Process and Progress

I have managed to carve out about 2-3 hours each week for arting and art adjacent purposes. That’s an infinitesimal amount of time compared to previous epochs of my life. Almost non-existent to be truthful. But I’m still really proud of myself that I’ve found that time and that I’ve been able to maintain it most weeks. Because it’s fucking hard. I never know from day to day (some times even from hour to hour) how I’m going to feel, and I never know what else the day is going to throw at me. Train delay? Contrary toddler? Late leaving work because I had to put out a metaphorical fire? Have yet another doctors appointment (I have been to the doctor’s literally once a week every week for the last month, with at least another two weeks ahead of me 😤)? They all happen. All. The. Damn. Time.

When I initially started to play around with this set of images, I was concerned that I would lose my place. That, since there were such big gaps in time where I wasn’t working on them, wasn’t thinking about them, I would never “figure it out.” I was scared that I was never going to progress on them. And you know what? Yeah, I DO forget things. I sometimes repeat the same experiment on an image file or print, only to remember half way through that I’ve already done this. Or I find that I can’t always rely on my notes to myself to help keep my place. They’re unclear, contain too little information, or I just straight up can’t read my own damn handwriting. And yeah, it does take me forever to make even the most incremental progress, but it’s still more than I could have anticipated. I’m counting it as a win that I’m still working on them six months later.

Most importantly though, in the time I’ve been slowly crawling forward on this series, I’ve learned that I never know what is going to come out of the printer at the very end anyway. Regardless of how meticulously and specifically I have edited the digital files. Regardless of how methodically I approach the file in the hex editor. Regardless of what the final image looks like on screen when I send it to print (True story… Some of my images are so damaged by the time I get to the print phase that what the screen shows me isn’t actually the information the printer gets 😂). And of course, there’s always the variable of the printer itself. The trusty old 9880 and 9900 I’m printing on have some head issues that lend me even more unpredictability.

Somehow though, working this way hasn’t brought me the expected anxiety and insecurity I’ve come to expect from everything I do. Somehow it’s actually been relaxing and therapeutic to do it this way. It means that no matter how many notes I take and how methodically I approach the creation of each image, I ultimately don’t know what the fuck is going to happen. So then it doesn’t really matter so much if I’m having trouble thinking or focusing on a particular day, or if I’m not being as detailed as I should be in the process. It means that if I’m having an off day physically or cognitively, it’s not going to impact the work in a negative mannner. That’s so very encouraging to me. It gives me such freedom to work at my own pace, in my own way. It has also forced me to slow waaaaay down and focus on right now, as opposed to what might be next. Which, let’s be honest, has always been a downfall of mine. 🤫

Kitchen

Sundays in our house are days of cooking. Sundays, all the food for the upcoming week is prepped and prepared. This is a task that is mainly my responsibility, but Matthew helps when and if I ask, and of course the Noodle “helps” whenever he feels like standing in his Learning Tower long enough to make a mess.

This Sunday practice (tradition?) comes from long before I had a kid though. And from before I met Matthew even. Back during my first year of grad school I fell into doing meal prep, because I couldn’t afford to eat out much (if at all), and if I wasn’t doing the cooking, no one else was. Eventually it developed into full on meal planning, grocery shopping, batch cooking, weekly event. It’s been 6 or 7 years running now.

Understandably, this practice has become more challenging after the arrival of the kiddo, but it has been my health that has impacted the ritual the most. Whereas in the past I found this tradition really refreshing and invigorating, I found myself completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the prospect. I started to hate it. Not only did it take the obvious physical toll, but believe it or not, the mental strain was also pretty intense. So things had to change. Grocery shopping was moved to Saturday mornings, simpler recipes were selected, fewer “extras” were made, naps were added in to the mix, everything else was removed. A leaner, meaner version of Sundays evolved.

It would obviously be very easy to just give this practice of mine up. To either do carry-out, prepared foods, or prepackaged meals the majority of the time. To attempt to do “30-Minute Meals” each evening when we got home. Sure. I could. Might my life be a teeny tiny bit easier? Possibly. Would my stubborn little heart rebel at that level of privilege (and waste), when I can still very much recall times in the recent past when I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my next meal? For certain.

My stubborness aside though, this ritual is important enough to me to continue because it is a routine. I can count on it. Every. Single. Sunday. With my health and it’s associated cognitive problems, routines are important. Predictability is crucial, and the rest of my life? Not so routine. My work schedule changes every day, as do my duties and efforts there. The way that I feel can wildly vary from day to day. Also, Toddler. Doing this one thing (albeit a big thing) gives me one definite check point in my week. It gives me some security and sanity, when I often feel as though I am juuuuuust barely keeping my head above water.

