Portrait of An Artist As a Young Man.
I often think about why I take photographs and why I go back to an area again and again to take more photographs. My theory is that the longer you live the more socially isolated you become. You tend to have spent a lifetime surrounding yourself with people who are more or less just like you. If you are "lucky" enough to live in a very affluent area, in a very affluent town you'll find that you are even more homogeneously sequestered. You drive your car out of the long driveway to get just about anywhere and once you get there you drive your car into the secure parking garage and then transfer into the adjacent building of your destination.
It's hard to meet people from the interior of your car. But let's look a bit further. Chances are you went to a good college and got a useful degree. If so you were most probably surrounded (in the U.S.A.) by a sub-set of the general population that averages about 5.8% of the total number of people. If you graduated with a bachelor's degree you now constitute part of a group of adults who are around 22% of the adult population. Should you pursue a master's degree (and attain it) you will join an even smaller sub-set of about 5% of American adults. Each level of achievement puts one further and further away from the median population, and further from a genuine social literacy of popular culture.
If your work life is mostly spent working with people with the same backgrounds who are managing projects for corporate America you have essentially cut yourself off from any real, empathetic understanding of the other 78% of your fellow country people. You may read articles about the mainstream in your morning copy of the New York Times, or study up on their habits and vernacular by watching television, but chances are you more readily default to websites that echo your group's taste, or to blogs that speak to hobbies and interests that are important to you personally.
As I've aged and focused on work, financial security, and my own sybaritic comforts I have become increasingly aware that I have few friends or acquaintances that are poor, or not traditionally educated, and not part of a network of affluent social support that revolved around training our children to manufacture their own privileged isolation. But at some point I came to the epiphany that belonging to a homogenous group that is uniformly hellbent on actively managing all risk is......boring. And that makes me boring.
As an antidote to my self-induced social firewall I try to get out see the city from a standing point of view; not in a car. The Graffiti Wall is a great example of my attempts to at least understand popular culture. When I go there I see all kinds of people from mostly middle and lower middle class backgrounds. The cars are different. The dress is different. The language and mannerisms are different. The messaging is different. It's less obfuscated, more clear. It comes from a mix that I'm not conversant with and so becomes fascinating to me.
When I photograph the wall with all of its garish colors and almost stenciled artwork I'm trying to emotionally understand what drove the artists to come here and make such ephemeral art. When I photograph people situated in, and surrounded by, the art I'm looking for archetypes; heroic visual ideas of the artists. The new Jackson Pollocks of the public gallery.
As one who has spent decades creating archival photographs and archival inkjet prints, as well as spending too many hours backing up information and safeguarding my data, I am captivated by the ability of these many artists to spend time and money to paint only to see their work painted over the next day --- or even just a few hours later. Do they feel the agony that I would feel if I noticed growing fixer stains on my collection of black and white prints? Or does the ability to have a spontaneous "gallery show" (albeit surrounded by hundreds of un-curated and competitive artists) outweigh the fleeting existence of their art?
While I've shied away from examining political themes here in the art I've documented at the Wall over the years, I wonder if the expressions of anger, frustration and even outrage are more satisfying made physical instead of just being "liked" over and over again on Facebook.
Beyond being a resource for the artists, the outdoor gallery (and it is huge) is also the locus of day-to-day performance art of an individual kind for the people who don't paint. It's a free attraction and the very nature of the content drives away most well meaning parents and a good number of older and more conservative adults. Young adults and teenaged people flock here to see and be seen. To take selfies, and to go beyond the selfie in many instances to create personal art with themes and points of view that work in concert with the surrounding paintings.
Beyond any appreciation for the art on the walls the area has also become a site for romantic messaging. I saw three different parts of the wall today that conveyed some variation of: "Susan Smith, Will You Marry Me?" It's a hot "stop by" on prom night and on Valentine's Day.
But most of the people I described at the beginning of this post are immune to the charms of the wall. They've compartmentalized graffiti as something that "punks" and gangs do. Evidence of rebellion and lawlessness. Memes of alienation and hate. But if you get out of the car and go experience it you come away understanding the opposite; it's a magnet for community sharing and mixing. And it's quickly becoming a tourist attraction for many people. It's a venue for self-expression in one of its rawest forms.
But why am I attracted to the Wall and the mix of people? I think it has to do with a desire to go beyond art that's certified and approved by convention. I'm genuinely interested in understanding the value of an "outsider art" that's becoming "insider art" to a bigger and bigger slice of the population. It has real energy and is classic, "primitive art" in many ways. Except for the fact that handfuls of the work are obviously from people who have technical training and learned skills --- which makes their involvement even more interesting, and more richly layers the offerings.
