healthy living and access to continuing education makes me believe I am living the right kind of life, rather than understanding that the right kind of life isn’t about my well being exclusively or what is afforded to me. Rather, a healthy identity regards the well being of all. I’ve at times almost convinced myself that I cannot live a good life anywhere outside of these idyllic places. And this I know isn’t just me. It’s a collective attitude about the poor places. And it is perpetuated because of the unwillingness of the better-off to understand what isn’t ours or allow others to exist without the judgment that they are in need of what we have. Ignorance is one thing and stupidity is another. But too often we confuse the two and those that are ignorant are considered stupid. Is ignorance a bad thing? Like I said, am I somehow better off by the things afforded to me that have not been afforded to others?

Ever since Jacob Riis, marginalized communities have made for photographic fodder. And as the title of his body of work which documented squalor in New York, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York” implies, we do not consider the marginalized to be us. This makes it easy to be dismissive when presented confounding, conflicting, and troubling difficult to deal with problems for which we do not have a solution. As well, what one fraction of the collective whole considers a problem another fraction considers it to not be a problem. If a community has elected to do so or has been put in a place in which certain needs like health and education aren’t met then of course there is a problem for which intervention might be the solution. But we tend to confuse certain lifestyle preferences as needs and incriminate those who do not, or cannot share in that same lifestyle. And it is easy to ask, how can what I know to be good for myself not be good for others? Collective identity however is not so simple as it too contradicts itself. As soon as we understand ourselves as a progressive nation, we read of something in the news that for many seems ignorant or worse stupid and reckless, such as a pastor’s death from snakebite. Our response is often to sensationalize this behavior and push it further into the realm of oddity where it can exist as part of what we believe to not be us. If they cannot conform then they must be ostracized and be put on a reality television program where we simply distract ourselves from bigger issues by forcing upon those people our fixed and slightly less judgmental gaze. They quickly become characters on a screen rather than real people. Or we give up, assuming as grossly over simplified statistics suggest, that things are too far-gone. But things are too far-gone only if we consider solutions that are as finite as our lifespans or a presidential administration’s term rather than broadening our understanding of what is and is not right. It is difficult admittedly to suggest and act upon the understanding that we are not the problem solvers. Like a traffic light, we only consider three options: stop, go, or yield to either of those first two options. All three of which are in response to one thing: progress. Either we are moving forward and we feel fine or we are sitting still, and we feel defeated. And then what do we do with remaining idle?

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During my first couple of years in college I’d always determine the last day to drop a class. If at this point due to skipping classes and not submitting assignments in a timely manner I’d earned a failing or barely passing grade that could not be salvaged by bringing it back up to a “C” I would drop the class. I should have been maintaining a better standard all along of course. For those classes I’d receive not a grade, but a “W” on my transcripts for a withdrawal. Knowing I could do this, took the pressure off to actually sacrifice and act responsibly throughout the semester and it also took away the sting of failure. Neutral is easier. But even in neutral a car still burns gasoline it just takes longer to run out and along the way it’s not quite sitting still but nor is it quite moving. As my early college years suggest, idle isn’t really an option either. There is a forth option however but it doesn’t put us in the driver’s seat. In fact, it doesn’t even put us in the car.

Henry Wessel said, “Once you accept the idea that all photographs are fictions, analogies for the things they represent, then you are more receptive to the meaning that is being suggested by that analogy, by that fiction.” I believe this has a wider implication than just photography or art and believing so doesn’t exactly put us in charge. Especially if we cannot even say what is and not fiction. So lets take a moment to appreciate the portrait work of Shelby Lee Adams. Adams has photographed families of Appalachia (yes the same reduced and marginalized region of our United States that are known for those snake handling pastors) since the mid-1970’s. In contrast to the aforementioned definitions we tend to place on people, Adams’ work doesn’t explain a thing about his subjects. His work suggests that they are complex people just like you and me. They are family oriented. They are loving and proud. And the solution, as Shelby Lee Adams seems to purport, is not to figure them out. Rather we should engage ourselves by way of relating to those amongst us who we do not understand in a genuine and at time mysterious way. His portraits suggest the poor are not a problem, and we are not a solution.

[ VOL 003, ISS 001 ] A Misunderstanding Regarding Technology

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An Apple holiday ad for the iPhone, titled Misunderstood depicts an adolescent boy arriving with his family to presumably his grandparents’ home to visit extended family for the holidays. His grandparents greet his mother, father, and sibling as they cross a snow-covered yard. The teen hardly acknowledges the welcome he has received pausing only momentarily for a side hug from his grandfather as he shuffles, head down across the lawn. His attention is not at all diverted from his iPhone. A montage of scenarios follow in which at all times the boy is staring at the small device in his hands while others socialize. In a later scene he hands another young relative, younger than he, a carrot to complete the snowman that his sibling and cousins have built and still, his gaze remains fixed on his iPhone. For us the viewer, and his family whose father in one scene shakes his head in apparent dismay of how much attention his son pays to electronics, this boy has fulfilled a stereotype… that teens are detached and apathetic.

Later, while family bonds in the living room, the young teen turns on the television. Fortunately for Apple the kid’s grandparents are hip too, they have Apple TV. And because so, detached adolescent is able to shock everyone in the room (and those of us watching the commercial) with what was so important that he couldn’t break away from his iPhone to spend time with his family. In fact, detached adolescent has not been as detached as we are led to believe. He has been capturing the day’s events on video. Everyone watches and everyone cries. He is not detached after all and yes he does love his family. The premise of the ad is pretty easy to grasp. Most people can accept the notion that teens despite their posturing love their families and even though they do not know how they fit in, want to be accepted. A pill a bit harder to swallow is that Apple will get our kids to that place of acceptance. That technology makes the detached attached and that as Will Smith sang, “parents just don’t understand” but they would if they watched the video that apparently all preoccupied teens are making. Here’s the truth though, that kid wouldn’t be doing that, as most teens wouldn’t be either.  Like most any teen, he would be bemoaning to his friends back home the time spent at grandma’s house. How endless a weekend with family can be. How minutes are hours, hours are days. Those visits are great when we are young, suck when we are teens and they seem eternal, and then we hopefully learn to appreciate those times with family and recognize how fleeting they are as we get older.