And so, The Kitchen and The Kid finds it’s way back to it’s point of origin, the kitchen. Which is undoubtably the center of my home. AGES ago I brought home the large canvas test prints I made. They wound up thrown on the floor of my studio, right in front of my desk, when I cleaned the apartment about a month ago. Matthew asked me if that didn’t worry me… My knee jerk reaction was neatly roll them up and tuck them away somewhere, to protect them. But then I thought about it, and I actually didn’t care that they were on the floor and that I might step on them. And more to the point, hadn’t I brought these prints home so that I could live with them, and look at them, for awhile? Yes, that’s why I brought them home. Why ignore them? Then a few weeks ago as I was gearing up for Sunday cooking, the idea struck me to put one of them down on the floor of the kitchen where I would be spending the day. Where everyone will walk over, spill on, and generally fuck up, the print. And there it has stayed. How long, I don’t know, but I like seeing it every day, and I’m curious to see what affect life will have on the work.

Positive Experience/Negative Reinforcement

It’s obviously been quite some time since I’ve been around here.  I can’t even say that it’s been time well spent doing things to post on here.  So instead, I’m going to pretend like I was never even gone…  Yeah.

Anyway.  I (finally) did a performance last weekend at SMALLS here in town.  The idea for the performance sort of came to me randomly, and as a bit of a joke.  Recently I’ve been contemplating the reasons why I love photography (the process, but not the product) as well as the way our culture depends upon photography to record our memories.  The thing however, is that most of us, with our super smart phones and the dozens of photos it takes every day, NEVER LOOK AT THOSE PICTURES AGAIN.  We literally mediate our experiences in order to create these photos, and then forget them.  Oh, sure, maybe we might see them when we flip through quickly to find pictures to delete to make room for more pictures, or we might see them briefly when we look at their comments on Facebook, but we certainly never print them, or cherish them in a photo album.  So then, to me, the question is, do we even need the photograph to remember that moment?  No, I don’t think so…

So I set up a mini photography studio at this local alternative space, and invited people in to have their photograph done.  Using a 4×5 camera, I created portraits by working with each individual, asking them how they wished to be photographed.  I then issued them a number and told them I would get them their image before they left.  Additionally I took copious notes on a post-it with their number on it, about what they were wearing and what happened during our abbreviated session.  What my subjects didn’t know, was that my film holders were empty, and that when I went in to the “darkroom” to process their images, I was simply pulling out a sheet of undeveloped film from a box and placing it in an envelope along with a hand written note from me.  The note was a summation of our experience together, culminating in the phrase, “You do not need a photograph to remember this experience.”  I then signed and dated it.  Each participant was given a sealed envelope with “their picture” in it to open at their leisure.  At first people were confused, but in the end, I think a lot of people really enjoyed it, even got a kick out of it.

I chose a large format camera for a couple of reasons.  First of all, this allowed me an individual negative for each person I photographed.  Secondly, it never fails to impress visually, and people automatically take it seriously.  Along with this, using a view camera is somewhat more time intensive.  You can’t simply point and shoot.  Finally, and this is a piece that really only I knew about, but am amused by nonetheless… I used Kodak Ektachrome slide film.  A totally obsolete technology.  I only happened to have some (which was outdated), because a professor of mine donated a couple of boxes to me in undergrad.  I’ve been hanging on to it for years, thinking I would find some really good reason to use it… But never have.  I think this was a perfect use.  🙂  This amuses me because people were so excited when they found out they would be getting a picture very quickly.  We most certainly live in a culture of instant gratification… and I gave them not that.

A lot of this plays on the importance of the experience I try to emphasize with in my work.  I think that as a whole, people have forgotten to live in the present.  We live in the future, we live in the past, and we live our lives digitally mediated through various devices.  We put those devices between ourselves and the experiences around us.  For me, this performance was just a way of reminding those present that they don’t really need a photograph, or to make a photograph, to experience or remember a given moment in time.  All they have to do is live it.

Show Time!

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Yes… That’s a safety harness. It’s all part of the performance.

While I may or may not have been avoiding blogging here recently, I have been up to many other things, including (what I hope to be) a really rocking collaboration with my friend Craig (you can find him over at Craig Ryan Studio). I’ve been sworn to secrecy on exactly what we’re doing because he’s terrified it will turn out terribly (maybe that anxiety is why we get along so well? lol) so I can’t go into specifics, but I’m going to share some generalities and pictures with you.

