Advice to Emerging Photographers

IMGP9963.jpg

"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." -David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So you want a photography degree? Don’t you know everyone wants to be a “Photographer” with a capital letter P? The world is full of pictures — one visual cliche after another. What’s that you say? Your photographs are unique? People “like” your images on Instagram with the right #hashtags #blackandwhitelove #nofilter #dogsofinstagram. As your professor, there’s some advice I must give you: 

1. Realize sooner rather than later that you are not special. You are not a conduit for a mythical muse. You’re not going to be in any photographic history books. You’ll likely never get that job at National Geographic. Most of us aren’t that good (myself included). To be honest, you’re not really doing anything that no one else has the aptitude to master. You’re not a surgeon or a civil engineer. You’re not in the business of necessity. You’ll be the first to get cut when the money has dried up.

2. You are entering a world where blinding subjectivity will decide your fate and unless you can defend tooth and nail, after getting yourself in front of the right person, that you are the next big thing, few will ever become the next big thing. Fear not emerging photographer; being creative is merely an episode of Survivor. Survival of the fittest will weed you out of the crowd. Before I continue, let’s talk about that phrase, “emerging photographer.” What exactly are you emerging from? It’s like you’re a creature climbing out of the murk of higher education with a trail of muddy footprints reminding us that you’ve just made a huge financial mistake!

3. Don’t look at me like that! Another word of advice: stop photographing your cat, dog, child, macro flower, sunset with a retro filter, angsty friends, or the homeless from behind a telephone pole with a telephoto lens and black and white conversion. Just stop. No one cares and everyone knows what you’re doing. These images please those who buy art from Home Shopping Network late into the night of a midwestern town, in a home with hideous knickknacks, and their only books came from Reader’s Digest. I’m telling you this, dear one, because a photographer’s life is more interesting than that. The only way you’ll make meaningful art is when you put yourself in meaningful situations. I am talking about the situations that make you uncomfortable. By the way, these situation do not find you. Talk to strangers. You have the potential to become the chronicler for the voiceless; the socially mute or blind. You have have the potential to make meaning not only for yourself and your art but for others who will never experience another reality but their own.

4. Read. I cannot express it enough. Pick up a book. Any book. Talk like a person enamored with things besides pretty pictures. Write. The only way you can convince people that you’re good at what you do is when the words and actions are harmonious. Don’t say that your photographs should speak for themselves, they won’t. Your audience doesn’t read minds. They need your help. Being the misunderstood artist is only for dead artists. If you’re breathing, be prepared to be misunderstood in all the embarrassing ways.

5. Lastly, take the training wheels off. Your equipment can only carry you so far before you’ve been exposed. Your camera is only a tool. Pictures require an obsessive brain and heart to push your work to the edges of greatness. Don’t let people think the camera does the work. Take any camera, lens, lighting scenario and make something great. Be adaptable and resourceful. Don’t lean on the crutch of your gear. That will only work for so long before they start to figure it out.

I don’t know what else to tell you that you probably don’t already inherently know about this life choice you’ve just made for yourself. All I can say is own it.

Ethereal Veneer: Imagery Made on Glass

“And if they seem jealous guardians of their secrets, it may only be because their art is as much a matter of physical proficiency as of technical knowledge, of things felt as much as seen, of knowledge that canon be written down.” -Lyle Rexer

GHOSTS ON THE SURFACE

There is an inherent mystery of people depicted in antique photographs that draws collectors and viewers to gaze curiously at these ghostly images. The clothing, the stoic confrontation, the elaborate backgrounds, the post-mortem are all clues in decoding what life was like in centuries past.  Why do they look expressionless?  Why was it socially acceptable to photograph the dead?  Why do the subjects appear as apparitions floating on the surface of an unreality?  Largely, the photographic technology has added to the 19th century aesthetic.  From the first photographic image made permanent on an asphalt-like surface in 1826 and images made on copper with mercurial baths in 1839, photography on glass plates possess their own unique characteristics of ethereality. 

The wet plate collodion process and the gelatin dry plate process are both early photographic processes that utilize light sensitive emulsions on a glass surfaces.  Although, they were both solutions to inconveniences of earlier processes such as with the dry plate providing the solution for the inconvenience involved in working with the wet processes, each hold important footing in the technical and aesthetic history of photography.  Today there is a revival of these 19h century photographic processes.  Photographers such as Sally Mann (Figure 5), Jody Ake (Figure 1), Mark Osterman, and Kerik Kouklis embrace these labor-intensive methods of creating a photographic image to set their work apart from those who choose the modern means of creating photographs.  This essay will address the development of the wet plate collodion process and how the gelatin dry plate was the bridge from the 19th century into the 20th century development and practice of photography.

FROM WET TO DRY

The wet plate collodion process was developed after the Daguerreotype and Calotype.  Both of these processes came to light in the 1830’s and were the jumping off point for photography becoming a viable technological development and artistic medium.  The Daguerreotype, a revolutionary development that provided the public means of having a likeness of themselves and was a solution for the long hours sitting for a painted portrait.   This process involved a coating of silver a top a piece of copper plating that was sensitized in iodine vapors and subsequently an image was brought to the surface by mercury vapor.  The Daguerreotype produced a mirror-like image with extreme clarity.  Unfortunately the early development of the process had exposure times anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, not being conducive to photographing a human subject [2].  It wasn’t until 1840 with the developments of faster lenses that portraiture became a possibility [3].

The Calotype was a process produced by using paper and was not as popular in comparison of the Daguerreotype but had it’s own unique aesthetic.  Because the image was created using paper, the images rendered using this process tend to have a very soft and unfocused feel due to the emulsion being absorbed into the porous surface of the paper. Calotypes were also subject to fading.  Just like the Daguerreotype, the Calotype also required long exposure times, but was also overcome in 1840 when the inventor William Henry Fox Talbot discovered how to produce a “latent” image that provided the possibility of shortened exposure times [4].

The Daguerreotype remained a popular process until British sculptor Frederick Scott Archer in 1848-1851 invented a means of producing images on glass [5].  Collodion, cotton fibers mixed with sulfuric and nitric acids which were chemistry typically used to treat wounds from explosives was discovered that it also could be used as a binder for holding light-sensitive solutions to glass plates.  At this time Gustave Le Gray had proposed this idea but by 1851 Archer had taken the use of collodion further by using potassium iodide with diluted collodion submerged in silver nitrate and then  spread onto a glass surface.  The plate was then developed in a bath of pyrogallic acid and fixed in sodium thiosulfate [6].  The glass negative provided an image that was more sensitive to light, created a photograph high in detail, could be printed faster than paper negatives, as well as being able to be reproduced more easily.  Another added benefit was that it was cheaper to use than the Daguerreotype and provided more predictable results than the Calotype [7].  Once photographers realized that photography on a transparent surface provided them with a reproducible image with maintained quality the Daguerreotype and Calotype slowly faded as processes of the past.