The opening of the ad starts with a foggy suburban street, snow covered rooftops and a station wagon. A young boy staring out the window. A young boy and his iPhone. “Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.” These are the opening lines of the chapter titled 15 May 1905 in Alan Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dream, a novel in which each chapter is a fictionalized dream about time, had by Albert Einstein. In the chapter 15 May 1905, the world is referential to depictions of life through images only.  A family arriving at the home of extended family. Cold snow. A warm embrace as a warm welcome. Children and their grandmother in the kitchen. Gingerbread cookies on the counter. Sugary white icing. A park bench overlooking the city below. A young boy and his iPhone. A snowman on the lawn. A bright orange, crisp carrot. Children bundled in winter jackets. Children ice skating. A young boy perched on a fence. A young boy and his iPhone. A grandfather teasing his grandson. A grandson and his iPhone. A Christmas tree. Tinsel and ornaments glimmering. A warm fire burning in the fireplace. A photograph of a distant relative on the wall above a comfortable chair. A young boy and his iPhone sitting in a comfortable chair sideways, legs across the armrest. A young boy holding his sister’s hand. A young boy on his iPhone in bed. Children nestled in bed. A living room filled with gifts on Christmas morning. Family gathered together drinking warm drinks, dressed in warm flannel pajamas. A television.  A video of images captured by a young boys iPhone. An image of a warm embrace. An image of a warm welcome. An image of children and their grandmother in the kitchen. An image of a winter storm. An image of icicles. An image of a family, playing in the snow. An image of snow angels. An image of a baby staring at her first Christmas tree. An image of children playing, of a grandfather teasing a boy capturing an image with his iPhone. You and me watching an ad for an electronic device.

The ease with which we can record our lives now with our ubiquitous technology has convinced us of something. That is, that to own an experience by way of capturing the happenings of a particular moment is most important. And with ease we convince ourselves that this act is what is important. That the act, in and of itself is what matters. This is an existence referential always to something else, to another experience but a record of that experience, not even a memory. In order that we may not recall, but always live later never now, manipulating time and experience, making intangible tangible, and making time retroactively what we want it to be if anything at all. As for the bad moments, like for teens visiting family, we also have technology to not record but to transport us somewhere else and perhaps, travel through time to somewhere else we’d rather be or travel by way of scrolling images across a screen. If images can serve us in the way time once did, then we can be somewhere else always and in an instant. We are always somewhere else.

Our want is for control. If interaction is not physical then but rather remote and autonomous of direct interaction, the ability to transport our self through space and a perceived continuum is not such a stretch. In short, ownership of our lives is what we want and we believe technology has gotten us there. If there is no time, only images, then we live by a scrolling a touch screen. And by arresting, elongating, capturing and manipulating experience and thereby the same to time, we are convinced of our dominion over time, that we own it by way of destruction. Experience is not for us to own but we have convinced ourselves of the misunderstanding that we can.

(Billy D. Harris, Aubrey, AR, 2010 by Eugene Richards from Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down)

[ VOL 002, ISS 0010 ] Eugene Richards and Kickstarter

At my day job, I am the manager of the repair department of a camera shop. I have held this job for approximately two years now. Shortly after I took over the position I decided to reimplement collecting a deposit on repairs prior to any work being done. This was not my idea originally but rather a policy that had not been followed by previous management for whatever reason. To speculate, it was most likely because it becomes one more task in a sometimes tedious process sussing out details. But what I inherited was a department full of camera gear that had not been collected by clients at the end of the repair process. This resulted in the camera shop absorbing a fairly significant loss of revenue in repairs for which work had been done and payment not made. Customers simply decided not to pick up their repaired gear and although we had in our possession their camera equipment, California law does not make it simple for us to recoup losses by simply selling off the gear. We essentially had shelves and shelves of lost money in the form of cameras with which little could be done except watch them depreciate in value. The customer, having vested nothing financially in the repair process had simply weighed the consequence of having their gear versus not and decided that all had been lost. It was easier to leave what was broken behind. Reimplementing the deposit has changed this though. The deposit is usually insignificant, totaling often less than ten percent of the final cost of repair but we have much fewer abandoned repairs as a result. Having to invest financially upfront I have found lessens the occurrence of abandonment. Even though a small fee, that deposit encourages commitment and dissuades flippancy.