It’s really been a trip to work on this installation/performance with Craig because in a lot of ways we are total opposites. He’s a bit of a sociopath (I mean that in the nicest way possible), and likes to pretend he’s mean and too good for everyone, but really, if you take the time to get to know him, he’s an amazing person. I, on the other hand, and too damn nice for my own good and secretly hate most people. When it comes to our practices and the work we make, we are like day and night though. Craig is completely materials focused and has astounding technical fabrication skills. He wants to make beautiful things that people want to touch. Clearly worlds away from my own conceptual, relational approach, but in reality these two approaches met and made beautiful art babies. His technical/materials focus has augmented and supported my conceptual intents, and my insistence on having a theme have focused his sometimes erratic material investigations. It worked somehow. I’ve learned a lot about the way that I think and the ways that I share my ideas, simply through the contrast between our approaches and communication styles. It’s been fun and exciting and I think we managed to transcend our differing approaches to find a wonderful balance in what we hope to present on Friday. We’re both excited about what we’ve got planned. And that never happens.

 

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A piece of the installation. There will be about 8 of these in the end.
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A general schematic of the performance. Make sense of it if you can!

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While Craig and I each have drastically differing takes on what this piece will be or mean in the end, for me, this collaboration grew out of some things I had been contemplating a researching this summer, including ideas about the relationship between performance art and it’s photographic documentation, and the trustworthiness of photography in general. It was also driven in part by my desire to move into more relational works. I think that I’ve hit that intent on the head with what we have planned. But I also think that it’s starting to address some other really interesting issues, like mediation of experience, trust, balance, self-preservation, control and a certain amount of playfulness. I’d really like to look back at this and be able to say “Yep. That’s where my thesis work really started.” It’s going to be epic.

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Have you seen my shoedas ?

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WMD_NEW_0100 as Smart Object-1 WMD_NEW_0054 as Smart Object-1 WMD_NEW_0025 as Smart Object-1 WMD_NEW_0105 as Smart Object-1

 

 

Alright. In several places on this blog, I’ve mentioned in passing about my shoes. My stupid shoes. The flipping Converse that I’ve been wearing incessantly since mid-January. I hate them.

Basically these Converse are a durational (Thesis vocab, what?!) piece I started back in January. When I began the project, I had this idea that it was going to be something about being worn down by anxieties and the fear of failure, but the fact that the shoes would be damaged by my wearing of them was not a failure, but rather a success on the part of the shoes in protecting my feet and doing their job. A work about letting oneself get caught up in small trivialities that eventually exhaust you. My intent was to wear them all day, every day (no smart asses, not to bed, and not in the shower… And yes I really did have cohorts ask me that), any time any one might normally wear shoes. I planned to wear them until it was unsafe for me to do so any longer (ie the bottoms completely wore through and I couldn’t wear them while riding my scooter without shredding off the soles of my feet). I planned to photograph them every week, once a week, more as documentation than anything else, and that was as far as my planning ever got. I figured that I would decide on display and what not later on down the line.

So I started the project. Mind you this is out of the ordinary for me to start something without having everything planned out or answered (at least for the time being) a head of time. But I was trying to just “go with it” as they say. Well, whew, what a hot mess that was. I got distracted by the photography aspect, starting thinking that it was a photography project, got a lot of silence and strange looks when I talked about the project in studio visits and reviews. I got very lost along the way.

In any event I’ve been photographing them every week since I first put them on in January. I only missed one week, when I was out of town in Chicago. I’ve watched them deteriorate. I’ve noticed small changes from week to week that one would not normally see in their shoes. I saw the first bit of rubber fall off the heel of my shoe, watched the backs break and the supporting plastic erode away. I’ve been watching the laces slowly unravel and stain, the tread wear away… I’ve been hiking in them, wore them to the beach, went camping in them. I wear them on my scooter, doing yard work, going dancing with my friends. I wear them with completely unlikely outfit combinations (like my black lace cocktail dress)… I’ve witnessed drastic alterations that happened quite literally overnight, like the pink spray paint incident. I have 60 gigabytes of images. SIXTY GIGABYTES. I am hyper-aware of my shoes. And maybe it’s because of this hyper awareness I think about the aims and intents of this project daily, and I’m coming to realize that it’s something other.

 

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I will spare you the majority of the drama that ensued around me trying to figure out that my visuals (the photo documentation) didn’t really do much for me, that my initial concept didn’t really make sense, and that I never really did resolve how to display this project in it’s original conception, and my general confusion about art and instead give you my resolution:

In a very loose, round about way, this project is still related to ideas about failure and anxiety. I see it much more as a meditation on the constancy of change and the idea that maintaining the status quo, or rather the inability to do so, is not failure, so much as the way of life. Evidence that one should not fight the inevitability of change, but accept it rather than wearing oneself ragged. Also, if I should ever exhibit this anywhere, it will be just the shoes and a brief statement about the piece. Forget the photos (blasphemy!). Forget making an installation. Forget anything but the point, which is the shoes.