Due to the popularity of the wet plate collodion process and its timely arrival as a viable process it became a staple in commercial photographic endeavors.  More portrait studios opened up around the world and photographers such as Andre Adolphe Disderi discovered a way to produce many frames on one plate using a camera with several lenses creating what is known as a Carte-de-Visite (Figure 3).  Writer Lewis Carol was also very passionate about photography and even wrote a poem called, “Hiawatha’s Photography” (Figure 4).  Although there was a surge in photography as a commercial venture, the use of wet plate collodion was most widely known as the photographic process that documented the American Civil War (Figure 2). Matthew Brady a photographer who had been operating a commercial photography studio and employed photographers such as Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan began documenting the battlefields and camps during the time of America’s most gruesome war. This was not an easy task because of the collodion process itself.The procedure was complicated and required the photographer to not only carry large view-cameras for each size photograph he wished to produce, but also an on-site darkroom was required to develop the sensitized plate immediately after exposure. The wet plate collodion process must have all the steps of the process done while the medium was still wet.  This was a cumbersome medium to work with outside of the studio.  Not to mention that the glass plates were obviously fragile and susceptible to damage. Another issue as that the collodion plates were more sensitive to the color blue.  Photographs with blue skies would be rendered without detail [8].  Regardless of these disadvantages photographers still had taken this process out into the fields to document not only the landscape but also events of social concerns.  After the Civil War Gardner, O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson (who also documented the war) went on using the wet plate collodion process on geological expeditions. Although the collodion process had enough benefits to be a viable mean of creating photographic imagery in spite of its drawbacks, eventually something had to happen to make photography in the field less laborious.  Experiments in “dry plate” photography began as early as the 1860s, with variations of the wet plate collodion process, but they were unsuccessful as they extended exposure times.  In 1871, a doctor who had an avid interest in photography began using a transparent jelly-like substance known as gelatin.  Charles Bennett using the experiments and findings of Dr. Richard Leach Maddox discovered that prolonged heating of the gelatin-silver bromide would increase the new emulsions sensitivity to light and allowed for fraction of a second exposures [9]. The gelatin dry plate (Figure 5) not only allowed for faster exposures but it was a more convenient process because the emulsion could be applied to the glass plate and dried ahead of time before exposures were made and the photographer could process it at their own leisure.  This process made it easier to produce images while abroad and made the landscape photographer’s load less cumbersome.  This solved the issue of needing a darkroom wherever the photographer happened to be photographing because the plates could be pre-coated and stored for an extended amount of time before being shot, the gelatin dry plate process led to the modernization of photography by being the first photographic process that could be factory produced [10].  Eastman, became a photographic household name because the Eastman Dry Plate Company was one of the first to industrialize the dry plate process.  George Eastman, an avid traveler and photographer desired to create photographs.  Investing in the wet plate collodion process, he was soon was put off by the difficulties of producing an image.

After reading about the dry plate processes in an English photographic almanac [11] and three years of experiments was able to have by 1880 his first formula and a patented machine that produced large quantities of gelatin dry plates in a quick manner. Once his success became apparent, he realized that because of the success of the Eastman Dry Plate Company, George Eastman quit his job as a bank clerk and devoted the rest of his career to his business [12]. The innovations of the Eastman Dry Plate Company soon brought the emergence of Kodak that replaced the breakable glass surfaces for gelatin on a flexible surface which to followed was the direction of modern photography.

 “First a piece of glass he coated With Collodion, and plunged it in a Bath of Lunar Caustic” -Lewis Carol (FIG 4)

SPLENDOR IN THE GLASS Both the wet plate collodion process and the gelatin dry plate were processes that carried an image on top of a glass surface.  Both had exquisite clarity and detail.  Although there were some hassle involved in using these glass surfaces and certain emulsions even today there are a small group of modern day alchemist photographers who choose these antiquated process over the current digital photographic methods as a vessel for their artistic intent.  The best known of these photographers is Sally Mann (Figure 7) who says that using collodion is a play between clarity and dreaminess [13].  In the wet plate collodion process, the imperfections of pouring the emulsion onto the glass add to murkiness and depth to these images.  The subject matter appears as ghosts floating on the surface with areas of intense sharpness and drastic fall off of focus and light.  Mark Scholer Pedersen, another modern users the early photographic processes prefers the use of the gelatin dry plate process because while the wet plate collodion process has been resurrected due to more interest in Civil War era photography, the dry plate process has not received as much attention in its modern usage [14].

Frances Scully and Mark Osterman are also known for their revival of the wet plate collodion photography as well as experimenting with other alternative photographic processes.  They also teach the public how to produce images using these processes in their workshops.  Mark Osterman in an interview stated that the collodion negative was the matrix from which every single historic printing process originates, he goes on to express, “When we came on the collodion 'scene', the others who were using it were very upset with the fact that we were teaching it. They thought it was a secret process, a hard-earned thing” [15].  Photographers like Mann and Osterman take an interest in producing images on glass and other historic processes not only for the historical aspect, but because the imperfections that were found to be draw backs of the time are now finding that those same imperfections are the right vehicle for their artistic vision and intent.  There is something compelling about looking at an image where virtually every step is created by hand and that the result is unpredictable.

Because of the enthusiasm of the photographic forerunners of the 19th century seeking a method for clarity, stability, accessibility, simplicity, and rendering a likeness permanent on a surface drove the photographic medium to the path that it has evolved into today.  The collodion process improved upon the Daguerreotype’s long exposures.  And was the development that retain clarity unlike the Calotype.  Collodion also brought photography as a more affordable photographic medium to the general public not only by who made the photographs but could have an image made of themselves.  Whereas, the gelatin dry plate expanded on the concept of images produced on glass by enabling the ease to creating a photographic image that led into the modernization of photography.

 

WORKS CITED

  1. Rexer, Lyle. Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde; The New Wave in Old Processes. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 2002. P. 72.

  2. Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press. 1984.      P. 17

  3. Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press. 1984.      P. 41

  4. Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press. 1984.      P. 29

  5. Mora, Gilles. PhotoSpeak. Abbeville Press. 1998. P. 70

  6. James, Christopher. The Book of Alternative Processes. Delmar Thomson Learning. 2002. P. 304-305

  7. Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light; A History of Photography. McGraw Hill. 2000. P. 72

  8. Mora, Gilles. PhotoSpeak. Abbeville Press. 1998. P. 71

  9. Simkin, David. Part 6: ‘Dry Plate’ Photography. 2002. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/DSphotodry5E1.htm.

  10. "photography, history of." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/457919/photography.

  11. Eastman’s Development of the Dry Plate Process. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/kodak/dpdev.htm.

  12. History of Kodak, George Eastman. About Kodak. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from http://www.kodak.com/global/en/corp/historyOfKodak/eastmanTheMan.jhtml?pq-path=2689&pq-locale=en_US.

  13. Rexer, Lyle. Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde; The New Wave in Old Processes. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 2002. P. 80.

  14. Pedersen, Mark Scholer. The Silver Gelatin Dry Plate Process. Alternative Photography.com. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from http://www.alternativephotography.com/wp/processes/gelatin-silver/silver-gelatin-dry-plate-process.