Well known and respected photographer Eugene Richards has recently begun a campaign on Kickstarter for a book project titled, Red Ball of Sun Slipping Down. Richards is by all regards a documentary photographer intent on raising social awareness for topics of social concern. Red Ball of Sun Slipping Down is “a timely story, an experiment in bookmaking. But because the book speaks of what for some people are off-putting issues—race, poverty, and aging—I feel obliged to self-publish it.” It is set in the Mississippi Delta of Arkansas, a region of forgotten opportunity and plenty of poverty. It is a broken place in need of repair. In an interview with Time Richards says, “My book is about what it was like back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, a time when cotton, poverty, and racism shaped people’s lives. This is shown in black-and-white photographs that have never been published before. But the book is also about the place now, a place that has been called by some the heart of the south. I’ve interwoven recent color work with the black-and-white photographs and a short story that relates my relationship with an impoverished delta woman, but also addresses my own concerns with aging and mortality.”(more here)

The Kickstarter campaign, set to end this Wednesday, is already more than funded. But that is not to say there is no reason if you feel so compelled to contribute, to not donate your money. On the campaign webpage is a breakdown of what opportunities could be had if funded beyond the initial goal. It is hard to say if the campaign was responded to so well because of people’s commitment to The Mississippi Delta or if because behind the project is such a well renowned name in the photographic community. Richards is good at what he does and that is why he is well known. And to add, this isn’t the first time he has self-published a book so again… he knows what he is doing and has exhibited a commitment to his projects and the subjects of his projects. But if Richards was crowdsourcing a project to photograph ballpoint pens because Bic was headed toward bankruptcy, would it get funding? Perhaps so simply because it is Eugene Richards but I’d like to believe that even such a hypothetical campaign like that would fall flat. Not because creative endeavors shouldn’t be supported but because we live in a society that doesn’t ask us to make decisions based upon listening and discourse. The pleadings or consternations, the legitimate concerns, or the passing interests of well known individuals or celebrities, or if the cause has with it a good marketing team, become our mantras… (Make Kony Famous, Make Kony Famous) at least temporarily. The clients at the camera shop at which I work abandon their repairs and we listen to George Clooney on Darfur and quickly decide that yes, Darfur needs our attention because having someone else make that decision for us is easier than deciding if this a commitment worthwhile. There is a wide gap between deciding to repair a camera or not and deciding if fighting genocide should be our concern but the way in which we make those decisions both reflect a certain complacency with our self-centric lives and our concerns become less about the need and more about how can we solve the problem. This leaves us with two options, a savior complex or apathy. Other Kickstarter campaigns addressing issues just as important as race and poverty have most likely been initiated and never fulfilled because whatever hype or aura needed around the cause just wasn’t there. No hype man, no catchy slogans or stickers or bracelets to say you were involved. This is where I believe Kickstarter is not as communal or democratic as they’d like to be. With good causes and campaigns need to be a certain flashiness. They have to have commercial appeal for a product obsessed world. Kickstarter to add is reward based. What I imagine are intended to be most often sincere gestures of appreciation in the form of a gift become the motivation for us to contribute to the campaign. I cannot say that a book by Eugene Richards would not be a nice edition to my bookshelf. There is no information regarding how much the book once published will retail for but a $55 donation gets you a book. That is not too far off a price from how much photobooks normally initially sell anyhow. It is almost more tempting to contribute a lesser amount that does not get me a reward. Wouldn’t that be a more honest contribution? Kickstarter does however I believe promote commitment. Just like that nominal deposit taken up front when we take in repairs at my day job, being invested financially encourages follow through, not just cutting the losses of a broken camera or abandoning our convictions, leaving what is broken behind. Clients often decide, and I sometimes encourage, that because most likely the gear will break again that the repair might not be worth it in the first place. A second repair would put the cost involved above the value of the product. This might be sound financially, but it doesn’t make sense in terms of commitment. That to us such a commitment does not foster a clear reward does not make sense. Much the same, when we see ourselves as the solution and the social concern cannot be fixed, we give up. But commitment encourages us to be just that, committed despite rationality. Sometimes we should if committed, work to repair the chronically broken.

With all this bemoaning of Kickstarter I have (surprisingly to myself) convinced myself that I should contribute to the campaign. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Mississippi and I know the region Richards has photographed just next door in Arkansas. Perhaps I have decided to do so because I get a copy of the book if I contribute enough. But most likely, it is a combination of those reasons, all under the umbrella that I find myself annoyed by lack of commitment from anyone from the clients at the my job to the Clooney, I mean Darfur supporters, and to myself who likes to cavil rather than commit or abandon rather than repair.

 

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[ VOL 002, ISS 0010 ] Create Not Acclaim

Photographer Carrie Mae Weems was named as a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. Weems work is focused on current issues facing African Americans. Her work as stated (here) by the MacArthur Foundation, examines “the complex and contradictory legacy of African American identity, class, and culture in the United States.

Recently an essay appeared on Slate titled, “Why are there no MacArthur Geniuses from the South?” The post originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed, an online news source featuring “a powerful suite of tools to help higher education professionals get jobs and colleges identify and hire employees” and is “a gathering place for all of the many constituents and diverse institutions that make up the rich web of higher education.” In short, it is a website to help educationists get the job one wants and a place to promote a broader community of educators. My wife works in higher education and based upon some conversations we have on the drive home from work, if there is a place where community needs promotion it is academia with its pushing and shoving for prestige and tenure by those employed to educate our youth.

The essay argues, by way of asking why not, that there are not enough MacArthur Fellows from the South. The author, John Warner provides what he believes to be stand out reasons as to why he has never been named as a MacArthur Fellow with number three getting most directly to the point:

1. I haven’t done anything worthy of being chosen as a MacArthur Fellow. Often, the most obvious answer is indeed the correct one.
2. I’m getting too old to be a genius. Of this year’s class, more than half are either exactly my age (43) or younger.
3. I live and work in the South.

Below I have compiled a list of my own. It is of things I have never been awarded because they are events that I have elected to not be part of by way of intentional or passive decision-making. Categorically they have made me in part who I am.

  1. I have never won first place in a potato sack race because I have never participated in a potato sack race.
  2. In second grade I did not win the Michael Jackson look-a-like contest because I did not participate in the Michael Jackson look-a-like contest
  3. In second grade I did not win the Madonna look-a-like contest because I did not participate in the Madonna look-a-like contest.