The only problem is that now I’ve figured that out, I’m sort of over the whole thing. I pretty much just want to chuck the project and get on with life (and start wearing other shoes again), but this point in the project, I’m too stubborn to give it up, even though it’s driving me nuts. All this actually having to go to the studio and to photograph something. It’s like I actually make art or something. I think I need to keep going though, until my original stop point of un-safe-ness. And yes, continue photographing them. Gah. I never want to edit all of those RAW files… SIXTY GIGABYTES PEOPLE! And I’ve got more on the way. Sometimes I’m not as smart as I’d like to think…

While I’m pretty certain that this project will never be exhibited, it has been incredibly useful in allowing me to accept my conceptual-ness, and in helping me to see the connections between failure, anxiety, change, and life.

Anyway, I’ve also reflected on several other things in relation to this project. Most boringly of all, consumerism. I’ve worn the same pair of shoes for six months people, with only the notable exceptions of the gym (because my body cannot withstand exercising in support-less Converse), two days when I was in Chicago (due to snow and my extreme dislike of wet/cold feet), and a handful of days where my shoes were just too wet to wear (again, my total hatred of wet/cold feet). And for the most part, NO ONE HAS NOTICED. I’m not joking. I was expecting funny looks and comments when I started rolling up wearing my Converse EVERYWHERE with EVERYTHING, including to the beach with my swimsuit. But no one has said a thing up to this point. Interesting, in light of our consumer driven, external appearance focused culture.

 

And sorry for the ridiculous What’s Eating Gilbert Grape allusion, but I kind of love that movie (Johnny Depp before he got weird and Leonardo DiCaprio before he got hot!) and I do frequently refer to my shoes (any of them) as “shoedas”.

To Be or Not To Be (Conceptual)

Not wholly applicable...but still funny.
Not wholly applicable…but still funny.

More years ago than I really care to admit (or at least it seems that way), a professor asked the students of a photography course in which I was enrolled, whether we defined ourselves as photographers or as artists.  I have no recollection of what context this discussion was happening in, nor what anyone else around me said about the matter, but I do remember shooting my hand up in the air instantly, declaring that I was a photographer.  Of course.  Duh.  When my prof asked me why that was I also recall being a little confused and somewhat defensive as to why I was being questioned on this point.  I said something along the lines of:  Well, I am a photographer because I take pictures, and use a camera, and it is easier to explain myself as such to other people because they always assume I mean painter or sculptor when I say artist, and I take pictures damn it.  Such a rock star answer from my brilliant 20 year-old self.  For whatever reason this moment has stuck with me for a long time, and I’ve thought about it frequently in recent years.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that at least one draft of my letter of intent for grad school applications involved this story.

For all intents and purposes, I am still defined as a photographer by some people… Like my family.  Try all I want, I cannot seem to make them understand what I do.  And since I frequently teach photography, my students assume I am a photographer.  But thats sort of par for the course I think…  I also just sort of love photography in a totally nerdy way, and so people just sort of assume…  My point here, if I really have one, is that I think I’ve fallen on the other side of my own argument, despite what others think, and despite my love of photo.  I am not a photographer, and in fact, despite my ridiculous, undying love of the photographic process, I’m beginning to believe I never was, at least not in any traditional sense of the word/occupation.  Which sounds super weird coming out of my mouth, but if you think about it in the context of the photographer versus artist question, and a few other things, it makes absolute sense.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned on this blog a time or two about how much I. F*#$*@%. LOVE. PHOTOGRAPHY.  And that I have a deep, nonsensical adoration for being in the darkroom.  This is all completely, 100% true.  But that love has also, in some ways, been my undoing since I graduated with my BFA.  While all of my work has been conceptual in some sense, my training has always been to turn my concepts into a tangible object.  It has also instilled the rather rigid view in my mind that in order for one to be productive, one needs to be constantly, physically making things.  Obviously my realization a few months back that I just didn’t want to make objects any more completely contradicted everything a good deal of my notions on art making.  Talk about  cognitive dissonance.

The really funny thing here though, is that looking back, I never really cared all that much about the physical photographs themselves.  I rarely printed more than 1 copy of any image, and frequently found ways to get around matting or mounting them (because to quote a professor, my mats were always “caddywhompus”).  I will take my cameras just about anywhere and do just about anything with it, meaning they get the crap beat out of them.  My negatives… well let’s just say they’re not really kept in archival or secure conditions.  But I persevered in my quest to be a photographer-artist person.  My work became photographically based installations and objects.  I tortured myself finding ways to turn experiences and ideas into a traditional art object.  I struggled in stupid ways because I refused to step away from photography.  I had allowed it to define my practice and myself.

