This is an illustrated essay about the last five years of my photographic life. No, I have no dramatic story to tell, I did not suffer terrible loss or illness and have, as a result, a great epiphany. I’m just a bloke who’s been snapping for 30ish years and found himself unsatisfied and stuck about 5 years ago. This is the story of what follows, mundane perhaps, but perhaps also a little unorthodox, a little interesting.
As a young man, I read Ansel Adams of course, and looked at a lot of pictures, and read various other things. I learned, as one does, that the goal of photography is the single iconic image. Through the somewhat elusive process of composition, one places forms, masses, lines into the frame, being attentive to both light and color. The result, ideally, is an iconic image. A single mighty photograph that appeals, that stimulates the mind, that calls the viewer to contemplate it, to grow and learn, and ultimately perhaps to possess a print of the image.
It turns out that this is quite hard, and I am not particularly good at it. Furthermore, there’s the basic problem that photography is essentially stuck with placing real world objects into the frame. Painting has details like brushwork, use of color, degrees of abstraction that can be layered atop the underlying real-world objects depicted (if any) to distinguish the work, to aid communication, to clarify the ideas. Similarly, music, sculpture, and all the rest allow a lot more of the artist to intrude. Making a photograph that didn’t look kind of like a mashup of a couple of other, better, photographers, turned out to be largely beyond my grasp.
I got a DSLR around the time of my older daughter’s first birthday, and tried again. Digital made it much easier and faster to churn out pictures, and I shot a lot of things like this:
and like this:
I like to think they’re perfectly nice pictures. They have served me well as decor in various contexts, in fact. I find them appealing.
Still, they did not satisfy. I felt that my pictures lacked something. I experimented with a “project 52”, one good picture a week, with fair success. I learned a surprising amount, considering that I’d been snapping, at this point, for 20 or 25 years, off and on. But still, the pictures didn’t satisfy. I began to read a lot more, and to write. The usual resources, I shan’t even bother to list them here, you know the names and authors already.
Slowly I began to develop the idea that, for me, pictures needed other pictures. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the photo essay is what I am looking for. So I did a project. I had a new phone with a surprisingly good camera in it, and I used it. I shot my neighborhood in south-eastern Virginia, imagining it as a Gothic nightmare, or a noir-ish film.
There were a dozen of these things, in the end, that I bound into handmade books (edition of 3). That was satisfying, I felt like I had a handle on something.
So far, so good. Projects, yep. Lots of people will tell you to do projects. This is where I start to veer off what I see as the beaten path.
I realized, eventually and in fits and starts, that what I wanted from my photographs was some sort of meaning, some sort of ideas. One might say a story, but I dislike that word. The meaning of a photograph need not be a story, you needn’t be able to put words to it. But it should, for me, be present. Pursue this line of thought far enough, and one realizes certain things. In no particular order, an incomplete list:
- A caption can completely alter the meaning of a photo.
- Two photos placed next to each other can utterly alter the meaning of one, or both.
- A photo might be a complete dud by itself, but be a vital linchpin in the right context.
Traditionally, we see these as flaws. To say that without the title, “the photo becomes nothing” is a harsh criticism indeed. But should it be?
A photograph is ultimately rooted in reality, it shows us (usually) real things that were really there. It is, more or less, unique among the arts in this. A photograph thus can provide a link to reality in a way nothing else can. An essay can be grounded firmly in reality by the addition of a photograph, or a few of them. At the worst, a photograph is a convenient way to provide an illustration, at best it provides powerful evidence, supporting whatever idea you’re expounding.
Flash forward to the present, just for a moment. My wife writes a blog for her business, and I provide photographs for it. For a time, the theme was always the same Lego Minifig (Mia, to be exact) illustrating something specific about the blog post. This illustrated a post about trust, why you need it, how to develop it:
It is in many ways a silly little picture. Compare it with the picture of tulips I opened with. Most Serious Photographers would agree that the tulips picture is much much better, surely? Free of context, this Lego picture might even be considered terrible and pointless. Still, I like the Lego Girl picture a lot more than the tulips, because in context it means something. In the context of my wife’s blog post, it carries a little message, a little meaning. Trust matters. The tulips, lovely as they are, are a dead and pointless bit of decor to me.
Back to My Journey.
Looking over the pictures of Gothic Ghent you can see that I am still trying, at that point, to make those Single Iconic Photos, I just happened to make a dozen of them that were pretty good, and connected into a single body of work.
The next project of substance I finished (many projects fizzle, only a few survive to completion) was conceived as a Manifesto, to “Live With Intensity.” I designed a little book-like object with space for six photos, and a handful of places to put text. This is the result:
I think many of us would say that these are “nothing” photos, duds, definitely not keepers. And yet, they say just what I want them to say. The whole piece, unfolded, looks like this:
The small block of text on the top tab reads We lead, mostly, small lives. Let us lead them authentically with integrity and above all intensely which is simply a philosophy of life I wished to emphasize, mainly to myself. This was the first time I really managed to encapsulate some particular point in a collection of pictures.
Consider this picture:
It’s a moderately uninteresting record shot of a calculus textbook from the 1950s. I dare say many of you think it’s much too dark, but it is just the way I want it. It happens that it belonged to my father, who died a little over a year ago. The textbook is now in my possession. Place the picture in this context (forgive my rotten calligraphy):
And now imagine a dozen of these things, each with an object that belonged to my father, often an object made by my father, each with a few lines of text about something he taught me. This book is something I made after he died, it’s part of my grieving, I suppose. It’s a heavy 8″ x 8″ book in dark colors, made with 140# paper. It’s a memorial. It means a great deal to me, quite a lot to my family, and nothing at all to you. As intended.
The photographs in it are all these simple record shots. Nothing great going on here, although I did try my best to get a nice looking, appealing, picture in all cases. The point, though, is not the individual photographs. The point of each picture is not to create an iconic image, a photograph someone will love. The total project is the point. The pictures are an integral part, as is the text, as is the mass of the object, the weight of the paper, the triple-laminated case, and so on. It’s about my Dad, and how I feel about him.
This is where I am today. Projects, but always projects rooted in some intensely felt emotional state within me. How do I personally feel the city of Vancouver? Who was my father, to me? What is it that I so love about the ’59 Edsel parked down the street from me? How can I encapsulate the basic idea of context of my wife’s latest blog post? I begin with the feeling, the idea, the emotion, and the photographs flow from there.
This leads to some slightly peculiar working methods. Notably, I never “just go out to shoot.” I did that for years and years and it was, essentially, the observation that I never got anything I was particularly happy with that drove the last 5 years. Yes, I can make perfectly nice pictures occasionally, but they never meant anything to me. Now, when I shoot, it is with a specific goal in mind. I may have an actual shot list, a shooting script, or just a set of visual ideas I’m looking for. Almost always, though, there is some specific goal driving the shutter button. There’s still no guarantee of success, I still shoot vastly more failures than successes, but the successes are ever so much more successful — for me.
Do I have a coherent voice? I don’t think so. Am I taking Great Pictures? Certainly not. I think many people who consider themselves to be strong photographers would say that I have gone backwards, perhaps backwards a great deal, over the last five years. Am I doing good work? I really think I am. It is powerful and moving to the only audience that really matters, which is me. There is some evidence that some of it translates pretty well.
If you’re ever in Bellingham, WA, drop me a line, stop by. We can see if any of it works for you.