Despite these early setbacks, I went on to attend college. I attended a small private religious institution about one hour from where I grew up. Given that the college was small and private and therefore more expensive than state colleges, scholarships helped to fund many students’ educations. Some scholarships were awarded to minority students in an attempt to diversify the otherwise homogenous, white student population. During my time attending this college, there was an instance in which a fellow student was denied a minority scholarship for African Americans. He was denied not by luck of the draw or poor merit. It was because he was not considered African American despite being born in Egypt and having moved to the United States, thereby making him categorically an African American. The purveyors and proprietors of this scholarship had perhaps made a mistake on their part: a typo of sorts within the list of qualifications on the application. The problem was one of nomenclature. They had intended one thing, all likely unassuming of another, which was a broader interpretation of the term African American.  The scholarship was intended for a particular ethnic group. And although it is typically understood what is meant by the term African American, it could be argued both ways in this case. By geography, the student was African American despite being Caucasian. By social class and race he was not.

The categorization of people often presents itself as problematic, introducing bias and unfair treatment of one particular people over another by way of exclusion. Such bias is what Carrie Mae Weems’ work is in part about and justly so, it is such bias that needs addressing. In the case argued by John Warner, it is also a categorical inequality that he attempts to address. However, the argument although admittedly a bit tongue in cheek, does not carry with it the same weight that ironically, the now MacArthur Fellow (that being Weems) attempts to address in the very work for which she was awarded the title. I do not believe that Warner is equating racial inequality with award distribution inequality amongst Southerners. But it is not a commonly held sentiment that Southerners have been the targets of unfair or unjust treatment. In fact as history shows unfortunately, excluding African American Southerners, it has been just the opposite.  I should note that John Warner is a satirical writer whose work has been published by McSweeney’s. I should also note that first, I am a Southerner having been born in Texas and spent my entire life (excluding these most recent five years in California) living in Mississippi and second, I agree with Warner that there is but a small group of Southerners amongst those deemed “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation. More individuals from the south should be considered or at least less from the places that a surprising majority due hail. Many worthwhile creatives are from the South. Let me name three: William Eggleston, Flannery O’Connor and Wendell Berry.

While the awarding body members of the MacArthur Foundation might not have it out specifically for southerners, they are perhaps inadvertently ignoring southerners. This is central to Warner’s argument and it might very well be true. Award processes and events where in by participants are selected by means of judgment are typically an incestuous affair. I have been fortunate to have my work exhibited in a few group shows. For these shows, some people were selected to have work included and some were not. And in every group show of which I have been a part, I have had some connection to those who were responsible for producing the exhibit. It is a process not without bias but it is also how the selection process works. I do it myself with each issue of Strant. I have yet to seek out, nor do I intend to seek out, people I do not know to be included in the magazine or interviewed on the blog. My intent is to encourage the work of those whom I know rather they are regarded with high esteem within the world of photography or if they are absolute unknowns. And if one believes this to be an unfair process, then I hope one day I have the opportunity to meet you. I have found that through the short life of this magazine and blog thus far that the means of getting the interview or producing each issue is far more rewarding for me at least than the end product. I hope those whom I have called upon for help in doing so feel the same.

My intent is not to single out John Warner as self-loathing. With him I am hopefully promoting a more balanced idea of reward and recognition. Nor is my intent to dilute the value of being named a MacArthur Fellow. We all deserve to have our voice be heard. And being listened to and awarded for one’s creative voice carries with it often deserved recognition and with that recognition new opportunity. But perhaps what we need more is less about individual achievement. Perhaps what we need is to value intimate work with, knowledge of, and strong relationships with others within a tangible and less-about-prestige community of like-minded as well as unlike-minded people. Praise can take a back seat. Get to know those who hold power to influence if acclaim is what you seek. Get to know those who care about you more than they do your work if what you need is honest reward.

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[ VOL 002, ISS 005 ] A Review of The Danny Lyon Exhibit – This World Is Not My Home

The Danny Lyon exhibit, This World Is Not My Home at SBMA closes June 2, 2013.
THIS WORLD IS NOT MY HOME: DANNY LYON PHOTOGRAPHS
| FROM FEBRUARY 16 TO JUNE 2, 2013
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1130 State St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
(more info)

The first section (or last if you were to enter through the lesser used entrance at the opposite end of the dedicated space) to the Danny Lyon exhibit, This World is Not My Home at Santa Barbara Museum of Art is his from his most recognized work, The Bikeriders. In the introduction (or conclusion) it is written, “his goal was to ‘record and glorify the life of the American bikerider.’ The gritty mix of realism and romanticism in the photographs propelled motorcycle counterculture into mainstream American consciousness.” And the first photograph in succession to that written piece… is one of a funeral. It depicts the bikerider without his bike in lieu of a casket but his fellow bikeriders there with him still. This is the record. The next photograph is a self-portrait of Danny Lyon, a notice that from here forward this is from the perspective of one person, which we are invited to share and to romanticize that very life we just saw in the previous photograph. And so which is more important… the realism of a life spent if not outside the law, just on the cusp or the experience of everything that happens before our final exit? The beginning or the end is a bit less distinguishable. But all the same, what happens in between matters most. Chronology takes a back seat and experience steers the way.

In a panel discussion with Danny Lyon held in conjunction with this exhibition, Mr. Lyon said, “regarding time, we have a relative look because we only live a certain time span.”
Time becomes a bit muddled. And photography doesn’t help to correct our limited linear perspective. We attempt to project order onto a place and experience that is not fully ours and our contrivances fail us. Danny Lyon’s photographs explain otherwise, that this place is more important than this time. And so as This World is Not My Home progresses (or rather as the viewer moves through this experience) we see the depiction of those things that happened: leather jackets, women at jukeboxes, diners and bike races while Danny Lyon was out exploring that space. The Bikeriders section ends, or perhaps better shifts, into the next body of work by way of a photograph depicting a bike racer after a race, covered in dust and dirt and caked sweat… the image is romantic and real all at once.