It wasn’t until I got to grad school that it even occurred to me that my practice could be entirely conceptual, and that I needn’t rely on photography.  But I kept fighting that, trying to turn ideas in to something tangible, trying to make emotions and experiences concrete.  Attempting to find excuses to make photographs.  I’ve also felt a great deal of pressure (whether real or imagined) from various sides to be less conceptual and perhaps more intuitive.  Most of my peers here are very materials based and object focused,  offering critiques and ideas which lean in that direction, because that is how they think and what they relate to.  Even faculty has been trying to prod me into making things.  That’s what all of those material experiments and photographs were all about.  But I feel more and more disinterested in all of that…   Because even if I’m taking my old negatives and damaging/altering/manipulating them, they are ultimately still a thing and will be displayed as such.  Yuck I say.  Yuck.

There’s also this entire guilt aspect to wanting to make objects… I mean, as I said before, that’s the way I was trained (for lack of a better word).  So not only do I feel badly for ignoring what I was taught by some amazing people, I feel super criminal about not using my studio, if that makes sense.  I mean, I’m not building things, or painting something, or what not…  I spend more time thinking, reading, and experiencing things than I do actually making.  Its probably like an 80/20 split.  Thinking versus making.  I keep thinking to myself:  Shouldn’t I be making better use of the facilities?  I don’t know about any other programs, but its kind of like a mini contest among grad students around here as to who spent how much time in the studio doing what.  It’s like this silly reverse peer pressure thing where I feel like since other people are spending hours upon hours locked into their studios, I should too.  Even if there is no reason for me to be in there.  And on top of that, there is some serious guilt tripping thing that goes on when the faculty talk about how amazing our new studio facilities are and how we should be making better use of the space….  Ah.  It’s like a really great recipe for an anxiety attack.  And we all know how good I am at doing that.

In any event, I think a huge part of my graduate school journey thus far, has been coming to terms with the fact that I am, in actuality, a conceptual artist.  Not a photographer.  Not a photo-based artist, but a flipping conceptual artist.  Acknowledging that the object holds little importance to me other than as a record of the experience…  And it has been an insane struggle.  Especially in this last semester.  I don’t know why I keep fighting myself on this.  I don’t know why I can’t just ignore faculty and cohorts who try to aid and abet me in my self defeat.  But in the last few weeks I’ve become much more comfortable with this idea… Ideas.  I want ideas and experiences to be my art work.  I don’t want to make things anymore.  And if I do make things, they will be in support of a performance, or an installation, most likely completely ephemeral and not meant to be turned into an “art object.”

So while I will most likely always love photography like the big nerd I am, even though I will probably never again be a “photographer”:

I AM A CONCEPTUAL ARTIST, AND IT’S TOTALLY OK TO NOT “MAKE” THINGS.

As my friend Sunny would say:  D. U. H. Courtney.

D. U. H. Indeed.

Whoops.

Hi.  I’m going to tell you a secret… I’ve totally been putting off (AKA avoiding) writing a post.  Which is why it’s been two months.  TWO MONTHS!  Whoops.

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Whoops.

By the time the semester was over (two weeks after my last post), I was completely brain dead, between thesis writing, grading my student’s work, final projects, etc.  As such I never got a chance to write a post before my final reviews (which went pretty well, just in case you were curious), and then the joyous month of May came.  This is actually probably a pretty good thing, because knowing me, I would have posted excerpts from my ridiculous thesis draft… *Shudder*   Anyway, May is my favorite because there is literally NOTHING that I HAVE to do.  There are always things I want to do, and probably should do, but no pressing deadlines, no anxiety inducing readings to complete, no meetings… So I kinda took a vacation… for the whole month of May.  Whoops.   I went camping with friends, spent entire days on the beach drinking, went hiking, cooked and baked up a storm, sat in my backyard reading…  It was pretty swell.

 

Sunset on St. Joesph's Peninsula. I saw dolphins here for Pete's sake!
Sunset on St. Joesph’s Peninsula. I saw dolphins here for Pete’s sake!
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I mean seriously… Who’s going to do important, grown-up things while there is this?!

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And who wants to be in the studio when they can be exploring this!?
And who wants to be in the studio when they can be exploring this!?
Different day, different beach... This is why I <3 Florida.
Different day, different beach… This is why I ❤ Florida.

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Some how this is the only cooking I photographed...
Some how this is the only cooking I photographed…

 

But here’s the thing… I was in the studio a few hours (like max 4… Shhhh, don’t tell my faculty!)  for most days, putzing around, but not actually doing much.  I was also doing some seriously voracious reading.  In fact in the month of May I read more books than I have in a long time, and they weren’t all for fun.  Bet you can’t guess which ones were for fun and which were for research!

