Photographs Not Taken

The cover of the book... Obviously not an image of my own...
The cover of the book… Obviously not an image of my own…

 

 

I just recently finished reading a short book of essays on photography called Photographs Not Taken, edited by Will Steacy.  The essays in this book are written by numerous photographers, including Mary Ellen Mark, Zweelethu Mththwa, Todd Hido, Alec Soth, Elinor Carucci, Laurel Nakadate, and many, many more (there are 60 some essays). In each essay, a photographer addresses the idea of a photograph, that somewhere in their past they didn’t take for some reason, or they wish they would have been able to make, and their feelings about what Lyle Rexer refers to in the introduction as “pictures without photographs”.  This is a book that’s been on my reading list for awhile, but I finally broke down and downloaded it to my Kindle last week because I started thinking about how photography, and more specifically film, is a failure, and what implications my avoidance of it has had on my work.

 

As a teenager, I always carried a camera with me, and photographed everything (and I do mean everything) around me.  However, at some unknown point, this started tapering off, until it completely stopped.  And then I stopped taking photographs all together.  Photography, for me, became frustrating and disappointing, because what I caught on film never seemed to reflect the essence of what I saw through my lens, so I simply stopped trying.  I never really considered the idea that I was missing photographs, that these unmade images might haunt me, or even that photographs could be disappointments (as opposed to me just failing), but this book has made me reconsider my abandonment of image making.  Additionally, many things that the photographers write about in their essays also echo some of the things I’d been thinking about after reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.  This collection covers a number of themes, too many to discuss in great depth here, but below I’ve shared a few that stuck with me.

 

The introductory essay, The Art of Missing Information, tries to locate this idea of the untaken image in the realm of contemporary art, placing it among a “history of voids, negations, refusals, anti-art strategies, and marketing sleights of hand”.  I am not certain that this is where these essays belong.  After reading the entire book, it seems to me that these essays are more about a moment of privacy, a moral choice, a decision to remain in the moment and not exclude yourself, or simply an emotional moment which cannot be captured by the lens, nor contained by a photograph.  Instead, I might place these “pictures without photographs” in the realm of story telling.  The images written about cannot be seen or visually experienced, unless you are the one to experience them.  Instead they act as short stories, allowing the listener or reader to compose the scene in their own mind, but without have had the immediate experience, resulting in a purely aesthetic recreation.  Later in the introduction however, Rexer goes on to state that the experience of having missed a photograph, for whatever reason provides an impetus for the image maker to continue in their work:  “That gnawing lack is precisely what drives photographers to seek more pictures and regret lost opportunities– and poets to write more poems.”  I think that this is true.  To capture what you see, what you feel, or what you are experiencing, and to find yourself with an image that truly reflects that is powerful, and ultimately the goal for photographers.  If you disappoint yourself at that goal, then you must continue to attempt to prove yourself in the future.  So this collection of essays could also be viewed as a meditation on what it means to be a photographer and the implications of creating images; the choices, the sacrifices, and the experiences that create, or prevent images.

 