  15. Heatwole, Joanna. With Mark Osterman. Entrepreneur.com. 2004. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from http://www.entrepreneur.com/tradejournals/article/114820475_2.html

 

Landscape in Retrospect, A Brief Look at the 19th Century Photography of Gustave Le Gray

“It is my deepest wishes that photography, instead of falling in the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole true place, and that is the direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it” [1]. Gustave Le Gray (French, b. 1820 - d. 1884), was a trained painter turned photographer. Clearly by the quotation, he was an early adopter that photography could be more than a technical exercise in documentation. Le Gray, being ahead of his time saw the potential of what photography could be and is noted as one of the most important photographers of the 19th century who brought imagination to architectural, portraiture, war, and primarily landscape photography. Additionally, he educated the then upcoming practitioners in photographic practice [2]. This essay will survey Le Gray’s influence on not only the craft of the photographic medium but also his con- tributing impact in early landscape photography practices. Furthermore, explore where those influences can be seen in the contemporary photographic climate.

Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, or best known simply as Nadar spoke with enthusiasm in his 1900 text My Life as a Photographer that “It was about time that art came to join in”. It is said that these words were in reference to Gustave Le Gray [3]. Le Gray was a French photographer who began his interests in visual representation through the study of painting. Le Gray’s contributions to photography were two-fold. Firstly, one that should not go unrecognized is making improvements to the Calotype printing process by developing the waxed paper process in 1851. This process involved steeping paper with hot beeswax prior to sensitizing it with silver. This improvement to the printing process allowed for clarity and better resolution. The process had the added benefit of being convenient for photographers working out in the field because it could be accomplished completely dry [4]. Although known by this technical contribution Le Gray did eventually adopt the wet plate collodion process. Le Gray’s second most noted achievement in the history of photography was through his landscape work. Le Gray would level the field between art and pho- tography. During this time period, photography was not considered an art but a scientific practice. Photography struggled to find its place as a pictorial and expressive form of art akin to painting. Surely, being trained as a painter had contributed to his ability to render specific details that otherwise would have been ignored by others working in the photographic medium in the mid-19th century. An attention to capturing detail that he would be cited for.

Le Gray’s most noted early photographic landscape study was in the forest Fontainebleau (1849). The pictorial quality of these images resembles much of the idea behind the pic- turesque because of the rough subject matter contained in the multiple studies of trees and undergrowth. Michel Frizot notes that their size and print quality indicate the experimental nature of the work, that in fact there was a new approach in the making [5]. Le Gray’s work at Fontainebleau illustrates the subject of trees in this forest that display unique characteristics that include gnarled and twisted trunks. Because of the aesthetics of the photographic medium at the time, particularly its ability to render light, the forest images provide a surreal study of this landscape. If you compare these images to those of Sally Mann’s southern landscape work we quickly identify the similarities between them. By making improvements to the Calotype process, his Fontinebleau photographs were technical successes because he was able to solve the issue of movement seen in the leaves. Le Gray was illustrated photographically the richness of the foliage [6].

Although photography was still considered a young medium, the simple tricks we embrace today were also first explored in the mid to late 1800s. The forerunners were Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Emerson who also championed photography as art through allegorical imagery created by combination printing. Combination printing is the act of using parts of multiple images to construct a whole final image. Gustave Le Gray also utilized combination printing but doing so in a much more subtle way. Le Gray’s approach to combination printing is similar to our 21st century practice of high dynamic range (HDR) photography. Marien Warner Marien mentions in regard to Le Gray’s seascapes to reveal his resistance to the idea that photography was merely an automatic recording of scenes before the lens [7]. Le Gray concerned with making a complete photographic experience set out and photographed skies and shorelines separately to be able to retain detail in the sky and the foreground of each image. It was noted by Naomi Rosenblum that prior to Le Gray’s composited seascapes that almost no other attempt was convincing. Le Gray was able to transform clouds, sea, and rocks into an evocative arrangement of volume and light [8]. The majority of Le Gray’s seascape images are minimalist and sometimes even stark while some tackle the idea of the sublime. Although not as texturally detailed, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s modern-day stark seascapes resemble a quality about them that is reminiscent of Le Gray’s seascape work through their various approaches toward placement of the horizon line and their reductionist similarities.

It is always astonishing to identify modern photographic techniques and practices to find quite matter-of-fact that they are historic processes. Through this short survey Le Gray’s technical approaches and photographic philosophy it is clear that Gustave Le Gray is a 19th century photographer who set the pace of photographic practice in motion for the genre of landscape photography. Through technical improvements to his devotion that photography deserves its place in art Le Gray has contributed much to the shaping of the photographic medium.

 

Works Cited

  1. Le Gray, Gustave. Photo Quotations. Web. Retrieved February 2014. From:http://photoquotations.com/a/406/Gustave+Le+Gray
  1. Getty Center. Gustave Le Gray, Photographer. J. Paul Getty Museum. Web. Retrieved February 2014. From: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/le_gray/
  1. Musee d’Orsay. Gustave Le Gray Seascape, Study of Clouds. Musee d’Orsay. Web. Retrieved February 2014. From: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/index.php? id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=20860&no_cache=1
  1. Peres, Michael S. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. 4th Edition. Focal Press. 2007. Pg 30.
  1. Frizot, Michel. The New History of Photography. Konemann. 1994. Pg 71.
  1. Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography.2nd Edition. Mc-Graw Hill. 2009. Pg 49.
  1. Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. 3rd Edition. Prentice Hall. 2010. Pg 56.
  1. Rosenblume, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Revised Edition. Abbeville. 1984. Pg 105.

Figures:

Occupied: The Impact of Developing America on Landscape Photography

Early Landscape Representation

The depiction of the land is a longstanding tradition within the visual arts. There is little doubt, that as a species we long to forge connections with the idea of a sense of place. As early as ancient Greece, the landscape has been a thematic approach to the visual arts for a variety of purposes that range from decoration, effects of tranquility, or even serving as a mere backdrop for religious tableaux. It wasn’t until after the 16th century and especially the Renaissance that landscape was seen as a true subject to be rendered in the visual arts [1]. In due time and technological advancements in reproduction, landscapes became more than just pretty bucolic painted scenes.

The photographic landscape provides something that classical landscapes cannot, which is the power to render an image with the perception of realism and yet abstraction. Photographs, after all are not quite objective pieces through the inherent nature of selection and omission in the photographic process. It is also important to consider that landscapes can be deeply symbolic and serve as a means to begin conversations about our cultural identities, as well as man’s direct relationship with the land. The perception that a photograph is more real than a painting can bring a different kind of raw awareness that painting seldom touches upon. This essay will explore beyond classical landscape scenes of arcadia and the picturesque but to hone in on the modern landscape as seen through the impact of colonization during the expansion of the American West, specifically how early photographic depiction of the American landscape shaped a cultural identity and to follow the connection American development as seen through its photographs.

Moving West and Settling In

The birth of photography during the first quarter of the 19th century overlapped with some of the most developmental times in American history. From the first discovery of America by explorers and colonist, the filling-in of this country has always begun with an attraction to a wild and free land. Although Native Americans had been making their home and cultivating the land prior to the onset of these early settlers, it is clear through events like the development of the railroad (figure 1) that there was a persistence to make the land accommodate what was desired. The American identity has grown from a urge to explore, cohabit with, as well as govern the landscape.

