When your early work becomes vintage...

San Antonio. El Camino.

"Had we but world enough and tyme..." (To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell). We're all subject to the passage of time.  No matter what profession you've chosen there will come a time when you look back and see where you came from. If you are into computers and you are of a certain age you'll talk about the lure of that Kaypro computer whose 9 inch green screen boasted a whopping 80 characters per line.  Ah, 1982...  

If you are a photographer you'll look back, sometimes in wonder and sometimes wincing, as you look at the slides you made with different films.  Fuji survived the slide film cold war and Kodak didn't but the images I shot on the early versions of Fuji are faded and mottled while the images I shot on Kodachrome are still exactly as they were when the little yellow boxes came back from the lab.

What I never remember until I scan them is just how low saturation Kodachrome 64 film was.  Certain colors popped (red) and certain colors didn't (blues and greens).  When Fuji Velvia came out I think it was widely embraced by photographers just because they were finally able to see real, honest to God, over the top color saturation. Our films helped create our visions of what was right, colorwise.

In the late 1970's and the early 1980's I felt drawn to San Antonio's downtown.  I'd pack a small camera bag with a camera body, a couple lenses and ten or twelve rolls of film.  I always packed the same film, not a mix. One day might be Tri-X black and white and another day might be Kodachrome 64 but always only one film type per day. It was easier for me to get my head around one linear way of thinking that to shift gears all the time.  And it was expensive, when using 35mm, to decide halfway through a roll of film that you really needed to switch to a different type. 

I don't know what I was looking for as I walked around the streets with my camera. I was in the advertising business at the time so it was more like a hobby than something I could rationalize as a business.  I guess I was trying to preserve the city from change.  I might have been documenting something different than that.  I may have just been emulating the documentary photographers I admired from books and magazines. Now, when I walk the streets of every city I'm looking for little glimmers of human scale and human touch to juxtapose against the constant change and the secure walls of progress.

I like walking with a camera.  I suppose I am Calvinistic enough to require some sense of work or duty be attached to the pleasure of walking so I bring the jewelry of my professional along when I amble, the idea being that I'll see something spectacular that will make its way into my portfolio.  But mostly the images go to storage.  In the film days they went into archival plastic sheets and then into a filing cabinet.  Now they go into Lightroom and onto DVD's.  A copy remains on a hard disk or two but until I started sharing the work on this blog they contributed very little to justify the time and expense of their creation.

But now something interesting is at work.  My earliest photographs show my cities and my life as it no longer exists.  Now they are documents of my own history.  As I looked through a selection of several thousand images of San Antonio I am shocked at the buildings which are now gone, the blue capped skyline that was once open transparent now cluttered with buildings and the same sky dingy with the dust and traces of our car culture.  My work has become a history of a city in endless transition.  And all cities are in endless transition. Favorite restaurants gone.  The barbershop that was there last year now a Starbucks...

When I look at the red El Camino I see vintage.  Just like the "vintage" button in Snapseed or the digitally random decay of Instagram, only this is the real thing.  The film that the intentional de-evolution of digital files is based upon.

I used to think the same nostalgic vintage-ism couldn't happen to film since it would decay, it would only perish or exist, fully realized.  But I've also spent time looking at files from each generation of digital cameras and I've seen the progression from primitive to polished. From unsharp files filled with noise to the latest plastic wonder files.

But my real interest has nothing to do with the technical progression of the craft and everything to do with memory and the encapsulation of time as a trigger for future memories. For looking back to see the patterns of life.  A proof that things were as we say they were. A time when we thought we knew everything and would live forever.  

There's an arc of time for every artist.  A time of power and experimentation and a time when you become culturally invisible.  So much of that acceptance and then lack of acceptance is contextual and style driven. You exist within your current milieu.  When you are young you are hooked into current culture.  Everything you do is a reflection of the mass culture you are surrounded by.  Whatever you create references that mass culture so you are at once inside and of the culture.  That gives your work whatever relevance it has as it's foundation.  You add the interesting twist.  Or you don't.  A generation loves Instagram because, well, the generation loves Instagram.  Another generation loved the black and white output of Holga cameras, in part because that's what everyone in the generation was experimenting with and, well, you know, it's really all about peer pressure.  Like smoking cigarettes.

The rising ethos swirling around my early years as a photographer were all about street photography and so I swam in that pool.  No better or worse than most of my fellow photographers. 

But as you live through cycles (be they economic or artistic) you understand that each fashionable style is a short lived romp through the pet rocks and tattoos of mass culture and very little, outside of a few exceptional examples, withstands either the test of time or our own attention spans.  Eventually it all gets sent to the virtual landfill of dozens of neglected hard drives or optical disks and then, by sheer weight of its every increasing bulk, the whole collection becomes too hard to deal with. Too ponderous to browse and it is increasingly ignored in deference to whatever the new trend is.

How else to explain the mass hysteric migration from camera to camera or from web hero to web hero? From big sensors to small and back again.