 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/The Chamber of Secrets 

Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography 

Photography Changes Everything

The Antidote:  Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

After Photography

Photography: History and Theory

The Unphotographable

The Great Gatsby

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Photograph 

 

 

Aaaaand, on those camping trips, hiking expeditions, and beach days… I spent a lot of time filming somethings which one day I will post up here, as well as talking and thinking about my work/practice.  But I kept avoiding writing a new post, because a) it had already been a long time, and b) that meant it was time to put my thoughts into words and to admit somethings.  Also I’ve been having serious guilt/anxiety attacks about NOT being in the studio.  And if I’m not in the studio, how could I justify spending time writing a blog post?  But you know what?  Not being in the studio has been the best thing ever for me lately.  My month long vacation has allowed my brain to reset and I feel like I’m in a really good place.  I’ve got tons of stuff I want to research, and a few ideas for work that I’m pretty excited about.  

In any event, I’ve got somethings on tap for the rest of the summer, even though I haven’t started most of the things on my to do list, like start the job application/hunt process.  *sigh*  I should probably talk to one of my committee members about that soon.  New posts soon with actual thoughts and art in them.  Even though I’m back working at Lafayette full time this summer (which is awesome but exhausting), the next six weeks should be pretty productive.  The husband got a residency for six weeks at the Contemporary Artists Center at Woodside in upstate New York, and he’s leaving Wednesday.  And everyone else that I hang out with is either going on vacation or moving away :(…. Sooooo, I’m on my own, which is a great excuse to lock myself into work mode and ignore the wider world.  Love it!

Now, I need to go photograph those shoes of mine… Yes that’s still a thing.  We’re on week 19.  And I hate it.

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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

Camera Lucida Gave Me an Anxiety Attack (Or How I Always Have My Artistic and Personal Revelations at Inappropriate Moments)

I’m going to give a disclaimer right here, right now:  This post might very well go to the dark side of incoherent ramble and there’s a possibility that no one will follow my train of thought.  But that’s OK, what’s important here is that I follow my train of thought.  Toot toot!

Not mine.  From a website featuring brain related comics.  Still funny... Or punny, whichever.
Not mine. From a website featuring brain related comics. Still funny… Or punny, whichever.

A few weeks ago, the grad photo seminar I’m taking was required to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.  I wasn’t so concerned with this, as the book is super short, and I had read bits and pieces of it as an undergrad.  I was looking forward to revisiting it actually because  I remembered loving what Barthes discussed when I read it at UT… This idea that photography is a reminder of our own mortality, and his concepts of the studium and the punctum.  For realz.  It was a very… romantic… discussion of photography, and when I was first exposed (Ha!  Unintentional photo pun) to Barthes it just made so much sense.  But upon reading it again, I found myself increasingly  irritated by what he wrote and by the way he presents (presented? since he’s dead?) photography.  Now granted the book was written in 1980 before digital gained it’s foothold, and before photography became so completely accessible to everyone, but I just wanted to throw up all over the book.  Or punch Mr. Roland Barthes in the face.  Something.  I know, totally inappropriate reaction, but I was disappointed and frustrated.  It no longer made any sense, and instead of rediscovering something I thought I loved, I realized I hated something that I thought I loved.

I don’t know why I was so surprised and taken aback by this.  I have been struggling for the last two years with photography (before I even started grad school!), trying to figure out why it wasn’t working for me anymore, trying to understand why I love it but am so flummoxed by it.  Coming into this current semester, one of my goals had been to re-introduce photography into my practice on some level, beyond documentation of my performances, because I really missed it, and because it seemed stupid to me that something I had once loved so much, and was such an integral part of my practice, was something from which I had completely walked away.  And this goal was part of the reason I enrolled myself in the grad photo seminar.  I thought it would give me some space to address this goal.  In certain ways, it has allowed that, and has given me a lot of food for thought on the relationship between photography and performance art.  So that’s good…

But then we read Camera Lucida.

And then we discussed it in class.

And I had an all encompassing anxiety attack during that class discussion….

I’m not even sure how to plot the trajectory of this attack in order to explain it, suffice to say I came to class prepared to discuss this, and see how others had interpreted Barthes romantic vomit.  But then, as we began the discussion, I started to wonder about my own reaction and interpretation of this text.  I mean, somewhere, down underneath all the crazy, behind the performance art, I’m supposed to be a photographer, or a tiny part of me was at one point, right?  Shouldn’t that mean that while I may not agree with what the author had to say, I should on some level appreciate it?  That I could at least see it from a different perspective than my own.  But I couldn’t.  I just straight up hated it.  And that got me thinking about a) wether or not I really loved photography the way that I thought I did, or even at all, and b) if I should even be an artist if I hated a theory so much.  I mean, I felt like a fraud in so many ways.  I keep talking about why I love photo, I made a point to teach photography here, I’m going to the SPE conference in March… But I wanted to run screaming from one of the books on photo theory.  It was a big, hot mess.  I worked myself up to the point where I could barely follow the conversation, let alone participate in it.

Voila, anxiety attack.

I’m so good at that.