By the mid to late 1800s the American landscape had only just begun when groups began heading to the western edges of the continent. These settlers experienced the wildness of the American landscape and also began taming it through ownership and development, which seemingly has become a cultural hobby of sorts. In turn this group (maybe unwittingly) defined a cultural identity that can be seen even at it’s peak during the 20th century.

Photographers were there to record this progression through government sponsored land survey expeditions where these early images gave Americans the first look at the immensity and variety of the land. These expeditions also led to early movements towards its preservation that inspired such monolithic depictions of the landscape as seen in the work of Ansel Adams.

American West, Photography, and Cultural Identity

The American frontier was first seriously considered photographically when the United States Geological Survey (USGS) surveys undertook photographers Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and William Henry Jackson (figure 2) to make records of the surface features during the expeditions. These surveys, although noted to begin around 1838 by the United States Army Corps it wasn’t until the 1860s that the USGS set out to being it’s topographic surveys [2]. In anIntelligent Life article it is said that it was believed America’s engagement with the wilderness steeped in rugged individualism defined the cultural identity of American and yet it was not believed that the O’Sullivan’s photographs actually reinforced this ‘frontier vision’ due to their desolation implied in the images [3]. With the development of the railroads, mining industries, and the discovery of states like California with its multitude of natural resources and mild climates brought for the ever steady and tremendous development of the frontier into what we now know to be pockets of mega development. The west went from 19th century individualism and evolved into 20th century capitalism and thus the national character changed from industrialists to romanticizing frontiersman in Hollywood within a matter of a few decades.

The Ansel Adams Tradition

Photographers of the mid-20th century went back to rediscover and photograph the wildness of the American landscape in a grand way. During this time the cold war came and went but this tradition of bucolic and sublime landscapes from classical painting never truly faded from mind. Ask anyone today who is outside of the contemporary art world who their favorite photograph might be and the answer more times than not is almost always Ansel Adams. Adams began documenting sites like Yosemite during a time that development through capitalism (almost seen as a patriotic activity) was at its most heightened state. Adams set out to photograph Yosemite National Park (figure 3) in a way to sanctify it [4]. Today we live in the aftermath of that photographic era, where it is now not unusual to fantasize about the American wilderness from the comforts of our homes or offices. Without the safety of experiencing nature from a Adams photograph many may not even consider the spiritual qualities of nature as much as we seemingly do now.

Through the popularity of Adams’ work came an anti-approach to Ansel Adams and other similar landscape imagery through depicting the true late-20th century landscape. This new landscape consisted of track housing, parking lots, and business parks and came to be know through a 1970s exhibition entitled New Topographics (figure 4). These photographs depicted prefabricated environments littered with symbols that James Howard Kunstler in his book The Geography of Nowhere identifies as an American attempt to illustrate the illusion charm [5].

Although labeled as cynical by those still committed to the classical approach of the photographic landscape seen in Ansel Adams images, the New Topographics exhibition showed us a reality closer to home. This in turn influenced many of the late 20th and early 21st century contemporary fine art photographers toward a style that is often attributed to deriving from work seen in the New Topographics exhibition. This style is often recognized as deadpan composition, overcast skies, banal subject matter, and very rigid compartmentalization of formal elements. By the end of the 20th century a new trend in the depiction of land shifted by moving towards the photographic illustration of the catastrophic impact of man’s imprint on the very land he set out to dominate.

Wasteland and Beyond

Through the New Topographics exhibition new ways to visualize the landscape shifted towards the end of the 20th century. With technology and even more development, the landscape dramatically changed. Such terms like ecocide have become widely used to describe the destruction of land. With that, comes photographs to illustrate or give a depiction and to define exactly in visual terms what ecocide means. At first, a new take on the landscape was merely man’s impact in altering it by adding new surface structures for convenience and recreation like picnic shelters in the middle of nowhere to the pop-up trailer parks. Now we are concerned with the idea of the wasteland which has become the tradeoff of such large amounts of development in such a short period of time. Through the work of Edward Burtynsky we are confronted with conflicting feelings on how this wasteland is depicted. Working much in the visual aesthetic attributed to classical landscape painting or photography, Burtynksy shows us a new kind of sublime. This can be seen in the beautiful, surreal and haunting imagery Burtynsky has presented to us to inevitably come to our own conclusions about the wasteland as seen through tailings ponds to even e-waste (figure 5). Although, the zeitgeist of our times is one that is still about consumption as well as the wasteland, there are also additional approaches to landscape photography that photographers are now focusing on. This can include how we integrate (and often attempt to disguise) our use of technological development and infrastructure within the natural landscape, like trees that are actually cellular towers. Although depicting the contemporary landscape is one that is often rooted in such statement-based agendas as environmental awareness there are also more conceptual or lyrical approaches to be considered as well. These new trends in the landscape photography could include entirely fabricated landscapes as seen in the narrative works of Lori Nix (figure 6) who builds model scales of land environments or even the work of Myoung Ho Lee’s directed reality approach to the landscape by isolating tress with a background in an attempt to create a portrait (figure 7). The landscape doesn’t always have to be about the beauty of it’s surface qualities or heavy-handed statements on the collective altering of the land but it can also still illustrate a sense of place or assist to define a cultural identity in expressive ways.

 

Works Cited

The J. Paul Getty Museum. Brief History of the Landscape Genre. Web. Retrieved March 2014 fromhttp://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/landscapes/background1.html

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Prentice Hall. 2010. Pg 133.

http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/arts/alexander-ewing/timothy-osullivan

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. Vintage Books. 1995. Pg 9.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. Touchstone Books. 1993. Pg 169.

 

Figures:

Watkins, Carleton E. Oregon Portage Railraod Near Cascade Locks. 1867. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://www.sps700.org/portlandrailroadhistory.shtml

Jackson, William Henry. Mount of the Holy Cross. 1873. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/grte2/hrs18.htm

Adams, Ansel. Halfdome, Yosemite. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://vickielester.com/2013/10/01/federal-shutdown-hits-southland-yosemite-visitors-urged-to-leave-latimes-com/

Adams, Robert. Tract House, Westminster, Colorado. 1974. Web. Retreived March 2014 from http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/407

Burtynsky, Edward. Sudbury Nickel Tailing No. 31. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://www.greynotgrey.com/blog/2012/10/01/edward-burtynsky/

Nix, Lori. Park. 2001. Web. Retrieved March 2014 fromhttp://www.lorinix.net/some_other_place/11.html

The Architectonics of Identity Construction

clements_final.jpg
“I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).” - Roland Barthes

I have been chasing my identity as if I were chasing my tail and this chase has become an ongoing race between myself and who I think I am. Like many artists, I explore who I am through surface appearance, inner context, or self reflection of the past (and the present). It has occurred to me that I never explore the future of my identity and seems not to be something that percolates to the surface in my art making. I turn to Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin to explore the self in relationship to identity and its constructs through using architectonics to create a model of identity.  Bakhtin theorized that identity can be made up of three parts that were dependent on the use of internal and external language. I would like to approach a selection of self portraits as seen through the lens of the architectonics of identity construction.