Lyon writes, regarding his work depicting the Texas Penal System that his aim was, “to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.” And with this section perhaps we understand better the freedom The Bikeriders sought in contrast to those imprisoned because they, much like The Bikeriders, chose to live a life outside the confines of social order as demanded and enforced by disciplinary restriction. And again, the order we attempt to place on our shared experience falls apart and fail us. The order has shackled our romantic ideals. A photograph of dominoes on a prison courtyard table looks like a deformed body much like a nearby photograph on the wall of an incarcerated man. Pleasure looks painful. However as much as is depicted the breakdown of our spirit is sometimes its revival. Despite the depiction of violence as an oppressor to those considered too violent, we see reincarnation by way of physical exercise. The physical exertion of a day of field labor punishment breaks down the incarcerated as does the physical exertion of lifting weights brings one back up. The act rejuvenates the spirit and brings youthful perspective to an otherwise grim reality.
Across the room from the Texas Penal System work is Lyon’s work depicting urchin boys of Haiti; children who must also function outside the confines of the law because it is a necessity to survival. And although out of chronological order again, these boys are perhaps also the same in spirit as those who skirt the law by way of motorcycle or who have been apprehended and are serving time in Texas. Time and location might be different for all three of these subjects but they are all the same. In the same room, a photograph of a young boy repairing an engine in Knoxville, TN leaves enough to speculate trajectory.

The last (or first) section is Danny Lyon’s other most recognized body of work… photographs from the Civil Rights movement: a depiction of those outsiders who wanted in or with hindsight, were asking for the same affording the majority had already been granted. In many of the photographs there is a certain perspective that we have since decided was wrong, unfounded, and at times a bit foolish. A photograph depicting a demonstration outside an “all white” swimming pool asks if in this space we believed that color of skin somehow tainted the water. But not all photographs depict such an understanding. Some are a bit more vague. In those depicting law enforcement, some of those riot officers or local police look on with seeming disapproval that is perhaps outweighed by job obligation. Those law enforcers who worked the Texas Penal System at times surely had the same sentiment.

And perhaps that is as American as a photograph of black men outside a convenience store standing under a Coca-Cola sign… perhaps obligation is intrinsically an American experience. But really, although shared, isn’t the effort one of self-preservation? Isn’t that what the bikeriders wanted as did the black community? And doesn’t it only become confusing when those perspectives clash and our attempts at ordering right and wrong are sometimes misconstrued? Much like Danny Lyon’s exhibit opens (or closes) early on with a self-portrait, our experience begins and ends with our perspective and then that experience is shared. In doing so, sometimes we find freedom and sometimes we find oppression. Those experiences afford us a broader perspective. The Danny Lyon photographs show us that where we are right or where we are wrong, where we begin or where we end isn’t all that clear. But we can’t start over.

Revisionism is going back and looking at what we have created and attempting to change it due to new perspective. This is also something Danny Lyon discussed during his panel. It is why he says he hasn’t revised much of his work as it was edited when it was produced as books. Revisionism does not change what was created because what was created has a perspective of that particular space in which it was made. Much the same is the American experience depicted throughout This World Is Not My Home. Sometimes as we drift through this experience we get it right and we cannot beat ourselves up because these new perspectives afford us the understanding that at times we might have at times been wrong. But we can always keep trying to get it right, to understand freedom in a place that is not our own.

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[ VOL 002, ISS 003 ] A Photographic Education Is Not About Specifics

(Photograph by Shaun H Kelly)

Many of the rules and principles of photography learned in a formal education, I have forgotten or have chosen to abandon. I would have a hard time recalling equivalent exposures and lighting ratios. I was taught to utilize various focal length lenses and change apertures to create visual variety. Now I rarely use anything other than a fixed focal length, 28mm lens and never stray from f/8 unless dim light demands f/5.6 or if I really want the photograph in even dimmer light, dare I… f/4. I probably wouldn’t bother repairing my lens if the aperture was stuck at my home base, f/8. I don’t use flash often. Unless it is to fill the entire frame with broad, even light… democratically bringing everything onto the same plain.

Some of my instructors I believe embraced this idea that education is an open platform and some did not. I was forced at times to shoot in color when I wanted to try black and white. Likely, the instructor did know that what the assignment would benefit most from was color. But some instructors allowed me to find out on my own what works for me and what does not. In a photojournalism class I was assigned to photograph the town in which I resided, and to objectively as possible represent in what would be many of our first attempts at a photographic essay, that town and the people within. I choose to and was allowed, to photograph the entire project inside the laundry mat around the corner from my apartment, with a single subject… my neighbor who maintained the property. In a portraiture lighting class for my final assignment I elected to photograph a series of portraits using outdoor, available light. This was if I were honest now, at least on one level an attempt to justify not using strobes because frankly, I am not apt at using strobes. Despite a key objective of this class being working knowledge of various lighting techniques (mostly strobes) I was allowed to shoot the final project the way I saw fit. And I appreciate the flexibility of that instructor. Based solely on the objective criteria of that lighting class, I should have failed. But because what perhaps he believed was that an idea is worth exploring and that I was attempting to foster a particular perspective and understanding of photography, overlooking my shortcomings was worth more than my ability to use a flash and that was worth a passing grade. Given that I was studying photography within a visual journalism program, where traditional principals of journalism such as objectivity and an unbiased approach were taught, this was and had to have been, an intentional restraint from my instructor to allow me to do so. The opportunity to try and fail is much more educationally valuable than are objective goals.