I think that photographers exist in a difficult place sometimes.  On the one hand, they love to make images and do so for a career, but on the other, they are often expected to become image makers and record keepers for life in general.  Sometimes this is accepted, but sometimes this becomes a problem for the photographer.  Do you choose to experience things through your camera, or do you desire to remain fully present and active in the moment?  Many photographers who have written essays for this book talk about this choice, to photograph, or not to photograph, in the context of their personal life.  In Elinor Carruci’s essay, she sums the feeling up, saying: “Every moment I had to choose between photographing and mothering, and when I did choose photography, every photograph became a second of guilt, a second I neglected them [her twins Eden and Emmanuelle], a second I thought about light, composition, exposure and not about them.”  She beautifully describes the lost images as being “stored in my eyes” but as making her the photographer she is, which is ‘torn’.”  Other photographers, like Jim Goldberg, admit to using their cameras to mediate a overwhelming moment:  “Immediately when that long-ass needle went into her spine is when I reached for a camera to shield myself from fear”, realizing only after the fact that their choice to not photograph at that moment could keep them from missing something incredible. The decision to photograph or not is also present in less private situations.  In his essay, Joshua Lutz discusses his inability to create images on the morning of 9/11, finally concluding: “It’s not that I don’t want to have a photograph of the moment; its more that I would rather be living in the moment than worrying about capturing it.”  Photographer Simon Roberts struggled not so much with wanting to be present, but the idea that a moment should not be dissected through the lens, rather lived, concluding his essay about his missed photograph (One of an AIDS victim, a young girl raped by her uncle, at a clinic in Zimbabwe)by writing:  “No image, however accomplished, could have captured the agonizing poignancy of that moment.  It was a moment to be lived, not framed, analyzed, or reduced in anyway.”  Each in its own way, these essays get to the heart of the fact, once you raise the camera to your eye, you cease to be a part of the moment, you are experiencing it through the lens.  You make yourself an outsider of sorts and cease to live in the moment.  In a way, this is relatable to the current debate over Instagram, where it becomes a question of experiencing and being fully present, versus photographing.  As Nadav Kander states in his essay “…sometimes you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.”  Personally speaking, I think this is what I find most difficult about photography, you can never fully experience the moment you so intensely want to capture and share. For me, there is so much to be had in the experience surrounding the image, and that is lost to the photographer because they are much more focused on the composition, exposure, lighting, etc…  This is where I get frustrated.  I want to share the experience and allow my viewer to feel something, but I don’t believe that an image does this.

 

The other theme prevalent throughout Photographs Not Taken, which ties so well into much of what Susan Sontag gets at in Regarding the Pain of Others, is the moral choice photographers often have to make regarding image capture.  Particularly when it comes to the genre of documentary photography, photographers are faced with witnessing many things that they may or may not feel they have the right or even stomach to capture.  In her essay, Misty Keasler tells the story of her experience living in Transylvania and visiting a ghetto of gypsy families.  In general, she says that conditions were bad, dark, crammed, no running water… But then one of the men came out of a room:  “He started yelling at me to take pictures, that he would show me how terrible life was for the people living in the building, how sad and tough things were for them…He proceeded to lift both girls [his daughters] by their shirts and slam them into the concrete wall in front of us.”  Despite the man’s behavior, her horror and anger at the situation, and the potential good she could have done, Keasler chooses not to make the images, saying that she would never be able to reconcile the fact that she had documented violence, and that it was violence which had been created specifically for her.  How can one justify the creation of such an image, much less sharing that image with others, which in some ways makes the behavior therein acceptable, no matter how much we denounce it.  Another example of this awareness of responsibility is present in Peter Van Agtmael’s essay about his first trip to Iraq in 2006.  He tells the story of being on patrol and witnessing an army chaplain peeing on the grave of an Iraqi child, and only being able to gawk in that moment.  He is unsure of why he couldn’t photograph the scene, only later recognizing that his failure to make the image lay in his feelings about the American presence in Iraq:  “..a stark realization of the odious nature of the American enterprise…and the insight that even its spiritual leadership was not immune to its dehumanizing effects.”  As we talked about with Sontag’s book, sometimes certain things should not be shared, nor do we have the right to unload them onto others.  We should always be aware of the power of the images we capture (or choose not to capture), and understand how they could affect others.

 

As photographers, one of the most fundamental decisions we make–perhaps the most fundamental decisions we make– is when to actually ‘take’ what is before us and transform in into a photograph.  By engaging in this calculated act of apprehension, we bestow certain moments, whether they are decisive or not, with value, importance, permanence, relevance, meaning, and a rather cryptic sense of significance.  Ostensibly, one could conclude that this implies that all of the other moments, which are allowed to pas by untouched, have ben judged as not particularly important or sigificant, or at least not important or significant enought.  Yet, as in the case of the instances listed above (and many more), sometimes we find ourseives faced with the opposite:  a moment that is ‘too’ something– too dangerous, too intimate, too immediate, too complex, too intense, too terrifying, too fleeting, too painful, too private, too invasive, too emarrassing, too exciting, too schmaltzy, too cliched, too ecstatic, too imagined, or simply too impossible– to ‘take’.