For reader/viewer understanding I would first like to include what I have written in my journal when these images were first created: My self portraits have become more intense.  This is the third or maybe fourth self portrait image during the year 2011 that I have produced.  All these images utilize extrusive time.  This is part of the depictive level as described by Stephen Shore where motion represents movement in time shown through use of slow shutter speeds.  In these images my face is concealed by a masking or shrouded, the images have the commonality of concealing some part of the facial identity through use of motion blurring techniques.  There has been a stark duality between my outer self and my inner self that I do not always recognize.   What this self portrait depicts is a ghost of myself.  

Bakhtin lists three metaphors as the construction that makes up the architecture of identity. These include the center, the not-center, and the relationship between the two. The center is not to be mistaken for the core of the identity described as our bodies and possibly their defining features and all that our bodies demand. Bodies have basic needs and they have specific abilities and disabilities to each one. My self portraits typically hide the surface features of the body and thus conceals the first element of identity construction. But does it?  We can tell that the figure is likely slender through the implied definition of bodily features. We can also tell that the figure is not smiling although the face is concealed. There is some definition of basic facial features and skeletal identity. The center however is more complex than just basic surface features of human identity as it is a shapeshifter and only caters to the desires of the center. The center desires to hide and it has been hidden with the protection of an ominous image that creates a wall around the vulnerable center.

The second metaphor for identity construction is the not-center. The not-center includes all that is surrounding you in the world of society, culture, and media. This could consist of important characters or relationships in your life, what you enjoy, your profession your cultural influences, and essentially the world that you and I live in. I have depict myself stripped of my not-center through lack of or generic clothing, unidentifiable environments, and there are no other characters to create visual relationships to. It could be said that a loss of not-center had occurred. Of course everyday, we are surrounded by the elements in our universe that define who we are. I am still a college photography professor, I still drive a Volkswagen, and I still still live in Colorado. All of these define the not-center. Because the not-center is centripetal, all of these things that make up the day to day thrust the not-center in flux with the intensity of interest and internal or external influences.  The not-center elements are suspended in a void in certain imagery where it cannot be displayed; but do not be fooled into thinking it is not present. These images do not depict a reality, but like Frida Kahlo, they depict something similar to a magical realism because I am and you are not a ghost living in a void but allowing the heteroglossia or the inner dialogue to have a voice within artwork to speak for itself. For myself, my artistic and aesthetic influences dictate the stark and ghostly visual language in my visual and written work. 

The last construct of identity is the relationship between the center and the not-center. It is my understanding that this relationship is determined by the use of the same language of the various visual tones and implications that can be interpreted. Many people may look at self-portrait images - and although recognize the ghostly visual language that is being presented - but yet not feel the personal impact of these pieces of art meant by the artist. Without background information the relationship between the center and not-center cannot be fully related to the viewer. Without such information the viewer could read a variety of meanings based on their own cultural and life experience. From the perspective of the artist, the relationship between the center and not-center is the battle between the two as the center’s desire to create a protective wall with the ghastly appearance while tearing down the not-center’s characteristics that defines the subject in the such photographs. Their relationship is at odds.

In conclusion, deconstructing self-portraiture was a study in releasing the monophony of a very loud heteroglossia. With that, it was also meant to provide a voice to unspeakable things. Although some might find this method of understanding ones identity as melodramatic or theatrical, it is still a very real part of learning about who the artist is.

On Melancholy

Since I was a child I have struggled with the fact that I may be an empath— one who is greatly affected by the moods of others, environmental stimulation, and a general perceptiveness of things left unspoken. The empath is susceptible to feeling the tugs of longing. This is where melancholy comes in. It is in melancholy that the empath thrives; through feeling deeply and interconnected in the sadness of a fleeting moment that may go unnoticed by others. And it is not a depression, as we commonly associate with sadness, but a celebration of what once was. Today I explore how melancholy has contributed to my artistic practice manifesting itself as a body photographs, found objects, and writing in the culmination of the book Last in the Woods.

Defining and Demystifying Melancholy (Saudade, Huzun, Duende, etc…):

In the english language the definition of melancholy is defined as: a sad mood or feeling (Merriam-Websters Online). The extended definition is simply a depression. The thesaurus also suggests such words as dejected, unhappy, miserable, wretched, and joyless. It is not surprising that most native english speakers retract from melancholy because it is inherent in not only its definition but our cultural values to seek out and embrace the exact opposite. The antonym of melancholy is cheerful. 

Turning towards the macabre or simply being the voice of a critical thinker can easily gain one the status as the downer at the party. We live in a culture of neo-enlightenment where yoga, mindfulness, and fostering empathy is seen commoditized in order to rewrite malaise or apathy into happiness. Notice, I didn’t use the word melancholy here. I believe that at the core of our dissatisfaction (which often is confused for melancholy) is simply because of boredom. I digress. Yet, we forget that the essence of some of our most celebrated eastern religions can be viewed as being rooted in becoming one with our melancholy as a path towards enlightenment. The Japanese know this to be true in Wabi-Sabi where the impermanent and incomplete have defined an entire aesthetic philosophy. Yet again, we buy into these movements without realizing that celebrating impermanence is at the core of what melancholy means across the globe, not realizing that simply because melancholy— the embracing of depression, sadness, and the joyless is not marketed to us. In this model of thinking; embracing melancholy will guide us away from happiness. The Japanese word for the melancholy that describes the profoundness of the impermanence of things is also called mono no aware (a-wah-ray). Or one of the direct translations being; “a sensitivity or awareness towards ephemera.”

The purpose behind my defining melancholy within the english language is because in over 80 other languages there are multiple words to describe variations of the word [melancholy]. Many of which we do not have a direct translation to in english and almost all are threaded by the idea of romanticizing longing rather than a depression or feeling of unhappiness. Some of these words are for very specific kinds of longing and not a generalized sense of melancholy. The Germans have WALDEINSAMKEIT (wal-din-sam-kite) to describe the feeling of being alone in nature and depending on which definition you happen upon is also specific to the feeling of being alone in the woods. The Portuguese have saudade and the Spanish have duende to describe the nostalgic longing to be near a distant someone or something. These two words have embodied genres of music like fado and flamenco. The Turkish have huzun to describe the nostalgia of the psychic state of the city of Istanbul and has a specific place in their cinema being primarily expressed through a reduced tonal range as seen as black and white imagery (Bowring). In essence, all of these different words are meant to describe a bittersweetness and to acknowledge acceptance that there is profound beauty to be experienced in those moments of longing. For me, my personal definition of melancholy is the ultimate expression of being truly grateful for the life that has been given to each of us. If that is the case, I need a word for melancholic gratitude. Saudade has always been the word that I gravitate to the most.