I've tried to put my finger on what it is that makes digital different from all previous processes.  Across all platforms including writing, photography, music and video.  I think I finally understand.  There is nothing intrinsically different about capturing the images, thinking of the stories or creating the melodies.  But the efficiency of the process makes each field destructively productive.  We are hell bent of the process of creation but without any commitment to the back end of the process.  We're in a constant race to create more and more to the exclusion of savoring each additional step of the process. There is less planning and concepting but more button pushing and cataloging.  Gone, seemingly, are the days when we'd labor for hours to get the perfect print---in digital or analog.  Much easier to slap a 2000 pixel rendition onto the web, share it with several thousand people you'll never meet and move on to the next act of manic production.

It's an evolving experiential process.  I'll readily admit to being behind the curve but I think there's tremendous value in curating your own images, editing them down the way a chef simmers down a sauce to concentrate its taste and power.  I think it's a difficult and rewarding task to go beyond default button pushing and to interpret an image onto paper in a unique way and finally, it's tough and socially significant to pull together a show of images and manifest that show for a public and real audience.  It might be something you bring to fruition only once every ten years but the power of purpose of having a show in a gallery or other space can imbue the artist with a level of insight and inspiration that's gone AWOL as we participate in the process of exaggerated productivity for the sake of-----productivity.

For me this blog, from time to time, fills the void between shows and lethargy.  I put images here to share them as well as to illustrate articles.  But in effect I am robbing the power of a concentrated showing of actual images (paper) in exchange for the very short term buzz of knowing that at least people are seeing the images.  And in a sense it's a very destructive cycle.  The web can be art gallery crack.

So.  Today I realized that some of my images have become vintage.  The rest of them will do so over time. So will yours.  Even if you are only 24 or 30 years old the process has already begun and the only ways to escape the process are to constantly change with every trend that rears its peacock feather festooned head, stop shooting altogether or accept that you've found a style and subject matter that work for you and you alone and to keep doing exactly what that is until you drop over dead.  It's an interesting way of being honest to your own vision.

In the end it's about making your artist self happy.  Or at least honest. If you are in this because you like the cameras it's okay to just ignore this post.


Unknown said...

One of the reasons that I enjoy reading your blog, is that we are 180 degrees apart on most things.

Me, I never let a camera get in the way of a walk. You seem to go for walks as an excuse for finding photo ops.

I'm not acquisitive, while you seem to enjoy collecting gear. Thanks for all the comments on new cameras, I get a much better "real world" sense of how they work than I do from DPReview, and the fanboi sites.

The only time I shot a portrait, was unplanned. I had just received a Large PCB PLM, and brought it over to a friends studio to shoot some tests. He liked the look, and I shot a portrait of him and his business partner wife. They still use it for their monthly News Letter. BTW the PCB PLM was used with a 2400ws Profoto D4 generator, not an AB monoblock ;-)

For me, the biggest advancement due to computers, is writhing. (I don't just word-process). I don't even own a copy of PS, but my retouchers do (you would want to have a color-blind person doing color correction 8-0 ).

My inner artist, gets the most sanctification from table-top product shoots. YMMV

The last shot with the glass brick wall is about as vintage as it gets. Have not seen any recently, although they were very common at one time.

Lenard Burgess said...

Thought you might like this Kirk, it is a graduation speech made by Neil Gaiman to the 2012 class at the University of Arts, it in many ways ties directly into this blog post.


Jim said...

Amen! This may well be your best post ever.

Craig Yuill said...

Kirk, your post covers an issue I have with old slides and negs I've accumulated over the years.

Last Summer I posted 30 photos I had taken at Expo 86 in Vancouver BC, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of that event. I still have hundreds of slides from Expo, but most of them are, to be honest, crap. Yet I keep them because they have a nostalgic/historic significance to me. I guess I can say that about many of the photos I have taken and kept over the last 30-35 years. Yet even the so-so photos often depict places and events long gone. Like Austin and San Antonio, Vancouver has seen many transformations over the years.

I'm not certain many of these photos will be thought of as "vintage work" in the years to come. I very much doubt my descendants will want to keep bulky boxes of slides and negs. I guess I will keep my slides and negs for as long as I can, and "archive" my best photos by digitizing them. But what will happen with these images in the decades to come, who knows? I hope that someone will find them to be of some interest.

Thanks for another interesting and thought-provoking post.

Tom said...

The Camino needs bumpers......just saying.

Change can come fast or slow, but it will come. I'm from Christchurch in New Zealand. We lost most of our city last year to a major earthquake. Now, everyone who took images in the last 20 years is an historian.

Kirk, it would be very civic minded of you to put your San Antonio images together somehow, and donate a copy of them to the city while you have them together, and in your awareness. Or do a book. Or both.

Same for you Mr Yuill! Every city has an archivist. You can't rely upon your family doing the right thing once you've gone, the world is speeding up too much.