—Aaron Schuman

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Public Critiques are Somehow Less Anxiety Inducing…

Another thing that has kept me from posting recently was a visiting artist event in which I was involved.  Although this one I didn’t know I was participating in until nearly the last minute…

FSU brought in Stuart Horodner as part of our visiting artist lecture series.  He’s the boss man in charge at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and just recently published The Art Life:  On Creativity and Career (Which was a really good book by the way), and one of the faculty arranged for public critiques to happen.  Four grads were selected to have their work reviewed by Stuart, but we didn’t get told about it until a week before it was supposed to happen…

As I’m sure you can imagine, that was a little stressful.  I was less worried about the actual critique then I was about figuring out how to install my work in the gallery.  It was chaos for a little while… I had to go buy TVs and export videos several times, battle difficult projectors, paint things, oh and I had to read the book…  But it turned out just peachy keen in the end.  I showed an updated version of my Bending the Break/Breaking to Bend video, with a new audio component, and Fairy Tale Logic.  Bending the Break/Breaking to Bend was pretty much installed as I had it installed at Working Method back in January, but I finally got to install Fairy Tale Logic the way I’ve always wanted to… On two monitors!

Fairy Tale Expectations, Video Installation, HD Video, 2012
Fairy Tale Logic, Video Installation, HD Video, 2012

As a really awesome bonus, Craig Drennen, who is currently a studio artist at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, an instructor at Georgia State, aaaaaand the dean at Skowhegan, came down with Stuart to participate in the critiques.  While my peers may or may not agree with me, I had a really great experience.  The main thing that I wanted to get out of the crit was that someone, outside the hermetically sealed environment I have here at school (yes, that may be a little bit of a dramatic way to describe it), related to or understood the things I was addressing in my work.  Between all the doubt and frustration I had been experiencing lately, this was really the best thing I could hope for.  And I feel like I got that, as well as just positive feed back in general.  For what ever reason, I found this process much less anxiety provoking than our usual reviews…  Which I told to my committee head.  The way that Stuart ran the reviews was critical, but constructively so.  I sometimes feel that our committee reviews are not so constructive…  But again, that’s my opinion.

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Me being critiqued… Rocking the bright pink blazer my friend convinced me to buy and wear to the SPE conference last month. Her logic for the pink blazer? No one can forget the girl in the brightest, pinkest blazer that ever existed!

 

For some more pics and info you should click HERE!

 

In any event, this was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in grad school.  It came pretty close to the Guerra de la Paz collaboration last spring…but not quite as awesome!  Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to show you how the battle scar I acquired during that installation looks now:

Not to terrible, but you can still see the three distinct scars from falling through a chair!  I love it :)
Not to terrible, but you can still see the three distinct scars from falling through a chair! I love it 🙂

Why can’t grad school just be awesome experiences like these?!

On that note… Adios!

I’m Cereal Guys…

Wow.  How the time flies when you are busy having insane hair days and watching Hennessy Youngman videos….

Photo on 4-3-13 at 2.15 PM
The humidity does crazy things to my hair… I don’t have an excuse for my face.

My apologies…

 

But on a serious note, I’ve been struggling through a great deal in the studio lately, and haven’t been able to achieve a whole lot, thus have avoided posting.  My main battle currently, is that I’ve forgotten how to relax and play, both in the studio and in my life…  This sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s completely true.  I’ve been taking everything so painfully serious that I was essentially paralyzing myself and my work.  I couldn’t even watch a movie or cook with out feeling guilty that I wasn’t making art.  I feel kind of dumb that at nearly 30 years old, I have to reteach myself how to play, and that I have to learn how to have fun.  What has happened to me!?!  I sincerely hope that this is not a mid-life crisis because I am clearly not old enough for that…

In discussing this with faculty, the nearly unanimous advice was to attempt to work more intuitively, or at least a little less conceptually.  This is a challenge I have embraced, but it’s freaking hard.  Like really, super, PAINFULLY hard (at least for me).  I’m sure if you’ve read this blog more than once, you’ll have picked up that I have some anxiety and control issues.  My anxiety often comes out in situations where I feel out of control or sense that I am losing control, so to embark on any endeavor in which I do not have a plan mapped out is absolutely terrifying to me.  My process, simply, is this:  I have an idea, I plan it out to exactitudes in my mind, and I execute it.  A to B to C to… You get the point.  So I’ve been fighting that in the past few weeks, trying to accept that  sometimes playing is OK, and that I don’t always need to have an explanation right away.  Along with that, understanding that my practice cannot always be actively making things… That reading, watching movies, writing, and thinking are all part of the process, and I need to do those things just as much as I need to actively make things.