Photography and Melancholy:

In art, melancholy can be seen being more openly expressed than repressed but it is the partnership with the medium of photography where that expression finds harmony. Melancholia as a principal artistic theme has been described as an aesthetic emotion. Melancholy’s motifs are seen within painting, music, and literature throughout much of their histories.  In 1999 singer/songwriter Nick Cave performed and lectured The Secret Life of the Love Song. The premise of Cave’s lecture was to emphasize the importance of melancholy in his song writing process. Cave states, “My artistic life has centered around the desire or, more accurately, [a] need to articulate the feelings of loss and longing that have whistled through my bones and hummed in my blood.” I found it no surprise that I stumbled across Cave’s lecture, as I am a longtime fan, but was surprised to find this piece speaking at length on the necessity to channel a sense of longing in order to create. Surprised because no other artist to my knowledge has described exactly the same motivations and creative process I’ve struggled to define for myself. Emily Brady and Arto Haapala in their essay Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion write that there are negative and positive aspects of melancholia and they alternate creating contrasts and rhythms of pleasure. Although melancholia is often defined as a condition of sadness, gloominess, or depression; at one time melancholia was a once celebrated and liberally seen in art. Cave concludes his lecture with the simple statement, “I don’t mind. I’m happy to be sad”. 

It is my opinion that photography and melancholy form the perfect union. In Jay Prosser’s text Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss, he writes, “Photography is the medium in which we unconsciously encounter the dead. Yet, herein lies photography’s hidden truth. Photographs are not signs of presence but evidence of absence.” Absence, longing, melancholy… I dare state that this is the native language of photography. Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag’s On Photography are pivotal texts on photographic theory. Both of these writings propose the notion of how the photograph, as an act, and as an object, provoke and encapsulate the marriage between memory and longing. Photography is very much rooted in nostalgia— which can be described as a melancholic state of longing. The very act of creating a photograph is to preserve any fleeting moment or memory for future remembrance whether for a joyous recalling or to lament over. There is no doubt [for me] that many photographers share a preoccupation with longing. They grapple to understand longing through the act of photography because it is a reproductive media with the ability to romanticize. Photography is subjective and on the extremity can produce fictional representation as metaphors for longing. Through any artistic act; memories can be embellished to achieve a dramatized new reality. Photography is a media with the ability to render a convincing picture of reality when in fact it is anything but [real].

In the roll of viewer and not creator, I find myself more drawn to images that are dark, mysterious, sad, disturbed, in essence—  melancholic. I create my own photographic art from my own melancholic experiences and employ its aesthetic within each image I create. The images I created for Last in the Woods are all black and white (with the exception of the found objects and family photographs), [they] utilize a skewing of focus, and the images are not only dark in theme but also in contrast value or tonality. All of these are specific to the language of photography but also specific choices chosen to best carry the concept of memory, identity, and time as it pertains to the subject of melancholy— to create a distant memory backdropped by the woods. These formal choices are used to create juxtapositions between the resonance of innocence and its loss. 

Photography and Writing:

The next area that I wish to explore is my personal interest in the intersection between photography and writing. Although I am a very photo-centric person I find more often than not influence through reading and writing. Just as my love for the melancholic in art, I also am interested in the need for there to be a narrative. I believe that it is the duty of any one person involved in the creative fields to convey something— be it for the collective consciousness or for the self. I feel that it is no surprise to you when browsing through the pages of Last in the Woods that there are obvious traces of my literary influences seen within the images. When examining the literary works that I am most drawn; I employ in my photographic work themes of alienation and the grotesque where narratives are disjointed or elusive, which can be commonly identified in such traditions as southern gothic and the magical realism of Latin American literature. In the essay Constructing Photography: Fiction as Cultural Evidence Hanno Hardt describes literature as portals to the imagination, and vessels for elusive truths. The literature I have been most drawn to often times leaves the reader hanging by a shoestring until the end and even then, that doesn’t ensure a resolved ending. This is exactly what I sought out through the writing and photographic juxtapositions in my own book. Additionally, James Goodwin writes in his essay Modern American Grotesque: Literature and Photography define the grotesque as a way to characterize the symbolic function of seeing the light in the dark.  Again, the bittersweet. Light and dark. Black and white. The tender and the cruel. The open and the closed. Again, the themes of melancholy. Goodwin continues by illustrating that the role of the writer/photographer is to take the taboo and to harmonize it.

Melancholic Objects (And Their Secret Lives):

Both Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes suggest that photographs themselves are melancholic objects. That no matter who or what is depicted we want to think the photograph is exposing the essence of a person, place, or thing; what really looms is the impermanence. Photographing our loved ones can be a desperate attempt to preserve something precious about them but also help freeze our own feelings toward them. Because, as we know; people and feelings can change. This can be an ode to what we once loved in another. JW Dewdney of the C4 Contemporary Art Gallery in LA summarizes Songtag’s definition of a melancholic object to be one that is born of distance— when rendered successfully melancholy in photography captures a perceived separate reality that has been psychologically re-contextualized. 

Throughout the book Last in the Woods is an assortment of staged still life images backdropped by an ethereal landscape and the pages are interwoven with found objects and photographs to compile a collection of melancholic objects. The book in its entirety is meant to be a complete melancholic object. While I was producing the project I had the opportunity to work closely with local photographer Carol Golemboski who had completed her project titled Psychometry. If you’re not familiar with the word; the definition is object reading— or using a six sense of sorts to read deep meaning into inanimate objects. Of course this idea that someone else belongings could be read into obviously appealed to me and this is why: I grew up with my grandparents in Saint Joseph, MO. My grandparents also happen to be antique dealers. I spent much of my childhood in the various aisles and booths in large historic storefronts and warehouses that contained what once was the mundane personal belongings of others in transition to becoming another persons treasure. Even then, there was something magical about all these relics for sale that left a mark on my psyche. It was not a surprise that my first career choice before artist was archaeologist. Every visit to the antique store was another day in an ancient tomb where I attempted to decipher who these objects might have belonged to and what these objects might have seen. To me— these discarded objects had secrets to tell and that is where the idea of the melancholic object was first introduced into my mental model.

The objects depicted in Last in the Woods stand to heighten the increased distance of time and memory as well as to contribute to the underlying narrative of the included text. Many of the objects seen in the photographs are tied to specific memories in my own life or the lives of those who I have been close to. Other objects are meant to merely be the symbols of passing time. Tricycles are a very specific image for me and the personal story connected to the tricycle is about the time that my five-year old self attempted to ride one [a tricycle] along the side of a two-lane highway with the intent to run away from home. The image of my baby shoes in the jar is simply a metaphor for the preservation of time. For those who have already spent some time with the book or have been present for the duration of its creation; animal remains are a significant image throughout its pages. Coming across the remains of an animal in nature has always been a pivotal early experience where I learned not to be afraid of death but how to celebrate it. This early experience helped in understanding death after the loss of my father and even the loss of relationships. An example of Sontag and Barthes thoughts of photographs as melancholic objects put to use: there is an image in my book [Last in the Woods] of a little boy running through a yard. This is my father and that is the yard we both grew up in. This image holds a bittersweet meaning to me and that is the reference to the parallel lives he and I share(d) and yet I’ve picked up where he left off; in six years I will be older than my father was at the time of his death. In the end; it’s all fleeting and impermanent. It is my belief that mourning and celebration go hand in hand. Death is only another rite of passage. That’s the saudade speaking. It is in these objects that we assign their meaning depending on our own associations built on our experiences. 