Anyway.  I was really upset over this.  And I actually cried on my way home.  I was that impacted.  So, I’ve been thinking this over a lot in the two weeks or so since it happened, without much progress.

In the intervening time, I had reviews, and several studio visits.  Each of those caused me more and more frustration and anguish, because not only was I questioning the entire foundation for my artistic career (photography), I was seeing this widening disconnect between my ideas and my actual work.  I had developed all of this work that visually and emotionally had no connection to the ideas and stories that were supposedly their basis.  “Cool” art as one of my professors dubbed it.  A clean, slick, pretty aesthetic, and yet nothing I am trying to address is anything but hot and messy.  The two are most certainly not jiving, if you’re picking up what I’m laying down.

I wanted to leave school.  I wanted to stop being an artist.  To be clear though, it wasn’t the faculty’s fault I was in this mind set.  The studio visits and reviews I had were actually very helpful to me in terms of clarifying and understanding the disconnect that I intuitively understood to be there, but could not quite grasp in reason or put into words.  It was me, feeling very much inadequate to the task I had set myself.  In short I was feeling like a failure to myself.  Ah… my old friend, we meet again.  Hold this thought because it’s important…

Well, so that’s how everything was sitting for the last few weeks of my life.  I was pretty much at loose ends.  I didn’t really touch anything in my studio, instead I just sat and stared at it a lot.  I dragged my feet on teaching related things.  I avoided people in general.  It sucked.  I’m sure I was a peach to be around.  And yet I kept having these strange moments of serendipity and deja vu.  Which had to mean I was somehow on the right path…

I’m sure if anyone ever reads this blog more than one time, they’ll figure out I’ve got a few psychological and emotional problems.  No, I’m not just “crazy” because artists are supposed to be crazy.  I actually hate that I’m “crazy” and that I’m an artist, what bad luck to be a stereotype!  I actually hate the word crazy, it’s a far to unsubtle and general a descriptor.  But that’s my issue…  What I’m trying to say here is that clearly I have a lot of things that need working on, and work on them I do.  I do both individual and group counseling, and it’s really helpful for me.  For instance, in my individual sessions, we talk a lot about how my psychological and emotional behaviors often play out in my art work, often times with out my realizing it.  I point this out, because I had this huge, amazing moment of understanding (which is where the subtitle for this post comes into play) that relates to my art work.

In my session yesterday, my counselor pointed out to me that people who struggle with expectations tend to deal with them in one of two ways; either become a perfectionist (which in some ways I fall into this category), or they develop avoidance issues (which I had never considered in relation to my own behavior before).  She suggested that I might want to think about how I avoid things when I feel that I can’t achieve my own expectations or goals.  I agreed and then went on about my day.

Several hours later, I was sitting in a lecture hall, listening to one of the many job candidates that FSU has been bringing in recently (FSU has something like 4 job searches going on in the art department), and I found my mind wandering.  I started thinking about situations in which I don’t deal with things, and I was trying to determine the reasons why I may not have dealt with whatever it was.  In most cases it’s because I feel like I can’t succeed in my aim, or that I assume the worst  case scenario in terms of outcome and I just gave up…if that makes any sense.  Then suddenly it hit me.  THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I DID WITH PHOTOGRAPHY.  I started a series about a year before I went back to school, around the same time that my work started to shift toward more interior, psychological and emotional issues, and I got frustrated with it because it wasn’t conveying my intent.  I was failing in my aim.  And then when this failure (in my perception) continued when I came to FSU, I completely walked away from photography.

Holy Crap.

Giant. Fucking.  Exclamation Point.

So right in the middle of this job talk, I have this moment of clarity.  And of course I’m freaking out, and can barely sit still, which I have to do for another 45 minutes.  Terrible.  I felt like I was going to explode or something, because once my mind started racing along about this, there was no stopping it.  Almost right away I realized how this idea impacted the rest of my work too.  This “cool” art I had started making.  I was avoiding the emotional content because I had been unable to incorporate the visual and emotional in previous experiments.  This was why I had stopped halfway through so many projects…  My mind was blown.    This is what my notebook page looked like:

See how insanely disorganized this page is?  Terrible handwriting...
See how insanely disorganized this page is? Terrible handwriting…

So this is a good thing I think.  I went into my studio and cleaned it, took everything off the walls, and put all of my stuff away.  Time to recalibrate and reconsider.  It’s a good point in the semester for me to do that too, because I’m headed to Chicago in a week for SPE, but I’m staying a week so I can go to museums and galleries and just look at some flipping art that isn’t my own.  I feel much more focused now for some reason, it’s strange.

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So now I’m culling through my ideas and the projects I started this semester in order to get some perspective on them.  Writing notes to myself and deciding which I will continue in the wake of this epiphany and which I can discard as a means of avoidance….

