10.19.2011

Do you ever wonder why we photograph what we do?

added 10/19, 2:46 pm.  Gloominess alert!  Persons prone to melancholy should steer clear.
A shop window on Houston St. in San Antonio.  Mamiya 6 camera.  75mm lens.  Tri-X.  1990's.


I've been thinking a lot about what I shoot and why I'm drawn toward certain subjects.  One of the things I'm drawn to are scenes that make me melancholy about time past.  In essence every photograph we take could be construed as an attempt to cheat death, or at least catalog the existence of something before it disappears.  And many times the thing we choose to photograph has no more resonance for us other than its emotive ties to time that's already slipped by.  Maybe we catalog the past to confront our fears of the future.

Think of the times in your youth when you smuggled a camera into a rock concert and made images of the lead singer wailing away on stage.  What was your ultimate motivation?  You may say that you made a souvenir to help you always remember the experience but by taking the photographs your experience was changed from a visceral response to the moment into "recording mode."  You stepped outside the direct experiential moment and stepped back to record the passing moment.  If you really examined your motivations you might find that you were attempting to grip the moment and keep it from sliding into the quicksand of the past. A fervent desire to hold onto the glow of youth.  But no matter how well documented the moment still slipped away and left you only a two dimensional slice of time remembered that can't be re-engaged other than through imagination.

You might say that you created a "record."  But a record of what?  Proof that you were at the concert?  Proof that it all existed as you remember?  Or proof that you exist on the Moebius strip of time?  Perhaps we catalog the past to build up an emotional equity for the future.  Maybe the images we take help us believe in the forward momentum of our existence.

In early years I photographed many images that caused uncomfortable emotions for me.  I remember one image I took on contrasty slide film of an old man near the front gates of the Mercado in downtown San Antonio.  He was always somewhere near that very public area.  He had commandeered a shopping cart many years earlier and made it his own.  It was covered with cheap toys from Mexico and China which he ostensibly sold to children and their families who came to the area to listen to Mexican bands, or to eat in one of the open air restaurants.  His shopping cart also held cans and bottles that he would redeem at recycling centers.  He was old and moved slowly, with a shuffle.  He wore the same kind of worn blue work shirt every time I saw him.  He was always sitting and spent most of his time alone with his head bowed.

What drew me to photograph him other than the curiosity for an existence that an American middle class (and largely self sheltered) upbringing had effectively kept mostly hidden from me in my youth?  Was it my human need to understand the suffering and loneliness of strangers?  I postulate that I was drawn to record him because poverty, loneliness and isolation are the pervasive fears of our culture.  We dread exclusion.  We fear being left behind or discarded.  And through photography I was (unconsciously) examining the hearty and fear inducing resonance of these feelings.  They echo a fear that runs through everyone in a purely capitalist society;  that some day my usefulness to commerce will come to an end and I'll be irrelevant.

I also photographed another San Antonio downtown regular who was spent his days walking around with a homemade, wire tool that allowed him to pick up aluminum pull tabs without having to bend over.  (A quick note to young readers:  "pull tabs" were the removable tabs on soft drink and beer cans that were used before the more modern push tabs, that keep the metal connected to the can, were introduced to eliminate sharp, metal litter...).  He wore baggy clothes, danced to all the street music he came across, no matter what variety, and had hawk eyes for little slivers of metal in the gutters.  He was mentally challenged and I wondered where he lived and how he survived.  If I were really concerned for his welfare I guess I would have made inquiries but I was more fascinated with the idea of his life, intermingled with the "normal" tourists and how he interacted on the street.  If I put myself on my self-constructed analyst's couch I would dig down until my subconscious screamed out that I fear we all have some side that's vulnerable and corruptible, and I fear that mine will be discovered.  I will become one of those people who collect cans and pull tops.

My documentation of people aging, cities aging, and general temporal decay is always couched, in my mind, as a study but really it's a gnawing desire to understand the ultimate expression of decay as it relates to me.  Some day I'll die and all the photos in the world won't stop that from happening.  But the creation of images at least helps me to believe that I'll be able to delay or obfuscate the process until, in the end, I won't care.

Finally, the visual embrace, however fearfully, of an existence that is so foreign to my current condition (but not so remote as to be unthinkable)  helps me to build an empathy that I may, one day, need to turn upon myself.

Why do we photograph what we do?  To keep fear at bay?  To process visual evidence of the cycle of life?  To find our own place in the cycle?

