Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to join in with a collective of photographers, sort of a 21st century camera club (more on that later). This process engaged me with photography in a way I haven’t been in a while. It was once a language in which I was fluent. For the past 10-15 years, probably since the onset of digital photography, my relationship with the medium has grown distant. The deluge of images to see and myriad ways to shoot and process available to us is overwhelming. It has been hard to really see, and I have find myself pondering the meaning of photography in a modern world.
There are some elemental questions that should be investigated regarding photography: What do we mean by photography? Why is photography relevant as art in the 21st century?
Photography is about telling (or, sometimes simply showing) stories. There, I said it. Are you sick of hearing all the talk about telling stories? Every marketing team has adopted the idea that they are trying to tell a story, that every a brand is its company’s story. I appreciate that, and the notion has created a lot of beautiful marketing materials, but using the idea of a story to further a business agenda is more like story-yelling. A real story has mystery, is left open to interpretation, is a work of art.
Written language (fiction, creative non-fiction, investigative journalism) tells beautiful stories too, but it consists of a finite set of symbols whereas the captured image, with all those greys, has infinite possibility. This brings us to a subplot: photography is immediacy and yet nothing can freeze a moment forever like a good photo. Finally, and most importantly, photography, photography with intent, is magic. Alchemy. Think of the darkroom with all its mysterious potions! I used to work with a photographer who said you could always tell when someone was holding their breath when they opened the shutter. Similarly, I think the viewer can tell when there is an intention to search for truth and/or magic in an image.
As a photographer trained in the silver halide and darkroom arts, the trajectory of how many photos I shoot has gone up at the same rate that my faith in my ability to conjur the magic to tell stories has fallen. There are plenty of pictures, but not that much magic. Some of the magic is lost with the pure volume of photography out there, each image screaming at us to click it or like it with little time or space to really SEE it.
I guess that we are in some kind of
I hope to continue to explore the threads between the darkroom arts and the digital, looking for the real story behind the image. There is pleasure both in refining the art that is about film and darkroom—once simply a way for the average non-artist to capture an image and communicate—and to make real the digital. The magic isn’t just in the code, but somewhere out there waiting to be seen.
It is fitting that I have not written in here since that previous post about the artist, toiling away in secret, productive and focused and brilliant. In the last few years, I have spent a lot of time wondering where that part of myself is, the part that needs to create something, tell some story, reveal something about the world and the human condition. To emphasize, I have spent time WONDERING, but not really doing anything about it.
Recently, I read a blog post by Neil Gaiman, where he sits in an empty house, getting ready to move. “There is nothing quite like moving. There’s also nothing like the last hour or so in the house, when, bit by bit, everything is gone, and you retreat to the last room in the house with a table in it, and then there’s no kettle to boil water in for tea and no mugs to put the tea in even if I boiled the water and nothing to sit on while drinking the tea anyway.”.
My last room (metaphorically AND in real life, as I have moved), of the home where I lived and worked for the past 6.5 years, is actually the workshop and it is there in which I am finding my center. Before me are pictures, kernels of painting projects, foul matter from publishing projects (so much foul matter!)… All the dreams that I kind of packed away, especially during the last 6 or 7 years in which my personal identity was stripped to a nub as my principal engagements were family life and a paycheck. There is also a nagging awareness that to have the luxury of a “personal identity” or even the ghost of one, is a pretty privileged place to exist. The problem persists: what am I really doing to help? Of what use?
Each year when I sit down to prepare my taxes, I naturally look at the past year and wonder how far I’ve come, where I’m going, etc. Financially, of course. I always make all kinds of promises to myself, like: Next year I will do it sooner, next year I will log everything into a spreadsheet as soon as I do it/get it/etc. This year, my only real reflection is: I hope my life never gets much more complicated than this. I don’t want to earn that much more money, spend that much more money, or move up much more in the world. I want to make the most of what I have, which is a lot. Who knew that the IRS would be the catalyst to make you realize how incredibly lucky you are? I have food, shelter, and clothing, and am not terribly in debt. There is work that I enjoy doing. I wouldn’t dare ask for more.
If you are in publishing and especially a designer, you might think of this as Book cover Season, as presses try to get their Spring catalogs together. In this age of group emails, I long to tape up my comps to a wall and spend an afternoon in a good old fashioned critique. In fact, I think I am going to suggest that to my clients. There could be snacks! It is exciting to see what new books will be coming out, and having seen a lot of cover comps by a lot of designers lately, I ask you this: Look around at your favorite book covers. How many of them have drop shadows and other computer trickery? That’s right, not too many. ADDENDUM: I have seen a lot of cool collage work done with Photoshop, but of course the best of it doesn’t make the viewer think of a computer, it simply transforms, as art should.
These aren’t my designs (in fact, they are courtesy of the Book Cover Archive, referenced a couple of posts ago), but I wanted to show them for their simplicity and elegance.
A timely side plug for Maria Montessori on her 142nd Birthday. This article in the Christian Science Monitor discusses the woman as a strong, brave pioneer. Education is a passion of mine, having once walked a few steps down the teaching path, and now being a parent. My kids kind of fell into beeing Montessori educated and I feel that although it is so out-of-step with the way our children are typically educated, it most mirrors our natural instincts as humans (i.e. It Just Makes Sense). One of the first lessons these children learn from a very early age is that their role is to “take care of ourselves, each other and our environment”. They know that to collaborate is effective, but have the skills to work independently as well. With the common goal of caring for the shared environment, they also know that something out there is bigger than any one person or group and are united around its upkeep.
Pictured above: A bunch of happy Montessori kids taking a rest during an outdoor education camping trip.