Many class discussions I have forgotten. Many techniques have been lost or intentionally neglected. But much like when we come to the final page of a book, or a song, or when we leave a particularly well delivered lecture… unless we are studying specifically how to be a writer, musician or orator or perhaps for future emulation, what we carry with us and remember is not the very word tense, rhyming scheme, or oratorical tone. These are no more than tools to communicate an idea or feeling. We carry an idea, an understanding. So in a student’s photographic education, what is important is that they hopefully walk away from each class discussion not with specific knowledge only, not simply knowing that f/8 @ 1/500 is equivalent to f/4 @ 1/1000 but a broadened perspective, one that could be embraced or abandoned. Those conversations are what is important. The instructors who pass on not just knowledge but a dialogue is what is important. And although we might forget so much in the process of trying so much, that we forget it together and try together is what will last. That we absorb, that we expand, that we see and then do and not that we objectively obtain knowledge, but that we try perpetually and actively to understand not just specifics in order that our knowledge be reconciled by limitation, finitely bound by an end objective, but rather that our understanding be brought to less than what it was before and then tried again.

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[ VOL 002, ISS 002 ] Portraits of Ourselves and Isolated Absolutes

(Portrait by Shaun H Kelly, subject’s name unknown)

Portraits do little to reveal the true identity of a person. Instead, they represent a limited truth about the subject… they are that person, at that moment, in relation to the photographer.  The subject of the portrait is even more limited in identity to any subsequent audience of the portrait.  A character, although one revealing, is who the viewer will know.  The subject continues to exist beyond the frame. The representation, accurate of the subject, remains. What the viewer sees more clearly though is that relationship between the photographer and subject.  And subsequently, his or her relationship to the two (subject and photographer) who created the portrait.

D.H. Lawrence said that we, “have learned to see ourselves for what we are, as the sun sees us. The Kodak bears witness. We see as the All-Seeing Eye sees, with the universal vision. And we are what is seen: each man to himself an identity, an isolated absolute, corresponding with a universe of isolated absolutes. A picture! A Kodak snap, in a universal film of snaps… The identifying of ourselves with the visual image of ourselves has become an instinct; the habit is already old. The picture of me that is seen, is me.”

In essence, the portrait becomes us. The representation of us informs us of who we are.  It reveals to ourselves how we are revealed to others. Manti Te’o has known this. His “girlfriend” existed in photographs.  And who she was beyond that was not her but rather an amalgamation of other people and other stories. And although the Manti Te’o story is one extreme case, it is representative of many of us who have created an identity for ourselves informed by how others see us… through photographs. Much like an actor in a movie. And much like when it is revealed to us that movie actors are often in fact in contrast to the characters they portray we are disappointed because we thought we knew, through what was revealed by the visual image of that person, that person.

However this is not the burden of the portrait. It only reveals limitedly but informs thoroughly. And when the portraits go away, we will hopefully take with us that which has been revealed and exist more than simply as an isolated absolute but rather, a multitude of absolutes. A multitude of truths… sometimes contradictory and sometimes complimentary but all the same revealed as the us who was there and is now here.

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[ VOL 002, ISS 001 ] To Be a Whole Artist

(Photo titled The First Buck My Father Killed by Shaun H Kelly)

As I am currently living approximately 2000 miles from home, it occurs to me that I am not native to this place.  I consider this five year visit to California nearing its end and I long for a homecoming, back to a geographic location that I can make sense of and of which I make more sense within.  Of the writer Willa Carther, in his book Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner writes:

“I am reminded of Willa Carther, that bright girl from Nebraska, memorizing long passages from the Aeneid and spurning the dust of Red Cloud and Lincoln with her culture-bound feet.  She tried, and her education encouraged her, to be a good European.  Nevertheless she was a first-rate only when she dealt with what she knew from Red Cloud and the things she had ‘in place of all that.’  Nebraska was what she was born to write; the rest of it was got up.  Eventually, when education had won and nurture had conquered nature and she had recognized Red Cloud as a vulgar little hold, she embraced the foreign tradition totally and ended by being neither quite a good American nor quite a true European nor quite a whole artist.”

Family aside, although perhaps at times included, when I left Mississippi I considered that place of the past and maybe of my formative years but not of the present.  Now I am considering an indifference to present and past, formative and creative years, and instead thinking of a time span beyond myself.  One in which geography is important.  One in which where one comes from makes sense, and although we are encouraged to roam, to eventually settle down.  And so I consider four southern walls a home near my family, those things that I loathe and love, those things that of my culture are mocked and mystified, to be the fodder from which I create.  And if that is not what it takes, then at the very least I owe it to my two Basset Hounds, natives of Mississippi, to upon their death bury them in the soil from which they came.

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[ VOL 001, ISS 008 ] Google Street View – The Democratic Photographic Process

There is little intentionality on the part of Google to be transformative or metaphorical through the means of its Street View. A photographic process is not (at least for now) the intended purpose of the images. According to Google, “Google Maps with Street View lets you explore places around the world through 360-degree street-level imagery.” Although there is a slightly subjective voice at work, Google does after all choose if only for practical consideration from what perspective (street-level, i.e. where their car can go), the product’s intent is simply to allow one to explore an approximate representation of a particular place. Perhaps another decision by Google to consider in qualifying Street View as a unbiased process is their recent effort to upgrade to HD imagery starting in places such as New York City and not Macon, Georgia. That too however might be a purely economic or practical decision and given time might be a mute point. Although there have been projects such as Street With A View by Robin Hewlett & Ben Kinsley who directly employed the use of Google Street View and the Street View Team or the more intriguing and transformative A New American Picture by Doug Rickard, Google’s Street View is perhaps as close a democratic photographic process to be produced. Although Rickard and the others have done some interesting and insightful work using Street View as their medium, they have transformed it into something else. The images from Street View, once observed, becomes something new. They are the tree falling in the woods and what we hear is our interpretation. But it is the opportunity to interpret which makes Street View work so well as a photographic medium. The images captured by Street View are that: images captured, yet they are captured without the subjectivity of the artist and thus one more layer removed between sight and observation. Or to continue the analogy, the tree in the woods was not cut down, it simply fell and we were there to hear the thud.