But then, other than narcissism, why do we share it?

Isolation,  Ambiguity,  Indecision.  These are what we are pitting ourselves against. Perhaps photography can be divided into two categories:  Those images that explore our fears and those images that help us to disregard them.

19 comments:

Frank Grygier said...

Kirk, I have to say that since you have returned to the blogoshere, I see a side of you that you didn't expose fully to the world. I can only say that the anguish that you feel is the same that all artist have to confront in their quest for relevance in the world as they see it. Very thought provoking.

seoras said...

Hi Kirk,

Its good to see a photographer question their medium, so few do. With a greater understanding I think one can go further with their practice, realizing also just how wonderful, deep and diverse a medium it is.
I was going to post a suggestion with your 'We're back. Both of us. All of us.' post - read Roland Barthes 'Camera Lucida' you might find it enlightening on your quest.

g

Simon Lupton said...

As photographers we're drawn to ruins, rust, rubbish, relics, remains, remnants, residue, rarities, ruination, rubble and [w]reckage. Sadly, I guess we have ample opportunity to apply it to people too.

John said...

On a personal level, the subjects upon which my photographs tend to indulge are a very extreme, however metaphoric, juxtaposition of stages of life and points of age. I am a young, fortunate person who goes out of his way to surround himself with an environment largely neglected and marked by decay, and record it photographically. Some time ago I had come to a comfortable peace with what my affinity for such wretched and disheveled places was really about - the recognition that my role in society, among my friends, family, etc. would ultimately amount to the function of those buildings, vacant, empty and meaningless, left to succumb to age and a purposeless death. It is the story a vast majority of us recognize as our pending conclusions in life. My logic was, on some subtle level, that if I could see beauty in the long, labored deaths of these icons of Western detritus, somehow that would make my own death okay, maybe because there is a beauty in it that someone else might have the good fortune and keen perception to see. I really was okay with dying at that point (a state of inner nirvana I'd much like to return to, but after having cheated death in a recent car accident I find my faith in persisting relevance and beauty faltering).

Honestly, narcissism may be the ONLY reason anyone really shares their photographs when the motivating facet is the creation of "art". I imagine that to be a rather critical element motivating artists of any medium - it is the only viable means of achieving even a fleck of immortality, the personality and opinions of the artist living on through his work as it is indulged in by others even after his death. Even then the timeless existence is only fleeting (if ever achieved), as once some cosmic event annihilates our planet, people, our society and our history, there is no one left to remember us (and the universe isn't really much of an art connoisseur). Perhaps it's just opinion... but I know I would like to be remembered. And I make it a point to remember those artists I know who've passed...

kirk tuck said...

Simon, we've been applying it to people since the intial creation of photography and, before that to painting. I'm not sure it's "sad." maybe it just "is."

kirk tuck said...

John, Maybe.

atmtx said...

Kirk, really interesting topic. One that I've been thinking about recently myself. As I grow older, the more I realize how quickly the shinny new stuff begins to decay. Seeing and photographing the once shinny and grand objects that have now passed their prime is oddly enjoyable but also brings melancholy. Maybe its a realization that it is OK to grow old, that it is the natural progression of life.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks for chiming in ATMTX. It's always good to hear your perspective on things like this. Understanding and acceptance are hard but critically beneficial. It's good to photograph with clear intention. I think this post is a bit dark for many of the members. I'll try to moderate my bleak, Ingmar Bergmanesque musings in the future....

Patrick Dodds said...

Brilliant Kirk - thanks for posting this. Echoes many of my own (less articulate) thoughts especially regarding narcissism. Melancholy and ambiguity are other important aspects of the photographer's art I believe.

Kaitlin Linnea Wilson said...

I am a photographer from Alaska. I fell in love with someone this summer. I spent all summer fishing and camping around the state to escape this love because I knew he was going to leave as soon as it snowed. While wandering around the woods, and fishing from the ocean and streams, I photographed the world around me. I was reflecting on my work when I realized what I had been doing. In my effort to forget about him I was creating photographs that were expressions of love. I discovered that taking a photograph was the only way I could keep this love forever. I like to look at these images because I'm reminded..

John Krumm said...

Well, I share my more artsy photographs with strangers for the cocaine like hit of the occasional compliment. But many of my photographs are family photographs, and the once a year or so "retelling" of family stories these photos allow, especially the older prints, is hard to price. So I'm essentially banking love, if I want to get all mushy about it.

vintagedesignsmith said...