The camera in my hand gives me a purpose to go there and to be there. When I see things through the camera I can be more objective and immersed. And, even if my own audience isn't interested in seeing the final work, I feel as though I am assembling, one week at a time, a project that attempts to capture a movement within central Austin. A movement of expression that is legal, public and authentic; and probably just a real estate developer's pen stroke from extinction at this site. Once it's gone the only thing left will be the documentation we've (collectively) created.
As a photographer I did not always have an appreciation for the fragile nature of the existence of most things. I grew up in San Antonio and there were wonderful, old buildings with storefronts that spread all down Commerce St. and Houston St. My favorite was a place called Brock's Books. It had been on Commerce St. forever and must have contained over a million books and magazines. It was a treasure trove for me of photography magazines from the 1940's and 1950's. I never thought to document the actual place; its flavor and charm, and labyrinth of passageways through mountains of word jeweled paper. And we never thought books and magazines would go away. And then, one weekend. I went for a walk downtown and headed toward Brock's only to find it all gone. Every last vestige of an 80 or 90 year tradition eliminated and power washed away.
The same thing happened again and again to my favorite buildings in San Antonio's downtown. I dearly wish I had documented every one of the Art Deco facades and the mix of other zany architectural styles that dotted the sleepy streets of a pre-revitalized downtown.
I'm also reminded of how much the central core of Austin has changed. When I came to the University of Texas in 1975 the entire area between the UT campus and the Texas State Capitol building was filled with beautiful "turn of the century" houses. Not the turn to this century but the last one. It won't seem historically important to people in the northeast U.S. who can date buildings back to the founding fathers, nor to Europeans who can sit at McDonalds with a coffee and look at the 2,000+ year old Pantheon. But for Austin these were the historic homes and buildings from the childhood of the state. And now every single house is gone. Torn down to accommodate boring and banal buildings of government. Painfully blank edifices in the service of Texas' crazy politicians.
So I guess one of the things that drives me to make images, on an almost weekly basis, of the wall is the jumble of past experiences of loss. Loss of culture and loss of the artifacts of my culture as it was in my youth.
As I was walking toward "the Wall" I passed the Goodwill store at 9th and Congress. It's now a building being "warehoused" until the demand for trendy real estate demands that it be torn down and the property re-purposed. Right now it serves the folks at Goodwill. But the building is so much more. It was the very first Whole Foods Store. The very first one. The incubator. The earth mother of Texas organic grocery stores. Which is silly to write because just before it was Whole Foods the building housed Mother Earth, one of the hot, rock music venues in the the early 1970's. The place has history.
Anyway, each sting of loss is an indicator that a city or culture has moved on and values have changed. Photography, in one sense, is a tool for trying to freeze and document the existence of things that define us to us. The documentation may not rise to the level of art but few things that I create really do. It's the one lucky shot mixed in with the boards and shingles of our craft that keep me moving forward and at least trying to express what we lose and how the loss creates a void in the people who experienced, firsthand, the thing lost. It's probably why I've spent a lifetime photographing the people I have known...
In this way photography is a very bittersweet undertaking. The more so when you can compare now with then. The way an old portrait of a girlfriend, now a wife, is bittersweet because it captured a worry free youth that can't ever be revisited and juxtaposes it with a modern day filled with taxes and work.
So why the "Wall"? And why downtown? I have lived in Austin for over 40 years now and I've seen it change so much and so often. In some way I imagine that my attempts to capture it with my cameras are twofold. I am hoping that closely examining what we have right now will help me to better understand the changes and embrace them in the holistic vision I carry around of my city. But underneath I would say that I walk out onto the sidewalks looking for a resonance, a whiff, a bit of vibration that reminds me of the power of our youth culture in days past. In some ways it's also a visual eulogy for a time of innocence we can never really revisit. And I feel desperate to catch any visual chimera of it I can.
But why do I photograph at all? I seem to believe that my personal work is the creation of little visual poems dedicated to the idea of looking at things in the moment. An exercise in being physically and consciously present to the ongoing and weirdly organic growth and maturation of a city. An attempt to understand my small part in it.
We all live in the Heisenberg Theory. We attempt to observe reality only to realize that the very act of observing it irrevocably changes and distorts the canvas we are attempting to ingest. The present is always our past. And, in some sense, the past is always our present.
M.C. Escher Vision.
Text Book Objectification.
Art Tourists being ravaged by the Sun.
All images photographed at 105 degrees with a Sony RX10iii.