All of this is perhaps why I have been enamored recently by my discovery of someone I know captured on Google Street View. Seeing someone I know (refer to top image) when trolling Street View was an unexpected discovery. Given the opportunity to connect to a photograph without having to sift through someone else’s intentionality I have thrown all sorts of thought towards what these photographs mean. This led me to the Street View of my childhood home (directly above) and for whatever reason that dull pixelated image has the weight of some of the best photography I have recently seen. The irony perhaps, is that now that I have seen, I have observed and thus making what is so unbiased and great about the image skewed by my own perspective.

[ VOL 001, ISS 005 ] Process and Intent over Results

I recently built a bed in which it is my intent that my dogs relieve themselves while we are away at work.  The bed is not at all a work of pristine craftsmanship.  It is however of sound craftsmanship and it does serve a purpose.  I purchased two 8 foot 2×4’s, had the clerk at Home Depot cut them down to 6 foot, brought them home and drilled them together in a rectangle with the remaining 2 foot pieces left over from the cut.  I then filled it with wood mulch.  Immediately upon pouring the bag of mulch into the newly manufactured bed one of my dogs hopped in the bed.  Her intent however, was not what I anticipated.  She made a few circles, sniffed, clawed at, and then settled down into the warm mulch to nap.  My dog toilet had become a dog bed.  Within a few minutes the purpose of my craft had been put into question.

I have also recently submitted a body of photographic work to a contest.  It is a body of work that I have exhibited and has been published in a couple of small publications.  It has been rejected for other contests and publications multiple times.  It has also gone through multiple incarnations in which images have been edited out and put back in.  My intent however, with this body of work has remained the same.  As I gave consideration to submitting or not submitting to this particular contest the question that I considered the most, was what will the judges think of my work.  I read the judges list and researched their backgrounds.  In the end I came to the conclusion that I should submit and that perhaps my perspective on photography and the judges perspective on photography were similar.

The progress with my dog bed has been a bit slow.  I expected it to be but the process has been a bit of a frustrating one.  Convincing a dog takes time.  Sometimes they have gotten it right and I feel the process of building the bed is justified.  Other times they are seemingly indifferent and pay no regard to my intent.  This is the frustrating part of the process.  This is the part of the process that gives me anxiety.  Not because my dogs need to be taught and that takes time, but because something I created  might fail.  The progress seems promising, but in the end the dog bed might not serve it’s intended purpose.  The dogs might never take to relieving themselves in a box as opposed to relieving themselves on the concrete patio.  If this happens, it will be difficult to not consider my craft a failure.

I will hear the results of the photo contest in the coming weeks.  My thoughts thus far have been will the judges think my work is good?  What I am trying to tell myself, what I am trying to believe, is that it doesn’t matter.  Thoughts inform our actions.  I do believe that the way we think about something informs our actions and thus our behavior and thus our overall outlook.  This is why the glass half full people always seem to have things go their way while the glass half empty people always seems to be unsettled and full of anxiety.  Once I hear the results of the contest I can hopefully tell myself it does not matter.  What matters is that I created a body of work with intent and purpose.

I should give more consideration to process than results.  This is difficult as we live in a scientific age of which purpose and order is assigned to everything and consilience is the goal.  We attempt to understand things based upon their end purpose.  If they serve a purpose well and complete the intended task then that thing is of worth.  This gives no space then for things to exist and have beauty in their existing state.  I am not suggesting that whatever I touch turns to gold and whatever I create or whatever anyone creates is of beauty.  The creative process requires refining and discipline.  It requires failure as much as success.  Things must not work in order that the next thing does work.  But I am trying to train my thoughts and I want to believe that process is of value and simply being is of beauty.

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[ VOL 001, ISS 004 ] Doug Rickard’s New American Picture and Our Notion of Progressive America

I had a Southern Baptist upbringing. Although I no longer subscribe to that particular sort of religion, I in some ways admire the conviction with which some of those Southern Baptist preachers spoke despite the arrogance with which many of them spoke. It does take confidence to stand in front of a congregation and speak with regards to life and death, where we spend eternity, and how one gets to spend eternity with God.  The line between arrogance and confidence can be a thin one.  And so, when anyone speaks with great confidence or authority on a particular subject it can certainly rub some of us the wrong way.

A few weekends ago I heard Doug Rickard speak at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  Recently the museum has had a very worthwhile lineup of photographers either being exhibited and/or lecturing including Martin Parr, Enrico Natali, and most recently Rickard.  Rickard’s A New American Picture is currently being exhibited alongside Enrico Natali’s Subway, New York City 1960 in Publicly Private: Enrico Natali and Doug Rickard.  The exhibit is up until April 22, 2012.