Longing for Place, Longing for Ourselves:

There is a Welsh word called hiraeth and it is the word for a homesickness that you cannot return to. Essentially it is meant to be the mourning of the lost places of the past. Last in the Woods was incepted after a trail run through the woods of my childhood during a summer visit to Saint Joseph. Simply, the project was conceived through realizing how deeply connected I felt to the northwestern Missouri landscape and an overwhelming sense of being at-home there— far more than how I feel living in Colorado. That day in the woods brought back a flood of memories from my youth and a secondary concept emerged as I questioned how many of those memories were true twenty years later. I became interested in the concept of personal myth fueled by the act of longing. Reflecting back on my time running in those woods every day for a month, I realized that I was completely alone. I had spent my childhood outside and away from the home as much as possible and I noticed now that there were very few children spending time in outdoor spaces during my visit. The title of the project is in reference to the observation that the generation of children from which I came was perhaps one of the last to define childhood through nature. That those who did are essentially ghosts of the landscape. 

During research for the project I read books on the theory of “place” and how it contributes to our identity and ultimately our memories. These texts included Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local, and Liz Well’s Land Matters. I was particularly interested in philosophies on “place” (or my case the woods) describing how a sense of place can contribute to the recalling of memories. Liz Wells writes, that landscapes, real and imagined, contribute to the formation of our sense of identity; subjectively and collectively— and that the imagery of a place may reconfigure our memory of it. A particular favorite quote from Lucy Lippard is: “Home changes.  Illusions change.  People change.  Time moves on.  A place can be peopled by ghosts more real than living inhabitants.” 

The idea of a place populated more by ghosts than living inhabitants is exactly how I felt spending time in the Missouri woods of my youth. So much of the atmosphere provided by the canopies of trees and the dense humid air shaped how I perceived the events of my early life. I never realized it until then, but that landscape has always hounded me and maybe the act of leaving made it so I could discover its linger mark. While working out the details of the project [Last in the Woods], it was becoming apparent that the landscape served as a mythic secondary character. The first being the person whose belongings are being photographed— presumably the narrator. Secondly, the presence of the supernatural in the landscape. I have personified the character of the landscape as a Jekyll and Hyde. This is due the fact that it’s [landscape] character alternates as a place of refuge and a place of fear. Refuge because this was where as a child I would escape the present reality of my home life and fear because of the fact that one: nature can shape shift, going from friendly to ominous in a matter of seconds and also two: the fear caused by its other inhabitants. I begin the book:

They said to stay out of the woods. As if becoming an adult meant that they forgot about the orbits of childhood. They told us that there were boogie men to take us away from them; but the kids never listened. Day in day out, like troops, we would enter into where the light has been shut out except for the shimmer of leaves.
It wasn’t the strangers in the woods to fear; those men with their dirty beards and hands. They looked after us. What happened in the woods would remain hanging in the trees and it was always the other children to fear. They would push and push your sensitivities to a boil.
I walk home in reflection and sullen, day in and day out. They told us that there were boogie men there to take us away and I secretly wished that would happened; but it never did.

This opening story is meant to illustrate the ideas of that duality of fear and refuge while setting the backdrop for the underlying narrative of the book. Growing up I was always told to stay out of the wooded areas. When I came to live with my grandparents it was during in the late 80s and early 90s. Child kidnappings, such as the disappearance and murder of Adam Walsh were current events. Even to this day when I go running in these woods my grandparents advise me not to. For them, it is the place where the homeless go; in their minds, some wouldn’t be homeless without having something to run from. Although this may be true to some extent, and there is always danger in any secluded spot, this has not been my experience. The strangers I have encountered in these spaces have been very kind people and that was what I wanted to illustrate here. Anti-bullying wasn’t a public service announcement at the time and so the real danger was the other children. The last line of the story is the most telling and a secret I had been carrying with me since childhood. In Madness, Rack and Honey Mary Ruefle astutely acknowledges that there are two sides of a secret and that is repression and expression. Before I came to live with my grandparents I had a very difficult home life with a stepparent and a coping strategy I developed as a child was to put myself in situations where I would appeal to kidnappers. Because that, that would be better than going home. In retrospect now it is one of the most bittersweet memories I possess of myself.  Of course I was never kidnapped but I would be lying to you if that child needing an escape isn’t still with me today. Although this event in my life was the aftermath of a very sad situation there is something comical about a kid trying to get kidnapped. It never occurred to me that I would get kidnapped by people with criminal intentions but nice people who were desperately needing in their life a moody child to care. Although I don’t always come across as such, I am a hopeful person with a pessimistic facade. And it is within these memories that I know this event happened in my life but so much time has passed that they have only become personal myths. I wouldn’t be capable of pinpointing the exact details of these stories to you but only of the essence of their fragments in my mind from some twenty-five years of distance. 

At the end of the production of this work I began learning of Jaques Lacan’s Register Theory where the psychology of reliving events is broken down into the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. Each of Lacan’s ideas on these three areas were beneficial to understanding the interpretations of the past as a basis for the foundation of Last in the Woods; but it was within the context of the real that I found the deepest source of understanding. I learned that the real is not reality itself but the unconscious reality. Reality in this sense defines who we are, perhaps when we dream, and not what we are trying to live in our waking lives. By that definition my internal life, the one I present in the book is the manifestation of my particular reality. 

Although I cannot recall the specifics of some of the events that inspired the images and text in the book their mythic manifestations have become just as real through the longing of past places and experiences that I can never quite revisit. Perhaps it is a hiraeth, a saudade, or a duende… My empath breeds a quiet comfort for the longing brought on by a moment of impermanence. Melancholy is not a sadness but an acceptance of the transitory nature of a life well lived. 

 

Absence | Carlos Drummond de Andrade

For the longest time I thought that absence meant lacking something. 

And I, ignorant, lamented this missing. 

Nowadays I don’t feel the same. 

There is no missing in absence. 

Absence is a being within me. 

And I feel it wide so attached, snuggled in my arms, that I laugh and dance and create joyful exclamations 

because absence when assimilated, 

cannot be taken from one. 

 

 

Sources Cited:

  • Jacques Lacan. Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. April 2, 2013 Web. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/ 
  • Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. MIT Press. 1992.
  • Prosser, Jay. Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss. University of Minnesota Press. 2005.
  • CONSTRUCTING PHOTOGRAPHY: FICTION AS CULTURAL EVIDENCE. By: Hardt, Hanno. Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No. 5, December 2007, pp. 476􏰀480 
  • MODERN AMERICAN GROTESQUE: LITERATURE AND PHOTOGRAPHY. By: Goodwin, James. The Ohio State University Press. 2009.
  • Bowring, Jacky. A Field Guide To Melancholy. Old Castle Books. 2009. Kindle Edition.
  • Dewdney, JW. Melancholy Objects: Notes ‘On Photography’. C4 Contemporary Art. N.D. Web. Re-
    trieved from: http://c4gallery.com/pedagogy/Sontag-on-Photography-%20essay.html 
  • Cave, Nick. The Secret Life of the Love Song. Audio Recording. 1999. Web. Retrieved from: https:// soundcloud.com/chooboorah/01-nick-cave-the-secret-life-of-the-love-song 
  • Brady, Emily and Haapala, Arto. Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion. Contemporary Aesthetics. N.D. Web. Retrieved from: http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=214 
  • Wells, Liz, Land Matters. Pg 290. I B Tauris. 2011.
  • Lippard, Lucy R. Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. The New Press. 1997.
  • Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: reflections on Photography. Hill and Wang. 1980.
  • Ruefle, Mary. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Wave Books. 2012.
  • Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Picador USA. 1977.

