By MICHAEL PERKINS
INTELLECTUALLY, I KNOW THAT PHOTOGRAPHS DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO BE “ABOUT”, well, anything, but that doesn’t stop the 12-year-old photo newbie deep inside me from trying to produce images with “meaning” (yawn). Some reason to look. A subject. A story line. A deliberate arrangement of things for the purpose of communicating…something. Itchy and twitchy within my artist’s skin as I always am, I am never more out of my element than when I make a picture that is pure composition and form, a picture that has no reason to exist except that I wish it to.
As I get older, I get looser (no G.I. tract jokes about the elderly, please), and thus making what you might call “absolute” images gets easier. I just had to learn to give myself permission to do them. Unlike Atget, Brassai, and half a dozen early pioneering photographers, I don’t have to take pictures to earn my bread, so, if I capture something that no one else “gets” or likes, my children will not starve. Still, the act of making photographs that carry no narrative is far from native to me, and, if I live to be 125, I’ll probably learn to relax and really do something okay by about 93.
The process can be a head-scratcher.
The above image is an “absolute” of sorts, since I have no emotional investment whatever in the subject matter, and have nothing to reveal about it to anyone else. The arbitrary and somewhat sterile symmetry of this room, discovered during a random walk through a furniture store, just struck me, and I still cannot say why. Nor can I explain why it scores more views on Flickr over some of my more emotional work by a margin of roughly 500 to 1. A whole lot of people are seeing something in this frame, but I suspect that they are all experiencing something different. They each are likely taking vastly varied things from it, and maybe they are bringing something to it as well. Who knows what it is? Sense memory, a fondness for form or tone, maybe even a mystery that is vaguely posed and totally unresolved.
“Even though there are recognizable objects making up the arrangement, the result is completely abstract.There isn’t a “human” story to tell here, since this room has never been inhabited by humans, except for wandering browsers. It has no history; nothing wonderful or dreadful ever happened here. In fact, nothing of any kind ever happened here. It has to be form for its own sake; it has no context.
I liked what happened with the very huge amount of soft window light (just out of frame), and I thought it was best to render the room’s already muted tones in monochrome (it wasn’t a big leap). Other than that, it would be stupid to caption or explain anything within it. It is for bringers and takers, bless them, to confer meaning on it, if they can. As I said earlier, it’s always a little scary for me to let go of my overbrain when making a picture.
Then I remember this is supposed to be about feeling as well as thinking.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- First Critique (cohensrphotography.wordpress.com)
PAUL DESMOND, LEGENDARY SAXOPHONIST for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was famous for his wry replies to mundane questions from the press. Asked once “so, how are things going?”, he quipped, “Great. We’re playing music like it’s going out of style…..which, of course, it is.”
Beyond the cleverness of the statement, Desmond actually provided a corolary to the ongoing state of photography. It is an art which is never “settled” into any final form, either in its mechanics or its aesthetic. Glass plates give way to roll film, which give way to digital storage, which will give way to..what? Recent trends in the forward edge of shooting hint at, among other things, bold new experiments in the direct exposure of chemically treated paper, minus lenses or shutters, resulting, in effect, in a camera-less camera. So now, what? A method so old that it’s new? So complicated that it’s totally simple? And where in these new crafts lie the art they might enable?
As image makers, we are really running down two parallel rails en route to obsolescence, since the world, as it can presently be seen, is passing away at the same lighting rate as our current means of documenting it. This is a constant for our art. When Eugene Atget recorded the last days of the Paris of the late 19th century, his methods for making the shots was fading out of fashion almost as quickly the dark, twisting streets he recorded. And when his protege, Berenice Abbott, undertook the same “mapping” of New York’s boroughs in the 1930’s (on assignment from various New Deal agencies), she, too was laboring against constantly improving methods for completing the book Changing New York, starting her massive project with a 60-pound view camera, and ending it with a new, lighter Rolleiflex miniature. She was also, understandably, racing against the wrecking ball of progress.
Worse, many places, such as the American southwest (where I live), hold the view that “old” is not “venerable”, but “in the way”….creating, for the shooter, a constant conundrum; what to visually archive, and in what way, and in what order?
The quiet death of Kodachrome, several years ago, proved a challenge for imagists the world over. If you were burning your last roll of this fabulous film forever, what shots would make your photographic bucket list? And how about expanding this scenario to include not just diehard “filmies”, but everyone? If there were an absolute deadline for imaging, a date beyond which no more pictures could be taken, ever, ever, what new urgency would inform your choices?
It’s almost that dire already. Time hurtles forward and lays waste to everything in its path, including ourselves. Today, now, we are watching it erase neighborhoods, cities, forests, the shapes of nations, even the names of places. Even if we use our skills largely for cataloguing the general effect of these changes, we are nonetheless under the gun to fill our days with the grabbing of these fleeting glances. Even while we perpetually change how we capture, we must capture as much as we can, by any means available.
There is no mission statement stronger than the three words always be shooting. Because we are doing more than saving memories; we are, in fact, bearing witness. Whatever the subject, wherever we want to start chronicling the word around us, we need to be taking pictures.
Like they’re going out of style.