Doug Rickard, as he shared at his lecture also had an evangelical upbringing. His was even closer to the pulpit than mine though. His father was a preacher as was his grandfather. A long line of assumably confident men. Rickard, in his confidence, is no different.  And just like those Southern Baptist preachers I grew up listening to every Sunday, Rickard spoke with that same confidence regarding race in America as addressed in his body of work A New American Picture.  In case you haven’t noticed, Rickard’s work concerns race.  As he shared, he grew up in an environment where no one donned a white hooded robe but certainly regarded black Americans a people lesser than the white American.  Growing up in Mississippi I can certainly relate.  My grandmother often made jokes at the expense of the black community.  There seemed to be this justification in doing so because as the community I grew up a part of understood it, there were good black people and bad black people just like there were good white people and bad white people.  The problem is that the idea of a good black person simply meant a black person that acted like a white person.  This understanding ultimately still set the black community as sub-human to the white community.

Pride and confidence is an odd commodity in American culture.  It permeates our religious and racial understanding of the world.  Rickard’s evangelical upbringing has informed A New American Picture and I wonder if an evangelical upbringing fosters the confidence that allows white, American Christians to claim authority regarding life, death, and eternity allows for the confidence it takes an artist such as Doug Rickard to claim that A New American picture is so acutely aware of the shortcomings of our so called progressive racial relationships in America.

Interestingly enough however, the audience response to Rickard’s lecture had little to do with race and religion and more to do with fear and paranoia.  Rickard has utilized Google Street View to capture these images, a technology that has had much criticism for it’s invasive ability to capture unassuming citizens to be later published on the web.  The idea that we have a semblance of privacy is laughable.  Our privacy was forfeited long before Google Street View ever existed.  Such technology has just made  our publicly private lives more transparent.

Nonetheless our fear and paranoia has been apparently fueled by the likes of Rickard and his use of this technology which in essence is not a new technology at all but rather a modification of a long standing technology… photography.  And photography, especially street photography, has long been an invasive medium.  If one does not agree then simply study the history which Rickard seems to have now made himself a part.  For proof, simply google Robert Frank’s favorite photograph from The Americans or read the backstory regarding Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Photography is invasive and has long been a part of it’s history.  Along with that invasive quality is the confidence exuded by many of the medium’s most notable figures.  Read almost anything written by Walker Evans.

Some of the people listening to Rickard’s lecture that day were rubbed the wrong way.  For what reason I cannot say.  Perhaps it was because Rickard was addressing issues that we pretend we have progressively moved past.  Perhaps it was because of our fear that our private lives might be more exposed given the progress of technology, thus bringing to light those same inherit faults that we think we have overcome.  Or perhaps it was simply because of his confidence that might have been misunderstood to be arrogance.  Whenever Rickard was asked for ethical justification for this body of work and was asked does he think his pursuits were justified he boldly turned the question back on the audience, stating that he is not the one to answer that question and only society can answer those hard to answer questions as if to say, I didn’t write this stuff… it’s all right here in the Good Book.

Doug Rickard is doing nothing new.  What he is doing is called photography.  And like Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and many others before him he is doing it well because he is not answering questions, he is asking them. Tough questions are hard to answer.

[ VOL 001, ISS 001 ] The Responsibility of the Photographer – Photography, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner and The Great Community

“Port William had little written history. Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light. It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know. It seemed to have been there forever.”

from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

 

While reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “Wallace Stegner and The Great Community” I found the following quote by a Stegner from his essay, “The Book and the Great Community” worth further contemplation.

“Thought is neither instant nor noisy…It thrives best in solitude, in quite, and in the company of the past, the great community of recorded human experience. That recorded experience is essential whether one hopes to re-assert some aspect of it, or attack it.”

The first half of the quote, “thought is neither instant or noisy,” I consider an expectation. Those words ask that I wake up earlier than absolutely necessary in the mornings and dedicate time to contemplation, to reading and writing, and to working on my photography. It asks that I put that first, before I punch the clock at my job because like the majority of us I assume, my job is not my first passion and so why not in a very practical fashion put my job second. This is not to suggest that those jobs are bad or a necessary evil. They are simply necessary and provide us income by which we can sustain ourselves.

Although the context of Stegner’s quote is perhaps more about writer and the written word it is applicable to other disciplines that rely upon history. The camera is a recording device just as is pen and paper or keyboard and word processor and so “the great community of recorded human experience” should resonate with the photographer and the poet because there is not just an expectation, but an obligation. The obligation is that we respond to that which we are a part of, the greater community. It ask that we respond to the history set before us and in doing so, create a future history. Our future is relational to the past and hence the recording of that history becomes communal, and hopefully a somewhat responsible, thoughtful and considerate exchange of beliefs, values, and ideas.

A portion of this recording is a very large stack of photographs, each depicting a particular place and time not just of historical significance but also of the mundane. Assassinated politicians, warfare, meetings of diplomatic dignitaries, signings of peace treaties, birthday parties, grandmothers and their grandchildren, men arm in arm beer in hand, and sons key in hand to their first car. This is how we’ve recorded that human experience or as Berry puts it, “The community here is that of ’recorded human experience’ not the Pantheon of Great Writers. It is immense and diverse, more like the Library of Congress than the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. But it does include the great writers. It is bewildering both in its amplitude and in the eminence of some of its members.” Both Garry Winogrand photographs and grandmother’s iPhone photographs are there. (One day iPhone photographs will be the tool of grandparents and it will be to some just as archaic a means of photography as drugstore film processing is today. All the same though, there will be photographs made, regardless of the medium through which they were produced.)

As members of this community we are asked to respond. Either to attack, not with the taking up arms, but with contemplation or we respond in celebration that our efforts are worthwhile and that there is good within us. And when we have given thought to our place within this history, knowing that our past is in communion with our future we are asked to write that future, contributing to who we will become or in the case of the photographer, we are to photograph and record who we are and who we are to become.

(Photo titled, Grandma Winnie by James Dewhirst)