So, in answer to the call for action I’ve been given by faculty, I’ve started playing around with a bunch of stuff, and I have no idea where ANY of it is going…  But here are some pictures!

This first bunch of images comes out of my trip north to Chicago for SPE.  While the conference was OK, the best part for me was going to the museums and galleries to look.  This series came out of a bunch of photos I took at the Art Institute, which I intended to act as visual notes for myself to share with my students and to possibly incorporate into future lectures.  But…  Once I uploaded them to my laptop, I was kind of frustrated by the fact that my reflection or shadow was in many of them.  I was irritated because I wouldn’t be able to use them as slides in a lecture… But then, there was also something about them that, creatively, I was intrigued by.  Many of these photographs or objects that I was documenting were part of my art historical and photographic education, and I was fascinated by the fact that, as they had become part of me, I had become part of them, but I had also, in a way appropriated them for my own use.  It was also weirdly fitting that these “happened” while I was in Chicago, because I spent a good deal of time thinking about how I felt completely out of place at the SPE conference, and feeling a bit like a fraud.  Anyway, I’m trying to continue playing with this idea, and have created the following images…

Again, playing with historical sources.  I don’t know where these will go, but that’s OK.  I just have to keep telling myself that.  It’s OK if I don’t have the answer right away…

I’ve also delved into some material experiments…

I’m really quite skeptical about these in particular.  As with most things, I find myself asking “why” I would or should do this… But people tell me that the reason will come and I should just see it through. So we’ll see if they go anywhere.  I think the main thing for me is that I have these little things on the side to play with in the studio in between working on other projects.  I figure that I can work on them until I start to over think them, or get frustrated, or start to ask “why”, and then put them away for a little while, until I forget that I was frustrated, and the work on them again.  Slowly… Slowly I will make progress away from my obsessive compulsive control issues…

You’ll notice that all of this experimenting is centered around photography.  For better or for worse I thought that if I was going to do something that I had no plan for, I might as well use things that I was familiar with on some level.  The husband doesn’t necessarily agree with this logic.  He sees it as me reverting to photography when I could be doing other things, but I think it’s good for me to have at least some variable to which I am accustomed.  As for other people, well, the feed back is mixed.  We’ll see how it plays out in my reviews two weeks from now.

So, what else is up at the old studio?  Hmmm…

Remember this?

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How could you?  I mean, it’s the banner for this blog…  In any event, it’s turned into this:

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It’s become this insane visual representation of my thoughts and plans.  I’m kind of considering making it a piece in and of itself…  Mainly it’s been incredibly helpful as a way to remove myself from my thoughts, and see connections between the ways I’m thinking about the things I’m working on that I may not have put together otherwise.  Its nice because as I’m working in the studio, regardless of what I’m focused on, if I have a thought, I can jot it down on a post-it and slap it up on the wall, then continue with what I was doing before.  I can then go back later and consider these pieces at my leisure.  I’m thinking that images may find their way in there soon.  I love this because it’s so completely nerdy and me… Also I get a strange enjoyment out of using office supplies.

Finally, while it’s been awhile since I’ve done a performance, I’m planning on doing one next week at the 621 Gallery Art for Dinner benefit.  I still have NO idea exactly what I’ll be doing, but I want to somehow play on the audiences expectations of what will happen, either by priming them with specific information (like a very leading title) or setting them up somehow to encourage very specific expectations of what my performance will be, and then having the performance somehow go against those expectations.  My hope is that this will then put the audience in the awkward or uncomfortable position of having to confront disappointment or even anger that in a way they themselves created.  I have no clue how to do this, but I know that it must be done.   Suggestions?  I could really do with some, because this is how I feel about it right now:

Photo on 4-4-13 at 4.40 PM