The Tourist

_M1F0301-Edit.jpg

At what point did I stop participating in my own life?  From the time I chose photography as my medium for creative expression I have been experiencing moments through a barrier.  Susan Sontag wrote an essay entitled Melancholy Objects that was published in her book On Photography and she writes, “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other peoples reality, and eventually in ones own.”  I’ve seen this quote elsewhere but only recently had I made taken in this seemingly required text for photographers.  Through a critical eye I feel Sontag appreciates yet scrutinizes the characteristics inherent to the medium and those who choose to embrace it.

As I write these words there is a flush of panic that briefly consumes me.  This mini whirl of anxiety is a product of facing a truth about my own involvement with photography.  Am I humble to admit that maybe I haven’t been living my own life?  That perhaps I have only been experiencing a life manufactured through a lens.  And yes, I have become a tourist in my own reality, a reality that is distorted due to the subjective nature of the act of photographing.  I have not only been separated from experience, I have created a fictional experience for my own purposes of picturesque reflection.


What I adore about photography is the transformation of the generic into the idyllic.  The fact that my waxing of poetic vision is different than yours.  That this disassociation is mine and for my own sake of remembering how I want to remember or simply forgetting.  However, after any beautiful dream comes the awakening.  Have I in fact missed the purpose of experiencing devastating loss - which I handle far too well?  Have I in fact relied on this crutch to shape my own memories into a road map or a dystopian travel brochure as laid out by a circumventing navigator who shares my mental model?  Have I in fact lost the ability to create neurological cabinets of memories without the use of imagery to amplify their influence?  The answer is a solemn yes.

 I don’t document social conflict or superficial landscapes or models selling products.  I am a photographer who uses the medium and craft in selfish ways; to investigate my own interior life.  I create this picture book for myself and myself alone.  I have become a voyeur to provide an education of myself to only myself.  What I have learned from watching myself through the viewfinder of the photographic life is that I am always reaching to find a connection or a commonality within myself to believe in.  I am not always patient and I create struggle by remapping what I believed was once the path.  I am a person with many sensitivities over what has been lost and will go to a great length to depict such a melancholic wellspring in its narrow and seldom vast forms.  Most importantly, the camera that I hide behind. has provided a steady foundation within a personal world of tremors.  So as I clutch to my mechanical eye of a security blanket, I cannot say I would have it any other way.

Literature, Photography, and the Grotesque

_M1F0698-Edit-2.jpg

During meetings with my thesis advisor Carol Golemboski, we spoke about our common love; books.  Both of us take prompts from literature to be integrated as part of the work we create.  I have written before that the more I am immersed in photography, the less photographs inspire me. I turn to other visual arts, books, and music to find the intensity and subtleties I find to be important to art - more so than in most photographic works.  So much so, that I have briefly explore thoughts on the connection between photography and literature. While researching this topic, it brought awareness to a consistent theme in the books I enjoy and the kind of elements I employ in my photographic work. That common theme is through the topic of the grotesque.

Photographer Daynatta Singh poses the question, “I have always wonderned if photography could aspire to the state of literature.” Singh has been working towards creating elusive narratives in her work House of Love through creating visual short stories by juxtaposition of images and implied clues to suggest or nudge the viewer into a literary experience with viewer-based interpretations directed by the story (Rich).  

As I work towards my own disjointed narratives in Last in the Woods I come to realize that photographs are what Hanno Hardt describes as portals to the imagination and vessels for elusive truths (Hardt); this is precisely what I find to be the most engaging part of literature and effective visual art. The books I have consumed tend to leave the reader hanging by a shoestring until the very end likely without any standard form of resolution. This is an outcome I have strived to create within my own work. As painter Francis Bacon is often quoted; the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.

Many of the articles that I read had running themes of connecting literature to photography but many approached this theme with a socio-political scope. This doesn’t apply to my own approach because I am an artist who is solely interested in the interior lives of individuals.  I am aware that individuals contribute to the makeup of a greater whole or collective consciousness but this is not something I am particularly engaged in exploring. My interest presents a challenge in narrowing down articles that pertained to the motivations of the work I create and the work of others that attracts me. Although the Hardt article is no different, there is a statement within the text that did stand out; “…photographs may become the means by which individuals escape their solitude to discover their social selves.” It is true that I and others use the practice of photography as an escape and to better understand our place in a social context. The article goes on to discuss fictional narratives and empathetic understanding within social constructs.

The article that resonated with my thoughts towards my own work and photography happened to be contained in the discussion on the foundation and modern applications of the grotesque. The grotesque is a term I was originally introduced to when studying Bakhtin’s stages of carnival and it goes without saying that it is always mentioned in the same breadth as any commentary on Southern literature. Goodwin’s article focuses on the grotesque in American literature and photography through the works of such writers as Flannery O'Connor and photographers like Joel-Peter Witkin. Goodwin cites a definition of the grotesque as to characterize the symbolic function as a means of seeing light within the dark as conducted through a mystical reversal of the customary meanings for dark and light (Burke, Goodwin).  There is one aspect that can be agreed upon in the definition of the grotesque and that is the mystical or mystery components.  In O'Conner's essay on the grotesque in Southern literature she writes that these themes will lean from the expected tropes of social standing and the writer interested in the grotesque will embrace mystery.  

The nature my own work is personal and centers around the metaphysical ideas of light and dark (the native language of the shadows) I found that a passage recounting Baudelaire’s thoughts conveyed the ideas of the grotesque in a why that I located within my work.  He writes: ...of the grotesque, in the modern sense, can be associated with the individual’s exceptional responses and with cruel turns in circumstance (Baudelaire, Goodwin).  Can "cruel turns of circumstances" be equated to the mystery of the ordinary?  I hold no doubt that my work focuses on someone or something who has been given or has given a cruel turn of circumstance.  Goodwin introduces thoughts by John Hawkes on literature, and I find this to be true about certain kinds of photography as well, that the challenge for a writer (or photographer) to take a taboo subject and to make it beautiful or to harmonize it (Hawkes, Goodwin).  Goodwin goes on to speak about the work of Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Weegee, and Joel-Peter Witkin.  He points out that Meatyard is a subjective photographer who works with fictional aims. He also quotes Witkin, “… but my initial interest has always been to show the lostness within us.” It is within these themes the photo-literary narrative I am working to achieve.

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY AS CREATIVE WRITING. By: Risch,Conor, Photo District News, 10458158, Oct2010, Vol. 30, Issue 10 

  2. CONSTRUCTING PHOTOGRAPHY: FICTION AS CULTURAL EVIDENCE. By: Hardt, Hanno. Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No. 5, December 2007, pp. 476􏰀480 

  3. MODERN AMERICAN GROTESQUE: LITERATURE AND PHOTOGRAPHY. By: Goodwin, James. The Ohio State University Press. 2009.
  4. O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1969.