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The pink ones are my ideas, the blue ones are my questions or considerations. I’m slowly considering each one. I have a feeling this will turn into an explosion of neon colored pieces of paper soon. Color always happens.

You Didn’t Have to Be There…

As promised:

http://fora.tv/2007/11/14/Photography_and_Contemporary_Performance_Art

This is a link to a panel discussion on the relationship of photography and performance art, featuring RoseLee Goldberg, Babette Mangolte, Vanessa Beecroft, and of course, Marina Abramovic.  I think that this is a really great discussion of the topic, despite the fact that some of the the concerns don’t get fully addressed.  It focuses (photo pun!) mostly on the larger more central concerns of photography as documentation, such as the idea that photo compresses something that is time based and ephemeral into a single static moment, the fact that the photographer should at all times be a representative of the truth, and of course the question of when and how documentation becomes a work of art in it’s own right.  It’s difficult to clearly delineate these issues as they all become muddled together, one tying into the next, and feeding back out of another, however.

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Personally, I think I struggle the most with the first concept, the fact that photography can never capture the entire scope of the performance.  The best that it can hope to do, is to give a good sense of how the performance looked, an impression of what happened where and in relation to whom.  It can never capture the “vibe” of the experience, or the dynamic between viewers/participants and the artist.  And yet, at the same time, the photographs exist as a type of proof that the event happened for galleries, press, or of course in our current situation, act as evidence for our next studio visit.  But, aside from proof, why must these images be created?  I go back and forth on this hourly…

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Very early in the video, RoseLee Goldberg makes the point that often times people are told that “You have to be there (at the performance), to understand.”  Her response is that, well, she wasn’t at the Battle of Waterloo, or any other number of historical events, but she can still appreciate their significance.  In her view, experiencing performance via photography is legitimate.  I however, am not so convinced on this logic (Isn’t the saying that history is written by the victors?).  These “documentary” images of a performance are not the objective records we believe them to be.  Photographs can easily be misleading or even misused after the fact, leading to interpretation or opinions that may not be in line with what the artist intended.  In fact, you can have a terrible performance, or even one that never actually took place, evidenced beautifully in a still photograph.  Then, even if the images captured reflect, at least, the essence of what the artist was going through, they are very carefully edited and circulated by the artist themselves, there by controlling the interpretation of the work.  Chris Burden always had his performances documented, but culled the documentation down into one or two photographs that were then used to represent that piece of work for perpetuity.  Babette Mangolte also points out that art historians tend to follow a similar behavior pattern in their realm of research.  Instead of looking for many images from the same performance, the habit of art historians is to viewing only published documentation, thus narrowing the field through which the work is encountered.

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All of this leads me to wonder exactly how right it is to “experience” a performance via photography.  Photography lies.  It always has, and will continue to, be it through the medium itself, or those who make use of/study it.  I think our society is more in love with the idea of a beautiful image than we are with the truth.  Marina Abramovic makes a wonderful point when she says that art historians typically only concern themselves with the still photo because it aestheticizes the performance in to  one single thing.  In essence, it that image becomes one single, easily digestible tidbit, which can easily come to stand in for the piece in it’s entirety.  Which is where we cross into the territory of the documentation become a work in it’s own right…

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This is another aspect of this discussion for which I don’t have a really good answer.  While most of the art we look at is viewed through documentation, performance art is almost exclusively viewed this way.  Because of the fact works are often only performed once, or done for a specific place, or the artist has passed, the only way we can access those pieces is through their documentation.  So when galleries or museums wish to show a piece of work which no longer actually exists, what is there to do but use the documentation, making it an art work in it’s own right?   Finally, there is the need to take into consideration the idea of photography itself as a performance.  In this respect, Cindy Sherman could be creating a performance every single time she creates one of her images.  Think also of the Yves Kline image, Leap into the Void, a composited image of an event that never truly took place.

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Some things I had never considered, that this panel brought up, was the concept of the importance of sound to a performance and it’s documentation, and the idea of “collaboration” with a photographer.  The idea of sound I think is a truly crucial one that photography has no hopes of addressing.  All performances have some type of sound associated with them, even if it is only the ambient sound of movement, or of the space itself.  That has an impact on the way a performance is perceived, and that is not captured in a photography.  When we look at photographic documentation of a performance, we cannot get even a sense of what the space sounded like, and so we lose that important information for our interpretation.  Lastly, in the panel, the question is raised as to how the artist relates to and works with the photographer.  Oddly enough, this thought had never crossed my mind.  But it makes sense, if you’re attempting to capture your performance, the relationship to the person documenting it becomes something of a collaboration.  You have to understand them, and they you…  There’s a necessity for being on the same page.  However, this then raises the question of creative rights.  Does the work belong to the photographer, do the images belong to the artist?

It’s murky water my friends.