I find that I dislike street photography unless I have interacted with the street people giving them the images of themselves that I've taken which they love after I've gotten to know them. Then I don't share them because I feel like a voyeur pimp.
I am too familiar with the stories of those on the streets, the 13 year old boy who looks old for his age (avoiding CPS) who begs money for his drug addict parents who beat him if he doesn't bring home enough money...the old men who have lost their families to alcoholism or drugs and subsist on so little. The older women who live in their car almost invisibly with their pets who have nothing after being divorced with no job skills, no income. I have fed them and listened to them, helped a couple families find jobs and apartments, called CPS to save vulnerable kids, scolded those begging money for drugs from the elderly who don't have much themselves.
It should be discomforting to take and/or view such images without any emotional commitment to making things better. But you can't change what you don't know.

Paul Glover said...

Everything and everyone decays, but most people ignore that fact, live in denial of it.

Maybe decay is interesting to some of us precisely because everyone else would rather overlook it, in the same way that few people truly "see" their surroundings.

As a photographer (keen hobbyist or pro, I don't think it matters here), once we start really seeing the world around you, I wonder if we feel compelled to capture it so that perhaps, those other people might have their eyes opened too?

greg g said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clay said...

Boy, did this one unleash the beast!

I have no idea why I photograph, paint, or draw. Maybe it's a control thing: picking the elements that go into my little box. There's a fear-of-death element in that, but it doesn't feel like the main thing.

All I know is there is no satisfaction like capturing an image. I keep thinking that if I get good enough, I'll get as much satisfaction from looking at the pictures later, but that day hasn't come yet.

Gino Eelen said...

Highly thought-provoking.

But I wouldn't phrase it in such a gloomy way.For me empathy is the crucial word in the post.

I never felt the urge to document my life. I find I only ever pick up a camera in an attempt to create beauty. And beauty for me is always related to emotion. I strive to create beautiful photographs that move me. Photography for me is ultimately a quest for beauty and emotion.

In trying to answer the question of why that is important to me, I have (so far) come to the conclusion that it is both a means of self-exploration (discovering what moves me and why) as well as a means of accepting the world as it is (trying to find beauty and emotion in even the ugly aspects of the world). So photography allows me not only to discover, but ultimately also to accept who I am and how I relate to the world. It raises my level of empathy with myself, my life, and the world.

Sharing the result of that quest can also produce empathy when others appreciate my work (assuming for a moment that others actuallty do like my photographs). If what moves me also moves others, that implies there is empathy flowing between us in both directions (and yes, that contains a narcissistic aspect in that it confirms I truly am loved and appreciated). And being moved by my work can lead others to empathize with the subject of my photographs (or maybe simply with my photographs as objects), in turn raising their level of empathy with the world.

So creating as well as appreciating art may both lead to an increase in empathy. Art is a win-win activity in that sense.

Of course, that empathy may be a means to alleviate the fear of our own demise, I do agree with you on that. But I would prefer to de-emphasize the gloom, and highlight the positive side. For me, emphasizing the fear defines human beings as separate individual, lonely creatures, while emphasizing the empathy defines us as mutually connected, similar, and part of a whole. And photography/art is a way of enacting and consolidating that connectedness.

kirk tuck said...

Gino, This is exactly the kind of give and take I wanted to see in the Visual Science Lab blog. It's feels so much more interactive than before.

I love your summation about empathy versus alienation. Good stuff for me to chew on...

Thank you.

Kaitlin Linnea Wilson said...

Gino, I completely relate. Whatever I photograph, whether it be a stranger, poor or rich, a scenery, or a model, is ultimately a reflection of my emotion, and an attemp at creating something beautiful from any emotion, whether it be terror, sadness or love...The hardest part about being an artist is the part where we judge our own work, because we are judging ourselves, or our souls and mushy stuff like that. The reason we feel the need to share our work is because expression is meaningless without an audience. I don't relate to the photographer who takes photographs only to hear someone say they like it.

Matthew said...

It's true. The images I take (and the things I write) help me to believe in the forward momentum of my existence.

For me, creating also commemorates, marks that I existed at such and such a moment, and that it meant something. Meant what? Well, I look at a given photograph or read a piece of my work, and it brings me back into dialogue with the meaning and beauty of my life and the lives of those I interact with, even if just for a moment on the street. To me, all skill, all technique is subservient to this production. And I am afraid of those times when it's not available, when things are effectively frozen.